The Many Lives of a Political Poem: From Hebrew, to Arabic, to Another Life in Hebrew

Over at The Paris Review, poet and translator Peter Cole writes about the ironic new life that Benjamin Netanyahu has given to Hayim Nahman Bialik’s poem “On the Slaughter”:

A young Bialik; Cole writes, about thirty.
A young Bialik; Cole writes, about thirty.

In the days after the three Israeli teens were murdered, most likely hours after their kidnapping, Netanyahu publicly expressed condolences to the families while quoting from Bialik: “Vengeance … for the blood of a small child, / Satan has not yet created.”

Netanyahu continued by adding: “Hamas is responsible — and Hamas will pay.”

As Cole writes:

Never mind that the poem intoned by Mr. Netanyahu wasn’t Israeli: it was written long before the state was founded and very far from it. “On the Slaughter” was the thirty-year-old Odessan Hayim Nahman Bialik’s immediate response to the April 1903 pogroms in the Bessarabian town of Kishinev, where some forty-nine Jews were slashed, hacked, and cudgeled to death, or drowned in outhouse feces, and hundreds were wounded over the course of several days. Women and girls were raped repeatedly. The Jewish part of town was decimated. Netanyahu quoted just two lines, carefully avoiding the one preceding them: “Cursed be he who cries out: Revenge!”

Cole also adds, interestingly, that the poem received a “potent 1966 translation by the first star of Palestinian resistance poetry, Rashid Hussein.” He further imagines that the poem could have had another life in Arabic, as one might well imagine “a YouTube reading of Hussein’s translation by a thirty-year-old poet in what’s left of the Gazan neighborhood of Sheja’iyeh[.]”

Cole noted, over email, that his wife, Adina Hoffman, wrote more in-depth about Rashid Hussein and his Bialik translation in her My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century.

Rashid Hussein, not yet 30.
Rashid Hussein, not yet 30.

Indeed, there is a beautiful brief sketch of Rashid Hussein in the book, a poet Mahmoud Darwish would call “the star.” Hoffman writes that Hussein was the first Palestinian poet “to have graduated from an Israeli high school, and this gave him a window onto both Hebrew literature and world literature in Hebrew translation. The window worked in complex ways, making him more sympathetic to the feelings of his Jewish countrymen — while it also granted him the insight to write, as he would that same year, that ‘whoever denies us [Arabs] the right to express our suffering and our hopes must also deny Bialik and [Hebrew-language Russian-Jewish poet Shaul] Tchernikovsky most of their nationalist poems.'”

Also: “Rashid would go on to translate a book of Bialik’s poems into Arabic; he was hired to do so by the editors of a series sponsored by the Hebrew University, but it was an assignment of of which he was proud.”

As Cole further noted in email, very little has been written aout the translations, but, “So far as we know—they didn’t circulate beyond Israel’s Arabic readership. … Whether or not they were ever reprinted, in Beirut, say, or anywhere else — we just don’t know. But it seems unlikely.”

Cole adds that Hussein’s “aim in doing the Bialik was, in part, to make a statement.”

It is impossible to know what Bialik would think of Netanyahu’s use of his poem, but the poem, like other political poetry, seems to have its own declared allegiance.


Read the poem in English translation

Read the poem in Arabic translation

Two poems by Hussein, trans. Sinan Antoon