Two Brief Introductions to Hebrew Canaanism by Ron Kuzar

Two Brief Introductions to Hebrew Canaanism


Ron Kuzar

The symbol of the Canaanist movement was
the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, Alef.


Hebrew and Zionism: A Discourse Analytic Cultural Study

Mounton De Gruyter

The Table of Contents can be found at the end
of this document and also by clicking the section headings.


The Canaanite movement proposed a radical alternative to Zionism, and it had specific views about Hebrew, which were clearly voiced by two linguists who were activists in this movement, the brothers Uzzi Ornan and Svi Rin. (The leader of the Canaanite group was their elder brother, the poet Yonatan Ratosh.) Although the group was tiny, numbering some two dozen members at its peak, it had profound influence on Israeli culture, because it pressed on vulnerable areas of Israeli identity. Their views capitalized on a radicalization of intra-Zionist tendencies which were quite popular in the local Jewish community of the 1940s and 1950s, which idolized the healthy, tall, tanned, down to earth, native sabra "Jew born in Palestine/Israel" as the inverse image of the diasporic Jew. Significant numbers of youth and intellectuals felt both fascinated and challenged by Canaanism. Since most Canaanite activists were poets, authors, journalists, sculptors, educators and other disseminators of culture and ideology, their discourse reached all those concerned with the emergent Israeli identity.

The Canaanites redefined the forming nation as a new Hebrew (rather than Jewish) nation which had its roots in the glorious days of the Biblical era. They claimed that large parts of the Middle East, which they named the Land of Kedem (kedem "East/antiquity"), constituted in antiquity a Hebrew-speaking civilization. Hence the Hebrew renaissance should aspire to rebuild a nation based on the same geographical area, which should embrace the whole local population, liberating them from Islam and from pan-Islamic and pan-Arab tendencies. Both world Jewry and world Islam were viewed as medieval forces, keeping their adherents in uneducated darkness and away from secular enlightened modernity. Having its early roots in European extreme right-wing movements, notably Italian fascism, it exhibited an interesting blend of militarism and power politics towards the Arabs as an organized community on the one hand and a welcoming acceptance of them as individuals to be redeemed from medieval darkness on the other. Most of the Canaanites served in the right-wing undergrounds, the Irgun and the Stern Group, before and during the 1948 war, but at the same time they objected to the expulsion of Arabs aimed at the formation of a Jewish state, since such an expulsion merely transferred these Arabs from one part of the Land of Kedem to another.

Canaanism was anti-Zionist but no less revivalist. The collective entity revived nationally and linguistically was defined in different political terms: not Jews but Hebrews, not exclusive but inclusive of the indigenous population, but still revivalist. Canaanite discourse exhibits, therefore, both shared and disputed features with Zionist discourse. The same goes for the Canaanite attitude to Israeli Hebrew, whose emergence was looked at from a revivalist point of view. Being involved in an identity changing thrust, the Canaanites were obviously involved in unfinished business, and viewed Israeli Hebrew as a defective product with many imperfections yet to be rectified. Thus, at the level of language policies, the Canaanites aligned themselves in many ways with the conservative Zionist linguists.

The Canaanite group was a small splinter organization that had no effect on the actual course of events. They were not a political party, they had no representation in any state organ or voluntary organizations, and there was almost nothing they could do to visibly practice their beliefs. They were audibly and visibly present only in discourse as writers and scholars and in culture as artists. Canaanism, therefore, had to adapt itself to a changing reality which was molded by the dominant political powers in Israel and in the region.

The formation of Israel set up armistice lines which were much less than the Land of Kedem. The 1967 War (the Six Day War) brought some of this territory under Israel's control. To the Canaanites this seemed an opportunity to return to their political program. On the other hand, Israel' s oppression of the population of the occupied territories contradicted the Canaanite wish to win them over and absorb them into a common Hebrew identity. At least in Ornan's case, this contradiction brought to the fore previously less conspicuous democratic tendencies in his thought from the 1970s onwards, which distanced him from original Canaanite positions and placed him much closer to the left end of the political spectrum, namely in the ranks of the non-nationalist democratic discourse. What emerges most clearly is that despite the very different contents of Zionism and Canaanism in the political sphere, they shared the key term "revival." And since the Canaanites strove to revive the most ancient phase of Hebrew nationhood, they cherished Biblical Hebrew. In this respect they treated language issues with the same conservatism as the philologists of Hebrew from the Zionist encampment. However since the 1970s, Ornan's democratic direction has taken him towards a recognition of the State of Israel as the realistic site of transformation, emphasizing now the "Israeli" nature of the state, as an umbrella term bridging over Jewish and Arab ethnicities. [Echoing the Pan-Semitic views of key Canaanite dissenters such as Boaz Evron and Uri Avnery.—web ed.]



The Canaanite movement (also known as the "Hebrews" or "Young Hebrews") in Israel was a very important cultural phenomenon. Their impact reached much beyond the two dozen registered members that it may ever have had, because most of its members were central intellectuals in Israeli society: poets, prose writers, sculptors, linguists, essayists, and commanders as well as rank and file fighters, typically in the two small military underground organizations, Etzel and Lekhi, but to a lesser extent also in the Palmakh. Historically, the movement was an offshoot of the radical right-wing revisionist movement headed by Jabotinsky, which in the 1930s formed an ideological and organizational alternative to the mainstream policy of practical Zionism ("another acre, another goat") in order to revise Zionism (hence: "revisionists") in a more military and politically anti-Arab way.

Based on earlier sources, Porath summarized the revisionist ideology in the following way:

Jabotinsky...crystallized the revisionist theory around two points: (a) Zionism is a process of national liberation and a renaissance of the national-political dimension of the people of Israel in its historic homeland, and (b) nationhood is the natural and vital form of existence of all nations including the people of Israel; this existential pattern is necessarily materialized through political sovereignty. To these two points the concept of "monism" was added.... It was used to present socialist Zionism as an ideology that divided the Jewish people and put the interests of one social class above the interests of the whole nation, delaying thereby the realization of Zionism.

Porath 1989: 42

Many of the tenets of Canaanism have been described as radicalized versions of revisionist sentiments or even as radicalized versions of traditional Zionism. From Zionism the Canaanites took the idea of a secular break with the Jewish religious past. In Zionist discourse this break was viewed as a creation of a "new Jew," alternatively referred to also as a "new Hebrew." The term "Hebrew" in Zionism was a nuance of "Jew" which emphasized its secularism, its localization in Palestine, and its political agenda to establish a "Hebrew state." For the Canaanites, "Hebrew" meant a total disruption of Jewish existence. Importing ideas of nation-building from European and American nationalist thought, the Canaanites claimed that just as the population of the United States stopped being British or English when it politicized its local identity, despite continuing family ties with English brethren, so the Hebrew-speaking population in Palestine was in the process of forming a new collective identity beyond its ties with Jewishness and with the Jewish Diaspora.

This set of ideas inaugurated a new discourse in the Hebrew-speaking community in Palestine and later in Israel, which on one hand strongly deviated from Zionist discourse, but at the same time was very attractive to certain sectors within it, especially the native youth, who themselves picked up on their parents aversion to the "Yiddish-speaking diasporic Jew," and tended to radicalize this sentiment beyond their parents' intention.

Bewildered by their centrality in Israeli literature, arts, and academia, Barukh Kurzweil, a prominent cultural and literary critic, warned:

Some people tend to belittle the importance of this circle. They point especially to the small number of its members. I have to admit that I am ignorant of the number of the Young Hebrews. I assume that the number of official members of this movement is very small. Yet I am unfortunately not sure that this does not magnify the dangers immanent in this circle... The movement is very dynamic. Time works in its favor. It is a movement of young people. The number of its potential proponents is much larger than its actual supporters. The spokesmen of this movement state openly what a large section of the youth in this country think secretly. But at this point they prefer—for several reasons, mainly their career—to keep quiet, because at the moment the generation of Zionists, the generation of exilic Jews, is still in power.

(Kurzweil 1960: 274)

The danger that Kurzweil saw in the Canaanite movement was not in that it merely reflected these sentiments. Kurzweil (1960: 279) feared that "this handful of people systematizes a whole array of realities, whose presence as facts of life of Israeli existence predate the appearance of the 'Canaanites' or 'young Hebrews."' By crystallizing these loosely associated sentiments into a systematic coherent discourse, they turn it into a subversive discourse, transforming a variant into an alternative.


In many respects the story of the Canaanite movement is intertwined with the story of a family. The leader and two of the main activists were the three sons of Yekhi'el and Pnina Heilperin, named at birth Uri'el (1908-1981), Gamli'el Tzvi (1914-1998), and Uzi'el (1923).

One may easily lose track of the identities of the members of this family, unless one is aware of the plurality of names they used. Uri'el changed his last name first from Heilperin to Halperin, then to Shelakh. He also used the pseudonym Yonatan Ratosh both in poetic and in political writing. It seems as if he drew a line (with a few exceptions) between the private sphere of Uri'el (Uri in the family) Shelakh and the public figure of Yonatan Ratosh. Gamli'el (Gami in the family) used this name throughout the period he lived in Palestine-Israel, using the underground appellation Avidan as commander of the Etzel in Jerusalem. After his move to the United States in 1952 he reverted to his middle name Tzvi (which he spells Svi), using the last syllable of his original last name Heilperin as his new last name Rin (henceforth Svi Rin). He has used this last name for his scholarly work, but has maintained a consistent separate political persona as Ze'ev Khanun (spelled by him Hannun) which survived the move from Israel to the United States. Uzi'el dropped the ending -el quite early in his life, thus using the familial nickname Uzi (spelled by him Uzzi) in all spheres of his life (save his poetic persona). He changed his last name to Ornan (henceforth Uzzi Ornan). In addition, they used other pseudonyms in their political articles, primarily because there were not enough actual members in the Canaanite group to fill a whole issue of their journal Alef, so that by using multiple names each could make more than one contribution in one issue, and the general impact of the group would be stronger.

Ratosh, Rin, and Ornan were brought up in a Hebrew speaking home. Ratosh and Rin were born in Warsaw, and Ornan already in Palestine. Their father was an educator and teacher in the Jewish educational system of Warsaw. As part of the Hebrew movement in Eastern European Zionism, he was fascinated and influenced by the revival of Hebrew in Palestine and by the revivalist literature of late Eastern European haskala and khibat tziyon. After a few years of being employed as a teacher and lecturer, father Heilperin established his own Hebrew kindergarten. In due time Pnina, his wife, would become a Hebrew educator as well. Based on several sources, Porath (1989: 18-19) concludes that it was soon after the establishment of that kindergarten in 1910, when Ratosh was two years old, that the Heilperin home fully changed over to speaking Hebrew, so as to put into actual practice what the parents preached.

The three brothers absorbed the parents' love of the Hebrew language. As they matured, different facets of these interests accrued in them in different proportions. Ratosh, the elder of the three, became primarily a poet and translator, very innovative both in ideas and in language, and the leader and preeminent thinker of the Canaanite movement. Yet being deeply interested in Semitic languages, he was also an amateur linguist. His younger brothers, Rin and Ornan, became linguists, and eventually professors of Semitic linguistics and Hebrew language respectively. Both were active members in the Canaanite group and disseminators of the Canaanite ideas, and took active part in their detailed formulation. They all wrote poetry at certain phases of their lives.

Much has been written about the Canaanites in general (Diamond 1986; Shavit 1987; Open University 1986, to name only the books) or on Ratosh in particular (Porath 1989 is Ratosh's biography, and numerous books and articles have been written on his poetry and politics). Ratosh was undoubtedly the leading figure and the main ideologue of the movement. His poetry harmonizes with the key terms of Canaanite political discourse.

Before his Canaanite period, Ratosh was active in the far right extreme of the revisionist circles and contributed to its discourse. The revisionists borrowed their key terms from European ultra-nationalism and fascism. They favored "political Zionism" based on Jewish military power over the "practical Zionism" of the Zionist labor movement, headed by Ben-Gurion, Weizmann, and others.

Barely involved in actual organizational politics, Ratosh nevertheless reached a relatively senior position as a revisionist thinker and poet. His younger brothers, on the other hand, were not involved in revisionist leadership, but became members of the military revisionist undergrounds. For a while, until 1942, Rin ("Avidan") was the commander of the Etzel in Jerusalem, after which he left it and joined its offshoot the Lekhi. Ornan deplored the split in Etzel, and as he was becoming more Canaanite in his worldview, he kept his neutrality between the two. Nevertheless, he was among the activists of these groups exiled by the British government to Eritrea and Kenya, but even in the detention camp he kept his neutrality between the two organizations.

In previous scholarship on the Canaanite movement, the focus of interest has often been on Ratosh and his political and poetic discourse, or on the way other members of the group (such as the sculptor Yitzkhak Danziger) expressed their Canaanite views through artistic symbolism. Focus should also be placed on the two linguists—the brothers Ornan and Rin—and on the connection between their political and scholarly discourses.

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From the Dedication

Like many of their generation, my parents came to Palestine from an increasingly menacing Europe, and created here the cultural atmosphere which I and some of my generation had the privilege to experience and grow up in. For all this, and for much more, I am grateful to them.

Further Reading on Hebrew Canaanism

"Canaanism:" Solutions and Problems by Boas Evron

The Canaanist Platform translated by James S. Diamond

Zarathustra in Jerusalem: Nietzsche and the "New Hebrews" by David Ohana

The Vision of the New Hebrew Nation and its Enemies by Yaacov Shavit


Diamond, James S. (1986) Homeland or Holy Land: The "Canaanite" Critique of Israel. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Gertz, Nurit (ed.) (1986) Hakvutza hakna'anit—sifrut ve'ide'ologya [The Canaanite Group—Literature and Ideology]. Volume 1: Textbook, volume 2 (co-edited with Rachael Weissbrod): Sources. Tel Aviv: Open University Press.

Kurzweil, Barukh. "Mahutah umakoroteha shel tnu'at ha'ivrim hatze'irim (kna'anim)" ["The nature and sources of the young Hebrews (Canaanite) movement." Sifrutenu hakhadasha—hemshekh a mahpekha? [Our New Literature—Continuation or Revolution?]. Jerusalem / Tel Aviv: Schocken Books, 270-300. Originally in: Luakh Ha'aretz 5713 [Ha'aretz Almanach] 1952-3]: 107-129. Reprinted in Gertz 1986, 2: 1-13.

Porath, Yehoshua (1989) Shelakh ve'et beyado: Sipur khayav shel uri'el shelakh (yonatan ratosh) [Shelakh {lit. spear} Carrying a Pen: The Biography of Uriel Shelakh (Yonatan Ratosh)]. Tel Aviv: Zmora, Makhbarot Lesifrut.

Shavit, Yaacov (1987) The New Hebrew Nation: A Study in Israeli Heresy and Fantasy. London: Frank Cass (Based on Me'ivri ad kna'ani [From Hebrew To Canaanite]. (1984) Tel Aviv: Domino)

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