On The Use And Misuse Of Literature In Israeli Politics

Because of a recurring inability to produce sustainable governing Knesset coalitions, Israeli voters will be heading to the polls today for their fifth parliamentary election since April 2019. This election might not yield any more longevity or stability than the previous four attempts.

The idiosyncrasies of Israeli politics have again reminded me of a visit I made to the Knesset nearly 20 years ago, in July 2003, during which I observed a parliamentary debate about the delayed plan to construct a security barrier (geder hafrada in Hebrew) in Judea and Samaria/the West Bank. Curiously, disagreements about this proposed barrier – a network of ditches, dirt mounds, fences, and walls intended to help prevent attacks by Palestinian gunmen and bombers – also revolved that summer around the lessons of Robert Frost’s (1874-1963) poetry.

The speaker of Frost’s 1914 poem “Mending Wall” describes a yearly spring ritual in which he and his neighbor together repair the stone wall separating their rural New England properties. The neighbor is adamant about the need for this annual work, twice repeating the phrase “Good fences make good neighbors.” In contrast, the poem’s speaker is less convinced of the inherent goodness of fences, twice repeating the idea that such separations are generally unwanted: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” 

As neither he nor his neighbor have grazing animals, the repairing of an ostensibly unneeded wall between them looks to the speaker, at best, to be a “kind of out-door game.” Possibly, the neighbor’s insistence on such separation is not only unnatural, but insulting too. Of fences and walls, the speaker thinks to himself: “Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it/ Where there are cows? But here there are no cows./ Before I built a wall I’d ask to know/ What I was walling in or walling out,/ And to whom I was like to give offence.”

By the end of the poem, the speaker views his wall-repairing neighbor – whom he judges unwilling to question handed-down maxims or employ them in context – as menacingly uncivilized and unenlightened: “I see him there/ Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top/ In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed./ He moves in darkness as it seems to me/ Not of woods only and the shades of trees.” This boorish neighbor gets the poem’s pessimistic last line: “Good fences make good neighbors.”

The first Knesset member I heard referring to “Mending Wall” on the day I visited the parliament was Yuli-Yoel Edelstein, a famous refusenik of the Likud party (and, from 2013 to 2020, Speaker of the Knesset), who expressed his hesitancy about constructing the security barrier. (Edelstein, like the other politicians I am quoting and translating here, spoke in Hebrew.) Before cementing his position, he turned to an analysis of Frost’s poem and a lamenting of Israeli illiteracy:

“I just want to call here to the Minister of Education and the Chairman of the Knesset Committee on Education…and to say that the debate over the fence requires all of us to once again examine, Mr. Chairman, the issue of reading comprehension in Israel, because at least three or four times I have heard it said as an argument in support of the fence – by educated people, apparently – that even Robert Frost wrote: ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’ If I hear this once more, Mr. Chairman, I do not know – I will apparently demand a parliamentary committee on reading comprehension.”

Explaining the reason for his ire, Edelstein continued: “They only forget to mention that the one who says these words is the ‘anti-hero,’ the antagonist of that poem by Frost, that hero with whom the poet is in constant debate. Apparently, Robert Frost claims, as we heard just now from the friend of Israel, Tom DeLay, that a good fence does not make good neighbors, but only peace – the fervent desire for peace on both sides – makes good neighbors.”

Overall, Edelstein provided a correction to the way the poem was being misapplied politically – except for his addition about how, in “Mending Wall,” Frost claims that “the fervent desire for peace on both sides” is what “makes good neighbors.” Frost does not supply a secret for making peace between people. Rather, he plays with several ideas, including that there can be both benefits and consequences to putting up barriers, depending on the circumstances, and that people should consider what they are “walling in or walling out” – and why.

In any case, maybe Edelstein ought to have also contemplated a parliamentary committee on active listening. Shortly after Edelstein’s speech, Amram Mitzna, a retired general of the Labor party, rose to declare that he was in favor of the barrier, mustering “Mending Wall” to his cause. He also demonstrated that he had neither comprehended Frost’s poem nor attended to a word Edelstein had just said. The left-leaning but security-minded Mitzna announced: “It is true that in the world-view I represent, the intention is to separate from the Palestinians and allow the establishment of a Palestinian state. Even in times of peace a fence will be needed, for there is no neighborliness without a fence. This was said before me, of course, by Robert Frost.”

I have a literature background and fondness for poetry, so it was fascinating for me to hear “Mending Wall” quoted and referenced in the Knesset, and to see it assume such prominence in Israeli political discussion. But I also wondered if there is something in Frost’s popular works that invites misuse, politically and in other ways. It seems that when a person misreads one of his poems or has walled himself in with a misinterpretation, it is extremely difficult to get out of those dark woods and from under those shaded trees. 

It does not matter, for instance, how often it is shown that Frost’s famous “The Road Not Taken” (first published in 1915) is more about self-deception and rewriting the past than about the rewards of bold individuality, and that there is absolutely no discernible difference – however much he might have hoped for one – between the diverging roads from which the speaker of that poem chooses. He is explicit about this non-difference: “Though as for that the passing there/ Had worn them really about the same,/ And both that morning equally lay/ In leaves no step had trodden black.” Nonetheless, the poem’s brutally false but optimistic-sounding final lines are what tend to linger: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I– / I took the one less traveled by,/ And that has made all the difference.” 

Critic and poetry professor David Orr, who has deemed it “The Most Misread Poem in America,” endeavored to set things right by publishing two books (followed by articles) in 2015: The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong and The Road Not Taken and Other Poems. As far as I can tell from over two decades of lengthy conversations with people about that poem, almost everyone is still getting it wrong. 

However pointed such mistakes about Frost’s poetry may be, they are, of course, emblematic of broader problems, including that people have a hard time parting with narratives that affirm their positions. I have had my own experiences with the apparent futility of writing about vested literary errors. Here is one example. In June 2012, I published “‘The bride is beautiful, but she is married to another man’: Historical Fabrication and an Anti-Zionist Myth” (Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies 30:3, pp. 35-61). I followed that with other pieces on the subject, including “‘The bride is beautiful, but she is married to another man.’ The tenacity of an anti-Zionist fable” (Fathom Journal, Autumn 2020). While no primary source for stories incorporating variations of the phrase “the bride is beautiful, but she is married to another man” has surfaced since 2012, they continue to be repeated uncritically by historians, journalists, and filmmakers, usually as part of deliberate efforts to delegitimize the state of Israel – and, by now, often with complete awareness that these stories are baseless. 

As mentioned, I wondered in the Knesset if there is something in Frost’s popular works that invites misuse, politically and in other ways. I further wondered why anyone in Israel believed that several dozen lines about two neighbors interacting in idyllic New England – composed a century ago by an American farmer-writer – ought to carry weight in current conversations about whether or not to build a barrier between enemy Middle Eastern populations. If Frost, who passed away 40 years before, had lived adjacent to people with whom he was in a protracted, violent national and religious conflict, he might have offered a more relevant poem. He wrote “Mending Wall” before the Balfour Declaration, before the Holocaust, and before the establishment of the state of Israel, and likely without any thought to the security needs of Jews in their ancestral land.

As it happens, Frost, who was invited to lecture at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, traveled to Israel for ten days in 1961. Frost’s visit featured that year in Coronet‘s September issue, alongside an essay by Eleanor Roosevelt on “The Joy of Reading.” The magazine’s editors noted that “he wrote in the guest book of the university this paraphrase of one of his most famous verses: Something there is that does not love a wall–it is friendship. With eternal friendship, Robert Frost.” Reminiscing about his trip and commenting on a photo featuring barbed wire and a stone wall, taken by Archie Liberman at one of Israel’s borders, Frost told Coronet‘s senior editor: “Stones and stones, and walls and walls, and barbed wire, wire, wire. The shame of it! That barbed wire was invented in America! Wherever I look I see that fence.” He seemed to have an abiding aversion to fences and stone walls.

But elsewhere, in connection with that visit to Israel, Frost wrote emotionally about coming upon one of the remains of the defensive stone wall built by Nehemiah in the 5th century BCE as part of his efforts to reestablish Jewish national and religious life in Jerusalem following the Babylonian exile: “As everybody must know I am in favor of brave nations, little and big. I have been a Balfour Israelite from aforetime, and was recently romantically confirmed in my politics when I stood face to face with Nehemiah the Restorer in person by the great stones in situ (I happened on all by myself) of the wall he restored three thousand [sic] years ago  in defiance of Sanballat. His is one of the most stirring stories of the Bible, one children are not apt to hear enough of.” So much for the notion of Frost’s unreserved opposition to building walls.

Back to 2003. Perhaps feeling that Israel’s life-and-death security decisions should be grounded less in early 20th-century American poetry than in biblical exegesis, Rabbi Nissim Ze’ev of the religious Sephardi Shas party put aside Frost and instead turned to the Book of Numbers as part of his plea to construct the barrier. Ze’ev spoke about the role of Balaam’s donkey in preventing its owner from cursing the Israelites as they prepared to enter the Promised Land: “I am puzzled about many Knesset members who do not understand the indispensability of a fence. Even Balaam’s donkey understood and agreed that in order to block Balaam, his hatred for the nation of Israel, he must be taken and placed between walls – a wall on either side. Then they managed to block Balaam.”

In the biblical narrative, however, the donkey’s pressing of Balaam (who was hired to curse the Israelites by the Moabite King Balak) between two walls does not actually suffice to hinder him from trying to harm the Israelites, and therefore an armed angel reveals itself to the wicked man and addresses him directly. 

The erudite and staunchly secular Yossi Sarid, of the left-wing Meretz party, lost no time in drawing attention to the rabbi’s misstep: “Knesset member Nissim Ze’ev spoke about Balaam, the wall, the donkey and Balak – that is, I add that, because he spoke about Balaam. And it turns out for the who-knows-how-many-time that he did not comprehend at all what was read. I suggest you read again the story of Balak, Balaam and the donkey, and then you will understand that you do not understand even this. It is exactly the opposite of what you said, but it is a shame to waste time on this.”

A positive take on these parliamentary exchanges is to see them as signs of Jewish reverence for texts – a certainty that answers to life’s most significant questions are found in literature, sacred and secular. Unfortunately, that abstract reverence does not necessarily extend to close and careful reading of the writings themselves. 

The turning to American poetry in disputes about the security barrier may also be indicative of Israelis’ ongoing need to justify their state’s contested policy, actions, and very existence to the rest of the world, which is a task more easily accomplished with reference to celebrated non-Jewish authors – according to David Orr, “the only poet in the history of English-language verse who commands more attention [than Frost] is William Shakespeare” – and by using non-Jewish vocabularies. When that outward-focused habit carries over into internal political deliberations, though, the results can be ridiculous.

Then again, the political focus on Frost could point to a decline in shared Jewish literary language among Israelis. And if even a learned rabbi in the Knesset misconstrues a basic biblical narrative, what is reasonably to be expected of its other members’ Jewish literacy?

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