In Gaza, a Contentious Palestinian Professor Calmly Teaches Israeli Poetry

GAZA CITY – Forty-five minutes after his first seminar in the morning, a Palestinian professor at the Islamic University of Gaza City asked a question to his seventy undergraduate students: Who wrote the unsigned poem they spent the class reading?

To the students, all women, the identity of the poet, or at least the background, was clear.

This was a text about Jerusalem, the city they have long cherished, as young Palestinians who are unable to leave Gaza for most of their lives, but have never visited. The poem was written from the perspective of a sad spectator who, like them, loved the city but could not enter it.

Its English translation begins as follows:

On the roof in the old town

Laundry hanging in the sunshine in the late afternoon

The white sheet of my enemy’s woman,

Towel Man My Enemy

Sundus Fayoumi raised her hand. The poem was of a Palestinian staring from afar at an Israeli laundry that, according to Ms. Fayoumi, 19, “shows a man who has no access to something that belongs to him,” she said. A man working in the occupied territories.

The class nodded in agreement. Only a second Palestinian student said he could have written with such warmth about Jerusalem.

But Professor Rifaat Al-Areer was waiting for a surprise. “The poet of this really beautiful piece is not Palestinian,” he said.

There was a noise of grumbling when it seemed to the class what this meant. Someone gasped, and Mrs. Fayoumi suppressed a shocked laugh.

“He is an Israeli poet named Yehuda Amichai,” Mr. Arir continued.

It was a moment that added nuance to two contrasting narratives: those embraced by the students themselves, many of whom knew someone who had been killed or injured by Israeli missiles, and whose interaction with Israel is often limited to air strikes; This is for many Israelis, who often assume that the Palestinian education system is merely a driver of incitement.

Here was a tribute to one of Israel’s beloved poets from a Palestinian professor at a university co-founded by the former leader of Hamas, the armed group that runs the Gaza government, does not recognize Israel, and has been responsible for dozens of suicide attacks on Israelis. Experts say the study of Israeli poetry in Palestinian colleges is rare, if unheard of.

What Mr. Arir liked about the poem “Jerusalem,” he told his students, was the way it blurred the divisions between Israelis and Palestinians and insinuated that “Jerusalem can be the place where we all meet, regardless of religion and belief.”

He added, “When I read this, I was really like, ‘Oh my God, this is beautiful. I’ve never seen anything like this before. I never thought I’d read it. Then I realized: No, there are a lot of other Israelis, the Jewish people, who are totally and completely opposed to the occupation.”

Mr. Arir, 42, is not an outspoken advocate of Hebrew poetry.

The Israeli and Egyptian blockade of Gaza impeded his academic career, and at times prevented him from studying abroad. He has relatives in Hamas, and his brother was killed during the 2014 war with Israel. He worked as co-editor of two books of articles and short novels about the struggles of life in Gaza.

And on social media, he often writes an angry barrage calling Israel a source of evil, posts that have led to his Twitter account being suspended. in one Mail He wrote: “There is no form, action or means of Palestinian resistance that is terrorism. All Israelis are soldiers. All Palestine is occupied.”

But in the lecture hall, Mr. Al-Arayer takes a more moderate academic approach. As part of an undergraduate course on international literature, he teaches works not only by Mr. Amichai but also by Tuvia Rubner, another prominent Israeli poet. He introduces students to The Merchant of Venice and Oliver Twist, and encourages his classes to empathize with the Jewish characters in the texts, Shylock and Fagin.

While Shylock and FaginAnd Two complex characters who have sparked debate for centuries but are widely considered anti-Semitic caricatures, Strange choices might seem to teach Palestinians empathy, Mr. Arir encourages his students to sympathize with them as victims of a fanatic society.

Perhaps the most exciting moment in Mr. Arir’s teaching career, he wrote in an article in 2015, “was when I asked my students which of the characters they recognized most: Othello, of Arab descent, or Shylock the Jew. Most of the students felt they were closer to Shylock. and more sympathetic to him than Othello.”

His students interpreted Mr. Amichai’s poem as a depiction of Palestinians cut off from Jerusalem by a wall built during the first decade of the twenty-first century. But the revealing of the poet’s identity was a reminder of how Jews were denied access to the old city center when Jordan took control of the Old City of Jerusalem between 1948 and 1967.

In the sky of the old town


At the other end of the chain,


I can not see

because of the wall.

“As Palestinians, do we have any problem with Jews as Jews?” Mr. Arir asked his disciples. “No, it’s some kind of political struggle.”

Mr. Amichai died in 2000. His widow, Chana Sokolov, and son, David, later said that they disagreed with the content of Mr. Al-Arayer’s social media posts, only that they drew inspiration from his use and interpretation of the poem.

“My father would probably be very happy to hear that people use poetry to see humanity on the other side,” said David Amichai, a researcher in anti-Semitism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “It is very moving that he uses this poem in an attempt to educate Israeli society,” Amichai added.

For some of Mr. Arir’s students, the poet’s Israeli identity came as a mere secondary epiphany.

“Maybe this changed something in my mind about their experience,” Ms. Fayoumi said. “It feels like we’re sharing things. We’re running late.”

But then it stopped itself. There was a limit to her sympathy for a country whose warplanes bombed Gaza for 11 straight days earlier this year.

For the Israelis, Hamas was the instigator of the fighting in May: the war broke out after Hamas fired several rockets at Jerusalem, and it continued to point thousands of unguided rockets at many Israeli cities.

But for Palestinians like Ms. Fayoumi, Hamas has been responding to Israeli actions in Jerusalem, including raids on Al-Aqsa Mosque. The final death toll was uneven, with Gaza suffering nearly all of the more than 260 dead in the conflict.

“Ultimately, the gap in our experiences is huge, when you compare their losses to ours, and you compare their luxurious lives to ours,” said Ms. Al-Fayoumi. “We may handle things and share them – but at the end of the day they have to admit what they did.”

Another student said she could not believe that an Israeli had actually written the poem, even after Mr. Al-Arir revealed his identity.

“I still insist that this is Palestinian,” said Aya Al-Mufti, 19, citing the use of the phrase “Old City” that she thought only an Arab would use.

Al-Arir said that he was right: the meaning of any text is open to the interpretation of its readers. But he still swayed a little, and gently hinted that she hadn’t grasped the main point of the chapter.

“If you want to play the poem, that’s good for you,” said he, with a twinkle of sarcasm.

Iyad Abu Hawila contributed to this report.

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