by W.D. Ehrhart
Back in 1990, at the first Conference of U.S. & Vietnamese Veteran-Writers in Hanoi, Le Minh Khue, a novelist who had been a teenager with a young volunteers team assigned to the military engineering command, told me that she had gone off to the war with several books in her knapsack: translations of Ernest Hemingway and Jack London.
“I learned a love of life from Jack London, as well as the courage to transcend death, to keep up hope against any odds,” she said. “I cherished the anguish of Hemingway, whose wonderful short stories deal with loneliness, death, and love of life, eternal topics of literature and human thought.”
Over the next few days, I would discover that many more of the Vietnamese I had fought against were reading Hemingway and London, Emerson, Thoreau, and Walt Whitman even as I and my country were trying to kill them.
That encounter with Khue occurred over three decades ago, but I was recently—and painfully—reminded of it while reading a new book of poems, Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear, by the young Palestinian poet Mosab abu Toha (City Lights, 2022). During the 2014 Israeli assault on Gaza, when Toha was a college student, he recalls:
“The Israelis bombed the administration building of my school, the Islamic University of Gaza. The English Department was destroyed. The many books resting on the shelves of my professors were just lying under the rubble of the building. The first book that I could extract was the Norton Anthology of American Literature. Of course, it’s very ironic that we in Gaza and Palestine read and appreciate and value American literature, we study it, we just love it. But then all of a sudden, a rocket, or a heavy bomb that was paid for and manufactured in America, is killing, not only me, but the books that we read and studied in classes.”
It is a dangerous thing to speak supportively in the U.S. about the plight of Palestinians, to question the policies and practices of Israel. The brilliant journalist Gloria Emerson discovered this when she published Gaza: A Year in the Intifada way back in 1991. She was followed from reading to book-signing to lecture by radical Zionists who vocally disrupted her presentations, accusing her of anti-Semitism and worse. Gloria was a tough lady, but she said they made her life hell.
Carolyn Karcher, editor and contributor to a 2019 book called Reclaiming Judaism from Zionism, says that she has not had to endure “any significant abuse” as a result of her book; but some of her fellow contributors have been subjected to significant abuse in response to their advocacy of Palestinian rights.
Meanwhile, Karcher’s collection of essays led me to two books by the Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (2006) and The Biggest Prison on Earth (2017). Pappe, who teaches at the University of Exeter in the UK, is treated like an enemy of the state in Israel. His detractors have accused him of cherry-picking facts, distorting facts, making up facts, blatantly lying, and being a self-hating Jew.
Mosab abu Toha is neither a journalist nor a historian, but simply a young man whose four grandparents were forcibly removed from their homes in 1948, whose parents were born in refugee camps, and who himself was born in a refugee camp called al-Shati in 1992. He is married, and the father of three young children. These poems, written in English—he is fluent in English as well as Arabic—are alternately sweet, bitter-sweet, angry, bewildered, and heart-breaking.
Here is “Seven Fingers”:
Whenever she meets new people, she sinks
her small hands into the pockets of her jeans,
as if she’s counting
some coins. (She’s lost seven
fingers in the war.) Then she
tiny as a dwarf.
And here is “Olympic Hopscotch Leap”:
We sit and drink tea
in the hot night of Ramadan.
Boys play hide and seek.
Girls hopscotch around.
Mothers chat and laugh.
A buzzing sound of drones flying
above my family and friends
stops the games, the chatting, and the laughter.
A missile fails,
only falling into farmland nearby.
Shrapnel cuts electric wires.
Dust tops off our tea, like latte foam.
More missiles come flying in,
on the lookout for anything that moves.
Angels get hold of my infant niece.
We look around and find only
her milk bottle.
I am not going to wade into the debate over who is right and who is wrong in that part of the Middle East. The history is long and bitter and multi-layered. Mistreatment of the Jews all over the world and reaching back millennia is a fact. What happened to European Jews between 1932 and 1945 is unspeakably horrendous; it would be unimaginable except that we have evidence in irrefutable abundance.
And it is also true that militant Palestinians have strapped bombs to themselves and suicidally murdered Israeli Jews, have repeatedly fired missiles into civilian areas of Israel, and have sworn the destruction and obliteration of the State of Israel.
But there is something just plain unfair about war where Israeli forces kill 2,251 Palestinian men, women, and children, while Palestinians kill 71 Israelis, 67 of them soldiers. Where one side is armed with drone missiles, F-16 fighter-bombers, and tanks, while the other side is armed mostly with rocks.
Moreover, at least since the first intifada over three decades ago, it has become abundantly clear that massive Israeli retaliation against Palestinian provocations simply does not deter the Palestinians from continuing to resist military occupation and an apartheid system that strips them of freedom, justice, and human dignity.
As far back as the early 1990s, Gloria Emerson made it clear that the Israelis had only two options: learn to live with the Palestinians or kill them all. That is still true today: learn to live with them, or kill them all. Which is it going to be?
W. D. Ehrhart is an ex-Marine sergeant who holds a PhD in American Studies from the University of Wales at Swansea, and taught for many years at the Haverford School for Boys.