Haim Gouri has won just about every literary prize that Israel has to offer. Yet, in my eyes, he made his strongest, most Zionist statement on January 5, when news broke that he had refused to accept a prize for “Zionist Works of Art,” awarded by the Israeli Ministry of Culture and Sport.
The award was to be granted for Gouri’s most recent book of poetry, “Though I Wished for More of More,” published in Hebrew in July 2015. When he turned down the prize (and the nearly $12,500 that comes with it), he provided me, and many like me, with renewed hope and energy — and I knew I wanted to visit him.
Now 92, Gouri still lives in the same third-floor walk-up Jerusalem apartment where he has lived for more than half a century. When I came to speak to him, he asked me with gentle concern whether I was tired after climbing the stairs.
The inquiry was striking, coming as it was from a poet, novelist, journalist and documentary filmmaker who served in the Palmach and Hagana (the pre-state defense forces) and then in the Israel Defense Forces. Gouri fought in the War of Independence, Six Day War and Yom Kippur War. After the Holocaust, he was sent to Europe to help the Jews in the DP camps return to life; years later, his reportage on the Eichmann trial forced brash young Israelis to acknowledge the heroism of the weak.
His poems have helped me articulate some of my earliest and most deeply held beliefs about Zionism, Israel and Judaism. Perhaps the greatest poet of the generation of 1948, he has fought with both weapons and words. Set to music, his poems became part of the Israeli canonical playlist, always in the background as my naive ideas about Zionism were tempered, as I was forced to give up cherished myths about our “most moral army in the world,” as Israeli society won the wars but retreated from its vision, and as I painfully came to realize that no justice can ever be absolute.
Now, facing me, Gouri said, “When they awarded me the prize, I found myself at the most pathetic intersection of Israeli ugliness.”
He felt this way, he explained, partly because Zionism isn’t a description or a quality of art. “What isn’t a Zionist act of creativity in this country?” he asked, and then answered himself: “Ever since the Jewish people came back to our homeland, all of our creations are Zionist creations.”
But he also rejected the prize because he would not accept an honor that, by definition, could never be awarded to the Arabs who live here with us.
Most importantly, he said, he turned down the prize because he refuses to allow anyone to dictate to him what loyalty and patriotism mean.
He is critical of the government — and specified that I have his full permission to say so. Yet in contrast to the malice that fills my social media pages — the crudeness of the right and the mean-spirited bitterness of the left — he is brutally honest, but never crude or mean.
“These are evil times,” Gouri said. “This government promotes ultra-nationalism, misguided messianic fervor, and anti-democratic and xenophobic forces. They have appropriated the terms ‘pro-Israel’ and ‘pro-Zionist.’ I will not let them do that to me.”
Gouri showed me stacks of letters and pointed to bouquets of flowers that people — most of them complete strangers to him — had sent in the days since his decision was made public. “This government makes it hard to breathe here,” he said. “The air has become oppressive. Maybe my refusing the prize helped them to feel that they could breathe again.”
He spoke about the responsibility of the intellectual, a kind of noblesse oblige that never deteriorates into condescension. As he wrote in a poem published in 2004:
I am a civil war…
those who are right fire at the others who are right.
In contrast to some of his other works, he said, this most recent book of poetry is intensely personal. “I am a man near the end of his days; I am taking stock of my life,” he observed.
I reminded him of a poem included in the book, “A Reasonable Chance” (my translation):
They say that there’s a reasonable chance of another war.
Another war in addition to all the other wars,
That all have dates and names and places.
They say that the longtime account we hold against each other
needs these wars.
Here, each generation hands its guns over to the next
Like a stick in a relay race.
In the meanwhile, you could say, almost with certainty,
That in the foreseeable future
We won’t be short of people who walk and cry,
The descendants of Isaac and Ishmael, two brothers.
I was afraid of his answer, but still I asked, “Isn’t this a poem about despair?”
“I am not in despair,” Gouri replied. “There are bad times and there are evil times. Bad times are difficult to bear, but they can make us stronger, because the bad comes from without. Yes, these are evil times, but the evil comes from within. It can destroy us, but we also have the power to overcome it.”
Later, as I reflected on Gouri’s decision to reject the prize for Zionist Works of Art, something in me broke through the resignation, disappointment and cynicism that have taken up so much space in my political life here over the past year.
It’s time to take back our Zionism, I thought to myself. The Zionism I still believe in isn’t self-righteous or absolutist. It is democratic and liberal. It is strong enough to recognize the mistakes we have made in its name, and it doesn’t demand that we regress into self-abuse or self-denial: Recognizing the rights and legitimate needs of the Palestinians doesn’t require me to deny my own people’s rights and legitimate needs. Objecting to this government’s policies doesn’t mean that I have to abdicate my love for the land. Empathizing with others doesn’t require me to give up my empathy for us. When Gouri said no, he reminded me how to say yes to things that matter to me.
Eetta Prince-Gibson, the former editor in chief of The Jerusalem Report, is an award-winning journalist who lives in Jerusalem.