For Sharon, Poetry Makes Policy ; Uri Zvi Greenberg's Poetry Has Emerged as a Cultural Touchstone of the Israeli Right

By Lynfield, Ben | The Christian Science Monitor, March 22, 2002 | Go to article overview

For Sharon, Poetry Makes Policy ; Uri Zvi Greenberg's Poetry Has Emerged as a Cultural Touchstone of the Israeli Right


Lynfield, Ben, The Christian Science Monitor


Hours before meeting with US special envoy Anthony Zinni last Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon sprinted up to the stage of the Jerusalem Theater to thunderous applause. He thanked the audience, taking special care to acknowledge the soldiers in the house. Then, bending over a podium, he began reading in a booming voice. Soon Mr. Sharon was totally immersed in "Song of the Great Mind," by the late Jewish ultranationalist poet Uri Zvi Greenberg.

As the prime minister read, he raised his voice to stress a line that condemned the small-minded and fearful. He emerged from the work after a few minutes and shared reminiscences about Mr. Greenberg, who died in 1981, in a warm and friendly voice.

"I have to apologize," Sharon said. "Unfortunately, I have a long night ahead and I have to go. I would prefer being here."

Greenberg, who advocated Jewish control of the area from the Nile to the Euphrates, has long been recognized as a leading poetic voice by academics. Scholars of his work cite his powerful expressionism and linguistic innovations. He is also considered to have written brilliant lyric poetry. But amid Israel's confrontation with the Palestinians, and the heavy casualties and psychological toll it is taking, Greenberg is now being publically presented as the poet of the hour by, among others, Sharon, Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, and the hawkish army chief of staff, Shaul Mofaz. The celebration of an ultranationalist writer is viewed as a way of boosting morale by the Israeli right. And it offers a window into the goals - and possibly dreams - of the country's leadership.

"These are exactly the issues of today," Sharon told the crowd after reading the opening verses of the poem, published in 1947. Hebrew literature specialists say the verses Sharon chose glorify an expansionist Israel, including what is today Jordan (the mountains of Moab).

"The poem is saying keep dreaming of your historic destiny, do not compromise for small dreams, have a long breath," says Avner Holtzman, director of the Katz Research Institute for Hebrew Literature at Tel Aviv University. "It will take time, but [control over all the territory] will come."

For proponents of Greenberg's viewpoint, "Song of the Great Mind" and other poems translate today into a call to keep fighting in what the Israeli right views as the battle for Eretz Yisrael (Greater Israel), including the land it terms Judea and Samaria and the settlements there.

"His poems provide encouragement, they speak of the strength and power of this nation, they give it power to believe in itself and they say that it is worthwhile to suffer for the goals of the Jewish people," says Geula Cohen, director of the Uri Zvi Greenberg Heritage Society and a former member of Knesset.

Greenberg, born in 1894, grew up in Poland, and immigrated to Palestine in 1924. Influenced by a massacre by Palestinians of the Jewish community in Hebron in 1929, he joined the nationalist Zionist Revisionist Party, which advocated a Jewish state on both sides of the Jordan River. During the late 1930s he warned in his poems of imminent danger to European Jewry, and Cohen says that Greenberg's writing was seen as inspirational by members of the ultra-nationalist Irgun Zvai Leumi and Lehi militant movements. …

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