Perspectives: The Yale Journal on Israel and Palestine
"Hovering at a Low Altitude": An Analytical Attempt at Foot-Breadth
"She still has a few hours left.
But that’s hardly the object of my meditations.
My thoughts, soft as down, cushion me comfortably.
I’ve found a very simple method,
not so much as a foot-breadth on land
and not flying, either—
hovering at a low altitude."
—"Hovering at a Low Altitude," by Dahlia Ravikovitch
Dahlia Ravikovitch's most recognized poem, "Hovering at a Low Altitude", presents a crucial critique of Israeli society’s perception of itself. As a result, the poem has won its place in Israeli literature and political history, as a prominent reflection and a courageous example for society at large.
In a career that spanned over five decades, Dahlia Ravikovitch not only made an impression on Israeli culture, but also weathered and grew as a writer from the critical turning points of Israeli history. As part of the "Statehood Generation", she was among authors that inhabited a special sensitivity to Israeli affairs. The "Statehood Generation" was able to see beyond nationalism and contemplate the tragic situation Israel found itself in.
However, in the 1960s, many authors attempted to normalize the condition of Israelis, specifically normalizing war and military repression. Ravikovitch did not succumb to these tensions. She remained faithful to her sensitivity to the tragedies of Israel when many of her colleagues obscured their truths. Her sensitivity was suppressed during these years but not nonexistent, as demonstrated through her public presence.
The publishing of "Hovering at a Low Altitude" marked a dramatic turning point in Dahlia Ravikovitch's literary career and public persona, establishing her as one of Israel's leading voices of protest. She first submitted the poem to the periodical Hadarim in 1982, just five years after the sudden rise to power of insurgent right-wing politics – known in Hebrew as the Mahapakh – and just weeks before the outbreak of the First Lebanon War. The poem is a continuation of her protest against what she understood as the process of normalizing tragedy.
During the First Lebanon War, her poem became a popular protest against the war, included in a popular collection of poems called There's No End to the Battles and Slaughter: Political Poetry of the Lebanon War edited by Hannan Hever and Moshe Ron. Israeli society was torn apart by this war, which featured massive casualties and atrocities. Her poem seemed to resonate with thousands of protesters who feared an indifferent attitude would lead towards a savage society.
After the First Lebanon War in 1982, she dedicated herself to writing protest poetry, speaking on behalf of the suffering of the Palestinian Arabs. The poem was a turning point for her writing and Israeli literature at-large, as Ravikovitch challenged other Israeli-Jewish writers to amplify the voices of Palestinians. She made it a point to demonstrate it was not a stylistic choice but a moral imperative for writers like herself to oppose the increased militarism and nationalist political rhetoric.
The Witness: Deciding on Political Escapism
As part of the society committing the oppression, the witness may not uproot her home and physically escape, as she hopelessly suggests in the last stanza. Recognizing this, the poetic voice deliberately hovers over the reality, exempting the most horrific violence from the scrutiny of her morality. The hover is a physical presence superseded by a political escape.
This political escapism is only possible with the corruption of her morality, which must welcome the normalizing of rape and killing in order to suppress the political mind. By witnessing in inaction, she allows the oppression to determine the fate of the little girl and pervert the standards of her morality. Therefore, "hovering at a low altitude" is both permissive of destruction and complicit in destruction on two fronts: the little girl and the witness.
Still, the poetic voice has two options in the poem: hovering or foot-breadth. In the poem, foot-breadth is engaging with the indebtedness to one's land and recognizing the wrong committed by oppressive forces. Incorrectly, Professor Ilana Szobel identifies lines 59 through 62 as the third option, to physical getaway. However, in placing these lines right before the violence, Ravikovitch signals that there is no need to escape, to fly away. The violence captured in the poem is a well-known fact of reality; whether it is physically seen or not, the poetic voice is aware of its reality and will be a witness, regardless.
Therefore, Szobel's illustration of this as "a refusal of the option of escape" fails to do justice to the process of normalization exhibited in the entire poem. The witness cannot escape nor refuse to witness. That is not an option, as the witness is identified as an integral part of the process of violence. With such systemic oppression, the society may not act as if the violence done to the little Arab girl did not occur. Instead, they decide to normalize it, canceling their sensitivity to it.
Szobel continues, suggesting the poetic voice had the three options of "flying", "feet on the ground", and "hovering at a low altitude". Having established that the first was not an option, the poetic voice had the choice to place her feet on the ground. The poem does not provide insight into what this option may consequently have brought, however, any reader is well-aware of the moral equivalent of that violent world.
If the feet were on the ground, if the poetic voice and the society she represents were invested into the tragedies happening in the mountains, then the violence might be averted. It follows that the poetic voice through either option cannot deny complicity in the fate of the little girl; yet, one option allowed the poetic voice to confront it.
Guilt and Punishment
The poem challenges how we bear responsibility from witnessing by underlining the immorality of indifference. In "Unveiling Injustice: Dahlia Ravikovitch's Poetry of Witness", Szobel explains Ravikovitch writes out of a sense of guilt, knowing that in some way she is partaking in the wrongdoing. The poem emphasizes the perspective of the witness, signaling that Ravikovitch did not merely seek to illustrate the reality but also illustrate how we see our reality. The contradiction between morality and reality is the definition of immoral; thus, Ravikovitch is conveying the immorality of witnessing with inaction.
In lines 55 through 57, she exclaims that she is "above those savage mountain ranges" referring to inhabitants of Arab lands and the ongoing war. However, the reader should recognize how this indifference is superficial and how the action at play is in reality inaction. Thus, she is a part of the oppression because her forced indifference legitimizes the Israeli army's efforts; yet, she is a victim of the oppression because in normalizing it, she has corrupted her morality, making her quite indistinguishable from the "savage" in the poem.
This is further emphasized by line 58, which seems rather self-satirical. She states that there is "no need to elaborate", illustrating that if her "hovering" is to be effective she cannot contemplate the oppression. There is no need for self-reflection. There is a need for moral contemplation. And most importantly, no need to further recognize the little Arab girl. There is no need to approach her or to make an effort to understand her circumstances. The poetic voice positions herself on a false level of morality, one that frankly plays the role of a separation wall between her and the conflict.
Reflections on the Holocaust and the Witness
As part of Jewish literature, we cannot ignore the history that witnessing resurfaces in the Jewish language of persecution and genocide. Witnessing is ever-present in Anti-Semitic discrimination, most notably in the history of the Holocaust. The narrative of the Holocaust illustrates how witnessing with indifference can clear the path and legitimize the most hateful and vile regimes. The narrative presents how genocide, the destruction of a people, necessitates the indifference of witnessing.
One can suppose that with this poem Dahlia Ravikovitch wrote the action to the renowned piece by Martin Niemöller, "First they came...", present in countless monuments and ceremonies of remembrance. Niemöller and Ravikovitch both demonstrate that witnessing has the power to denounce or normalize oppression and violence; therefore, in order to maintain systemic oppression, witnessing must normalize it.
In their introduction to her collection of poetry, Chana Bloch and Chana Kornfeld write, "By voicing this disclaimer in first-person, Ravikovitch presents herself guilty of the same denial thereby enabling us to confront our own". Line 29, "I have seen worse things in my life", serves to legitimize the oppression and recusal from contesting it by affording it a comfortable position in the reality of Israeli society. However, its intended effect on the reader is the opposite; it is meant to instill discomfort in the reader.
For example, the reader should remember that "those savage mountain ranges" are part of biblical lands, and the fact that we are complicit to the violence unfolding in those lands stands in stark contradiction to our generational indebtedness to the land. Thus, Ravikovitch is asking if Jews have failed to lay "foot-breadth" on our land by assuming they may hover over the oppression that has settled in their reality.
In all, this poem is anti-beautification, elevating the evils of the society to debunk the "hover" of reluctant authors who do not confront their moral contradictions. Through beautification, these authors–or society at large–dilute the weight of their words and harm the literature and the culture's ability to legitimately confront society's most troubling questions.
As Ravikovitch says, "My role is to protest against the cheapening of words...". A pungent criticism, "Hovering at a Low Altitude" is exactly what Israeli literature needed in order to incite the literary discussion to engage with the drastic changes in political attitude unfolding during Menachem Begin's rise and fall from Prime Minister.
Nissim Roffe is a Senior from San Juan, Puerto Rico studying Political Science. He served as president of Yale Friends of Israel for the 2019-20 academic year. Beyond political science, he is interested in literature and a big fan of Dahlia Ravikovitch’s amazing poetry.