MURIEL: Muriel Rukeyser. An activist and poet, Jewish. Begins the play in her mid-thirties.
FRIEND 1: A friend of Muriel’s, any gender, Jewish.
FRIEND 2: Same as Friend 1.
FRIEND 3: An activist friend of Muriel’s, Black, any gender.
NEWSCASTER: A radio host, male.
PRIME MINISTER: A future nondescript Prime Minister of Israel, male.
A New York City apartment, May 14, 1948.
Morning. A large clock on the wall shows that the time is just past 9 AM. A group of thirtysomethings is huddled around a radio at the kitchen table. The young adults listen intently as a voice emerges out of the radio.
NEWSCASTER: We are receiving word that just after 4 PM Tel Aviv time, David Ben-Gurion, longtime leader of the Jewish people in Palestine, read a Declaration of Independence for a Jewish nation in Palestine to be named “Eretz Yisrael.” This land of Israel will certainly be welcomed by the many Jews across the world still seeking refuge after the fall of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime. We were able to access the radio broadcast of Mister Ben-Gurion reading this said Declaration, which we’ll play for you folks at home now.
(A shaky voice comes over the radio and begins speaking in Hebrew, reading the Declaration of Independence: “B-Eretz Yisrael kam ha’am ha’yehudit…”)
(The radio fades to white noise as FRIEND 1 turns the dial down low, but not all the way off.)
FRIEND 1: My, I never did think I would see the day.
FRIEND 2: It’s truly something of a miracle, isn’t it?
FRIEND 1: Yes, something of a miracle. And after all we’ve been through, a well-deserved miracle at that.
MURIEL: Well-deserved, yes. We have fought, of that there is no doubt. But they have fought tremendously more. In a time like this, one cannot help but think of the men and women in the Warsaw ghetto, weaponless against what must have seemed like the whole world, or the men and women moving freely in Russia, fleeing the pogroms. And now they, we, have Palestine. They have planted it, they are taking a fierce oath to never put down their arms.1
FRIEND 2: And I suspect they’ll never have a chance to.
FRIEND 1: How do you suppose?
FRIEND 2: I can’t imagine the Arabs are too pleased. From what I’ve heard, they think the land belongs to them, too.
MURIEL: This land can belong to many peoples if they choose to share. What matters most is the safety of a people long forced into hiding, death and discomfort. If someone is not pleased, they should know: since the beginning of time, the Jew has been equipped for fighting.2
(The stage lights fade, save for a single spotlight on the clock which rapidly ticks forward as MURIEL, FRIEND 1, and FRIEND 2 exit. The clock keeps ticking until it reaches midnight.)
(The volume of the radio increases slowly until the voice of the NEWSCASTER can be heard.)
NEWCASTER: We are receiving breaking news that in the early hours of the morning, the newly established State of Israel was attacked on all fronts by its neighbors in Iraq, Egypt, Syria, and the Emirate of Transjordan. Folks, this is coming just mere hours after this infant nation signed its Declaration of Independence. Not quite the neighborly welcome one might have hoped for, if you ask me. What we’re seeing here could be the beginning of a long, long war.
Curtain opens on the same apartment in 1967. The décor has been updated to fit the time period. The radio from the first scene now sits beside a small television. MURIEL and FRIEND 3 are seated around the kitchen table having an afternoon tea. The scene opens on them amid a heated discussion.
FRIEND 3: This war, Muriel. This war is something else. Yes, it lasted only six days. But really it’s been raging for twenty years. And I reckon it’ll keep raging unless people like us do something about it.
MURIEL: Do something? Sure, but what is there to do? We all want peace, of course. That is a given. But how does one find peace when the views on either side are so opposing?
FRIEND 3: This nation, too, suffers from a case of opposing views. But we don’t give up, do we? You were there with me, those thirty-odd years ago. You saw how they treated those boys, how they tore their lives to shreds.3 You saw how our two peoples came together then. Different, sure, in upbringing and skin color and the third. But unified still against the forces that tried to push us down. Don’t you remember?
MURIEL: Yes, I remember. Of course, I remember. But I can’t turn my back now on the nation of my people, and I don’t see why I should have to.
FRIEND 3: The nation of your people; it’s taking people’s lives. It’s instigating terror, it’s stealing people’s homes!
MURIEL: I think freely, my friend. This you know of me, I’m sure. But I must agree with the notice sent out by the Anti-Defamation League just this week warning of the anti-Semitic tones these words are holding.
FRIEND 3: It’s not anti-Semitic. It’s anti-colonialism. It’s anti-settlers and anti-oppression.
MURIEL: My people are fighters, my friend. What you see as colonialist, I see as land we have earned, and the earning was not easy, might I add. We have fought for so long for our freedom and we will continue to fight to maintain it. Such is our existence.
FRIEND 3: My people have to fight, too. You know this. You fought alongside us then, but you fight against me now on this issue.
MURIEL: I don’t see any reason to not stand my ground on this.
(FRIEND 3 pauses and stares long and hard at MURIEL. The stare is not one of disdain or hatred, but certainly one of concern and hurt. Slowly, but assuredly, and even slightly maliciously, they deliver the next line:)
Beat out continuance in the choking veins
before emotion betrays us, and we find
staring behind our faces, accomplices of death.
Not to die, but slowly to validate our lives.4
MURIEL: (Taken aback, but not necessarily offended; intrigued.) Why recite my own lines to me? I know what I’ve said. You think that I’m ignorant or turning a blind eye. I assure you, my friend, that I am doing neither. I understand the issues you are raising; I see where you are coming from. But I ask you this: would you not do anything, have you not done everything, for the safety of your people?
(A beat. FRIEND 3 looks sadly upon their companion.)
FRIEND 3: (Poignantly)
How did they wish, grandparents of these wars,
what cataracts of ambition fell across their brains?5
(This line hangs in the air, and, for a moment, neither of them speaks or moves. After a moment MURIEL leans back in her chair and smiles. This smile is not condescending, nor is it of happiness. Rather, it comes from a bliss of making peace with the fact that the conversation has no easy conclusion.)
FRIEND 3: (Sighs) I love you, Muriel, and I always will. But someone has changed. Is it you, or is it I?
MURIEL: (still smiling) Neither of us has changed, my friend. (She takes a sip of her tea.)
The world has.
An imagined future, sometime in the future, perhaps one hundred years, perhaps a thousand. Setting is the Jewish afterlife, Olam HaBaa (translation: the world to come), which is neither heaven nor hell. Many well-known Jewish figures are present, including PRIME MINISTER. He and MURIEL are in conversation when the scene begins.
MURIEL: So, I am to understand, Mister Prime Minister, that the war really did continue all those years after my passing? I was certain at some point they would cede to us and realize that this nation can fight, and will fight, for eternity.
PRIME MINISTER: No, motek, if anything the violence only got worse during my time leading our people. Wars and bombs coming from every direction, without my push for retaliation, we would never have survived.
MURIEL: So, whatever happened? How did it all end? Was a ceasefire reached or was the land split into two?
PRIME MINISTER: (laughing) No, no, neither of those. No negotiation would ever work for the Arabs. They always wanted more, always wanted to take what was rightfully ours. I would never allow it, I could never allow it. My people looked to me to defend the land we fought for so diligently for so many years.
(MURIEL nods in listening rather than agreement.)
PRIME MINISTER: No, the only way to keep ourselves safe was to get rid of them, once and for all.
(A beat. MURIEL looks taken aback)
MURIEL: Get rid of them?
PRIME MINISTER: Of course! They wouldn’t relent and they wouldn’t negotiate. So, I pulled some strings. Called my allies; you know, the US and Russia, all the big players. I made the arrangements, and finally, after years of torment, it was done. We were free at last.
MURIEL: But, what do you mean?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, we flattened them. Every last one of them. Every Palestinian town and village, every last man, woman, and child. We wanted to spare some, of course, but at some point, it became too much of a danger to let any stick around. So, we obliterated them.
MURIEL: (in disbelief) I … I don’t understand. Millions of lives, gone in an instant?
PRIME MINISTER: You must understand, Muriel. It was either us or them. Had we not done it to them, they would have done it to us.
MURIEL: All the blood spilled…I cannot comprehend such an atrocity. Generations wiped out, a native people erased from history.
PRIME MINISTER: Well, Muriel. (He smiles coyly.) Whenever you are fighting for that which you believe in, the blood is justified.
(Exit PRIME MINISTER. The lights dim halfway. MURIEL stands alone in the center of the stage, facing the audience directly. She muses on these last words, a hopeless sense of knowing creeping up on her. For a moment, she appears as though she may cry, but she holds her chin up strongly to counter it. She falls to her knees, head in her hands. The stage goes black.)
Notes for “The Blood Is Justified”
1. This passage is adapted directly from Rukeyser’s essay for the “Under Forty” feature in a 1944 issue of Contemporary Jewish Record.
2. See note 1.
3. The Scottsboro Boys.
4. This is the opening stanza to Rukeyser’s own poem “The Blood is Justified” (68).
5. These lines are excerpted from later in Rukeyser’s poem “The Blood Is Justified” (70).
A critical self-reflection on “The Blood Is Justified”
On May 14, 1948, nearly three years after the end of the Second World War and the liberation of the Jewish death camps, the Israeli Declaration of Independence was signed. This monumental event was seen at the time as a much-needed establishment of safety for Jewish people after the extermination of more than six million European Jews. The establishment of a Jewish state was celebrated by Jews and gentiles alike around the world, but excitement quickly turned to fear and urgency when the infant nation was attacked by its neighboring countries the very next day. So began a tumultuous battle between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians/Arab non-Jews, a battle which continues to rage on today some seventy years later. At the beginning of this conflict, diaspora Jews and liberal activists alike were in agreement that Israel’s existence was integral to protecting the Jewish nation from further harm. This support could be seen particularly within student activist communities at the time who were embroiled in combatting racism and anti-Semitism nationally and globally. Jewish students found the intersection of issues surrounding racism against Black Americans and anti-Semitism to be of particular concern, as the two seemed to be intrinsically linked in the 1930s and 1940s. As Britt Haas writes in her book Fighting Authoritarianism, “[I]n the 1930s, concerns about racism extended not only to African Americans but to Jews as well, and in this more comprehensive view of race relations, youth activists’ internationalist perspective was manifest” (77). The understanding amongst student activists that Jews were a targeted minority both domestically and abroad surely played into the desire and support for a Jewish state in Palestine.
It was several decades before the tide within some liberal communities began to change. In 1967, a vicious six-day war erupted between Israeli armed forces and neighboring Arab states, with many in liberal circles seeing Israel as the instigator of the violence. According to Howard Brick and Christopher Phelps in their book Radicals in America, “As Israel [in 1967] occupied the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, many radicals […] objected to Israel’s dispossession of Palestinian Arabs and described Israel as a ‘settler-colonialist’ state in a U.S.-dominated imperialist world system” (239). However, while some facets of the liberal American movements began to shift their tone regarding Israel’s presence in Palestine, “many American Jews saw Israel’s vulnerability as the war’s main lesson, leading to stronger identification with Israel” (239). Brick and Phelps go on to note that “[m]ainline Jewish groups […] typically labeled American Jews who criticized Israel’s suppression of Palestinian rights as ‘self-hating’ and other critics simply as anti-Semitic” (239). As I previously established, young Jews made up a strong section of activist communities, so this tension between criticism and unwavering support for the Israeli government put many Jewish liberals in an uncomfortable position in which two of their core values were in direct conflict with one another.
As both a Jewish woman and a student at the time that fascism and Nazism had a stronghold in Europe, it is thus inevitable[ED1] that poet and activist Muriel Rukeyser would find herself in the middle of this above-mentioned dichotomy. Rukeyser, born in 1913, though admittedly more of a cultural Jew than a religious one, was in a unique position to use her writing to address issues of oppression. In her 1944 piece for the Contemporary Jewish Record, immediately after she admiringly mentions “the men and women, planting Palestine and taking a fierce oath never to put down their arms,” she muses:
To me, the value of my Jewish heritage, in life and in writing, is its value as a guarantee. Once one’s responsibility as a Jew is really assumed, one is guaranteed, not only against fascism, but against many kinds of temptation to close the spirit. It is a strong force in oneself against many kinds of hardness which may arrive in the war- the idea that when you throw off insight, you travel light and are equipped for fighting; the ideas that it is impractical to plan and create, and that concrete and invention are the only practical things, apart from killing. (Statement 9)
In this passage, notably written toward the end of the Second World War and only a few years before the establishment of the State of Israel, Rukeyser suggests that being Jewish necessitates an inherent desire to fight back against oppressive forces. She likewise emphasizes the importance not of having an established plan or means to an end, but of taking advantage of the opportunity to establish and build wherever it may present itself. This stance seems to be somewhat at odds with positions Rukeyser previously took surrounding the justification of practicing Colonialism as a means of obtaining land or comfort.
Rukeyser’s anti-colonialist sentiments can be best seen in her poem sequence “The Blood Is Justified,” which was published as a part of her 1935 book of poetry Theory of Flight. This book and sequence of poems directly addresses the case of the Scottsboro Nine, which Rukeyser herself witnessed and reported on as young journalist and by which she was, of course, deeply disturbed. Though this poem is responding to the injustices imposed upon Native Americans at the hands of white colonialist Americans, the parallels between the language she uses in the poem and her Zionist rhetoric in later years is uncanny. From the very first stanza, Rukeyser expresses her deep discomfort with the brutality of treatment that Natives faced. She opens:
Beat out continuance in the choking veins
before emotion betrays us, and we find
staring behind our faces, accomplices of death.
Not to die, but slowly to validate our lives[.] (Collected 68)
In these opening lines, Rukeyser is expressing what must be interpreted as white guilt, noting her anxiety at looking too far inward at her white lineage and finding something sinister, some “accomplices of death.”
By the third stanza, Rukeyser is addressing head-on the issue of stolen and misappropriated artefacts, writing:
Living they move on a canvas of centuries
restored from death in artful poses, found
once more by us, descendants, foraging,
ravelling time back over American ground.
How did they wish, grandparents of these wars,
what cataracts of ambition fell across their brains? (69)
The final two lines of this stanza are especially notable when comparing this poem to more modern anti-Zionist sentiments in that they address the ways in which ancestors’ decisions can haunt the consciences of later generations. She further acknowledges this type of generational trauma towards the end of the poem:
My generation feeds
the wise assault on your anticipation,
repeating historic sunderings, betraying our fathers,
all parricidal in our destinies. (70)
Her poignant mention of parricide, or the killing of a parent, can be understood as referring both to the killing of generations beforehand by white settlers as well as the shame a parent may feel at their child’s “radical” opinions. The poem overall uses imagery of bloodshed, death, and mutilation that is meant to unsettle its audience in such a way that makes the support of something like Native genocide or oppression nearly impossible. The title itself, “The Blood is Justified,” is Rukeyser’s cheeky way of communicating that no amount of land or wealth or pride is worth the lives of others.
Rukeyser maintained a complicated relationship with Zionism throughout her lifetime, given that she, at different points in her life, felt different levels of connection with her Jewish identity, all the while retaining a commitment to combatting white supremacy and injustice. Her mother claimed lineage from the first-century Jewish scholar Akiba, and her 1968 poem entitled “Akiba” addresses the events that were unfolding in the disputed territory at the time. The poem details a brief history of the Jews in the Middle East, and Rukeyser compares them to other persecuted minorities throughout history:
Those at flaming Nauvoo,
the ice on the great river: the escaping Negroes,
swamp and wild city: the shivering children of Paris
In interpreting this comparison, it is clear that Rukeyser is aware of the damage done by anti-Native ideologies of generations past, but she is unable to transitively and preemptively apply those same sentiments to issues regarding native Palestinians. Since she passed away in 1980, it’s important to note that a vast majority of American Jews of the time, liberal or not, were still supportive of the actions of the Israeli government. However, in the nearly forty years since her passing, the discourse around Zionism within liberal Jewish diasporic communities has shifted greatly, with a much higher percentage of this group identifying less with Zionist ideals. This shift in understanding when taken in tandem with Rukeyser’s own personal beliefs about oppression begs the question: If she were alive today, would Muriel Rukeyser still be a Zionist?
In my creative project, a play entitled “The Blood Is Justified,” I seek to show Muriel, a fictional interpretation of Rukeyser, grappling with and understanding Zionism at three different stages. A play was the most natural option to tackle this daunting subject not only because it was one of Rukeyser’s media of choice, but also because the format of a staged play allows for movement through time as well as the suspension of disbelief, thus allowing for themes and settings both fictional and fantastical. The first scene shows Muriel as a young woman hearing about the establishment of the State of Israel in real-time. For this moment of triumph for the Jewish people, which took place within Rukeyser’s lifetime, I lift much of her dialogue directly from her own writing. Since the specific passages used were written in 1944, less than five years prior to the signing of the Declaration of Independence in Israel, I find it safe to assume that the sentiments she expressed in her writing would be consistent with what she felt on that day. The arguable hypocrisy of these sentiments is apparent when compared with Rukeyser’s own words regarding the damaging effects of intruding on Native spaces, as seen in the next scene.
The second scene moves nearly twenty years into the future and features Muriel in conversation with a friend of hers from the activist community. It is noted in the character descriptions that this friend is Black, which helps to incorporate Brick and Phelps’ comments regarding the closeness of many young Black and Jewish activists during the Civil Rights Movement. This friend is frustrated that Muriel does not see the indiscretions being committed against Palestinians by Israel, and their argument comes to a head when the friend directly quotes Muriel’s own poem “The Blood Is Justified” to her. I include this section to highlight the inconsistencies of the real Rukeyser’s opinions surrounding this subject matter; her early statements on the brutal treatment of Native Americans directly contradicts her justifications for a Jewish state in Israel/Palestine. In the play, when her friend again uses her own words to gently acknowledge her lack of insight, she can only accept the criticism, but not really respond to it.
Finally, the last scene is set in the afterlife in some future, near or distant, and puts Muriel in eager conversation with a nondescript future Prime Minister of Israel. She is excited to learn what solution to the conflict between Israel and Palestine was finally achieved, only to be appalled when it is revealed that total destruction of Palestine was the method eventually used to achieve “peace.” When she asks how such a horrendous act could be committed, the Prime Minister sinisterly replies that “the blood is justified,” leading to a moment of tormented clarity for Muriel.
I feel it is important to note that, with this project, I am in no way suggesting that Rukeyser or any self-identified Zionist is abhorrent, evil, or ignorant. The final scene is inspired by what I believe may unfortunately be the outcome of the conflict in Israel, especially when the nation is led by neo-fascists such as Bibi Netanyahu, upon whom the character of the Prime Minister is based. Rather, my goal in engaging with this project is to shed light on the holes in the arguments of some Zionists, specifically ones within liberal and activist communities. The parallels between the ways Rukeyser describes the tragedy of the genocide of Native peoples in her poem “The Blood Is Justified” and the modern discourse surrounding Zionism and Israel are simply uncanny. In the end, there is, of course, no way to know how Rukeyser would align herself regarding this issue were she alive today, but one can only hope that the sympathies extended to Native Americans would be justly extended to native Palestinians as well.
Brick, Howard and Christopher Phelps. “Over the Rainbow, 1980-1989.” Radicals in America:
The U.S. Left since the Second World War.Cambridge UP, 2016,pp. 238-239.
Haas, Britt. “The Scottsboro Boys: Demands for Equality from the Deep South to New York
City.” Fighting Authoritarianism: American Youth Activism in the 1930s. Fordham UP,
2017, pp. 61-81. ProQuest Ebook Central.
Rukeyser, Muriel. The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser. Edited by Janet E. Kaufman and
Anne Herzog with Jan Heller-Levi, U of Pittsburgh P, 2006.
Rukeyser, Muriel. Statement for “Under Forty: A Symposium on American Literature and the
Younger Generation of American Jews.” Contemporary Jewish Record, vol. 7, no. 1
(Feb. 1, 1944), pp. 3-9.
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