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  • “Hebrew” Culture: The Shared Foundations of Ratosh’s Ideology and Poetry
  • Elliott Rabin (bio)


Yonatan Ratosh (1908–1981) was a highly controversial and influential figure in Israeli society for nearly half a century. From the late 1930s to the early 1950s, Ratosh made his mark in two fields of writing: modernist poetry on the one hand, political-cultural propaganda on the other. In both of these fields, Ratosh produced his best work during this period, when his poetic idiom and his cultural vision reached mature expression. Yet the relationship between the two fields has remained largely unexplored, his critics contenting themselves with general assertions that a connection does or does not exist. A connection between the two is much easier to trace in Ratosh’s earlier writing, where his poetry was more overtly political and when he was active in right-wing underground groups led by Abba Achimeir (Brit Habiryonim) and Avraham Stern (the Stern Gang). By the late 1930s, however, Ratosh had alienated himself from his right-wing colleagues by valuing ideological issues over immediate political objectives; his poetry saw a corresponding shift to a more ambiguous, complex, and playful style lacking in explicit political content. Nevertheless, a careful exploration of Ratosh’s writing from this period reveals a fundamental similarity of cultural perspective underlying the different modes of expression—propaganda and poetry.

Ratosh is best known as the founder of a movement that he called Hebrew but that Avraham Shlonsky, the dominant Hebrew poet of the 1930s and an ideological opponent of Ratosh’s, labeled the Canaanites, a term which (as often happens) was quickly accepted by those artists and activists it was meant to belittle. There are three main dimensions of Ratosh’s Hebrew vision: (1) political—the urge to sovereignty, to be obtained if necessary through violence; (2) cultural—a radical rejection of the Jewish religion and Diaspora communities; (3) historical—using the Canaanite, pre-Jewish civilization in the land of Israel as a basis for a modern identity. The core idea of the movement is the necessity for an [End Page 119] absolute separation between the Hebrew society in Palestine/Israel and that of the Jewish Diaspora. Hebrew identity comes from the connection that the Hebrews establish with the land they live on and the sovereign state they build upon it. Jewish identity, on the other hand, embodies the opposing values of aterritoriality, political subservience, and an emphasis on spirituality derived from rabbinic Judaism. In Ratosh’s view, the two identities are polar opposites; there is no room for coexistence within the individual, or society as a whole. This perspective provided his main point of disagreement with Zionism, which sought to draw inspiration from Jewish tradition and to find some method of accommodation.

When Ratosh rejected the traditional Jewish view of history and its Zionist interpretation, he needed another view of history on which to ground the new national identity he proposed. He found such a view in the historiosophical ideas of A. G. Horon, whom Ratosh heard lecturing while he was studying in Paris in 1938–39. Horon claimed that the ancient Israelites before the Babylonian exile were Hebrews, who formed a part of a greater, unified Canaanite culture. The Israelites were the leading group among the many Hebrew tribes and were distinguished by their adherence to one God and their rejection of other “Hebrew” gods. Armed with an ideology and a quasi-historical justification for it, Ratosh returned to Palestine in 1939 to convince other people of his idea and to inspire a vast political-cultural movement. This effort was far more successful in its cultural than its political ambitions. Canaanism became an important cultural force in the 1950s; Ratosh served as mentor to a generation of writers and artists who came to maturity in the years after the establishment of Israel and who looked for a way to give voice to their sense of the new, isolated society that had sprung up far from the lands of bloodshed and martyrdom. Promoted by Ratosh’s journal ‘Alef, the Canaanite idea struck deep roots into Israeli culture, despite the fact that only a few of Ratosh’s friends and relatives explicitly adhered to...