Editor's Note: What is the role of a writer in times of conflict?
In this piece Merle Bachman the author of "Thank You for Being: A Poet's Memoir of Home" (WCP 2022) explores the role of memory and emotion as political forces. BR
“I HAVE NO OTHER COUNTRY”: or, the Israel-Hamas War, version: 2023
Raymond Williams coined the notion "structure of feeling" in the 1970s to facilitate a historical understanding of "affective elements of consciousness and relationships." Since then, the need to understand emotions, moods and atmospheres as historical and social phenomena has only become more acute... (Devika Sharma, 2015)
October 7th: Invasion, terror, pogrom; rape, torture, murder, kidnapping. Horror. Horror. October 8th: The bombing of Gaza begins...
... And people begin posting lists on Facebook.They are mostly Israelis or American Jews with a strong connection to Israel.They list points to consider, as they are clearly trying to sort out what the hell has happened to them and what is going to happen. Most of the lists are in Hebrew followed by an imperfect Google translation.
Ori Hanan Weisberg, an American Israeli writer I’d never heard of before, wrote a very popular unnumbered list of the things he’s angry at (he uses anaphora, as did Walt Whitman). We like his list, I think, because it is so thorough. There are so many things to be angry at, including (for him), that fact that a young man he used to sit next to at synagogue was kidnapped from the music festival after part of his arm was blown off, and the idea (by now actualized into material fact) that thousands of Palestinian children would lose their lives in coming weeks, due to Israel’s “response” to Hamas.
But these statements of Weisberg’s catch my eye the most, as I am writing this (on December 8th, marking two months minus four days of Israel’s bombs):
I’m angry that I once found Israel’s precariousness romantic and thought it provided a more authentic experience of life and greater purity of commitment and affiliation.
I’m angry at the dishonestly partial and propagandistic education that informed those sentiments.
I turn these statements around and around. Kol bo, everything is in them. My own, long-ago romantic notions of Israel that are still mirrored by my fellow Jews. And the kind of education
American Jews receive about their “homeland” —including the idea that Israel is their: homeland.
I would call it a sentimental education. Somehow in elementary school it was instilled: Israel is a place we must love. Israel is blue and white, for the flag and for the metal box you drop coins into at the synagogue, so trees can be planted in the desert. Israel is making the desert bloom. Israel is “the Hope” —such sad music, though, when we stand with hands over our hearts. The Arabs don’t want Israel there and have fought and killed so many handsome young Israeli soldiers.
The Arabs just don’t get it: Israel is lovable, it wears a kova tembel, a floppy hat that stands for hard-working Zionist farmers (even though tembel in Hebrew means silly or fool). Israel is a sabra, the Hebrew word for cactus, prickly on the outside but tender within, and it takes students on tiyyulim, hikes into the wadis, where water flows only in the rainy season; wadi is an Arabic word that has stuck, for some reason. Israel means colorful Bedouin Arabs, I met some (or maybe I just saw photographs of them; eg, a woman with a ring jutting from her nose.)
—And very few Bedouin keep to their culture of tents and nomadism in the 21st century because it’s time they are housed. And Israel is so good at that.
Israel “absorbed” so many Jews from around the world. The European Jews went to live in cities, sometimes in beautiful stone houses that Arabs had left behind, and in kibbutzim, collective farms where people shared labor and profit and children used to sleep away from their parents in their own house (this impressed me greatly, as a child). Only later did I discover that the Mizrakhi Jews, the Arabic speaking Jews from places like Iraq, Morocco, Syria, Afghanistan, were given tents to live in and then, “development towns” in peripheral areas.
Mah ha bahya? What’s the problem?They were still living in ha Aretz: the land, the homeland.
Housing is built; shikunim, blocks of walk-up, basic apartments, and much later, fancy towers. As the late, great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai wrote in an early poem, “Mayor”: “How can a man be mayor of [Jerusalem]?/ What can he do with it? /... Build and build and build..[.4]
As for the Palestinians living in coveted neighborhoods— or whose sons are accused of terrorism—houses get un-built. Taken over, altered or destroyed.
—As for apartment towers: how many has the IDF reduced to rubble in Gaza, in the past month?
To be housed and unhoused—another chapter in whatever I am trying to write. But “home”: that’s where I went in July 1974, to spend six months studying (at a now defunct institute) with fellow American college students in the heart of the homeland: Jerusalem.
I then spent an additional six months sharing an apartment in Jerusalem with “D,” an Israeli woman about my age who studied English at Hebrew University. D will always be a part of what I absorbed, in that young, porous junior year of college (I was not quite 21). That knowledge deep in romantic and precarious images: the squalls of feral cats, the sound of a primitive katyusha rocket streaking through my sleep, the smoke released by a small explosive hidden in a sack of oranges at a bus stop across the street; the way I learned to trust young army men with rifles, the knowledge, the impress of first things on a naive safely managed female American life: all the secret codes willingly taken of “love” for a land or people I’d never even seen before: here, given.—Accept this gift born of Torah mated with the off-spring of genocidal war. (My people’s genocide, in Europe.—But the word has other historical inflections now.)
And Israel was lovable, to me. The soldiers were handsome, the views of the Judaean desert from my apartment window were stupendous, and— Israelis loved Americans.—D took me home to her parents in Haifa a few times; they had made it to Palestine before the gates closed in Europe. Their families had all been killed.
And her mother served me the best multi-layer mocha Viennese cake I could ever imagine eating.
D taught me colloquial speech, Hebrew slang, what was cool and what wasn’t; I realize now that she taught me culture. And that culture was typified by musicians I came to love. Israel was no longer a poignant, post-war “hope”: it became the Arik Einshtein records D played for me, with his laid back, shoulder-shrugging style, tongue-in-cheek resignation. “Good old Israel...”
A temporary insider then, I learned the words to countless songs. They were full of life, sly humor, good-nature and sadness. The underlying message: “Khevre (friends), it’s just how we live here.” Aggressive Egged bus drivers, men having to report for military reserve service, bewigged women in Orthodox neighborhoods, the tumult of open-air markets on Fridays before Shabbat, children allowed to go wherever they liked unaccompanied and people freely arguing with strangers — rak ba Yisrael: only in Israel. Because here, no one is really a stranger. One big family. That’s how it felt: a feeling-structure that resonated for me, with my wrecked-by-divorce family back home.
And—David against Goliath.Einshtein sang, with nonchalance: Ani v’atah/ nishaneh et ha’olam; “You and I/ We will change the world/..../ and then everyone come along. / I know it’s been said before/ but that doesn’t matter.../ We will change the world.” 5
Jerusalem, the holy city with a night life (back then)—my amalgam of history and poetry.
I walked past the graves on the Mount of Olives of people younger than me who’d given their lives in the War of Independence. I wanted so badly to help Israel, to be part of it—(my mother would roll her eyes whenever I told her) — for years I thought I was headed back.
But I only went for visits, separated by decades: 1989, 1999. Gradually thereafter, for the usual complex of reasons, my connection to the land and its golden city waned. And by the early 2000s Israel had changed again (turn it and turn it, everything is in it): from the “light unto the nations” into a nasty occupier.
How could I still “love” Israel? It had come to represent bare-knuckle, flamboyantly religious Jewish nationalism. Events ironed out every nuance I had depended on to defend my love—flattened it, hammered it down and run over with it with massive tanks (I almost said “tractors”: but that belongs to the hasbara —the images, idioms, PR and propaganda—of the past).
All of that was gone.—But: it was returned to me, this October. Unwelcome package, I thought I was done with you, left you somewhere on a bench to tick quietly away into safe silence.
Ain li eretz akheret/ “I have no other country”
This is the title of an Israeli song with words by the late musical artist Ehud Manor and music by the singer Corinne Allal. Manor wrote it in ’82, in despair over Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. 
The song entered my consciousness, my bloodstream, on my first visit back to Israel in 1989 (although D, with whom I’ve stayed friends for all these years, might have sent it to me on a cassette before then).
This link contains one singer’s version of it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sMD- g_YP2wA
Again, kol bo: it contains everything. It became the song sung at the massive anti-Netanyahu demonstrations liberal Israelis held in Tel Aviv for months in 2023 (prior to the Hamas attack— remember? Hundreds of thousands of people turned out, week after week...). The song has also became associated with the IDF, a bumper sticker for the settler movement, and now — for all I know — is inwardly sung by all Israelis, in a silent choir of devastation.
Because even now, after such polarization and rage (before the Hamas attacks), and after the attacks which brought crashing down Israel’s much-vaunted system of “security” and its long-
lasting illusion of a normality based on occupation—even now, a familiar sense of intimacy within Israel’s distracted borders continues (as presented in pixels on Facebook). When it comes to the murder victims and the hostages, there is anger, but no “right” or “left”: just shared grief, shared mourning.
Look at the photos of the hostages Israelis post on Facebook. It reminds me of the old-fashioned ritual of removing photos from a wallet, accompanied by cooing over the beauty of a child, an elder. The hostages have become the nation’s family. They are universally longed-for and loved. The sense of loss is gutting, and it’s a loss of more than “just” human beings—I know this though I haven’t been to Israel since 1999. I know this, even though the digital world creates false narratives and it lies.
And I know that the Hebrew folksongs I danced to for years, dancing in a circle to enclose our joy, protect it—turning forever inward, facing only each other, never facing out—these primary colors and gestures are fading. And “You and I” as Arik Einstein sang, will never change the world. At least, not that world, the one I experienced when I was 21 and Israel, born in 1948, was 26 years old. —Of course Israel has changed since then. But on October 7th, with a sudden, gigantic shock: that culture of optimistic self-mockery feels like it’s been utterly wiped out.
Is there any other conflict on this planet as filled with narratives justified by (let’s say) affective responses to historical phenomena? What feeling goes deeper than having your culture destroyed, your house, your home? —And as it was in the southern tier for kibbutzim on October 7th, so has it been everywhere in Gaza.
A dear friend in California apologizes on the phone for being “too emotional”; she has helped set places at a long Shabbat table in a Berkeley park, each empty place standing for a hostage. At the Oakland City Council, she says, people refused to condemn Hamas, some asserting that would be a racist action, and at least one claiming that it was the IDF that had rampaged through the towns and kibbutzim along the Gaza border. My friend feels Jew-hatred murmuring along the streets.
—Meanwhile, I had spent at least 15 minutes of our conversation venting about the bombing, the bombing, the children being killed, the state of collapse in Gaza...
But it’s all emotions, I say to her. This whole situation is built on — feelings. And I mean that, very deeply.From the river to the sea.
1. See Structures of Feeling: Affectivity and the Study of Culture (D Sharma & F Tygstrup, eds.), De Gruyter 2015.
2. I mean this to reflect the statement “turn it over and [again] turn it over, for all is therein,” which comes from an ancient rabbinic text read on Sabbath afternoons and refers to study of the Torah. A “kol bo” means grocery store in modern Hebrew.
3. In Hebrew, “HaTikvah” — the Israeli national anthem.
4. Source: Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai (Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell, editors and translators), Harper & Row 1986.
5. Einstein singing this song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ndSuL7WDVRY
6. Ori Golan in his blogpost, “The Song that Made a Country” (Times of Israel, 7/10/23).