Frost and donkeys in the Knesset

"Bilam and his Donkey" (1908) by Ephraim Moshe Lilien
"Bilam and his Donkey" (1908) by Ephraim Moshe Lilien

Israelis will head to their third parliamentary election in under a year on March 2, due to a repeated inability to produce governing Knesset coalitions.

The idiosyncrasies of Israeli politics and this ongoing impasse has reminded me of a visit I made to the Knesset in July 2003 with my brother, Amir Afsai, during which we observed a parliamentary debate about the government’s long-delayed plan to construct a security barrier (geder hafrada in Hebrew) in Judea and Samaria/the West Bank.

Curiously, questions about this barrier—a network of fences, ditches, dirt mounds and concrete walls intended to help prevent attacks by Palestinian gunmen and suicide bombers—also revolved that summer around the meaning and significance of the poetry of Robert Frost (1874-1963).

The speaker of Frost’s “Mending Wall, ” first published in his 1914 poetry collection North of Boston, describes a yearly spring ritual in which he and his neighbor together repair the stone wall separating their farmlands. The neighbor is adamant about the need for this annual work, twice repeating the phrase “Good fences make good neighbors.”

The poem’s speaker, though, is less certain than his neighbor about the goodness of fences. He twice repeats his conviction that walls are somehow unnatural: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” Neither he nor his neighbor has grazing animals, and the speaker sees something insulting in insisting on such an unneeded separation between them. He wonders: “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 regards his wall-repairing neighbor as dangerously uncivilized and spiritually retrograde, imagining him “like an old-stone savage” who “moves in darkness”: “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.”

The first Knesset member we heard referring to “Mending Wall” on the day we visited was Yuli-Yoel Edelstein, a famous refusenik and a Likud party member, who expressed his hesitancy about constructing the barrier. Before cementing his argument, 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.”

I will apparently demand a parliamentary committee on reading comprehension

Edelstein continued, explaining the reason for his ire: “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 might be said to have provided a correction to the way the poem was often being used in political discussions—but for his addition that in “Mending Wall” Frost was conveying the idea that “the fervent desire for peace on both sides” is what “makes good neighbors.” Frost does not offer a key to what makes peace between people. The poem actually suggests the more complex idea that there may be both benefits and consequences to barriers, depending on the circumstances, and therefore people should consider what they are “walling in or walling out.”

In any case, maybe Edelstein ought to have also contemplated a parliamentary committee on active listening. Shortly after his speech, Amram Mitzna of the Labor party, a former general, rose to declare that he was in favor of the barrier, mustering “Mending Wall” to his cause. He also demonstrated that he had neither read Frost’s poem nor listened to a word Edelstein had just said.

The left-leaning but security minded Mitzna declared: “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.”

As someone with a literature background, it was interesting to see an American poem assume such prominence in an ongoing Israeli political debate and get quoted in a parliamentary session. But I also wondered why anyone believed that several dozen lines by an American farmer-writer waxing poetic about his interactions with his neighbor on their idyllic New England farmlands ought to carry weight in discussions about whether or not to build a barrier between two warring Middle Eastern nations.

If Frost lived adjacent to people with whom he was in a religious and national conflict, he might have written a different poem.

Perhaps feeling that Israel’s life-and-death security decisions should be grounded less in early twentieth-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 an impassioned plea to build the barrier.

Rabbi 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.”

But it so happens that in the Biblical narrative, the donkey’s attempts to avoid an armed angel, which includes pressing Balaam into a wall, do not succeed in blocking Balaam—who had been hired by the Moabite King Balak—from proceeding against the nation of Israel. This necessitates the angel eventually appearing to the wicked man and addressing him directly.

The erudite and staunchly secular Yossi Sarid of the left-wing Meretz party, who passed away in 2015, lost no time in pointing out the rabbi’s error: “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.”

It has been a tenet of Judaism that answers to life’s greatest questions may be found in literature

A positive way to look at such parliamentary discussions is to see them as signs of Jewish reverence for texts. It has been a tenet of Judaism that answers to life’s greatest questions may be found in literature. Maybe this turning to American poetry is indicative of Israelis’ continual urge to justify their state’s actions to the nations of the world, which from that perspective might best be accomplished using those nations’ literary vocabularies. Then again, perhaps this focus on Frost also reveals a decrease in shared Jewish vocabulary among Israelis. And when even a learned rabbi in the Knesset misreads a basic Biblical text, what can reasonably be expected of its other members’ Jewish literacy?

An earlier version of this article was published in Jewish Rhode Island on January 8, 2020.

About the Author
I live in Providence, Rhode Island. My recent research has focused on the works of Thomas Paine, Zionist historiography, Jews and Freemasonry, Benjamin Franklin's influence on Jewish thought and practice, the religious traditions of the Beta Yisrael Jewish community from Ethiopia, emerging Judaism in Nigeria, aliyah to Israel from Rhode Island, Jewish pilgrimage to Ukraine, and Jews and Irish literature. My articles, short stories, and photographs have been featured in Anthropology Today, Arutz Sheva/Israel National News, Haaretz, Heredom: The Transactions of The Scottish Rite Research Society, The Jerusalem Post, Jewish Fiction .net, The Jewish Literary Journal, Jewish Quarterly, Journal of the American Revolution, New English Review, Philalethes: The Journal of Masonic Research & Letters, The Providence Journal, Reform Jewish Quarterly, The Review of Rabbinic Judaism, Rhode Island History, Segula Magazine, Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies, Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Tablet Magazine, Times of Israel, and Underground Voices. To view more of my work, visit shaiafsai.com
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