WASHINGTON (JTA) — Three weeks after American voters elected Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi found a friendly ear in another politician mourning a loss.
During the first weekend of December 2016, Pelosi was a guest at the Saban Forum, an annual convening of Israeli and American political and national security leaders.
Then the Democratic minority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, Pelosi was seated at a table in the ballroom of the stately Willard Hotel next to Isaac Herzog, effectively her counterpart then as the leader of the Labor Party and the Israeli opposition.
Pelosi was contemplating the prospect of four years serving with a president whom she reviled, and who had lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton. Herzog commiserated, having lost an election 18 months earlier to Benjamin Netanyahu, after multiple polls had shown Herzog in the lead.
The conversation soon turned to literature, and Herzog whispered in Pelosi’s ear.
“What is that all about?” an aide to Pelosi recalled asking one of her colleagues.
Pelosi was soon scribbling on a napkin.
It was a line from an Israeli poem: “My country has changed its face, I have no other country,” she wrote. Four years later, Pelosi would recite it on the House floor after a deadly raid on the Capitol.
Back in 2016, Pelosi was transfixed to the point of obsession. She wanted to know more and instructed an aide to get Herzog to send her the full poem, along with background on its author.
This account is based on interviews with aides close to Pelosi, who is now the House Speaker, and to Herzog, who is now the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel. The account was first relayed to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency from someone close to Pelosi, and confirmed by Herzog’s office.
Herzog did not immediately reply, so Pelosi instructed her aides to noodge, more than once. In May of 2017, Herzog replied. He sent her the poem, “I have no other country,” and explained that it was written by an Israeli poet, Ehud Manor, in 1982 and put to music by Corinne Allal.
The verse that touched Pelosi was the second: “I will not be silent now that my country has changed her face, I will not refrain from reminding her and singing here in her ear, until she opens her eyes.”
It was recorded in 1986 by Gali Atari and came to be identified with opposition to the first Lebanon War, although Manor had written about his young brother, a soldier who was killed during the War of Attrition.
It was, Herzog told Pelosi, a song to soothe a crisis of faith in one’s country, whatever one’s political colors. The Israeli left used it to grieve the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995; the right used it to grieve the evacuation of settlers from the Gaza Strip a decade later.
Pelosi held fast to the song, thanking Herzog for sharing it with her the next time they met when Pelosi led a congressional delegation to Israel in March 2018. She cited the song repeatedly in conversations and in closed caucus meetings during the leadup last year to Trump’s first impeachment.
“She was very taken with it,” an aide told JTA.
She mentioned it in a speech last year to J Street, the liberal Jewish Middle East policy group, a moment that might have been dismissed as scripted by one of her Jewish advisors.
“Especially during this sad time, I recall the words of the great Israeli poet, Ehud Manor, and that’s what he said when he said, ‘I can’t keep silent in light of how my country has changed her face, won’t quit trying to remind her. In her ears, I’ll sing my cries until she opens her eyes,’” she said.
“‘I can’t keep silent of how my country has changed her face,’” Pelosi repeated. “I urge my Republican colleagues to open their eyes and to finally hold this president accountable.”