Israel Prize laureate Haim Gouri dies at 94

Surrounded by his family, Gouri died at his home in Jerusalem in the pre-dawn hours of Wednesday morning.

Israeli poet Haim Gouri (photo credit: CRIS BOURONCLE / AFP)
Israeli poet Haim Gouri
(photo credit: CRIS BOURONCLE / AFP)
It was ironic that cultural icon and Israel Prize laureate Haim Gouri, a celebrated poet, journalist, author and filmmaker, should die in the week of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, in the month of the 70th anniversary of the killing of the Lamed-Hey, the 35-member Hagana convoy in whose memory he wrote a poem; and in the year of the 70th anniversary of the State of Israel, for which he fought in war and in peace.
Gouri died surrounded by family at his Jerusalem home before dawn on Wednesday. As his life waned, they sang the song for which he is best known, “Hare’ut” (“The Comradeship”), and although Gouri was already in a state of confusion, he managed to join in, one of his daughters told Army Radio.
A friend and comrade in arms of Yitzhak Rabin, Gouri was the late premier’s favorite poet, and “Hare’ut,” written as a poem in 1949 in memory of those killed in battle in the War of Independence, and set to music by Sasha Argov, was Rabin’s favorite song. The song was adopted as an anthem for IDF memorial events. It has ranked close behind “Jerusalem of Gold” in popularity. Radio stations played it on Wednesday following the announcement of Gouri’s death.
Another of his hymnal songs composed in that period, and strongly identified with singer Yaffa Yarkoni, was “Bab el-Wad,” about the valley on the road to Jerusalem known in Hebrew as Sha’ar Hagai, and the battles fought there to supply the besieged city during the War of Independence.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu eulogized Gouri during a Knesset speech as a “hybrid warrior and poet.”
Born in Tel Aviv in October 1923, Gouri studied at the Kadoorie Agricultural High School, where Rabin also went to school. Both later joined the Palmah and became commanders. Gouri participated in the bombing of a British radar station that was tracking ships carrying “illegal” immigrants to the Land of Israel.
In 1947, he was sent to Hungary to help such immigrants, all of them Holocaust survivors and mostly youth, to reach the Promised Land.
Part of his first published collection of prose, Till Dawn (1950), relates to what he experienced in the company of these survivors. This initial relationship with survivors remained stamped on his psyche, and was reinforced well over a decade later when, as a journalist, he covered the Eichmann trial.
On his return from Hungary, he was appointed deputy commander of the Palmah’s Negev Brigade.
He later fought in the Six Day War in 1967, and the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Last July, Gouri, together with members of his family, revisited all the places in which he had fought.
His final battle together with other former Palmahniks was to prevent the establishment of a memorial to assassinated tourism minister and far-right politician Rehavam Ze’evi at Sha’ar Hagai, where members of the Harel Brigade were killed in action during the War of Independence. Ze’evi, though he had a distinguished military career, including service in the Palmah’s Yiftah Brigade, had not been a member of the Harel Brigade. Palmah and Harel veterans believed that it would be a disservice to the memories of their slain comrades to have a memorial to Ze’evi at this site, and they succeeded in their campaign.
Gouri’s coverage of Adolf Eichmann’s 1961 trial also led to a book, Facing the Glass Booth: The Jerusalem Trial of Adolf Eichmann (1962), and to a documentary film, The 81st Blow (1974), based on the testimony of a witness who told of Michael Goldman-Gilad, a survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau, who survived 80 lashes. The 81st lash was after he arrived in Israel, after spending time in a detention camp in Cyprus. When he told his story, he was not believed – and that was the 81st lash. Although Goldman-Gilad, a police officer and member of the Yad Vashem Council, was involved with preparations for the Eichmann trial, he did not testify.
A PASSIONATE ZIONIST, Gouri, in an address on Zionist Ideology and National Strength that he gave in 1998, said: “The main thing is the sense of the rightness of the way.... Without a sense of the rightness of the way, there is also no military strength.”
In an interview that gave to Nir Baram that was published in Haaretz in January 2007, Gouri said: “When I’m asked nowadays how I define my identity, I say that I am an Israeli. Up until 1948 I had defined myself as a Hebrew, but in 1948 Hebrewness became Israeliness, and this state of being includes all the generations of the Jewish people in all their incarnations and all the incarnations of the land which has changed owners.
“I see a great deal of damage in the solidification of religion as an established and coercive force. The separation of religion and state could have saved Hebrew culture. It hurts me that the Bible, which had been the flagship of secular Israel, has become in the minds of many of our children a text that belongs to ‘the dossim [Orthodox Jews].’ This is serious damage.
“In my opinion it is necessary to establish an overarching Israeli identity that will suit both a child from Colombia who was born and has grown up here and speaks Hebrew and is connected to us, and a Jew from Russia about whose Jewishness there are doubts. A people that was persecuted because of its identity and language should not be taking a crushing approach toward others in its country,” he said.
“We have to strengthen Israeli identity, and it can’t be that people who live here and want to become part of us are simply distanced by the religious or national mechanisms. Israel needs to examine how to transform the concept of Israeli into something that is also a place of cooperation among people who are different,” Gouri said.
PRESIDENT REUVEN RIVLIN, speaking from Greece on Tuesday, called Gouri “the national poet of our times, a national symbol and a source of national pride.” Rivlin said that Gouri was one of the people who had influenced him both in their personal discussions and through his writings.
Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev tweeted that she was heartbroken to learn of Gouri’s death. Gouri was one of the great poets of the era of 1948 and was among those who “accompanied the rebirth of our people in our land,” she wrote.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett tweeted that the education network mourns Gouri, “who left a legacy of ‘we’ and not just ‘I.’” Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman tweeted that Gouri had left a valuable heritage. Relating to “Hare’ut” not only as a poem but as something that has stood the test of time and will continue to do so, Liberman emphasized that it was incumbent on all of us to preserve it.
Gouri is survived by his wife, Aliza, their three daughters, Yael, Noa and Hamutal, and six grandchildren.
Rivlin, who returned from a state visit to Greece on Wednesday night, canceled all his arrangements for Thursday in order to attend the funeral of Gouri and to eulogize him.
Gouri’s body will lie in state on Thursday morning at the Jerusalem Theater, which is close to his home. Rivlin will deliver a eulogy there at noon. The funeral will take place at 1.30 p.m. at the capital’s Har Hamenuhot Cemetery.