The vocative call by Rachel Zolf

Talk delivered at the Advancing Feminist Poetics & Activism Conference, CUNY Grad Center, September 24, 2009. Opening Plenary II: Wedge & Suture: Critical Language Practices & The Imperialist Event.

I’m wondering if we can take that ubiquitous post-9/11 mantra of lost U.S. innocence – “We are all Israelis” – and actually apply it where it counts. We who live in so-called freedom and democracy are also always killing, and we who survive horror have no inherent right to repeat that horror on others. People love to claim how complex the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is; it’s a great excuse to throw hands in the air in mock “but what can we do?,” when in fact the core issue of settler-colonial occupation and attendant racist human catastrophe is so patently obvious, if one decides to look. I’m just finishing a book of poetry called Neighbour Procedure, which I started during Israel’s 2006 war in Lebanon after seeing colour photos on the front page of the New York Times of Israeli soldiers smiling and singing arm in arm as they crossed the border back “home” – and wondering what carnage their bomblets and fléchettes and other sophisticated armaments left behind. The paper didn’t show images from the other side of the border or list names of grievable Arab bodies.

From the beginning of this project I struggled over the question of whether to travel to Israel-Palestine. I had never been to Israel, had no ties there and, before the summer of 2006, knew as much about the place as any secular Jew who had both read that first Jewish Western, Leon Uris’ Exodus, and seen the movie. I knew even less about Palestine – and even after two and a half years of research I still wondered if my going to the region would do any good for anyone. After much hemming and hawing, a little like Walter Benjamin vacillating over whether he’d be able to access the books he needed if he made aliyah, what happened was I actually got funding to go (no, not from the Israeli government), so the decision was made for me. But what I told myself was that instead of simply reproducing the Orientalist/thanatourist thing that we westerners have trouble avoiding, I would exaggerate it and go on multiple tours of the region: Zionist, Palestinian, Christian, Christian Zionist, etc., and visit museums and other tourist sites – then write about the competing knowledges and rhetorics of the Holy Land. All this seemed fine and containable. But little did I know when I made plans months in advance to fly to Israel-Palestine on New Years Eve, 2008 that I would be flying into an actual warzone as an actual thanatourist. There I was in the Toronto airport lounge just before midnight watching CBC Newsworld’s scenes of “bloodbath in Gaza,” while listening to a group of young adults behind me prepare for their free Birthright Israel trip by playing a game called ‘Two Truths and a Lie.” It was indeed surreal.

I went on some tours as planned. One of my tour-mates in still-besieged Nablus was a beautiful young American Colin Farrell–lookalike “discerning” whether to become a monk and going on tours because he had “always kind of wanted to see some of the holy sites with a Muslim or Jewish guide. It’s just kind of funny like … a lot of times they know the notes but can’t really play the tune.” We went to the Balata refugee camp beside Nablus and listened to a Palestinian man tell the story of planning an EU-sponsored trip to Spain for some of the refugee kids and one 10 year old boy asking “Is Spain before or after the checkpoint?,” his world thus circumscribed. The four hipster German youths with us smoked, giggled and ignored the Palestinian guide’s comments while asking for seconds of the famous Nablus sweets our guide bought for us. When I asked if two of them wearing matching Adidas jackets were on the same swim team, they almost burst with nervous laughter. No, they were just too hung over when they got out of bed to notice. I may have witnessed these events and more, but I also experienced a complete aversion to the record. Rather than transcribe what I saw and heard in the West Bank and Jerusalem, mostly I just sat in front of the television overwhelmed by the images of blown Gazan bodies. No, like the German journalists reporting from the bar in the East Jerusalem Palestinian hotel where all the lefty white people stay, I was not at the front; rather, in front of the various screens that mediate and produce us. Yes, it was alienating to know this carnage was happening just 50 miles away. The only mild comfort I felt was from the familiarity of watching Ayman Mohyeldin do his stand-ups on Al Jazeera every hour or so. The only correspondent reporting from Gaza for most of the onslaught, he stood stalwart in his flak jacket and helmet and delivered the horrific news as steadily as he could.

But I don’t need to go through what happened on that trip. That’s my point. I can tell you stories here, I know you like to hear stories, but I resist it. I resist the violence of representation, and of course there is no writing without representation. My partner is trained as an ethnographer, and she has opened my eyes to ethnography’s complicated discourses, and the influence of decolonizing methodologies on its practices. Much as my projects are all intensely research based, much as I do have a nostalgic desire that many Jews have to bear witness, I don’t want to be a fieldworker. The disaster, the catastrophe exceeds representation. Primo Levi and Giorgio Agamben have written of the Muselmann as the ultimate witness of the Nazi holocaust. The witness who can’t bear witness. To me it seems no accident that Muselmann is also German for Muslim.

While in Israel-Palestine, I received a number of emails from people remarking on how brave I was and hoping I was writing a lot of poetry. I did pen one poem when I was there, about a grief-stricken man walking towards me on an East Jerusalem street gingerly holding a child wrapped in a blanket and my assuming the child was dead because I had seen so many similar images on the television. This poem recently ended up on the cutting-room floor. The only other writing I did was transcribe some video testimony I found on the website, “Breaking the silence: Israeli soldiers talk about the Occupied Territories.” It was an Israeli soldier describing the “neighbour procedure” of using Palestinians as human shields and forcing them to break walls inside their neighbours’ houses so the army can move literally through the walls to go house to house in urban warfare. This testimony was from Nablus during Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, but somehow I knew the same procedure was being used right then during Operation Cast Lead 2008 in Gaza. That has recently been confirmed. In a somewhat strange twist, the Israeli forces no longer call it the “neighbour procedure,” but they do now call the Palestinian human shields “Johnnies” — an Anglicism that may not seem out of place in Americanized Israel. Did you know that an Israeli weapons firm, Elbit Systems, is involved in both building the Apartheid Wall in Israel-Palestine and the so-called “security fence” along the Mexican border? But I digress.

Basically I don’t think I ever can or want to write about the events of that trip. What I’ve done instead is insert some of its mad affects into the book. The one section I wrote when I returned is called Innocent Abroad and is partly narrated by Mark Twain, whose own Orientalist account of his own Holy Land excursion, The Innocents Abroad or The New Pilgrims Progress, supposedly “sold right along with the Bible” in most late 19th century American homes, and may still today. Many other voices accompany Twain in the assemblage that is my Neighbour Procedure, including Israeli architect Eyal Weizman on the Israeli military’s pilfering of Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome and the Situationists’ dérive and détournement to justify and enact the urban warfare manoeuvres described earlier. Indeed, as D&G predicted, the nomad war machine has been co-opted by the state. Caren Kaplan also appears, theorizing the question of travel and exile for aesthetic gain – modernist expat writers and artists “shocked by the strain of displacement into significant experimentations.” Like Dadaist painter Marcel Janco, who emigrated to Israel and took over a supposedly “abandoned” Palestinian village, turning it into a Dada artists’ colony for Jews in 1953. Janco, the Jewish-Romanian formerly drawn to Zurich’s Cabaret Voltaire for exiles in World War One, sets up his own Cabaret Voltaire in Ein Houd village’s former mosque, and shocks the village into significant Dadaisms. Yes, my poem sounds like Christian Bök doing Kurt Schwitters, but with a big twist.

When I returned to New York at the end of January, I went back to poems written before the trip, again all shaped from collaged documentary and other sources. While I left their syntax basically intact, I inserted semantic breaks that enact my sense of the unreadability of events. I use multiple forms that look like lyric, that look like story, that look like beauty… but the three line fragments that can be attributed to “me” in the whole book are “No beauty here,” “narrative faltering” and “aware of the risk of these phrases.” Much as I would like to, much as I have attempted to in previous work, I cannot bear witness for the witness. We write to fail. Did you know that after Katrina, Palestinians from the Amari refugee camp near Ramallah managed to raise $10,000 for the hurricane survivors; they so identified with these American refugees and their catastrophe. This is while FEMA was leaving people to die on the side of the highway in hot sun. Colonialism burns in many forms, like the slogan of an upstate New York group fighting indigenous land claims: “Born in the USA: We are Native Americans.” Some say everyone in the USA has a little “Indian” or African or Mexican in their blood. Maybe it’s time to acknowledge where United Statesians come from and what United Statesians are doing here and now, as well as over there, rather than pretending “we are all Israelis” and this is the new Jerusalem. Undecidability stops somewhere and responsibility begins. You could say it’s the vocative call.


The third point creates a space rather than a line
The experience when you come face to face
With the focus, not just in the vicinity           
The milk coming from an outside breast, not me

Buber took Said’s home with a deed from the Jewish Agency
Life owes me reparation and I will see that I get it
Drawing a line between inside and outside
They love their delusions as they love themselves
For they are exceptions and intend to remain so

Here we go round the prickly pear
Terminology the properly poetic moment of thought
It’s only because we can count to three
That we can count to two

The Levite and the Cohen pass by the injured man
Stop where you are and acknowledge its presence
With the section marked Acknowledgement
We who live are also always killing Hey you!
The poem already exists before it is written

Lévinas stands watch over the Shoah
Ethics suspended at the border crossing
Dream of virgin lands and arctic snows
A world without difference, textuality
It is never just me and the event

Philosophy chokes on a small fragment
Some strange Zug in the Muselmann’s face
A bit of microeconomics, the person
Here I am a debt that can never be amortized

Undecidability stops in the fractal space
Between I and Thou, the killing and dying
Unthinkable truth of living experience
Only the unforgivable can be proximity
Taking a new meaning in the landscape
Of contiguity

Poem from Neighbor Procedure, Coach House Books, 2010