Sharing literature, even when it stings

Sharing literature, even when it stings

True mutual respect calls for seeing things from the other’s point of view. That doesn’t mean adopting their view or shedding one’s own values — but it could, if that fresh vantage point makes more sense than our own. And that is what makes it such a frightening challenge. 

Seeing things from the other’s perspective might show us we have been myopic, that we have allowed prejudice or unquestioning adherence to inherited views cloud our intelligence. And seeing things in a new way could rupture our bonds with those who still hold those previously held views.

Or, alternatively — and probably more often — seeing as the other person does, we may realize that we have more in common than we thought. We discover that the other is coming not from hate but from the same passions that motivate us — love for our families, for example, or fear of losing what we have. 

If you have the courage to risk that, one of the most powerful tools is art — the imagery, or music, or language that those “others” treasure. If you can feel the message from the heart conveyed by great art, you puncture the shell of separation. The message might be offensive or hurtful, but if the intention is self-expression and not deliberately to diminish us, we could do well to brace ourselves and pay attention.

Evidently, the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish was one of those who captured his people’s feelings as well as his own. He died in 2008 at the age of 67, but his poems and the songs based on them are still adored by vast numbers of young and old Palestinians.

Some of those poems rail against the presence of Jews and call on them to leave, to go, and — in one — to “take your dead with you.” He doesn’t use the hideous inflammatory imagery of the propagandists. Rather, he sends up a wail of pain, expressing his own grief and anger.

That difference seems to have eluded Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s defense minister. Last week, he expressed fury when the country’s Army Radio broadcast a show about Darwish’s poetry. Rather than see it as a way to educate Israelis about a crucially important cultural figure and perhaps build some understanding of what their fellow countrymen feel, Lieberman railed against the poet, comparing him to Adolf Hitler.

According to a statement issued by the Defense Ministry, he told the commander controlling the radio station that by the same logic, they could “glorify during a broadcast the literary marvels of Mein Kampf,” Hitler’s autobiography.

Those committed to defending free speech in Israel were disgusted. They were joined, predictably, by Palestinian commentators. According to The New York Times, Ghassan Khatib, the vice president of Birzeit University outside Ramallah, said, “Wow — he is such a donkey, excuse my language. I don’t think he has ever read Mahmoud Darwish.” He urged Israelis to do that, because, he said, it “presented in a very humanitarian way, in a very artistic way, the Palestinian narrative.”

One might wish Palestinians would read the works of great Israeli writers — and apparently they do in far greater numbers than the other way around. If both sides did, it might serve as a profoundly helpful antidote to the alienating rhetoric to which Lieberman just added his own words.

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