Poet Natan Yonatan (1923-2004) was a symbol of an Israel that no longer exists. The prize-winning people’s poet from a strong socialist background published 20 volumes of poetry translated into several languages, yet he was never fully accepted by the intellectual establishment.
Still, it is not for his lyrical poems nor his verses about nature –– dozens of which were set to popular music — that I most remember Yonatan, but for the humanity and vision he radiated during the two times we met, meetings separated by a gap of 34 years.
The first meeting was in 1967, during those heady days after Israel’s lightning victory in the Six-Day War. The silver-haired, silver-tongued poet already seemed a sage, yet he must have been just 44. I was a rookie summer counselor at a Jewish camp in New York state with a middle-of-the-road Zionist philosophy. That summer, in the wake of what was perceived as an averted annihilation of the Jewish state, the flush of victory made blood rise and the chants grew louder of “Rabin is waiting for Nasser!” I too had spent the black month preceding the war in a state of terror — fear rising with every passing day for the Jewish state’s existence. Then all at once little Israel seemed invincible, and the spirit of the camp was one of rousing chauvinism. But I stood on the outside, repelled by the jingoistic slogans and the glorification of battle swirling around me.
Word came that an Israeli emissary would visit to give a talk on his perceptions of the war. I expected stories of battle glories and praise for the newborn Greater Israel. But when Natan Yonatan got up to speak, his mellifluous voice was choked with sorrow. He spoke not of the glory of battle, but of its tragedy, of the losses on both sides and of how perhaps this war would be a start toward a rapprochement between the peoples. Yonatan’s electrifying words came nearly a decade before Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem made the first crack in the ice and more than a quarter-century before the Oslo peace accords.
Yonatan lived his poetry in his life. He persisted in his beliefs even after his own 21-year-old son was killed on the first day of the Egyptian attack on Israel in October 1973. In “Stones in the Darkness,” a volume dedicated to his son’s memory, Yonatan wrote:
Yonatan was buried Sunday in the section of Tel Aviv’s Kiryat Shaul cemetery reserved for parents of fallen soldiers.
My second encounter with Yonatan took place three years ago at a poetry reading in Israel. Before me I saw an old man, but his melodious voice and sad velvet eyes had not changed. This time, we met at the height of the intifada, yet Yonatan still clung stubbornly to his vision.
He related his strong ties to the head of the Palestinian Writers’ Union in Ramallah, who like himself was a bereaved father. Yonatan had accompanied the other poet to the son’s grave, which bore a marker extolling the young man killed by Israelis. Yonatan told me that the intifada had accomplished its task: His contact with the Palestinian poet had been interrupted by the bloodshed. But Yonatan did not lose hope. It was only temporary, he insisted. The day would return when words of peace would ring out not only in poets’ words on paper, but throughout the streets.
Natan Yonatan did not live to see that day come. But when it does, Yonatan’s legacy and his words will be on its roll of honor. In the meantime, it is hard not to think of his poem “The Man,” the emblem of the assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin: “Where can be found more people like that man?” When I heard the announcement last Friday that Israel’s gentle poet had passed away, it was this line that played over and over in my head.