In early August 1948, during the second cease-fire in Israel’s War of Independence, the culture officers of each of the brigades in the nascent Israel Defense Forces (subsequently, their position came to be known as “education officer”) convened for a discussion on how to portray the enemy’s soldiers to IDF troops. The primary reason for the discussion was an argument that had begun within the army about the brutal and sharply worded style of the Givati Brigade’s “battle pages,” which which were intended to motivate soldiers on the Egyptian front, and were written by the brigade’s education officer, Abba Kovner. Kovner, 30 years old at the time, had been a leading figure in the Zionist resistance movement in the Vilna Ghetto and later in forests with the partisans during World War II.
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“Do not be deterred, boys: As for the murderous dogs – their sentence is one of blood!” he had written in his report of July, 1948, “and the more you excel at running down these dogs of blood, the more profoundly will you be able to love beauty, goodness and freedom. Furthermore, gird your loins, fellows: Our jeeps will become amphibian vehicles tomorrow, because we will be marching in the stream. In the stream of the invaders’ blood.”
A similar tone characterized most of the other fliers distributed by Kovner to Givati soldiers during their months of difficult battles on the southern front.
Did the combat poetics of Kovner – who, in December 1941, had declared in Vilna, “We will not be led like sheep to the slaughter!” and who later became one of Israel’s best-known poets – play a part in formulating the underlying principles of the army that was beginning to take shape at that time? Was dehumanization of the Arab fighter necessary for enhancing the motivation of the Jewish soldier? In general, how desirable and acceptable was it to hate the enemy? These were the main questions posed at that discussion, a summary of which is found in a document preserved in the IDF Archives. According to that summary, Kovner himself was not present during the event, but his spirit and style were palpable throughout.
Two of the discussion’s 15 participants had a positive view of Kovner’s attempt to strengthen the motivation of the Hebrew fighters by making harsh statements about the Egyptians. “There is no cause for panic. The Bible contains sharper expressions than those in the Givati Brigade’s battle page,” said the education officer of the Public Works Brigade (officers’ names are not cited in the document), in an apparent attempt to calm his colleagues. “The enemy should be hated, using all of the tools at our disposal. The ways of war obligate this.”
Similarly, the administrative officer of this predecessor of the army’s Education Corps, explained, “there are grounds for excessive cruelty” in the war against the Arab armies that had invaded Israel. “A sentry can be quietly gotten rid of with just a knife,” he noted.
By contrast, nearly all of the other speakers at the discussion criticized Kovner’s style, and expressed concern about its effect on the soldiers fighting during the war – and afterward. The majority identified with his intent to raise the morale of the soldiers, but felt that Kovner’s language was inappropriate and even dangerous.
“There are things that can be uttered during the heat of battle, but they should not be put into writing thereafter,” said the education officer of the 6th Brigade. It is doubtful, he added, whether the simple soldier would understand Kovner’s flowery language, but if the soldier did grasp the words in their simple sense – this constituted a danger.
Said another officer: “Yes, there is a need to incite them for battle, but we must maintain certain limits on the harshness of expression. In several passages, the combat pages of the Givati Brigade exceeded those limits. These include the references to vehicles that will become amphibious cars and will swim in a sea of blood, the passage that says ‘Slaughter, slaughter, slaughter,’ and other places.”
For his part, the navy’s education officer warned against an atmosphere in which there is “a sort of obsequiousness vis-a-vis the enemy,” as was evident at times in the press – for example, in discourse related to the possibility of allowing refugees to return to the territory of the state.
“Therefore, there is a necessity to teach hatred of the enemy,” he explained, adding, “Hatred is a natural mental process. It should be given expression. Then there will be fewer complications in terms of the soldier’s nervous system. However, limits must be set There is propaganda toward hatred that jars the ear and does not achieve its goal.” To which one of his colleagues added: “We should educate toward hatred – but it should not be portrayed in exaggerated fashion in printed texts.”
The education officer of the Golani Brigade was sharply critical of Kovner’s writing: “The words in the battle pages of the Givati Brigade border on the sadistic. We have keenly felt on our own flesh what slaughter is, and therefore we should not be permitted to speak of it so easily,” he said. “The enlisted man should be made into a soldier, but not into an animal.”
Hovering over the discussion was a concern over the repercussions of a dehumanization of enemy soldiers.
“The heart of the human being harbors beastly instincts, onto which a thin veneer of civilization has been grafted,” said the education officer of the Carmeli Brigade. “If we give vent to these impulses, we will not be able to put a halt to them. If we say ‘Slaughter!’ – we are sanctioning over-zealous cruelty. In addition, we mustn’t forget the life we seek to lead once the war ends.”
Similarly, the Oded Brigade’s education officer suggested that the army find a more balanced way to educate the soldier for battle. “We can educate to win without that being seen as permission to act too forcefully. The appropriate mechanism should be found to educate toward hatred of the enemies,” he said. “War has an effect on all of us. Some of us will be different [afterward] than we were when we entered it.”
Fears of the effect of the war in general – and Kovner’s messages in particular – on the fighters’ souls were also in the thoughts of the education officer of the 8th Brigade. “We will suffer from the war in many respects, and that includes the influences it has on the spirit and morality of our soldiers,” he assessed. “This cannot be prevented. Something sticks to the character of every slaughterer in Israel – even the slaughterer of foul and livestock.”
Similarly, the information officer of the same brigade expressed serious reservations about Kovner’s style: “A call for slaughter and for crushing the enemy dead has an effect on our people, and determines its character. We won’t be able to stop it. Won’t this character also be reflected in the state [we are establishing]?” he warned, then asking others not to be swept up into “the writing and the poeticism” but to weigh each word.
Observed Moshe Shamir, editor of the IDF magazine Bamahane: “Boisterous calls for slaughter educate to cowardice but do not make the youth in the country hate [the enemy], as the young people scoff at flowery language. On the other hand, those who are ‘heroes once the battle is over’ rely on them – those who enter villages and sow devastation in them.” (The article “Political Indoctrination of Soldiers in the IDF, 1948-1949,” by Shay Hazkani, which appears in the Summer 2015 edition of “Israel Studies Review” [in English], deals with various aspects of the officers’ discussion, among other things.)
A different war experience
The statements of the participants reflected the spirit of the time – three months after the establishment of the state and the start of the invasion by the Arab countries’ armies. But to at least some of the education officers, it was clear that Kovner’s poetics did not come into the world during the battles of the 1948 war: Their roots were planted in the experience of another war and a different struggle – one after which the spiritual image of the poet and Givati officer were modeled. “We must not mimic the slogans used by the Russians in the recent war,” said the air force’s education officer. “Our situation is different than theirs was.” Indeed, it is impossible to divorce discussion of the so-called battle pages from one of the major sources of Kovner’s inspiration. Indeed, the spirit and style of his writings can be seen in texts distributed only a few years earlier in the Soviet Union, when Russia was confronting the surprise invasion by Nazi Germany in June 1941, and in the four subsequent years of warfare that ended with the occupation of Berlin and the downfall of Hitler’s regime.
Literary scholar Shalom Luria described this connection in his article “Abba Kovner: The Man and the Provinces of His Poetry,” which appeared in the book “Al Hagesher Hatzar” (“On The Narrow Bridge”; Hapoalim Library), a collection of Kovner’s “verbal essays” that Luria edited in 1981. Luria defined the Givati publication as constituting “a highly unique literary treatise” in Kovner’s creative oeuvre, written in “electrifying” language. It draws on a variety of sources, the scholar explained – first and foremost from the spirit of the Soviet Union’s war on Nazi Germany. The slogan “Death to invaders!” is found on every page. There is mention of “invading marauders”; “Negba” is called “Negevgrad.” There are lines such as “Dogs of murder – blood is their destiny!” And, “The body of the Egyptian snake is now twisted rags and tatters.”
“These words are not necessarily evidence of an attempt to mimic the usual style of the Red Army political commissars in their posters and publications,” Luria assessed. “The war against the Egyptian armies that invaded southern Israel was transformed from this point onward to a battle of life and death, and there is nothing bigger or more important than that... It may be that this war was construed in Abba Kovner’s mind as a metamorphosis and continuation of the existential war against the Nazis.”
Kovner’s literary style is comparable to the language used by another soldier, Jewish-Soviet writer Ilya Ehrenburg, whose articles and leaflets from World War II were etched in the memory of members of his generation, mainly due to his continuing calls for hatred of the Germans, and to kill them. In one of Ehrenburg’s more famous articles, “Kill!,” which appeared in the Red Army’s magazine, he wrote: “If you have not killed at least one German a day, you have wasted that day... If you do not wake up early to kill a German, the German will kill you If you cannot kill your German with a bullet, kill him with your bayonet. If there is calm on your part of the front, or if you are waiting for the fighting to begin, kill a German in the meantime If you kill one German, kill another – there is nothing more amusing for us than a heap of German corpses.”
Messages of this sort were part of the Soviet propaganda campaign during the war. Ehrenburg, who wrote some 450 items for the Soviet military daily Krasnaya Zvezda (“Red Star”) during the war, was perhaps the most notable public representative of this line. So vehement were his calls for vengeance on the Germans that in early 1944, as the Red Army began to advance into Germany, Moscow publicly dissociated itself from his writings. Soviet officials feared that the terror of the Germans in anticipation of all-out, terrible and uninhibited revenge, as Ehrenburg had promised in his articles, might only serve to reinforce the enemy’s resilience against the Red Army.
The necessity and logic behind the effort to indoctrinate Russian hearts and minds to feel hatred and seek revenge was explained by Ehrenburg himself in December 1943: “When the enemy charged at our country, the entire people rose up. The people well knew that they must not succumb to the strength of the tyrants – but in the heart of every person there was chaos,” he wrote in an article called “Obligation of the Author During War,” which was translated and printed in Mishmar (later called Al Hamishmar), the daily newspaper of the Kibbutz Artzi-Hashomer Hatzair movement in Palestine.
“Then the writers came and helped the people to find themselves. They helped every person say all there is to say about their feelings, to dig deep into what was happening and be familiar with it because in order for a person to be able to go out and attack, he needs more than intelligence – there is a need for strong feelings, and it would be no exaggeration if we would say that a war is nurtured by the beating conscience of the people. The writers helped them to understand what the essence of this war was.”
During war, he wrote, writers must raise their sights above literary debates, because at such a time hovering over everything is “the image of war, whose face is furious and demanding: the old song that went out to battle.”
In early 1945, Azriel Carlebach wrote in Hatzofeh, a publication associated with the Mizrachi religious movement, that alongside Stalin’s dryly worded orders to his generals, Ehrenburg’s tempestuous poetry roared, “and raises up and infuses inspiration into the boring order of the day, breathing a spirit of holy zealousness into every salvo of an artillery piece and every thrust of a bayonet.”
Later on, Shalom Luria offered a similar explanation for Kovner’s writings, as well. “The battle page was essentially pathetic – given its intention to promote, elevate and ignite the fighters’ experiential sense. It creates a sort of ritual system by means of the magical use and power of the words. The battle page was also successful even when it elicited a smile on the lips of its readers with its exaggerated phrasing The words pierced the deep stratum in the warrior’s soul and helped him rise above his troubles,” wrote Luria.
Poetics of hatred
Kovner was not the first person to insist, during the years of struggle for independence, that hatred played a significant role in nurturing the fighters’ spirit. He was preceded, in a different political camp, by Avraham (aka Yair) Stern, commander of the Lehi pre-state underground militia, also called the Stern Gang. In his poem “My Heart is Sick with Love for the Homeland,” Stern described hatred of the enemy as the twin sister of love for the country: “My heart is sick with love for the homeland / My blood – from the poison of enemy-loathing / Always do I hate – always do I love/ Hatred and love are inseparable / And forever it will continue to live in me / (Even when my soul is compelled to leave this world) / As fierce as death is my love for homeland / My hatred for the enemy fiercer still.”
What did the Givati soldiers think and feel when reading Kovner’s poetics of hatred? In his memoir “Story of My Life,” Moshe Dayan wrote: “To me, the order of the day ‘Death to the invader’ sounded like a Jewish National Fund poster. I didn’t need ideology to attack in the Negev, and the term ‘invaders’ seemed to me to be taken from the war on the Nazis and was bombastic when it came to our own war.”
About his service as company commander in Givati, Mordechai Bar-On wrote that the soldiers were of two minds when it came to Kovner’s writings. They presumably chuckled at some of his phrasing, but mention of the actions in which they’d taken part imbued them with a sense of pride. He quoted the operations officer of the brigade, Meirka Davidson, who admitted several decades later that “the contemporary reader of these pages will hide his face in shame,” but explained that at the time they were written, Kovner’s words were “a common thread that linked one trench to another, to the platoon, to the company, to the battalion, to the brigade, to the front, to the people in the south. It was a common and passionate thread, which was passed around from man to man at first light of day. The only written word, which arrived and which informed – there is a fighting collective!”
Historian Jehuda Wallach, who served as a battalion commander in Givati, counted among the reasons for the brigade’s success the fact that “the most powerful of all stimuli in a war – hatred – came to life, which Abba Kovner, in his battle pages, nurtured in us. That was no less important than weapons.”
Nevertheless, there were people in those war-torn days who were wary of the style of the belligerent muse that inspired Kovner to write his pages on the southern front. In the summary of the discussion by the culture officers, Yosef Kariv, head of what became the Education Corps, said that there is in fact a danger “that we will be influenced in an inappropriate way by the Jewish tradition that rejects vulgar hatred.” In order to enlist all means to achieve victory, he added, we must nurture the inclination toward evil, as well.
Nevertheless, Kariv then immediately added: “We mustn’t forget that we wish to achieve not only actual victory in battle, but also a fundamental victory in Israel. Therefore, we should impose a safeguard against hatred. It should be rational. We should explain to soldiers why they should hate the enemy, and they will hate the enemy so long as the reason for hatred exists. This is an intellectual hatred that is suited to the Jewish character. We should explain it this way so that the soldiers will believe us and believe our descriptions of the enemy. Exaggeration does not persuade people; if we lose our ability to persuade, we will not be able to persuade the soldier to hate the enemy – which is a condition for achieving victory.”
And so, as opposed to Kovner – and, earlier, Ehrenburg – who sought to imbue fighters with the profound emotional element of utter loathing for the enemy, the man who headed the army’s education system preferred to cook up a “rational hatred.”
As the years passed, calls for hatred and dehumanization of the enemy by education officer Kovner were increasingly viewed as irrelevant and even inappropriate. In 1962, on the 10th anniversary of the death of Yitzhak Sadeh, his successor as commander of the Palmach, Yigael Allon said, “There is no need to hate the enemy in order to fight well. It is enough to love the homeland.”
Ten years later, Bar-On, who too would become the IDF’s chief education officer, wrote: “Any attempt to artificially manipulate the perception and viewpoint of fighters with regard to the image of the enemy is doomed to failure. Even more so any attempt to spread hatred of the enemy and debasement of his image as a human being.”
I wish to refer readers to the article by Shay Hazkani, “Political Indoctrination of Soldiers in the IDF, 1948-1949,” which appeared in the Summer 2015 periodical Israel Studies Review (in English). Among other subjects, the article engaged in various aspects of the discussion held in August 1948 by the brigade education officers.
Historian and media researcher Rafi Mann is an associate professor in the School of Communication of Ariel University. His 2012 book “The Leader and the Media: David Ben-Gurion and the Struggle over Israel’s Public Sphere, 1948-1963” (in Hebrew) was awarded The Prime Minister’s Prize for the Memory of Ben-Gurion.