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Radicals In The Land Of Canaan: Zionism’s Forgotten ‘Young Hebrews’

By: Seth J. Frantzman

The death of polymath Amos Kenan and recent Canaanite archeological finds at Beit Shemesh remind us once again of the obscure movement known as Canaanism, founded by a handful of right-wing Hebrew resistance fighters who decades later would become fountainheads of radical post-Zionism.

The Canaanites were mostly either native-born Sabras or immigrants of the Third Aliyah between 1919 and 1924. Except for their leader, Yonatan Ratosh (Halperin), who was born in 1908, this was a group of men born during and after the First World War, mostly in the early 1920s. They were thus almost all in their twenties during Israel’s war of independence.

Ratosh was an early follower of Jabotinsky and Revisionist Zionism but had a falling out with the movement’s leadership in 1937. He had befriended Avraham (“Yair”) Stern who would go on to found the Lehi in 1940. He was also an intimate of Eliyahu Bet-Zuri, a Hebrew University student who assassinated Britain’s Lord Moyne in Egypt in 1944 and who in turn was executed by the British.

After leaving the Irgun, Ratosh went to Paris. It was during this time that he honed his thinking about Canaanism. He was assisted by his two brothers, Svi Rin (Gamliel Tzvi, a.k.a. Zeev Khanun) and Uzzi Ornan. Rin was a commander of the Irgun in Jerusalem. Ornan was arrested by the British for membership in the Irgun and deported to Eritrea.

Canaanism was to be totally secular. The Canaanist program was for “no distinction regarding religion, ethnic group or origin, and for the recognition of the distinctiveness of the nation living within the State of Israel as opposed to Judaism at large.”

(This idea of separating Judaism from the Jewish state is alive and well and can be found today in the secular left’s opposition to the notion that Israel be recognized as essentially a Jewish state.)

Most Canaanists were born in Europe, but younger members such as Ornan, Kenan and Matti Peled tended to be Sabras born in cities. Ratosh, who had edited the Irgun newspaper Ba-Cherev, founded a journal called Alef for his new movement. Benjamin Tammuz, who tried to recruit a young writer named Uri Avnery to the movement, was an editor of Haaretz’s Yom Yom night edition and it was he who hired Avnery to write dispatches from the front during the 1948 war. Ratosh also wrote for Haaretz. Later, Avnery, by then editing and publishing the leftist Haolam Hazeh, hired Kenan to write for him.

They were all radicals. Kenan, Tammuz and Peled had been Communists, then radical right-wingers, and still later left-wing peace activists. In 1952 Kenan and a former Lehi colleague were implicated in the attempted assassination of transportation minister David-Zvi Pinkas after Pinkas moved to ban public transportation on Shabbat. Yitzchak Danziger, a phenomenal sculptor, expressed his Canaanism by constructing a giant statue of Nimrod for Hebrew University. The statue was uncircumcised.

Archeological discoveries, including that of old inscriptions, helped lay the foundation for a Canaanite ideology. Avnery recalls the “the new national flag proposed by Ratosh: a blue and purple flag, the royal colors mentioned in the Bible, with golden bull’s horns, emblematic of the first letter of the ancient Hebrew alphabet.”

One might think a movement that desired nothing more than to resituate Jews in their original Middle Eastern environment and turn them into a new Hebrew people would have shown an interest in the Sephardi and Mizrachi Jewish immigrants who arrived in the 1950s. Most of the Canaanists who had been in the Irgun and Lehi served alongside Sephardim (who made up about a quarter of the Irgun’s ranks) and who, like the Canaanists, were concentrated in the cities rather than the countryside cooperatives.

But even a potential connection between Canaanism and Sephardim had to wait until the late 1950s. It was then that Baghdad-born writer Nissim Rejwan, an advocate for preserving Sephardic culture, struck up a relationship with Canaanite founding father Aharon Amir, a prolific writer and translator (and former member of the Likud and Lehi undergrounds).

As Rejwan recalls, “the Canaanites fiercely opposed the idea of Pan-Jewish nationalism [and] did not consider Arabs alien in culture or nationality, and Jews coming from the Arab world were for all intents and purposes Arab.” Through his meetings with Amir, Rejwan came to realize he could not agree with the Canaanite position that Arabs and Jews both had to be “made into Hebrews.”

In 1957 Amir began publishing Keshet, a cultural quarterly. In the 1960s he founded a “Hebrew Thought Club” with Dr. Ezra Sohar and Adia Gurevitch (Edya Horon). Rejwan recalls that “even that tiny band of aging Young Hebrews was to be dismantled because of equally tiny differences of opinion. It is, after all, in the nature of all such small and highly ideologically-oriented groups to be torn by such differences.”

Gurevitch died soon after and Sohar ran for Knesset for a tax policy party. Today Sohar serves on the steering committee of the Ariel Center for Policy Research. He and Amir both gravitated toward the right in Israeli politics, with Amir arguing in favor of annexing the West Bank. While Uri Avnery used the 1967 conquests to immediately advocate, through a letter to Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, independence for the Palestinians, Amir advocated annexation and Sohar wrote about the demographic problem.

To what degree is today’s radical left in Israel influenced by the ideas of Canaanism? What connects leftists to Canaanists is the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, which employed a disproportionate number of Canaanites and today features a disproportionate number of radical Israel bashers (Gideon Levy, Amira Hass, Yitzhak Laor, etc.) who lose no opportunity to write the most extreme things about their country. But they are not Canaanists. They don’t have any interest in a Hebrew nation in Palestine; for them there is only the Palestinian Arab nation.

On a fundamental level, this evolution of Canaanism was only logical. Deracinating the Jewish people in order to turn them into a “Hebrew nation,” seen at the time as a noble goal that would lead to the creation of a new nation-state and a final break with the Diaspora, was in fact a crime against Jewish peoplehood and Jewish history.

The story of Matti Peled should suffice to demonstrate the problematic nature of Canaanism. Born in Haifa in 1923, he grew up in Jerusalem and became a member of the Palmach in 1941. In 1967 he was one of the hawkish generals who demanded a preemptive strike against Egypt. In the wake of the war he completed a Ph.D. in the U.S and returned to Israel to help found the Arabic Language and Literature department at Tel Aviv University. In 1975 he joined the Israeli Council for Israeli-Palestinian Peace.

On September 4, 1997, Peled’s granddaughter Smadar was blown up by a suicide bomber on Ben Yehuda street in Jerusalem. Peled’s daughter, Hebrew University Professor Nurit Peled-Elhanan, the mother of Smadar, insisted that “my little girl was murdered because she was an Israeli, by a young man who was humiliated, oppressed and desperate to the point of suicide and murder and inhumanity, just because he was a Palestinian.”

She compared the terrorist to Israeli soldiers at security checkpoints and declared, “there is no basic moral difference.”

Meanwhile, Peled’s son Miko, who lives in San Diego, is a supporter of the “one state solution” and condemns the “Israeli Apartheid system.”

There can be no greater testament to the failure of Canaanism than Miko Peled’s hostility to Israel and Prof. Peled-Elhanan’s justification of the murder of her own daughter.

Seth Frantzman is a columnist for the Jerusalem Post. His front-page essay “Early Reform and Islamic Exoticism” appeared in the June 5 issue of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at

Copyright 2008

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