Poetry is poetry, and is immune to prosecution

By Ofra Yeshua-Lyth – Originally appeared in HaOketz in Hebrew on March 21, 2017

Translated by Idan Kramarge Bar-Haim

Professor Nissim Calderon testified in the show trial of poet Dareen Tatour: “In the Israeli tradition there is immunity to a poet who calls for illegal violence”; in Hanukkah we sing “As you shall prepare a massacre / of a barking foe”; in both the Tsarist regime and the mandate police poets who called for violence were not prosecuted, and no one prosecuted Ariel Zilber for supporting the murder of Yitzhak Rabin.

Arabic expert Dr. Yoni Mendel: “Tatour’s poem does not call for violence; the police translation is simplistic, not objective, and is meant to prove the poet supports violence”.

On March 19, 2017, the absurd show trial “The state of Israel against poet Dareen Tatour” has reached the defense witnesses stage. Two expert professors made all the way from the center of the country to explain to the prosecutor Alina Hardak and Judge Adi Bambiliya in the Nazareth court why the indictment that took away Tatour’s freedom since October 2015 is essentially baseless.Poetry is not a crime - Dareen Tatour

Literature professor Nissim Calderon wrote in his expert opinion that there is no place to incriminate any poet for a text he or she wrote, even if it was packed with harsh expressions.  Tsarist Russia, as well as the British mandate, and so far even  the state of Israel, left poets alone  also when their poems could be seen as a call or support for violence. Dr. Yonatan Mendel, an expert on the Arabic language with rich experience in translation, who stands at the head of the Van Leer institute for Jewish-Arab relations, determined in the document he presented that the poem an Israeli policeman decided is an “Incitement to violence” is actually an impassioned national poem, by the best tradition of the local language, without any call for taking arms or spilling blood.

The mills of justice grind slowly: The two distinguished academics, together with defense lawyers Gaby Lasky and Nery Ramati, the accused poet, her family and supporters, had to wait three hours in the ornate halls of the enormous courthouse, in a sort of forced hunger strike. The cafeteria had been closed many months ago, and there is not even a water cooler, not to mention a coffee machine – a winning combination of the fails of the Israeli legal system and the disregard for the “periphery”. The session, scheduled for 11:30 in the morning, started at 2:30 in the afternoon, and continued until 20:30 in the evening. The entire meeting was dedicated to the counter-interrogation of the two professionals about the reasoned expert opinions they supplied, each in his field of academic research. The prosecutor spared no efforts in her attempt to denounce their integrity.

“According to you, is every person who wrote a poem or a collection of poems is a poet who has the right to privileges over other people?” she asked professor Calderon. He replied positively and stated that if a text is written as poetry then “It is entitled to all rights we give to poetry in our culture, and the writer’s responsibility towards the poem is a poet’s responsibility”.

Dareen and Propf Calderon (center) & Tawfiq Tatour

Dareen Tatour and Prof Calderon (center) before the hearing

“According to you, calls for violence within a poem also deserve immunity from prosecution?”

“Not according to me, but according my information”, answered Calderon, “As Hayim Nahman Bialik [1873-1934, considered the top national-Zionist poet- O.Y.L] wrote ‘with vicious wrath your blood we shalt drink, we shalt have no mercy, and as all the nation shall arise to vengeance we shall say vengeance’, then the immunity Bialik enjoys includes sayings such as drinking the gentiles’ blood and a call for vengeance upon them. In Israeli tradition there is immunity to a poet who calls for illegal violence. In Hanukkah we sing the hymn ‘Maoz Tsur Yeshuati’- ‘When you shall make a massacre / from your barking foe…’ We call in Hanukkah to massacre our enemies.”

The prosecutor pointed out that Tatour’s poem was read in Facebook over a video as background, but Calderon made clear that this fact is irrelevant: “I come from a literary and lyrical tradition that is well familiar with poems published in a variety of contexts, printed and filmed. Poetry is poetry. The video tradition is relatively new but the tradition of poetry in context has a long history. Would you question a poem by Uri Tsvi Greenberg [1896-1981, highly acclaimed poet and right-wing activist] in which he specifically mentions the words The Thugs Alliance [“Brit Habiryonim”], while he was explicitly a member of the Thugs Alliance organization which called for illegal actions against the British government in the country?” Uri Tsvi Greenberg, the witness mentioned, was never a target of the British mandate police despite his blunt texts which were the inspiration for underground movements that took violent actions against the mandate regime. Just like the Russian Tsar regime which did not see fit to act against Haim Nahman Bialik despite his call for violent revenge.

“You do not presume to present yourself as an objective witness,” the prosecutor snapped at the professor, who was quick to agree: “There is no objective witness in literature, no court for literary works, their meaning and value.” He confirmed that he expressed his opinion about Tatour’s trial in an event called “Poetry in the shadow of terrorism” which was held by the Author’s Association, and that loud arguments rose during this occasion. “Arguments inside the literary community are natural”, he pointed out. Hardak claimed that Calderon relied solely on classics from the distant past and did not bring into his opinion current examples. “If we embrace you position, then where we are today, any person under the disguise of a poet could publish anything he wishes to, even if it would otherwise be a criminal offense!”, scowled the prosecutor.

“Yes,” said the professor calmly, “Ariel Zilber [contemporary popular song writer] published songs which supported the murder of [Israeli PM] Rabin. No one prosecuted him and he should not be prosecuted. His immunity was supported by all the literary community.”

The prosecutor took great efforts to present the second witness, Dr. Mendel, as “not objective” too. She presented as “incriminating” evidence an article he wrote in the past in which he interpreted the Hamas movement as a political organization, not as a terrorist organization. (In the re-interrogation Mendel made clear that this definition comes not from his “feverish mind” but repeated the statements of the American general Collin Powell and the former head of the Mosad, Efraim Halevi). Mendel also confirmed he wrote an article about the completely false interpretation of Israelis to the word “shahid”, which should be translated to “martyr” or “victim”, while Hebrew speakers automatically identify it with terrorism.

The Palestinians, say Mendel, refer to shahids “More as victims and less as aggressors. A shahid is not only someone who performed an act of terrorism but also a person with cancer who dies at an army checkpoint. Most of those who are called shahid are civilians who did not go to offend Israelis. If in “Protective Edge” or “Cast Lead” [Israeli military operations against Gaza] about 2000 people were killed in the Gaza Strip, for the Palestinians they are all shahids, fighters and civilians alike.”

Waiting for trial Dareen and Mendel

Waiting for the hearing – Dr Mendel first from the left

As for the poem Dareen Tatour wrote, the witness made clear, all victims she speaks of in the poem are civilians. “When I look at the names of the victims she refers to in the poem, the child who was burned is probably Muhammad Abu Khdeir; Ali is Ali Dawabsheh; Also Hadeel was a very extreme case, Haaretz newspaper called it an execution” (Hadeel al-Hashlamoun was shot in Hebron by a soldier who suspected – mistakenly according to all testimonies – that she came to perform a terror attack).

At this point the prosecutor took out videos in which suicide bombers were presented as shahids, while trying to convince the witness that Dareen Tatour also meant to glorify suicide bombers when she mentioned shahids. It took three hours of exhaustion at the witness box and with video after video presented to the witness with no change in the testimony and finally the advocate complained that the prosecutor treats Dr. Mendel as an accused. Hardak indeed kept calling Mendel “”not objective” and he kept to his answer that “When you come to talk about the political reality, there is no person without opinions”. He also added that by his own professional analysis a truly not objective action was taken by whoever decided to prosecute Dareen on the basis of a biased, incriminating translation: “My translation is loyal to the truth, objective, connected to the spirit of the original text and was not written with intent to incriminate. To my mind, in every node in which a certain interpretation could be chosen, a decision was taken to translate her meaning as violent, and that is what lacks objectivity”. Later during the questioning Mendel added: “The police translation is very simplistic, inaccurate, and its intent was to prove that the writer supports violent actions”.

The prosecutor still kept on presenting videos. What does he see in the videos? The witness was asked. “In the video I saw the West Bank, territory outside the Green Line, which has not been annexed to Israel and by my understanding it presents soldiers who confront Palestinians”. At another point he mentioned that in the West Bank “There is a very complex situation in which the soldiers are seen as an occupying force and the demolition of a home is conceived by the Palestinians as an act of violence”.

“Stone throwing or Molotov cocktails are terrorism”, claimed the prosecutor. Mendel replied: “The conflict should be solved without violence. I’m against violence. In a situation where one side shoots and the other throw a stone, there are acts of violence on both sides”. He responded with irony to the definition of stone throwing as a disruption of order: “Someone has to ask oneself: if the stone disrupts the order – then what is the order? The perpetuation of the situation is which Israel occupies the West Bank. Stones’ throwing is a reaction to stormy conditions”.

The Judge decreed that the defense will terminate its case in the next session that she set for March 28. Tatour’s lawyers summoned police officer Yaniv Hami and announced that there might be still another witness for the defense. They requested to present the defense summaries in writing.

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