Suddenly, the Sight of War
Violence and Nationalism in Hebrew Poetry in the 1940s
Hannan Hever



suddenly we saw the sight of war
like gypsy life, joined with a rope and a stake,
the freedom and urgency of the journey,
vessels and law, all naked.

Nathan Alterman, “Overnight” (“Leil hanaya,” 1957)

Until the 1920s, modern Hebrew poetry included little representation of war. Of course, we find the Song of Deborah in the Bible, and a prominent figure of medieval times was Shmuel Hanagid (Samuel ibn Naghrillah, 993–1056), a military leader and commander, poet and Talmudic scholar, who would send his poems of war to his sons from the battlefield as he stood at the head of the army of Granada. War can be found also in the poetry of Judah Leib Gordon (1830–92), the leading poet of the Hebrew Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) period of the nineteenth century, who described the fall of the Second Temple in Jerusalem to Titus’s Roman legions in his grand poem “Between the Lion’s Teeth” (“Bein shiney arayot”).

Hebrew literature, which usually dealt with the lives of the Jews and the dilemmas preoccupying them, made little mention of wars. Jewish life during two thousand years of exile, which distanced Jews from full participation in the political life—and in the wars—of the nations they lived in, did not give rise to war poetry. Even when Jews did join the army, as in czarist Russia, it did not amount to participating in Jewish wars and therefore was hardly represented in the Hebrew poetry. Indeed, when Shmuel Hanagid wrote war poems it was from the perspective of a leading statesman of the kingdom of Granada; and when J. L. Gordon wrote about Jewish warriors it was from the political perspective of the Haskalah, critical of the weakness of the exilic Jew, who would rather study Torah than strengthen his body in preparation for enlisting in the national struggle of the Jews during their sovereign existence in the Second Temple period.

The Chibbat Zion (“Lovers of Zion”) poetry that developed in eastern Europe in the 1880s began to show interest in the violence of war only when it became territorial poetry, that is, poetry written in Eretz-Israel (“The Land of Israel,” the name given to the land of Palestine/Zion prior to the establishment of the State of Israel). The poet Naftali Herz Imber (1856–1909), who wrote “The Hope” (“Hatikvah”), the poem adopted as the anthem of the Zionist movement and then as the State of Israel’s national anthem, arrived in Palestine/Eretz-Israel in 1882, during the wave of Jewish immigration to Palestine which Zionist historiography calls the First Aliyah (1881–1904). In “The Guard of the Jordan” (“Mishmar ha-yarden”), Imber wrote the lines, “A sword hath the Lord and our country / by the Jordan there lies our citadel,”1 arousing among his readers a fear of the reaction by the Ottoman authorities, who were liable to see this as the expression of a Jewish aspiration to conquer the country by force.

In eastern Europe Chibbat Zion poetry was followed by the “Revival” poetry led by H. N. Bialik (1873–1934), which also generally avoided the theme of war. An exception from this period was the poem “Song of the Hooligans” (“Shir ha-bir-yonim”), by Yaakov Kahan (1881–1960), which, again, commemorated the heroism of the zealots who fought against the Romans in the battle to defend Jerusalem of the Second Temple. From the beginning of the twentieth century, during the “Second Aliyah” period (1904–14), a center of Hebrew literature started to burgeon in Palestine, then still under Ottoman rule. Central figures in this stream were Yosef Haim Brenner (1881–1921) and eventual Nobel laureate Shmuel Yosef Agnon (1887–1970). In this new center, poetry took second place to prose, which spread in the form of works that remain staples of the Hebrew literary canon to this day. Modernism was a relatively minor influence in the poetry of the Second Aliyah, finding expression mainly in impressionistic poetics and in the idylls of David Shimonovitz-Shimoni (1891–1956). At this early stage of this poetry, the subject matter of war was almost entirely absent, with the exception of, for example, Shimoni’s idyll “The War of Judah and the Galilee” (“Milchemet yehuda ve-hagalil”), which includes a light and comic parody on the theme of war. On the other hand, prominent in prose and nonfiction writing was the theme of the Hebrew guardsmen who had fallen in the line of duty while defending the small Jewish community in Palestine/Eretz-Israel (the “Yishuv”) from the local Arabs, who, seeing the Jews as foreign invaders, had attacked them violently.

All of this changed beyond recognition as modernism blossomed in Hebrew literature. Together with the intensification of the Zionist territorialization process in Palestine and the development of the Jewish Yishuv under British Mandate rule from 1917, the violence of war became a legitimate topic in Hebrew poetry. Among the immigrants during the “Third Aliyah” period (1918–23) were also poets immersed in the European avant-garde. Central among them were such figures as Avraham Shlonsky (1900–1973), Yitzhak Lamdan (1897–1954), Avigdor Hameiri (1890–1970), and Uri Zvi Greenberg (1896–1981). By their expressive poetics, these poets developed the foundations of “labor poetry,” which focused on the hardship of the pioneers who cultivated the Land of Israel. At first, World War I gave rise in its wake to the Hebrew version of the wave of modernist writing, in poetry and prose, about the horrors of the war that had overtaken Europe. At the center of this movement stood the personal experience of the soldier-author himself, relating his horrific experience at the deadly battlefront. Prominent in Hebrew poetry are two poets who had personal experience as soldiers: Avigdor Hameiri and Uri Zvi Greenberg. Hameiri, who wrote The Great Madness (1929), the major Hebrew war novel, expressed in his poetry as well the terrors of war during his days as an officer of the Austro-Hungarian army. Uri Zvi Greenberg, who had fought in the service of the Austro-Hungarian army on the Serbian front, also published his impressions of the war, first in Yiddish and then in Hebrew. Both writers place at the forefront the subject himself, who is recording his personal experiences and drawing his authority from the very fact that he had “been there” in the thick of the fighting. Already during the “Fourth Aliyah” period (1924–31), Uri Zvi Greenberg, in his book Anakreon on the Pole of Sadness (Anakreon al kotev ha-izavon; 1928), included the poem “Remembering Souls,” in which he describes the awful spectacle, from the battle on the Sava River, of dead soldiers hanging upside-down from iron nets, their legs appearing to him as if kicking at the sky.

The lyricism in this modernist poetry has been perceived as the immediate, authentic expression of the horrors of war. In both of these poets it developed in association with the expressionist movement in European literature, which offered new tools of representation that could contend with the inconceivably intense chaos and mayhem of modern war.

In 1927, also during the Fourth Aliyah period, Yitzhak Lamdan published the long poem Masada, which presented the Hebrew pioneers settling in twentieth-century Palestine as both a continuation of the struggle and an opposition to its suicidal solution that was taken by the Jewish warriors at Masada in the year 70 C.E. These ancient Jews had fought against the Romans, and when their struggle for national liberty was defeated, they preferred to take their own lives rather than fall into Roman captivity. The poem’s modern point of departure is the pogroms against the Jews launched in 1919 by Petliura in the Ukraine, which disgorged many of the Jews; its resolution is redemption in Eretz-Israel, despite the many hardships faced by the Hebrew pioneers who had come there from eastern Europe.

The most dramatic war-related event that took place in Palestine in the 1920s was the series of riots at the end of August 1929, when Jews were attacked by the Arabs on an unprecedented scale, leaving 133 Jews dead. This event, which some see as having forged the unity of the Jewish Yishuv in Palestine against its Arab enemies, generated in its wake a widespread poetic response. Prominent within this response is Uri Zvi Greenberg’s Zone of Defense and Address of the Son-of-Blood (Ezor magen u-neum ben ha-dam; 1930), which was a distinctive expression of the Revisionist right that was not devoid of explicit racism toward Arabs.

Uri Zvi Greenberg developed a one-poet school in Eretz-Israeli Hebrew poetry, in which he gave expression to his fascist views and aggressive activism. In 1937 he published The Book of Denunciation and Faith (Sefer ha-kitrug ve-haemuna), in which, among other things, he attacked the Marxist Zionist left and, primarily, what he saw as a demonstration of Jewish weakness toward the Arab Revolt of 1936. After World War II, Greenberg published Streets of the River (Rehovot ha-nahar; 1951), which is the greatest lamentation in Hebrew poetry over the victims of the Holocaust; still, in this book as well, the belligerence and racism that characterized his poetry of the 1930s are plainly evident.

In an entirely opposed manner to Uri Zvi Greenberg, Avraham Shlonsky published his anthology Thou Shalt Not Kill (Lo tirtzach; 1932), in which he included translations of European pacifist poetry written in the wake of World War I, thereby distancing his testimony from the events of the local war in Eretz-Israel. But even before this, in response to the riots of 1929, Shlonsky published the poem “Facing the Wilderness,” in which the military battle against the Arabs is represented as a mythological struggle with the wilderness that is attempting to destroy the Zionist settlement in Eretz-Israel.

In the 1930s and 1940s, the time of the Yishuv (the mode of organization of Jewish life in Palestine prior to the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948), the use of symbolism dominated Hebrew poetry in theory and in practice. Avraham Shlonsky’s poetry collection In These Days (Be-ele ha-yamim; 1930) marked the point at which Hebrew poetry turned in this direction, developing in Shlonsky’s work and that of his contemporaries, until reaching a peak toward the end of the decade. Over these years, the group of writers, mostly poets, that gathered around Shlonsky turned into a literary school whose activities centered on the Hebrew weekly journal Ketuvim and continued in the journal Turim, founded by members of the Yahdav group (the Hebrew young writers who established themselves in Tel-Aviv in contrast to the followers of the national poet H. N. Bialik), led by Shlonsky, and in the books Yahdav published.2

Shlonsky’s poetry book Stones of Chaos (Avnei bohu; 1933), in which he refined his symbolism to a noticeable degree, became a sort of handbook for the literary school that had grown around him. Poets Nathan Alterman (1910–70), Yocheved Bat-Miriam (1901–80), Yaakov Orland (1914–2002), Ezra Zussman (1900–1973), Eliahu Tesler (1901–65), Leah Goldberg (1911–70), A. D. Shapir (1911–74), Rephael Eliaz (1905–74), Alexander Penn (1906–72), Yonatan Ratosh (1908–81), and others adopted, each in his or her own way, the identifying features of the poetic school: musicality, assonance, suggestive imagery, strict adherence to form, and, most importantly, universal themes focusing on European landscapes, Paris in particular, and urban dwellers, marked by their isolation and conducting an intense, constant dialogue with death.

By about 1938, the year that saw the publication of books by the school’s premier practitioners—Alterman’s Stars Outside (Kochavim bahutz) and Shlonsky’s Poems of Catastrophe and Reconciliation (Shirey hamapolet vehapeeyous)—Shlonsky’s school dominated Hebrew modernism. Rich musical tones, protagonist-speakers wandering over European expanses and struggling with universal questions of love, the dreariness of existence, and the fatalism of life: all of this permeated contemporary Hebrew poetry, leaving behind the earlier decade’s poetry of labor and nationalism.

There is no doubt that all this might have continued for a very long time. The fact that by the middle of the 1930s it was clear that European Jews would suffer persecution and worse, and that the Jewish population in Palestine was already involved in a bloody struggle with the Arab population—a conflict whose height was reached in the Arab Revolt against the British Mandate of 1936, which entailed a multitude of injuries among the Jewish population, and did not diminish until 1938—none of this significantly changed the high road taken by the Shlonsky poetic school, and almost none of it was perceptible on the surface of this poetry.

On September 1, 1939, however, when the German invasion of Poland set off World War II, dilemmas and collective fears began to receive open expression. The general anxiety about the fate of Polish and other European Jews, and the realization that the result of these violent developments would surpass the worst that had happened before, found sharp expression in the Jewish literature of the Shlonsky school in Palestine. At the same time, the Yahdav group disbanded, some members following Shlonsky to Hashomer Hatzair (the political and settlement Jewish organization of the Zionist-socialist radical left in Palestine) circles on the left, and others going to the group led by Alterman around editor and literary critic Israel Zmora’s (1889–1983) Hebrew literary journal, Mahbarot Lesifrut.

There is a clear logic to the way they responded in their poetry, and a decisive transformation of the structure of Hebrew poetry took place in the 1940s. Its primary subject, adopted with great force, is violence that usually leads to death. The question of the representation of violence—that of the perpetrators as well as that of the persecuted—became the hub of the Hebrew poetic discourse.

This book concentrates on the dynamics of symbolist Hebrew poetry, written in light of and as Hebrew culture’s response to the series of catastrophes that the Jews underwent as a national entity. An examination of Hebrew poetics in the 1940s in the Yishuv, and of the cultural power relations within which it developed, leads to a recognition of three stages in the further evolution of symbolism in its second decade in Hebrew poetry. The first stage was a response to the events of World War II. Symbolism followed a nationalist path, creating an imagined national community that was to stand up to the violence committed against it.3 Due to symbolism’s compelling hold on writers, those who wanted to rebel and make their own path could do so only indirectly, as Leah Goldberg did by feminizing representations of nationalist images in her poetry.

The second stage began when understanding of the war went beyond the terrible nexus of persecution and killing, redefining events as systematic genocide: the Holocaust. From the end of 1942 and during 1943, Hebrew writers absorbed the fact that the Holocaust of European Jewry was a new, pervasive, and horrific phenomenon. At this stage Alterman underwent a dramatic, unprecedented change, emerging as the leading poet of the period. In 1944, he published The Poems of the Plagues of Egypt (Shirey makot Mitzraim), which expresses a profound awareness of the crushing defeat of the Jewish people in Europe. For Alterman, this defeat meant the total destruction of the Jewish nation’s self-image as powerful. As the most prominent representative of the symbolist wing, which until now had nurtured Zionist cultural hegemony, Alterman did his part to construct an alternative national image, one that openly recognized the absence of Jewish sovereignty and was, therefore, unable to promise collective Zionist redemption. In this way Alterman violated the standards of the contemporary Eretz-Israeli neosymbolist literary canon, and shifted his poetry to a resonant and radical allegorical mode that diverged from the dominant framework of national culture. Alterman was joined in this move by other poets who worked less methodically than he did. Yonatan Ratosh, for example, held fast to his symbolist position during the Holocaust, as part of his anti-Zionist, Canaanite stance (“Canaanite” being those whose nativism severed them from Judaism, and who consequently glorified their ancient Hebraic ancestry), which placed him on the margins of Hebrew culture.

Alterman did not have many followers in this revolutionary process, although the Holocaust poems of Yocheved Bat-Miriam, the most prominent Hebrew woman poet of the period and of the symbolist movement, developed on a similar track. At the end of the 1940s, Alterman returned to the dominant nationalist approach, to Hebrew symbolism’s third stage, in which a generation of poets who had followed in Shlonsky’s and Alterman’s footsteps harnessed their work to the goal of national independence. Each labored to return the literary symbol to center stage.

The return of nationalism as a dominant literary force brought about the search for alternative channels of poetic expression, the most prominent among them being women’s writing on the struggle for national independence and the Israel-Arab 1948 war. Women’s writing joined other critical trends, such as that evinced in the poetical work of Amir Gilboa (1917–84). But what happened at the end of the Israeli Independence War and immediately afterward? A very unique move of women poets renewed literary symbolism and undermined the controlling forces in Hebrew poetry. They were moving in the direction of the innovative and antimythical trend of the Hebrew poetry that was to take place later in the first years of what is called “the statehood generation” of Hebrew writers such as Yehuda Amichai (1924–2000) and A. B. Yehoshua (1936–), and under the leadership of the poet Nathan Zach (1930–).


1. Naftali Hertz Imber, Sefer barkai (Jerusalem: n.p., 1884), 12. Other than English versions cited in these notes, all translations of quotations are done by the translator of this volume.

2. See Uzi Shavit, “Hashir haparua-shira eretzisraelit bishnot haesrim,” Teuda, vol. 5 (Tel-Aviv: Tel-Aviv University, 1986), 170.

3. See Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, rev. ed. (London: Verso, 2006).