Another Tack: The forward position

My mom was never big on surprises, especially when it came to birthday gifts. The surest way not to miss the mark, she reckoned, was to straight out inquire what I wanted. Just before I turned nine, I asked her for a volume of poet Natan Alterman’s Seventh Column. My wish was granted and the brown hardcover anthology has remained one of my most cherished possessions ever since.

Davar, the defunct Labor daily, put the seventh column of its front-page at Alterman’s disposal, and he editorialized in verse on the current events of the day (yes, there was a market once for literate commentary). The quality of Alterman’s output hasn’t lost its flavor over the decades, and its crisp cleverness never ceases to astound.

But beyond that, his stanzas are a voice from the past, genuine testimony to the zeitgeist of Israel’s earliest days. Here’s a window to how things were perceived in real time – often in stark contrast to the distortive rewriting of history and the conventional wisdom of intellectual milieus here and abroad.

Alterman, regrettably, is almost forgotten nowadays. One former education minister, Yossi Sarid, proposed that the works of “Palestinian National Poet” Mahmoud Darwish be included in our public school curriculum (though Darwish unrepentantly preached genocide and/or ethnic cleansing against this country’s Jews). In the name of standoffish pluralism and moral-relativist enlightenment, the most recent former education minister, Yuli Tamir of Labor, saw fit to enrich said curriculum with the nakba (Arabic for catastrophe – the propagandist Arab synonym for Israeli independence.)

Sadly, even scandalously, children aren’t taught the poems Alterman published in Davar just before and after that first Independence Day in 1948. It’s obviously a sign of our postmodernist environment in which not only are there no absolute truths, virtues or values, but our smart set doesn’t even accord Israel’s case equal hearing with that of its mortal enemies’ manipulative narrative.

How can we then complain if foreigners – unfamiliar even with our map, tortuous borders and diminutive size – fall for the slanderous portrayal of this tiny beleaguered country as an ogre expansionist empire, born in sin and designed to dispossess peace-loving blameless victims.

Few authentic texts serve better than Alterman’s Seventh Column rhythmic relics to transmit the truth across 61 years – that sense of acute danger that enveloped the embryonic state at its birth and the gritty come-what-may resolve of the few against the many.

JUST BEFORE Israel regained its sovereignty after nearly two millennia, Alterman published a column in rhyme entitled “The Forward Position” (my translation, alas, cannot begin to impart the austere beauty and cadence of the original Hebrew):

Between the Jordan and the sea
Stand 600,000 people.
Jews, young and old,
One mass, hairs bristling, watchful and silent.
And reverberating in the starlight
Is the thud of iron beaten by hammer.
They forge armor and guns
And the heavens witness and keep mum.

And the State Department telegraphs in code,
Remarkably soliciting expert advice
On whether it’s possible this time to betray,
Without paying treachery’s price –
And signal Husseini in secret,
And honor at his altar sacrifice,
And surrender and scorn the UN writ.
But it’s not easy to actualize

Because between the sea and Jordan stand
Six-hundred thousand people,
Jews, young and old,
Who’ll form a hurdle of flint.
Upon a starlit barricade
Their pounding hammers buttress
One of the final fortifications
Of a collapsing, indifferent world.

And the hatchers of deceit know
That this fortification will not be easily vanquished.
That the quintessence of a universal struggle
On this barrier rests.
If liberty isn’t surrendered – while loyalty is sold out
As tribute to its enemy –
Then this forward position will be remembered
For shielding freedom from the trampling crush.

Remembered will be the stand of
The 600,000 people,
Jews young and old.
And fortunate is he who saw and felt
How their star-adorned night,
Full of the din of armor and hammers,
Arose strong in the midst of intrigue and ambush.
And the world will bow down and keep silent.

Little Israel still constitutes that very same “final fortification.” It is still at the vanguard of the fight for freedom. Indeed it is practically the only state committed to that struggle in earnest, doing what other nations, their occasional lip service notwithstanding, fail to do. And for our pains, we’re still as unappreciated, censored and even punished. What was, still is.

Israel remains the proverbial canary in the world’s coal mine. What befalls us will in time haunt all democracies, yet these democracies seem intent on chasing off and choking the killjoy canary. The world remains the same “collapsing, indifferent world” which Alterman deplored.

True, Israel is no longer as helpless as in its neonatal days, but if anything, it’s berated for not being as weak and as at the mercy of others as some – ostensible friends included – would like. For all our growth and incomparably improved circumstances over the past 61 years, Israel remains infinitesimal vis-a-vis the hostile Arab/Muslim multitudes who wish (in Darwish’s words) to expunge us “from all memory.” This country remains as pesky, illegitimate and disposable in the eyes of much of the international community as it was then.

We still face would-be destroyers, while around us intrigues and plots of betrayal swirl, rendering Alterman’s “The Forward Position” as relevant as when it first saw print. Just substitute 6 million Jews for 600,000. In essence our War of Independence continues unabated. In individual terms 61 years are almost a lifetime, but by history’s scale they’re a flash. There were ups and downs, flare-ups and lulls, but our existential war is unconcluded – save only for sporadic rounds.

It’s nothing we can control. Prime minister Ehud Olmert offered Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas everything. Nevertheless his egregious concessions were unceremoniously spurned. By his own testimony, Olmert was willing to cede that little extra beyond the 98 percent which Ehud Barak proposed during his own (disastrous) stint as premier (1999-2001). Yet in both cases the deal breaker was the adamant refusal, first by Yasser Arafat then by his successor, to formally end the conflict and recognize the right of the Jewish people to sovereignty.

When push came to shove, our survival-jeopardizing territorial generosity failed to buy us the peace and acceptance we crave. The enemy, still baying for our blood, strives to shrink our toehold, yet retain the right to obliterate us.

We don’t readily like to admit this truth. Back in 1948 self-deception was rare. Today it’s bon ton. The immutable bottom line, however, is that 61 years on we remain threatened, vigilant in that same vulnerable forward position and fighting for our lives – even if we wish we didn’t have to.

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