Israeli scholar shares complex literary portrayals of Arabs

Israeli scholar shares complex literary portrayals of Arabs

Rachel Korazim is an expert in both early Zionism and Israeli poetry. (Photo by Adam Reinherz)
Rachel Korazim is an expert in both early Zionism and Israeli poetry. (Photo by Adam Reinherz)

On a night when many traveled to the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill to demonstrate solidarity with Israel, a small minority ventured to Shadyside for an alternative presentation. Attendees listened to Dr. Rachel Korazim, who in partnership with Classrooms Without Borders and Rodef Shalom Congregation, offered a discussion titled “The Other as Mirror: Israelis and Palestinians in Each Others’ Looking Glasses.” The talk was held in Levy Hall at Rodef Shalom and attended by nearly 30 people.

Korazim’s 90-minute presentation included close readings of literary works from Yehuda Amichai, Agi Mishol and Emile Habibi. Each selection was read aloud, analyzed and discussed by Korazim and attendees.

Korazim, an educational consultant with expertise in early Zionism, the Holocaust and Israeli poetry, maintained that the program’s purpose was to demonstrate the complexity of voices in Israel.

“We live a very complicated reality,” said Korazim.

“We share a small piece of land. I am not a politician, I only live there, but by virtue of living there, I feel the need to share the voices.”

While sharing these voices, Korazim introduced attendees to readings on loss, terror, hope and sensuality. She explained that the same author could diametrically alter political views from one work to the next. After reading Amichai’s poem, “An Arab Shepherd is Searching for his Goat on Mount Zion,” — a text that Korazim interpreted as meaning “both people have the same wishes, we all come from these hills” — she read another Amichai poem, “The Diameter of the Bomb,” and claimed that Amichai went so far as to dehumanize the Arab seemingly mentioned within the text.  

“Amichai will not give him name, face or recognition.”  

Korazim explained that the stark contrast between portraying an Arab longingly looking for his goat and an Arab detonating a bomb demonstrates the complicated perception that Israelis hold of the other.  

Korazim rhetorically asked attendees, “How do Israelis feel about Arabs, like both of this.”  

Yet, inherent with this complication is fascination, said Korazim. She explained that Israeli writers are often enamored by Arabs. For some poets, the Arab becomes “the noble savage, dark and erotic,” said Korazim.  

In supporting this view, Korazim shared Agi Mishol’s poem, “Transistor Muezzin.” With its depiction of an Israeli woman and Arab man crouched over a fire discussing the following day’s activities, the poem possesses both biblical and lustful connotations, said Korazim.

Despite these literary representations, for many in Israel the perception of other has been reduced to a simplified understanding, explained Korazim.  

“The voice of the majority today won’t want to listen to this. I still want to listen to the voices.”  

Because of her desire to probe the complexities, Korazim has traveled with CWB throughout Pittsburgh to meet with listeners. Korazim has scheduled time to read various literary works with students and staff from Winchester Thurston School, Kiski Area High School, Sewickley Academy and Temple Sinai.  

Melissa Haviv, assistant director of programming for Classrooms Without Borders, claimed that the purpose of Korazim’s readings was to familiarize listeners with Israel.

“She brought us Israel. She spoke about living in Israel. It was about looking into the Israeli experience and bringing that to Pittsburgh.”  

Haviv also dismissed notions of using the event as a political platform.  

“Classrooms Without Borders is just about bringing Holocaust and Jewish education to the community. We’re very neutral in our politics.”  

For those in attendance, Korazim’s readings were met warmly.

“I loved the poems, they were beautiful,” said Janet Ocel, of Squirrel Hill.  

Maggie Levinson, of Squirrel Hill, was surprised how much she enjoyed the program.  

“I got an email about this; I had no idea they were doing a presentation like this. This is like thinking outside of the box.”  

Levinson explained: “I’m here to learn, to get a wider understanding and resonate hidden thoughts, things that are hard to express and the complexities that are hard to come to terms with.”  

Little more was asked of attendees.  

Following the program Korazim stated, “I hope that people took the ability to see the complexities, the multiple shades and voices.”

Adam Reinherz can be reached at

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