The Voice of Reason and Honest Hearts in Dark Times

I’ve been reading With an Iron Pen, a newly translated anthology of Israeli protest poetry from the past two decades.  I can’t recommend it enough – especially for those prefer poetry that goes straight to the heart and the gut.

Though I’d heard of some of these poets, I was unfamiliar with the remarkable depth and breadth of this particular genre.  It’s a diverse collection with one critical aspect in common: all these poems express a powerful voice of protest against Israel’s oppressive treatment of Palestinians dating back to the days of the First Intifada. The collection felt to me like nothing other than forty-two poets letting loose one singular prophetic howl of rage and sorrow over what their nation has wrought.

And like all protest poetry, this is art that clearly seeks to transform. As the editors write in introduction:

The ethical stand taken by the poets and poems of this anthology represents today the minority position – a minority that is seen by the majority of the Jewish Israeli public as “self-hating” and as desecrators of sacred ideals. And still, throughout history, literary creations have expressed  the forbidden and revolutionary and have preceded – in fact precipitated – changes in attitudes and societal norms. The day will come when the poems collected in With an Iron Pen will be read as the voice of reason and of honest hearts in dark times.

I see something quintessentially Jewish in the inner struggle reflected these poems – and at the same time, the tradition of protest they draw upon is so clearly universal.  I can’t help but think that these works represent, in their way, a contemporary form of sacred text.

Check out Richard Silverstein’s wonderful review for Tikkun. Click below for two of my particular favorites from the collection:

“Order of the Day”

that which
Amalek did,
to you of course,
Do unto Amalek
what Amalek
did, to you
of course, Over.

If you can’t
find yourself
an Amalek, call
Amalek whomever
you want to do
to him what
Amalek did,
to you of course,

Don’t compare
to what Amalek
did, to you
of course, Over.
Not when
you want to do
that which
Amelek did,
to you of course,
Over and Out,

– Yitzhak Laor (translated by Gabriel Levin)


“Then We Didn’t Yet Know”

Then we didn’t yet know
That the Occupation would be forever.
Even when it would be forcibly extracted like a tooth
and tossed behind electric fences
and magnetic crossings
while cement and petrol magnates
traveled from Ramallah to Gaza –
even then it would be remembered longingly –
how young it was, the Occupation,
composed only of Arab women bent over tomatoes
in Jewish fields, men with nylon bags
waiting for work at Ashkelon junction,
jumping into grey service Peugots,
and the Secret Service men who lived three to a villa in Afridar
actually changing their license plates to army license plates before
going off to work, so they wouldn’t be identified.
It was young. In the restaurants they peeled vegetables into large tins, then
fried them, built on scaffolds. There were many organizations.
And they were young:
volunteers with Chinese weapons, poets,
but the Occupation didn’t recognize them,
because it was busy arguing in the classroom whether to return territories or not
and Ofer P., whose father was wounded in the battlel of Jenin,
and had shrapnel stuck in his back
said, “In any case, there’ll be another war.”
That’s what his father taught him.
That’s how young the Occupation was,
and look at it now.

Dahlia Falah (translated by Rachel Tzvia Back)

1 thought on “The Voice of Reason and Honest Hearts in Dark Times

  1. david


    Thanks for this recommnedation. This genre has a certain reflexive quality that is very powerful. In addition, the poem by Dahlia Rabikovitch “Story of the Arab Who Died in the Fire” reminds me of the death of Rabbi Akiva described so vividly in Jewish literature.


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