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Sunday, May 20, 2007

Open to interpretation

One of the most shocking things I learned in High School English class was that there was no single 'correct' way to interpret a poem.

I found it terribly unsettling that a poet could spend time crafting a poem with a very clear and specific meaning in mind... only to have a reader take from it something completely different.  I remember voicing this objection to my teacher, only to have her provide the following response:

"David, while you are in the process of writing a poem, it belongs only to you and it means only what you intend it to mean.  But the moment you release it out into the world, you no longer control its meaning.  Not only that, but the very worst thing that a poet can do is to try to defend a rigid interpretation of his/her work after it has been published.  When people ask "Did you mean 'x'...?" about any aspect of a poem, the smartest thing a poet can do is to smile cryptically and reply, "That's one way to interpret it.""

To be honest, I retained very few of the academic lessons from my high school days [cough], but I somehow managed to hold onto this particularly unsatisfying one.  It is one of the main reasons I choose not to write short posts here that could be left to each reader to decipher.  If anything, I tend to bludgeon the reader with so much information and direction that he/she can't help but receive the meaning I intend.

A perfect example of the inherent dangers of brevity can be found in what seemed (to me) to be a very straightforward slogan used by the Israeli right during the struggle over disengagement: "Yehudi lo migaresh yehudi" (Translation: A Jew doesn't exile a Jew"). 

I found this to be an extremely clear and powerful sentiment, and was pleased to see it used on bumper stickers since, to me, it spoke to the very core of the tragedy of the internecine nastiness over disengagement.  After all the centuries during which Jews had been exiled from one place after another by non-Jews, how could any of us be so callous about throwing fellow Jews from their homes and land?  Surely there had to have been a gentler, less confrontational way to approach the issue of shifting borders and redrawing battle lines... of consolidating land and securing vulnerable population centers for the common good! 

To my way of reading it, "'Yehudi lo migaresh yehudi" asked the reader in the most simple and eloquent way how it was possible that we were treating each other in a manner so reminiscent of our worst treatment at the hands of the non-Jewish nations?

But it wasn't more than a few days after this slogan began appearing on bumper stickers that I began hearing a completely different interpretation.  Many from Israel's left interpreted "'Yehudi lo migaresh yehudi" to mean that the Israeli right considered it perfectly OK to exile non-Jews from their land and homes... but not Jews.

I was flabbergasted!

Not only was the concept of population transfer (a delicate, deliberately-obfuscating term for ethnic cleansing),  a very divisive discussion on the political right, but even some of the political thinkers on the left had voiced support for limited land swaps and population transfers in the past.  In short, this was not even remotely a right wing platform... and it certainly wasn't the sentiment that the slogan "'Yehudi lo migaresh yehudi" had been intended to convey!

Yet there it was.  Once it had been released out into the world, a sizable portion of the population who were predisposed to assume the most sinister motivation to anything emanating from 'the other side' had interpreted the slogan according to their own world-view. 

This past week Allison Kaplan Sommer drew my attention to a a brilliant poster created by a very talented artist.  I found it brilliant because the artist had managed (using very few words) to sum up my frustration with the world's morbid fascination with Israel... a fascination out of all proportion to Israel's role on the world stage or what might be going on elsewhere.

Amongst decades of brutal civil wars, genocide, ethnic cleansing, only Israel seemed to have been singled out for the world's attention and censure.  A newcomer to the scene could be forgiven for assuming from the resolutions issued by the United Nations over the past 40 years, that the U.N. had been created to deal only with the middle east conflict in general, and Israel specifically.

This poster's concise wisdom read:

"Right now entire villages in Darfur are being murdered.  But please, keep talking about Israel."

I understood this to be a criticism of individuals and organizations around the world who continued to focus negative attention on Israel's real or perceived violations of human rights while ignoring large-scale genocide in places like Darfur.

But once I'd published the poster here on treppenwitz, the lesson I'd learned so well in high school English class once again came into play.

Some treppenwitz readers took one look at the poster and understood it to be a self- criticism of those of us who spend so much time protesting Israel's victimization, for not having expended our energies on highlighting other [real] victims in the world. 

Others seemed to find in the poster a message that we should concentrate on only one problem at a time and asked why we couldn't discuss Israel AND Darfur? 

Still others found the poster to be a springboard to criticize the world's relative silence over the belligerent behavior of the Palestinians in Gaza towards Israel... as if the world wasn't talking enough about Israel's victimization!

Graphic artists such as Idan are indeed modern-day poets, but I don't envy them the lack of control they have of their message once it is published.  I'll stick to beating readers over the head with plodding, heavy-handed prose thankyouverymuch!  :-)


Posted by David Bogner on May 20, 2007 | Permalink


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» Some Of Mark's Readers MissThe Mark At Missing The Mark from Knockin' On The Golden Door
My post, Missing The Mark, seems to have been misinterpreted, as it was at Treppenwitz. David Bogner has published an explanation of the poster's meaning, which is exactly as I took it when I first saw it and why I... [Read More]

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» Thats one interpretation from pixane
David of Treppenwitz fame has written a lovely analysis of the response to my Darfur post(er?), which I would have written myself if I was not such a lazy bum, or if well. Better that he wrote it, anyways. Mine would just have been an acerbic, s... [Read More]

Tracked on May 20, 2007 5:43:56 PM


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Well, I most definitely took as meaning that there are too many people criticizing Israel for imagined crimes against the "Palestinian" Arabs when there are very real and horrific crimes against humanity occurring in Darfur that those same people, as well as the rest of the world, should be focusing on.

It was pretty clear to me from the gate, but you are correct in your analysis about how things can be interpreted in so many different ways.

Posted by: Mark | May 20, 2007 4:55:30 PM

As I wrote here:


when someone saw the "yehudi lo megaresh yehudi" sticker, they said, "I thought it was the Catholics that don't divorce..."

Posted by: Dave (Balashon) | May 20, 2007 5:38:03 PM

Hey David,

Nice post. :)

I wrote a response, here.


Posted by: Idan | May 20, 2007 5:50:19 PM

Brevity is a virtue - the vice is in infusing ones own agenda into the author's intended meaning. Your English teacher was a schmuck (by which of course I mean, your teacher is a real gem).

Posted by: Bob | May 20, 2007 10:11:29 PM

Unreal! I guess irony is lost on some dunderheads. Perhaps Idan's next poster should say something like this: "Right now, entire villages in Darfur are being murdered, while you !@#$%^&* idiots insist on talking and talking about the 'illegal sale' of one house in Hebron! HEL-LOOO!" (Of course, that's not quite as clever as Idan's original poster, but I guess you can't have everything.)

Posted by: psachya | May 21, 2007 7:56:59 AM

Here's a poem for you to interpret:

V'hayah ish u-sh'mo Nuchum.
V'hu lo hayah talmid chuchum.
Hu m'tzacheik im ha-beitzim,
U shalakh chazak eitzel ha-eitzim,
V'anachnu omrim "Keil Malei Ruch'mim."

Posted by: Elisson | May 21, 2007 6:35:58 PM

It's pretty hard to NOT interpret "YLMY" as "Yehudi Ken Megaresh Aravi" when all over Jerusalem YLMY stickers go up on the street signs in the carefully-picked position to precisely obliterate the Arabic name of the street.

Posted by: Alan | May 22, 2007 7:09:43 PM

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