Nissim Calderon puts his reading glasses on the tip of his nose and translates as he reads. “It’s poetry, so the translation is not quite literal,” he says.
And with furious cruelty
We drink your blood mercilessly
Fury whetted our flashing sword,
And destined you for the day of slaughter.
The emeritus professor (70) of Hebrew literature at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beer Sheva, southern Israel, can rightly be called an expert in violent poetry. In March 2017, he acted as a witness in the case against Dareen Tatour, a 34-year-old Palestinian-Israeli woman who – following a poem she posted on Facebook two years ago – was charged with inciting violence and supporting a terrorist organization. On July 31, 2018, Tatour was sentenced to five months in prison by the Nazareth District Court.
Following the sentencing, Tatour said she did not expect justice. She added, “The prosecution was political to begin with because I’m Palestinian because it’s about free speech and I’m imprisoned because I’m Palestinian.”
But the poem Calderon translated was not written by Tatour. It was written by Haim Bialik, Israel’s national poet. “Our nation has a long tradition of poets who reacted violently to attacks on Jews,” says Calderon. “The pogroms, the British Mandate, the attacks by the Arabs. Even our children sing, at Hanukah, ‘we will slaughter our enemies’.”
The poem that got Tatour into trouble, says Calderon, is not even very good. “Quite bad, even.” But that is not the point, he says. “Poets are expected to express themselves in a verbally violent way. They have always done this, even if they lived under oppressive regimes such as czarist Russia or the British Mandate in Palestine.” And the crux, says Calderon, is those regimes were wise enough to refrain from prosecuting poets simply for the potentially inflammatory content of their work. Bialik could write what he wanted about the British. “Nobody confused expression with action. But nowadays, in Israel, writing poetry has apparently become a crime.”
In her poem, Tatour praises the Palestinian resistance against Israel. She does not live in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip; she was born in a village near Nazareth, northern Israel. The poem not only criticizes the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, it also questions Israel’s legitimacy. For example, she calls for an ‘Arab Palestine’. The poem’s lines include:
I will not succumb to the ‘peaceful solution’,
Never lower my flags
Until I evict them from my land.
Resist, my people, resist them.
Resist the settler’s robbery
And follow the caravan of martyrs.
This last line alone was responsible for hours in court. The indictment contained a translation of Tatour’s poem by a policeman. Her attorneys claim that this translation was taken out of context. They invited Yoni Mendel, an Arabic translator, to testify as well.
In a report of the case on the news and opinion website +972, Mendel argued that some nuances were lost with the translation of the poem into Hebrew. For example, in Hebrew, the word for martyrs, shuhadim, has an exclusively negative connotation, whereas the Arabic shuhadaa refers to all victims of the occupation. Apart from the correct translation, the more fundamental question was whether Tatour’s poem incites violence. “Of course her poem is inciting!” Calderon exclaims. “Just like Bialik was inciting. But it’s all legitimate expression.”
Is there any text that would be punishable, according to the professor? What if Tatour had called for a bullet to the head of the Israeli prime minister? Calderon: “Even that is allowed. It is poetry, not a political pamphlet.” The word ‘incitement’ is subject to inflation, says Calderon. “It is being applied to all kinds of opposition to Israeli policies. At the same time, there is anti-Palestinian incitement that is being led by the Israeli government. For example, it is drafting a law banning the electronically amplified call to prayer from mosques. That is much more inciting than Dareen’s poem. It is the government that does this. The law.”
Calderon lists other examples. Avigdor Lieberman (Defence Minister, Israel Our Home party), who wants to strip Palestinian-Israeli residents of Umm al-Fahm, which is within the Green Line, of their Israeli citizenship. His colleague, Miri Regev (Culture, Likud), who wants to subsidize Palestinian-Israeli artists only if they demonstrate their loyalty to Israel. Calderon: “I say art is inherently disloyal to everyone. It’s provocative. Otherwise it is not art.”
In 2015, during the national elections, the professor was a candidate for the left-wing Zionist Meretz party. It is not easy in contemporary Israel, which is rapidly shifting to the right, to express leftist views. “To silence the opposition, they call us traitors. Supporters of the enemy. We know it, we expect it,” he says. He does not think the Israeli authorities are smart to persecute Tatour. “She is a young woman who put a poem on Facebook. Do you really think a terrorist needs this Facebook poem to carry out an attack? Palestinians don’t need to be incited – they are being oppressed, persecuted and humiliated. And you know what? The Jews, of all people, should know. We got rid of a violent oppressor, the British, ourselves.”
He adds that he is not ignoring the fact that some Palestinians, “like Hamas”, think the Jews are not legitimate. “They want to get rid of me. If it were up to them, I wouldn’t be sitting here. I’m very much against them.” Yet that is no reason to persecute a poet, he says. “Without all the fuss, Tatour would hardly have been influential. Now her influence will only increase.”
Tatour’s case has unleashed fierce criticism, mainly from liberal intellectuals. Organizations like PEN International, a worldwide association of writers, has called on Israel to drop all the charges against her. Furthermore, two hundred Israeli cultural icons have called for her immediate release from house arrest. Among them are the well-known authors A.B. Yehoshua, David Grossman and Nir Baram. Internationally, people such as Noam Chomsky and Dave Eggers have rallied to her defence. A fundraising campaign has also been launched to cover her legal costs. The verdict is expected later in 2017. If convicted, the poet faces up to eight years in prison. For now, she is confined to her home.