Beyond Bi-nationalism? The Young Hebrews Versus the “Palestinian Issue”

Roman Vater. Journal of Political Ideologies. Volume 21, Issue 1. February 2016.


The bi-national option for the solution of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict is as old as Zionism itself. The standard bi-national scenario envisaged an accommodation in a shared polity of separate Jewish and Palestinian identities. The Young Hebrews movement defied this paradigm by arguing that these identities were not national and should be incorporated into the Hebrew nation. This article analyses the Young Hebrews’ solution to the ‘Palestinian issue’ by showing that they used it as a tool to destroy Zionist hegemony in Israel and open the way to a radical geopolitical rearrangement of the entire Middle East.

The issue of the relationship between the Jewish immigrants to Palestine and the native Arab population has been haunting the Zionist movement almost since its inception. While Zionist thinkers have rarely cast doubt upon the moral and political validity of their claim to a land currently inhabited by others, differences in approach came to define the divisive lines between ‘left’ and ‘right’ in Zionist, and later Israeli, politics. Some called for a peaceful accommodation in a bi-national polity, entailing a willing resignation by the Jews of their right to self-determination (expressed by the Brit Shalom association and its successors: Kedma Mizraha and Ihud). Others espoused radical chauvinism, calling for the establishment of a Jewish kingdom on the lands of the Biblical covenant, and the expulsion of their Arab residents (expressed by Uri Zvi Grinberg and Israel Eldad, both tied to the radical Maximalist Revisionists). Between these two extremes lay the actual approach: the Zionist realpolitic.

Whereas Gil Eyal argues that the Zionist leadership was aware of local Arab–Palestinian nationalism and actively debated it from the beginning, the left-wing activist and writer Boas Evron admonishes them for ignoring it for too long. However, whether one subscribed to the accommodationist stance of Brit Shalom, or the belligerency of the radical right, these views recognized the existence of Arab–Palestinian nationalism as separate and incompatible with the Jewish political aspirations. Zeev Jabotinsky’s famous article ‘On the Iron Wall’, published in 1924, explicitly acknowledges that the Palestinian Arabs constituted a fully-fledged nation with legitimate aspirations, and could not consequently be bribed into submission.

The following analysis will shed light on a different approach to the ‘Palestinian issue’, one usually omitted from the discussion on Zionist–Palestinian relations. The Young Hebrews movement (commonly known as the ‘Canaanites’), that was active in mandatory Palestine and then Israel from the late 1930s till the 1970s, challenged the Zionist axiom of a separate Arab Palestinian identity, advocating instead a full incorporation within the nascent Hebrew nation forming in Palestine, so that both identities—Jewish and Arab–Palestinian—would be supplanted by a modern and progressive national Hebrew identity. In so doing, the Young Hebrews hoped to bring into existence a new liberal national polity, inspired by the ancient Hebrew heritage. Thus, the assimilation of Palestinian Arabs into Hebrew society and culture would be a method for restructuring both elements.

In terms of methodology of my analysis of the Young Hebrews’ proposed solution to the ‘Palestinian issue’, I will first outline their ideology. Then I shall anchor my discussion in three events, which are central to the development of Hebrew–Jewish–Palestinian relations: Israel’s war of independence and the emergence of the Palestinian refugee problem in 1948; the 1967 six-day war and the incorporation into the Israeli realm of power of a huge Palestinian population; and the eruption of the Palestinian national uprising (Intifada) in 1987, followed by the Oslo accords. Thus structured, the analysis will follow developments in the geopolitical thought of the Young Hebrews, and examine how this has evolved, before reaching a conclusion on the chances of success for their proposed reform of Israeli society and the possible implicit repercussions of their position on current Israeli political discourse.

Ideology of the Young Hebrews

Two impulses gave rise to ‘Canaanism’ in the late 1930s: first, the gradual emergence of a native national identity within the Hebrew-speaking Yishuv in Palestine; second, contemplations on identity and history, undertaken separately and then in tandem by the historian and philologist Adya Gur Horon (born Adolphe Gourevitch) and the poet, political thinker and activist Uriel Shelah (born Uriel Heilperin and famous under the poetic pseudonym Yonatan Ratosh). Both men belonged to the Revisionist wing of Zionism; so their thinking was fostered by the tradition of political liberalism and, having conducted analysis into the historical development of the ancient Hebrew culture and Judaism, and the political conditions in the Middle East and mandatory Palestine, both Horon and Ratosh concluded that the Zionist idea was inadequate for the prevailing realities of the day. Their critique of Zionism was based on a positivist premise: that the modern Hebrew identity was confident and natural enough not to require an ideology to excuse itself (and thus implicitly to question its very existence), while the ancient Hebrew pagan culture, reviled in the Bible and overlooked by Zionism was now revealed at all its splendour in the post-1929 findings of the ancient Canaanite city of Ugarit in north-western Syria. Among the findings were the texts of Canaanite epics that predated the Bible but bore striking linguistic and stylistic resemblance to it. They were explored by the French historian of the ancient Near East (and recently retired head of the antiques department of the French mandate of Syria) Charles Virolleaud. Among his research assistants was Adolphe Gourevitch (Adya Horon), who used these findings to propose an alternative version of the ancient Hebrew history, one that countered the Jewish–Zionist perception of the Hebrew past. This version ultimately became a ready-made foundational myth for the young Hebrew nation. Concomitantly, Horon and Ratosh concluded that the foundational myths serving both Zionism and Pan-Arabism were not genuinely national. Jews and Arabs, they claimed in consequence, constituted not modern nations, but pre-modern ethno-religious communities, whose claim for national independence was fraudulent.

The discursive differentiation between ‘modernity’ and ‘backwardness’ is crucial for the ‘Canaanite’ conceptualization of nationalism. Whereas Zionism defined Jewishness in a rather rigid and perennialist way as belonging to a single-fate community created by primordial and eternal blood-ties, further augmented by Mosaic monotheism, the Young Hebrews opted for a much more flexible idea of nationality. They made use of a term known in the literature as ‘environmental determinism’, which stipulates that human identity, both personal and collective, is shaped by the geophysical reality of the inhabited land. Hence, to be ‘native’ to a land means to share a cosmology common to its inhabitants; biological descent is, accordingly, of no significance, since the cosmology can be acquired either by socialization or by assimilation. The Young Hebrews thus shifted from a racial-biological conceptualization of national identity, that to a large extent characterized the Zionist understanding of Jewishness, to an exclusively territorialist approach to nation-formation. In effect, Zionism and ‘Canaanism’ radically differed in their solution to the issue of the relationship between ancient Jews/Hebrews and their modern ‘descendants’. Since Zionism stipulated by and large an unbroken connection between ancient and modern Jews both in genealogical and cultural terms, its myth of national origins can be defined as a biological myth of continuity. Conversely, the Young Hebrews denied that genealogical descent has any significance in nation-formation, stating plainly that modern Hebrews were not descended from ancient Hebrews; therefore, their national foundational myth ought to be classified as an ideological myth of cultural affinity. This conscious substitution of allegiance to history through blood with allegiance to history through inspiration became a key feature of the Young Hebrews’ nationalism.

This fundamental difference between Zionism and ‘Canaanism’ justifies in my opinion the contention that the two were not only distinctive but, more importantly, mutually hostile ideologies, differing in their intellectual sources and respective visions of the past, present and future. By asserting so, this article goes against the grain of most of the scholarly literature exploring the Young Hebrews’ ideology, politics or artistic production. Most of the writers who studied ‘Canaanism’ have identified it as an extreme development of some of the core tenets of Zionism: ‘”Canaanism”—claims James Diamond—sought to act on the secular impulses that were so clearly manifested in early Zionism’. An analysis more or less along the same lines is offered by Yaacov Shavit, who however not only treated facts, names and dates extremely carelessly but also made his hostility to ‘Canaanism’ manifest. Both researches clearly drew their inspiration from the paradigm promulgated in the early 1950s by the literary critic Baruch Kurzweil, who was among the first Israeli thinkers to engage with ‘Canaanism’ deeply and thoughtfully. Kurzweil was adamant that the movement did not represent any new quality in Jewish intellectual history, but was rather a shallow restatement of anti-traditionalist motifs present ever since the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment of the 18th-19th centuries) eroded the existential confidence provided heretofore by traditional Jewish values. At the same time, though, he admitted that the Young Hebrews ‘transform[ed] the theoretical negation of Galuth Judaism into living reality’, conceding in effect that ‘Canaanism’ was an authentic expression of a wholly new sociocultural condition.

Keeping these observations in mind, I believe that any interpretation that locks ‘Canaanism’ within the framework of the dialectics of Jewish history is extremely reductionist at best. It is certainly much more productive analytically to interpret it according to its own stated principles as a complete alternative to Zionism (and Pan-Arabism) rather than an offshoot of the former. The divergence in these ideologies’ respective approaches to nation-formation and nation-delimitation, discussed above, demonstrates that ‘Canaanism’ was much more inclusivist and open-minded in relation to non-Jews than Zionism. Nowhere was this inclusivism more clearly outspoken than in the Young Hebrews’ approach to the Arabic-speaking inhabitants of Palestine/Israel. It is thus unsurprising that we find a reference to the ‘Palestinian issue’ in the Young Hebrews’ writings even before the 1948 war, which is usually considered the main breaking point in Jewish–Arab relations. The following paragraph from the closing pages of ‘Opening Discourse’, the Young Hebrews’ founding manifest penned by Yonatan Ratosh in 1943, is significant enough to warrant extensive citing:

And the backward population in our land, this assemblage of communities and families and contradictions, whose seeming unity is the work of the British, for they are those who have been organizing them against us ever since they had set foot in our Hebrew homeland, this population which the Jews, insofar as they are a community, could not but close themselves against and remain separate from, and due to the nationalist rhetoric which they employ could not but conceptualize it as a single body and frame it in borrowed European notions of a nation and act accordingly; this population, which nobody knows how much Hebrew blood flows through its veins … we the Hebrews, released from the barriers of religiousness and communality, will be able to accept anyone among them who would wish to assimilate … and become one of us, with all the duties and the rights.

In sum, the following are Ratosh’s key points:

  • The Palestinians are of ancient Hebrew origin.
  • The Palestinian national identification should therefore be with the framework of the modern Hebrew nation.
  • The Palestinians currently linger in the primordial pre-national stage of social development.
  • Insofar as they are organized, the Palestinians are organized on a negative basis (against the Yishuv) and are manipulated by the British.
  • If the Zionists continue to misuse nationalist rhetoric, the Palestinians may emulate it, and, instead of joining the Yishuv in a nation-building enterprise, will become its enemies.
  • The putative Palestinian national identity has no inherent positive qualities and no historical basis, therefore the Palestinians can either become Hebrews or agents of Pan-Arabism.

Let us now follow the application of these principles within the evolving realities of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, and evaluate to what extent the Young Hebrews’ stance has changed between 1948 and 1987.

1948—’Those Movies About the Germans’

The 1948 war was a defeat for the Young Hebrews: they opposed its conduct and decried the results. Israel in the 1949 armistice borders was regarded by them as a statelet ruled by a foreign Zionist elite, whose boundaries violated the Israeli Hebrews’ geopolitical outlook, which was supposed to include the entire ‘Land of Kedem’. Instead of unleashing a regional Hebrew liberation war, Israel, so the ‘Canaanites’ claimed, adopted a Jewish xenophobic policy based on an outlook fit for an ethno-religious community. In the aftermath of the war, the Young Hebrews movement became one of the vehicles of expression for the frustration of the generation of 1948 warriors, who felt that their sacrifice on the battlefield had been sullied by their Zionist ‘occupiers’.

The fate of the Palestinians as a result of 1948 was used by the Young Hebrews to attack David Ben Gurion’s government and the Zionist establishment in general. That the war’s destructive implications for Palestinian society itself were insignificant for them may explain the ambivalent attitude to the refugees’ plight in the Young Hebrews’ texts published during the war and immediately afterwards. Thus, they saw the emergence of the refugee problem as a natural outcome of the war, for which Israel bore no moral responsibility, and even suggested that it may bring positive effects to Israel. ‘The Arab evacuations’, wrote Ratosh in November 1948,

came originally unplanned … undoubtedly there is a gain in it, whether military or another … among this land’s inhabitants beyond Israel’s border a belief strikes root that wherever we set our foot—they are doomed to abandon this place in fire, sword and hunger.

A year later he wrote: ‘A great number of refugees will not return. The facts have been determined and the wheel cannot be reversed now’.

However, one must consider that the previous statement also alludes to the opposite approach. For by stating that ‘a great number of refugees will not return’, by implication some may indeed return, and, as will be seen, an acknowledgement of the Palestinian Right of Return (though in a particular ‘Canaanite’ way) after 1967 became one of the pillars of the Young Hebrews’ geopolitics. Admitting that the mass abandonment by Palestinians of their homes may be beneficial for Israel, they attributed its cause to the Zionist exilic mentality. Since the Israeli leadership did not wish to become a regional avant-garde of national liberation, it was only logical that it would treat potential allies as enemies according to the Diasporic norms of self-isolation. Moreover, the Young Hebrews stated openly that in the later stages of the war, when Israel held the strategic initiative, expulsion of the Palestinians became an orchestrated policy—in a blatant contradiction to the official Israeli version of laying the blame on the Arabs. On account of this, the dispossession of the Palestinians was fiercely condemned, sometimes within the same text where the benefits of it were explained:

Before the war there was among us a frequent talk of peace. Of ‘brotherhood of nations’ … All this was exposed as a lie … The power in whose name all the speakers spoke revealed itself as a foreign settling power, occupying, expelling, clearing for itself territories for settlement—a xenophobic, isolationist, racist community; … The question is whether we are to redeem our land …—this is the Hebrew war … Or whether we are to cut off a slice of this land … to dispossess those who inhabit it now, to expel them … and take their homes and all their belongings. For this is the Jewish war.

Thus, it would appear that the Young Hebrews accepted the flight of the Palestinian refugees as an unfortunate consequence of war, but would not tolerate a direct policy of dispossession after the tide had turned in Israel’s favour and the guns had fallen silent. Ratosh’s colleague Aharon Amir condemned the expulsion policy in an article published in 1950:

It was said initially: there is no line … It was still unclear how ‘they’ should be treated … But now there is a line … and it is crystal clear: get rid of them! … And this line … was accepted officially … This is a policy which has profound roots in the Jewish mentality.

In another article published that same year, Amir went as far as describing the Palestinian disaster of 1948 as a ‘holocaust’. One must consider that it was written only a few years after the Jewish Holocaust, when the latter had not yet become a key symbol of Israeli identity. It is possible therefore that Amir used the word ‘shoah’ in its literal sense, meaning ‘catastrophe’; however, it is likely he was aware of its post-Second World War connotation as well. In fact, the latter is even more probable, since Amir consciously recalled the Holocaust in a short story published in October 1949 (under the pseudonym Yariv Eitam), ‘The New Morning’. In the story, a soldier returning from the mission of ‘clearing’ a Palestinian village remarks to his officer that what they had just done reminded him of ‘those movies about the Germans’.

‘The New Morning’ was not the only ‘Canaanite’ work of literature criticizing this policy. A story by Shraga Gafni (published in May 1949 under the pseudonym Eitan Notev), ‘Praise the Lord’, refers to another case of planned expulsion of Palestinians by the Israeli military, adding a description of a massacre perpetrated against the former by the latter. Interestingly, these stories have not caused as much an outcry as S. Izhar’s ‘Khirbat Hiz’ah’ (mentioned by Ratosh when condemning the expulsions), though they dealt exactly with the same subject, and maybe even more powerfully. One reason, perhaps, is that the Young Hebrews were perceived as outcasts, while Izhar came from the core of the Labour movement. Similarly, the poem ‘Pesakh al Kukhim’ (‘Passover on Caves’) by Avoth Yeshurun, which compares in a highly ambiguous language the destruction of Palestinian society with the wartime destruction of European Jewry (published in 1952), has caused much greater scandal than the stories by the Young Hebrews, which drew an explicit parallel. It is only symbolic that one of Yeshurun’s few supporters during the ensuing controversy was Aharon Amir.

The Young Hebrews also tackled the question of those Palestinian Arabs who had remained in place and received Israeli citizenship after 1948. It was discussed within the wider context of criticizing Israel’s social make-up and policy; the discrimination of the remaining Palestinians was described as a logical, yet highly undesired, corollary of the xenophobic Jewish–Zionist policy, which continued to perceive the Jews as a persecuted community even after the attainment of sovereignty. For example, Amir, in the same article where he used the word ‘shoah’, decried the exclusion of the remaining fellahs from Israeli economy, arguing that the depleted state required a healthy agriculture, which could only be rebuilt by overcoming the prejudices towards the Arabs and incorporating them fully and equally into Hebrew society. The aim was therefore to blend the Arabs and the Jews together in a Hebrew-speaking national society, rather than defending the Arabs’ collective rights. Indeed, Amir argued that the most a ‘policy whose sources are immersed in Zionist ideology’ can do is grant the Arabic-speakers the ‘preposterous status of a “national minority”‘, thus ‘creating “national” problems where none are present’ and ‘hindering the consolidation of a new nationality’.

These ideas remained in accordance with the principles of the ‘Opening Discourse’, whereby no separate Palestinian nation existed parallel to the Hebrew one, and for the benefit of both communities it ought to be incorporated into the Israeli society. The most practical ways of reaching this aim, according to the Young Hebrews, were first, the establishment of a Hebrew secular education system instead of the existing ‘separate but equal’ schooling in Arabic, which perpetuated the Arabs’ secondary status in Israel, and second, the abolition of the Arabs’ exemption from military service, in accordance with the principle of equality in rights and duties. This discriminatory policy was condemned by the Young Hebrews on the basis that it was harmful for Israel itself: by making it clear to the Arabs that they were unwelcome, Israel, so the ‘Canaanite’ argument went, encouraged them to adopt a Pan-Arabist ideology, and forge a violent opposition to Zionist rule.

In view of the above, it was surprising that in the course of this research no protest against the military regime which was imposed upon the Arab citizens of Israel from 1948 to 1966 could be located within the writings of the Young Hebrews. Neither was it possible to find an explicit call (before 1967) for a solution to the refugee problem by allowing some of the refugees to return and be assimilated into Israeli society. The Young Hebrews did however express their support for the struggle of the Iqrit and Bir’am evacuees to return to their villages; significantly, those evacuees were Christian Maronites, not Muslims. Here they were also joined by the Herut MK Eri Jabotinsky (son of Zeev Jabotinsky and a very close friend of Adya Horon), who called for a return of these villagers to their homes.

1967—’Concentration Camps in the Desert’

On the eve of the six-day war, Ratosh and his brother Uzzi Ornan published a leaflet titled ‘A war for Hebrew peace’. The leaflet called to avoid the ‘errors’ of 1948 by adopting a radically different strategy—one of incorporation and acceptance rather than expulsion and destruction, in order to establish regional alliances and attain local superpower status for Israel:

Hebrew peace means not the expulsion of the population residing in the territories joined to our state—but granting it equal Israeli citizenship … Every piece of land taken by our army—its residents must be incorporated in the state as citizens with equal rights and duties … Not bringing the refugees to the statebut bringing the state to the refugees!

This slogan became the rallying cry of the Young Hebrews in the aftermath of Israel’s 1967 territorial expansion. While the Israeli political system attempted in various ways to cope with the presence of a great Palestinian population in the ‘territories’, only the Young Hebrews claimed a clear solution to the problem, advanced, as shown above, before the capture of these lands by the IDF. Both the indecisiveness of the Israeli government and the transfer ideology of the Zionist extreme right were condemned in the Young Hebrews’ post-1967 publications as reflecting the Zionist reluctance to open-up to the region. The Young Hebrews’ alternative was tantamount to accepting the Right of Return, but on terms dictated by Israel. ‘Bringing the state to the refugees’ meant taking the initiative in solving the refugee problem by declaring it an Israeli internal issue with an exclusively humanitarian dimension, effectively depoliticizing it. Re-nationalization of the Palestinians as Hebrew Israelis was to be attained by legally annexing all the territories, dismantling the refugee camps, extending gradually to their inhabitants Israeli citizenship and introducing a Hebrew secular schooling system and obligatory military service—similarly to the post-1948 process with the Druze and Bedouins within Israel:

With … the fellahs and city-dwellers, Muslims and Christians … we are condemned to live [together] till the end of times. To these there should be brought immediately the Israeli law, currency, commerce, industry … Regular Hebrew schools should be opened for their benefit; … Within a year or two mobilization might be started … achieving … a general conscription duty, the most effective melting pot of Israel.

The last sentence provides the key to understanding the Young Hebrews’ logic. They did not call for the extension of civil and political rights to the Palestinians only for the sake of liberal idealism, but to attain a sweeping sociocultural revolution within Israel:

… A single people, within a state that would cease to be sectarian, exclusionary, discriminating, divisive, and will become an enlightened, modern national state … which will obtain the power … to head the movement of renaissance and consolidation in the whole Land of the Euphrates [a synonym for the Land of Kedem] … [If Israel refrains from doing so] it will remain an enclosed Jewish ghetto forced to persist in constant belligerency, forced to rely upon strangers.

Thus, the ‘Israelization’ of the Palestinians, though ostensibly welcomed by them, was just a step towards a higher aim, that of realizing the national potential of the Hebrew identity. Aharon Amir expressed this instrumentalist approach most colourfully by paraphrasing Abraham Lincoln:

The paramount object of this struggle is to maintain the unity of the land—and is not either to keep the Arab population or expel it. If we could maintain the unity without permitting a single Arab to remain, we would do it; and if we could maintain it by permitting all the Arabs to remain, we would do it; and if we could maintain it by permitting some to remain and leaving others alone, we would also do that.

Amir, significantly, subjected his politics to this aim to such an extent that after 1967 he cooperated with the right-wing religious settlers in the West Bank in the (futile) hope that they would unknowingly serve the ‘logic of history’, whereby the Jewish and the Palestinian populations were bound to merge into a single Hebrew nation.

Aharon Amir was not the only Young Hebrew to modify his views in the aftermath of the 1967 war. Some of Ratosh’s writings in this period also deviate from the Young Hebrews’ 1948 stance (including his own). While the general conceptual framework (the Palestinians are not a nation; Arab and Jewish pseudo-nationalism must be defeated; a Hebrew polity called the ‘Kedem Union’ must be established) remained intact, Ratosh’s post-1967 version of the emergence of the refugee problem is much less sympathetic to the Arab side and more lenient to Israel, absorbing some of the Israeli right’s arguments:

Some of the refugees were evacuees from territories cleared due to military needs … some of the refugees chose to escape following the advice of the Arabized ‘military command’, in order to return after the great slaughter of the ‘Jews’ following the ‘victory’ of the ‘Arabized’ … a smaller part of the refugees was encouraged [to leave] following our leadership’s guiding principle … that there was no place for non-Jews in the state of Israel.

Thus, Ratosh concludes that Israel carries no responsibility for the misery of the refugees, pointing instead to the Arab states and their supporters from the international community (UNRWA). It is they who perpetuated the refugee problem artificially with the purpose of maintaining enmity between the ‘Arabized’ states and Jewish–Zionist Israel. The deadlock can only be broken by reclassifying the problem as humanitarian rather than political and assimilating the refugees into the Hebrew society.

Resulting from this is the demand to crush, by every means necessary, any violent opposition to Israeli rule by the Palestinians. Before full civil rights can be granted to the residents of the territories, Ratosh envisaged a strict military rule, which would battle the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) guerrillas and ‘bring them to [a] field military tribunal … and execute them. Without the right to appeal. Without mercy’; furthermore, ‘any instigator should be sent to a concentration camp in the desert [sic!]’. All PLO supporters must be treated as enemies and should either be prosecuted or allowed to leave, with no possibility of return. With the ‘instigating element’ removed, the Palestinians will be more than happy to embrace the liberties proposed by Israel.

Uzzi Ornan admitted in hindsight that the harsh words cited above did more damage to the Young Hebrews’ cause than help. Indeed, it gave the Young Hebrews’ opponents the opportunity to accuse them of ‘fascism’ and ‘promotion of dictatorship’ (Ratosh called for a military rule in Israel, limited in time, at moments of emergency like the one in May–June 1967). Even observers who were more sympathetic to the ‘Canaanite’ idea objected to the idea of ‘Hebraizing’ the Palestinians, recognizing in it an element of coercion, though the Young Hebrews never claimed that the Palestinians’ assimilation should be achieved by force, and Ratosh vigorously rejected such accusations. Most of the critics also overlooked the fact that Ratosh called for a death sentence for ‘traitors’ without discrimination; or, in his words, ‘also for not “non-Jews”‘.

Staying faithful to the idea that territorial Palestinian nationalism was not possible, the Young Hebrews regarded the PLO as the spearhead of Pan-Arabism, using national-territorialist rhetoric to deceive Western liberals. Uzzi Ornan, a linguist by training, argued that the latter’s support for the PLO as a national liberation movement arose from a linguistic misunderstanding: ‘wataniyya’ (local patriotism), he asserted, was not similar to ‘qawmiyya’ (understood as Pan-Arab solidarity), though both are translated as ‘nationalism’. He also pointed that the name FATAH carried traditional Islamic connotations. The Palestinian struggle was perceived as an extension of ‘qawmiyya’, regarded as a pseudo-ideology forced upon the ‘Arabized’ peoples by the British imperialists in the early 20th century. Israel, by refusing to incorporate the Palestinians and arguing instead that their interests could only be satisfied outside its realm of control, was an accomplice, according to the Young Hebrews, in encouraging PLO terrorism. Thus, a Zionist sectarian outlook was once again proven to be deadly dangerous for the Israelis.

1987—’My Brother, Hurling Stones at Me’

By the time the Intifada erupted in 1987, only Aharon Amir and Uzzi Ornan continued to profess the principles laid out in ‘Opening Discourse’ (Horon and Ratosh had passed away in 1972 and 1981, respectively; other members of the group, such as Boas Evron or Amos Keinan, have long moved to the Israeli left camp). Amir was especially active as a publicist, promoting a ‘Canaanite’ view of the Palestinian rebellion. In his analysis, its eruption was a fulfilment of the Young Hebrews’ warning soon after the 1967 victory: the lack of integrative policy by Israel would push the Palestinian Arabs towards violent (pseudo)nationalism.

In a poetically phrased appeal to ‘my angry brother, hurling his stones to smash my temples’, Amir attempted to persuade the rebelling Palestinians that their only hope lay in joining Israel in a show of solidarity by building a new society and breaking their dependence on centres of ‘Pan-Arab’ propaganda and the PLO. Consequently, the struggle between the state of Israel and the Palestinians is less in the military sphere and more in the realm of culture and mental outlook. In other articles Amir stressed repeatedly that if Israel did not adopt a propaganda policy directed at the Palestinians (he used the Hebrew word ‘ta’amula’), it was doomed to fight them well into the foreseeable future, thus losing yet another chance of breaking the chains of communal-sectarian social organization on both sides of the Green Line in favour of a liberal–national organization incorporating both communities. Without opening itself to the Palestinians, Amir insisted, Israel would remain merely ‘a thug armed with all the possible weapons of destruction and keeping his mouth sealed’. Thus, before any action could be taken to deal with the Intifada, Israel must first reform from within. This approach, avoiding both right-wing chauvinism and left-wing support for Palestinian ‘nationalism’, allowed Amir to protest against the brutal suppression of the Intifada, on the one hand, and to wage war on the principles on which the Intifada was conducted, on the other. Consequently, Amir remained steadfast in his opposition to a Palestinian state, joining the opponents of the Oslo agreement immediately after its signing in 1993.


In November 1952, an official in the international institutions department in the Israeli ministry of foreign affairs, Alexander Dotan, produced a series of memorandums suggesting a ‘final solution’ for the ‘Arab problem’ in Israel. He proposed delegating to the Arab population (especially to the internally displaced refugees) ‘missionary’ teams that would propagate the advantages of the liberal–secular Israeli Hebrew culture and thus prompt the Palestinians to assimilate into it by abandoning their traditional methods of land-tilling and land-owning. Simultaneously, educational and developmental projects were to be undertaken to entice the Arabs to ‘dissolve’ into Israeli society. Otherwise, warned Dotan, the unhealed wound of 1948 would push them to identify either with communism or Arab nationalism (and those who had already reached this stage, he continued, must be repressed by the authorities). Most unusually, Dotan was apparently mindful of the effects his proposal might have on Jewish Israelis, since he manifestly put forward an amalgamation of the two societies within a Hebrew–Israeli nation; his assimilation proposal did not entail a ‘Judaization’ of the Arabs remaining in Israel after 1948. Essentially, he suggested applying to Israeli Palestinians the same policy of acculturation that was applied to newly-arrived Jewish immigrants from Arabic-speaking states.

Although Dotan’s proposition was strikingly similar to that of the Young Hebrews, it is highly improbable that he was a ‘Canaanite mole’ in the Israeli government. There is no evidence that Dotan was inspired by Horon and Ratosh; moreover, his memorandums were classified when submitted, hence the latter could not have been aware of them; finally, Dotan nowhere pointed to a sharp division between Hebrew and Jewish identities, treating the former as an ‘upgraded’ version of the latter, in accordance with the pre-1948 Zionist ideology. This coincidence, in my view, points to a common ethos, which the Young Hebrews and parts of the Zionist establishment shared: namely, the forging of a modern nation from various ethnic elements regardless of religious and cultural backgrounds. One of the expressions of this ethos was the so-called ‘romantic Zionism’, which pictured the Arabs of Palestine as the descendants of the ancient Hebrews, kin to the returning Jews. Whereas Zionism gradually abandoned this view, along with the escalation of the conflict, the Young Hebrews, whose perception of the Palestinian–Hebrew kinship was based upon environmental determinism and not on the idea of common biological descent typical of Zionism, remained faithful to it and drew from it practical conclusions (presented above).

This analysis has demonstrated that, notwithstanding the small ‘deviation’ after 1967, the Young Hebrews remained unshakable in their position regarding the ‘Palestinian issue’ from 1943 (‘Opening Discourse’) to 1988 (Amir’s Intifada articles). This is not unusual: given that the Young Hebrews’ ideology remained a ‘road not taken’ in Israeli politics, it turned into a rigid doctrine, characteristic of non-hegemonic discourses. However, it was not wholly resistant to development: it did not die out with the termination of organized ‘Canaanite’ activity in 1953, instead remaining present in Israeli socio-cultural discourse, as the decades-long activity by Ornan and Amir proves. The Dotan case is thus in my opinion a manifestation of what James Diamond described as ‘latent Canaanism’. By this he meant certain currents in Israeli social and cultural discourse that to various extents (and to different levels of awareness) reflected ‘Canaanite’-like ideas and concepts regarding Israeli identity and geopolitics, including ideas regarding the preferred treatment of Palestinians. An earlier case in point is the ‘romantic Zionism’ just mentioned; another, newer manifestation of latent ‘Canaanism’ is the readiness among certain groups of Israeli settlers in the West Bank to grant the Palestinians full civil rights after these lands are putatively annexed by Israel, in the name of balancing the country’s ‘unity’ with democracy.

One might inquire whether there was any possibility that the Palestinians would accept the scenario prepared for them by the Young Hebrews. Klaus Hofmann argues that there never was a chance that the Arabs would have willingly shed their historical identity to replace it with another; indeed there is no evidence of any meaningful movement in the Arab world to create a modern liberal polity on the basis of a Hebrew ‘golden age’. Though the ‘Phoenician’ movement in Lebanon and the ‘Pharaonic’ movement in Egypt were perceived by the Young Hebrews as allies in the hoped-for regional liberation struggle, there was no actual cooperation between them. Moreover, the Palestinians came to form a ‘Canaanite’ movement of their own that can be regarded as a ‘mirror’ reflection of the Hebrew ‘Canaanism’—cooperation between the two was thus out of the question. However, I believe that guessing possible Arab or Palestinian reactions to Hebrew ‘Canaanism’ is irrelevant to the understanding of the Young Hebrews’ motives—not simply because history should not be written in the conditional tense. The fact that it never occurred to the Young Hebrews that the Palestinians might have their own ideas about shaping their fate only emphasizes that their appeal to incorporate them into Israeli society was directed above all internally. It is this intrinsic thrust of their ideology that enabled them to welcome Palestinians to their proposed Hebrew polity as individuals, but to reject them as a political community. Defying the Zionist paradigm of the Jews as a nation, the Young Hebrews exposed what they believed was one of the main weaknesses of Zionism, paradoxically written into its essence: that by assuming that a certain primordial ethno-community was a nation, Zionists legitimized the same assumption for other ethno-communities, including the one that vied with them for the Land of Israel.

The geographical outreach of the Young Hebrews’ vision allows us to assess the unstated consequences of their solution to the ‘Palestinian issue’ for Israel and locate it within the Israeli political field. We may presume with a high degree of probability that Ratosh called for the incorporation of the Palestinians into Hebrew society in all the Land of Kedem—that is, to implement his version of the Right of Return also in territories (still) beyond Israeli control (!). This standpoint far superseded any idea promoted by the Israeli radical left and safely placed him among the most hard-line anti-Zionists. At the same time, his unbroken enmity towards Arab and Palestinian nationalism and his post-1967 version of the 1948 events reflected the views of the far-right. The Young Hebrews thus defied the traditional division of left and right in Israeli politics: by rejecting the Zionist historiographic myth of Jewish ‘eternal’ fate (and its various political applications) they were doomed to be regarded as ‘radical leftist anti-Zionists’ by the right and ‘fascist right-wingers’ by the left, as noted with some irony by Aharon Amir. Some may describe the Young Hebrews’ liberal nationalism as the source for the post-Zionist ideal of a ‘state for all its citizens’, close to the bi-national idea promoted by Brit Shalom. While there surely is an intellectual pedigree linking modern post-Zionism to ‘Canaanism’, Ratosh himself abhorred any non-national idealism. Thus, the Young Hebrews’ solution to the Palestinian issue went far beyond bi-nationalism by looking to establish a truly national state for a single nation, one that was neither Jewish nor Arab.