War in the Name of Religion

Israel air strike on Gaza

Israel air strike on Gaza

Spiritual Sunday

As we watch the deaths mount up in Gaza, with Hamas and Israel’s rightwing government doing all they can to sabotage a two-state solution, I think of Denise Levertov’s poem about the Sabra and Shatila massacre of 1982. Born of a father who was a Hasidic Jew before converting to Christianity, Levertov was never hesitant to call out anyone for injustice. Therefore, when the Israeli army and Ariel Sharon allowed Lebanese Christian militants from the Kataeb Party to massacre hundreds and maybe thousands of Palestinians and Shiites in a refugee camp, she wrote this poem. Her shock is at seeing a people who themselves have suffered horribly from pogroms in being complicit in a current day pogrom.

While the recent deaths in Gaza cannot be seen as a pogrom—the Israelis, after all, have been responding to Hamas’ rocket fire and to its killing of Israeli teenagers—Israel bears responsibility for undermining Palestinian moderates, through the continued expansion of settlements in the West Bank and other provocations. It has created the conditions for Hamas to achieve power. Here’s Levertov’s poem, which talks of “so-called Jews” and “so called Christians.” In the tradition of Isaiah, Levertov calls out people who have lost touch was the foundational tenets of their faith.

Perhaps No Poem but All I Can Say and I Cannot Be Silent

By Denise Levertov

As a devout Christian, my father
took delight and pride in being
(like Christ and the Apostles)
a Jew.
   It was
   Hasidic lore, his heritage,
   he drew on to know
   the Holy Spirit as Shekinah.

My Gentile mother, Welsh through and through,
and like my father sustained
by deep faith, cherished
all her long life the words
of Israel Zangwill, who told her,
“You have a Jewish soul.”

I their daughter (“flesh of their flesh,
         bone of their bone”)
writing in this Age of Terror, a libretto
about El Salvador, the suffering,
      the martyrs,
look from my page to watch
the apportioned news—those foul
dollops of History
each day thrusts at us, pushing them
into our gullets—
      and see that,
   in Lebanon
   so-called Jews have permitted
   so-called Christians
   to wreak pogrom (“thunder of devastation”)
   on helpless folk (of a tribe
   anciently kin to their own, and now
      in Camps…)

My father—my mother—
I have longed for you.
Now I see
      it is well you are dead,
dead and
gone from Time,
gone from this time whose weight
of shame your bones, weary already
from your own days and years of
tragic History,
could surely not have borne.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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