By Aharon Shabtai
New Directions, 64 pages, $14.95.
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In “J’Accuse,” whose title is taken from Emile Zola’s famed letter against the French government during the Dreyfus Affair, Israeli poet Aharon Shabtai accuses his society of brutally oppressing the Palestinians. In the title poem, Shabtai refers to Mohammed al-Dura, photos of whose death at the side of his father were flashed throughout the world. (Later, there was some dispute as to which of the warring parties caused his death.) Shabtai states, “The sniper who shot at Muhammad the child… wasn’t acting alone.” Behind him is a whole raft of “technicians of slaughter/ bastards in whose eyes/ morality is a pain in the ass.”
Shabtai explicitly identifies with the Palestinians: “I, too, have declared war:/ You’ll need to divert part of the force/ deployed to wipe out the Arabs… and set it against me.” Against Israeli “tanks and planes,” the poet has “only this heart/ with which I give shelter to an Arab child.” In the poem, “My Heart,” Shabtai declares, “I’m a Palestinian Jew.”
From a universal perspective, “J’Accuse” is a raw and passionate work of protest against governmental oppression. It is within the actual context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, however, that Shabtai’s limits become apparent.
Shabtai’s portrayal of snipers is disturbing, and he includes an appendix of articles on the casualties inflicted by Israeli sharpshooters on children. Still, someone unfamiliar with the conflict might form the impression that the official policy of the Israeli military is to indiscriminately shoot Palestinians. This reader would be unaware of Palestinian terrorism because the Israeli side of the suffering is omitted. While mourning Mohammed al-Dura, does Shabtai also mourn 10-month-old Shalhevet Pass, fatally shot in the head by a Palestinian sniper? One could proclaim “J’Accuse” at Shabtai, for a morality whose selectiveness is its own form of blindness.