ISRAELI flags flutter next to the Old City.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Seventy years ago, on December 19, 1947, Natan Alterman published the poem “The Silver Platter,” in Davar. The poem immortalized Chaim Weizmann’s words during the debate over the November 29, 1947, UN Partition Plan: “The state will not be given to the Jewish people on a silver platter.” Alterman – the Poet Laureate of Israel’s Palmach days – would scoff at the Jews squirming over US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Alterman, like many of his pioneering peers, was one tough Jew, blessed with remarkably effete talents. His was rendering current events – and the nation’s sensibility – in verse, which he churned out quickly and prolifically, for a weekly column.
Born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1910, he moved to Mandatory Palestine in 1925. He started editing and writing weekly for Haaretz in 1934, and, after 1943, for the Histadrut Labor Federation daily, Davar. Alterman’s lyricism and nationalism, ennobling cataclysmic events as the State of Israel emerged, made him, in David Ben-Gurion’s words, “The Conscience of the Nation.”
In “Shir Moledet
,” “Song of the Homeland” (1934), Alterman proclaims: “We will love you, our homeland, forever, We are yours in battle and in toil.” Hard to imagine that Alterman would approve making acceptance of Israel’s choice of Jerusalem as its capital contingent on any other nation’s approval – no matter what the state of the peace process. And in October 1943, in “The Swedish Tongue,” he poked through the hypocrisy of international law and diplomacy sarcastically when Sweden welcomed Danish Jews fleeing Hitler – yes, Sweden then, not today’s Jew-hostile Sweden. Noting that the rest of Europe erected lethal barriers with fancy legalisms like “quota” and “visa,” along with politicized fears about “infiltration,” “maximum capacity” and “absorbability,” he jokingly mocked the Swedes as the supposed barbarians and their fellow Europeans as seeming sophisticates.
“Some countries in the world are seven times bigger/ So large they can shelter you from hunger and thirst/ Yet before rescuing a drowning man/ They always consult their [legal] dictionary first.”
Alterman would snicker at today’s elaborate excuses justifying why only the Jewish state has been denied the right to choose its own capital. He would dismiss the verbal fog of legalistic lies pretending this unacceptable 70-year-old anomaly is some legitimate baseline or status quo – or even worse, making recognition of our capital a prize Israel must earn. And watching the European hypocrites lecture Israel and America – with the Czech Republic replacing Sweden as the one reasonable nation showing up the others by recognizing Jerusalem –Alterman would understand that Europe remains Europe.
Similarly, Alterman knew how to say thank you to whomever helped the Zionist cause – regardless of their other sins. He, along with the rest of the Jewish world, toasted the UN Partition Plan, even though it passed thanks to the evil dictator Joseph Stalin, who delivered five votes from the USSR and its satellites. Perhaps Alterman would write a poem, along the lines of one of my friend’s suggestion that those who don’t want anything from Trump shouldn’t start with Jerusalem: first return all their stock market gains since his election.
Most inexplicable – yet eerily familiar – to Alterman would be the sniveling warnings that the declaration was “ill-timed” and might trigger terrorism. These fears validate the Palestinians’ violence veto, contradicting the usual cant that terrorism never works. These warnings are like telling George Washington to postpone the American Revolution, Abraham Lincoln to tolerate slavery, Franklin Roosevelt to forgive Pearl Harbor, or David Ben-Gurion to wait before declaring a state, because there might be trouble, and our sworn enemies – who seek to destroy us – might object.
The seed for Alterman’s most famous poem sprouted from a conversation he overheard between two Hagana military experts amid the midnight celebrations on November 29. They estimated that 10,000 Israelis might die in the upcoming war. When Alterman published his poem two weeks later, the Arab rejection of the UN’s compromise plan had already killed 120 Palestinian Jews.
Alterman’s poem anticipates the day after the fighting as “the land quiets, the crimson sky slowly dimming over smoking frontiers/ And the nation arises, heartbroken but breathing, To receive the miracle.” A young man and woman represent the fighting generation, armed, dirty, “bone weary” yet “wearing their youth like dew glistening on their head.” They tell the nation, “We are the silver platter on which the Jewish state was given.” They make their pronouncement “and fall back encased in shadows/ And the rest will be told in Israel’s chronicles.”
Alterman had ideological range. He blasted the military regime imposed on Israeli Arabs until 1966. Yet after the 1967 war he left the Left and helped launch the Greater Land of Israel movement. Ultimately, he understood that a Zionism without pride has no heart; but a Zionism without liberal democratic ideals has no soul.
Fortunately, after millennia of getting it wrong, we’ve now spent a century or so getting it right, striking that balance. “Israel’s chronicles” are written today by the nation-builders, not the naysayers, the courageous fighters, not the cowardly lions, the doers, not the ditherers.
Those are the values we should contemplate – and toast – whenever we pull out a new 200-shekel note to drink a surprisingly fine wine for a l’chaim or eat a surprisingly sophisticated meal in the Jewish people’s thriving capital city – Jerusalem – and notice Natan Alterman’s face gracing the blue-tinged currency.
The writer is the author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s. His forthcoming book, The Zionist Ideas, which updates Arthur Hertzberg’s classic work, will be published by The Jewish Publication Society in Spring 2018. He is a Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University. Follow on Twitter @GilTroy.