Benjamin's Inn

A tribute to artist, writer and editor Benjamin Tammuz, the 'Canaanite,' on the occasion of the publication of a new edition of his writings in Hebrew.

It was 1942. He was 23 and I was 19. I had recently left the Irgun (pre-state underground) and was searching for my ideological and political path. He was a devoted disciple of poet Yonatan Ratosh.

At that time Benjamin Tammuz lived with his mother, Mrs. Kammerstein, on Nahalat Binyamin Street in Tel Aviv, in an apartment filled with his sculptures, mostly of women with small heads and thick thighs, heirs to the Canaanite goddess Ashtoreth. He himself had a large head, which went very well with his authoritarian demeanor and decisive speech. The dominant figure in the apartment was his widowed mother, a short, energetic Russian woman with a very strong presence.

I don't remember how we first met. It was probably after I left the Irgun and had begun writing for newspapers, including Hahevra, an intellectual right-wing monthly edited by well-known Tel Aviv physician Dr. Yaakov Weinschal. One day he gave me a French pamphlet and told me to write a review of it. It was a fascinating work, published by Adia Gurevitch (later Horon), who propounded a new, revolutionary ideology.

A distant cousin of Ze'ev Jabotinsky, Gurevitch railed against his relative's ideas, which Gurevitch felt were too moderate and did not touch the root of the national problem. Even though Zionism rebelled against the Diaspora, Gurevitch viewed this as insufficient, and he rebelled against Judaism as a whole. He perceived it as a kind of mental illness that took hold of the Hebrew nation some 2,000 years ago. He felt that a genuine Hebrew revival would be impossible unless that nation freed itself of all the Jewish attributes that had been attached to it, and returned to being a healthy nation in both mind and body.

The pamphlet, published in Paris shortly before that city fell to the Nazis, made a strong impression on me. I was disgusted by the Yishuv (pre-state Jewish community) leadership and also by that of the Revisionist movement. My recent rift with the Irgun had been traumatic for me and Gurevitch intrigued me. He subverted all the consensuses of Hebrew society. His dogma was very fitting for the spirit of that stormy time, in which all the big "isms" clashed - communism, fascism, Nazism, socialism and liberalism - on the background of a world war in which global reality was changing from one week to the next.

I wrote a passionate, rather exaggerated review. Today, from a distance of 65 years, I can hardly believe that it was I who wrote it. It did, however, have a positive effect. Benjamin Tammuz, whom I had not yet met, wrote and asked to meet me. That is how our acquaintance began.

In those days Tammuz was surrounded by a group of young people, all of whom had Hebraized their names and aspired to be poets and authors like him. Prominent among them were Avraham Rimon and a young man named Megiddo (his last name, unfortunately, escapes me). They met, exchanged poems and stories, and spent time together. Somehow I joined them, belonging and yet not belonging.

Tammuz's life focused on Ratosh. He invested considerable effort in trying to "convert" me. At first he gave me a photocopied, highly confidential pamphlet: a memo Ratosh had written to Avraham (Yair) Stern, one of the heads of the Irgun, who left that underground organization and founded a more extreme one, later known as the Lehi or "Stern Gang." (I had not joined Yair in 1940, when the big split in the Irgun occurred, because he was willing to make an alliance with the Nazis against the British. To a person like myself, who had fled Nazi Germany with his family, that was too difficult an idea to digest.)

Ratosh advised Yair to embark on a truly revolutionary path, to abandon Judaism and Zionism and become a Hebrew freedom fighter. It is hard to say how that affected Yair, because he was killed in 1942 by a British officer. (Traces of this approach, however, were found years later in the speech given by Lehi fighter Eliyahu Bet-Zuri in an Egyptian court, before he was sentenced to death for assassinating Lord Moyne. Bet-Zuri declared that he was not a Zionist, but rather a Hebrew freedom fighter struggling against a foreign occupier.)

Shortly thereafter Tammuz gave me Ratosh's stunning work, "The Committee for the Formation of Hebrew Youth." The pamphlet's cover was emblazoned with 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.

The pamphlet was written in a bold, beautiful, resolute and concise Hebrew style and denounced all things Jewish. To Ratosh, the Jews were nothing but a religious community, whereas in this country there was a Hebrew nation. Unlike Gurevitch-Horon, who viewed Judaism as a mental-cultural phenomenon, Ratosh's definition was biological: A Hebrew was someone born in this country and nobody else. (Ratosh's detractors pointed out that none of his founding group had been born in this country; Ratosh himself was born in Poland, as was his devoted follower, Aharon Amir. Tammuz was born in Russia.) The Hebrew nation was the heir of the ancient Hebrews, who ruled all the area between Asia Minor and Egypt. Back then the Hebrews also included the Canaanites, the Emorites and all the others.

Political vision

The pamphlet also categorically denied the existence of the Jewish people, as well as the existence of an Arab nation or Arab nations. The present "Arabics," as the writer called them, were none other than remnants of the ancient Hebrews, upon whom Arab culture was forced. Our role was to return them to the Hebrew nation, to which they belonged by nature. Arab nationalism was a fraud invented by imperialism. This stance was also the foundation of Ratosh's political vision: The "Hebrew land," which spreads from the Mediterranean to the Euphrates, will become a Hebrew state, and all its inhabitants Hebrews.

I was very impressed by the style of the pamphlet and by the systematic nature of Ratosh's concept. Still, I rejected many of his statements. I explained to Tammuz that it was pure stupidity to ignore the existence of a Jewish collective, regardless of whether it was called a community or a people. I told him that I, too, believed that a new Hebrew nation was arising in this country, but I felt it did not exist outside the Jewish collective, but rather within it - just as Australia, for example, belonged to the Anglo-Saxon people.

I similarly objected to the denial of the existence of the Arab national movement, stating that I believed instead that that national entity was a natural partner of the Hebrew nation in the struggle for liberation against the colonial powers that were still ruling this region. I pointed out the strange similarity between Ratosh's "Hebrew land" and the "Kingdom of Israel" of his sworn enemies - the radical Zionists who spoke of a Jewish state from the Nile to the Euphrates.

Tammuz was convinced that all my doubts would evaporate the moment I met his mentor, Ratosh himself. He arranged a meeting between us at a Tel Aviv cafe. It was intended as a meeting between teacher and student, as Ratosh was 14 years my senior, and already a well-known journalist and poet.

Reports of the meeting, between just the two of us, were later publicized in various versions, but one thing was clear: It ended in a blow-up.

I was not particularly impressed with Ratosh's personality. I found no charisma in him. We immediately started to argue. I told him I found his opposition to Jewish immigration peculiar. After all, the Jewish immigrants would bear children here, and those children would, by Ratosh's own definition, be Hebrews. So, why not encourage their arrival and accept the immigrants as parents of Hebrews - just as the Romans viewed the poor citizens of their city as "proletarians," or "bearers of offspring," who contributed to the state by providing human recruits for the legions?

There is no doubt that Ratosh thought my ideas impudent. The meeting ended, and to his dying day he never spoke with me again. He never even responded when I greeted him on Dizengoff Street. Tammuz saw this as a failure of his efforts, but I believe that over time, he, too, distanced himself from Ratosh's ideas.

Shortly after that encounter, the term "Canaanites" was born. The Committee for the Formation of Hebrew Youth, as the group called itself, viewed the Palmach pre-state militia as fertile ground for recruiting members. After all, that is where the best of the country's youth were concentrated, including Matti Peled, one of Ratosh's adherents, whom I first met at Tammuz's apartment. Peled was an impressive young man who had been born here. An attempt was made to form a secret cell of the committee in the Palmach.

Very quickly rumors spread about strange things happening in that militia: nighttime dancing around a naked girl, as in ancient Canaanite rituals. People began whispering that Noa, a professional dancer and daughter of Levi Shkolnik (later Eshkol, prime minister of Israel), had participated in this ritual. A scandal erupted. The Palmach was the apple of the Yishuv's eye. The leadership expelled all the suspects. Only Peled was allowed to stay on, and later made an illustrious career for himself in the Israeli army. Decades later, when he and I became political partners (in the Israeli Council for Israeli-Palestinian Peace), I asked him about that affair, and he denied outright that there had been any such ritual.

Erroneous label

That scandal had one other result: When poet Avraham Shlonsky heard about it, he derisively labeled Ratosh's people "Canaanites" - and the name stuck. It has also erroneously been stuck on me. The group I founded in the mid-1940s, which became known as the Bama'avak (In the Struggle) group, opposed most of the Canaanites' concepts.

Why am I relating all this? Because in order to understand Benjamin Tammuz the Canaanite of those days, one has to understand the Zeitgeist, the spirit of that period. In the early 1940s World War II was raging. Worldwide ideologies were tussling with one another and also determined the mood of the young generation in nascent Israel. No one was yet thinking about the Holocaust, which had begun during those days. Although there were rumors of the bitter fate of European Jewry, it was more convenient for the Yishuv to ignore them.

The war brought considerable wealth to the Yishuv. The great British army, which was battling in North Africa, needed supplies that it could not obtain via the sea due to the war. Any provisions from Europe and America could reach here only by circumnavigating Africa. The British therefore encouraged local manufacture, and for the first time, large production plants were built in the Yishuv, and construction and service companies flourished.

The economic growth and demographic expansion to a population of half a million gave the younger generation tremendous self-confidence. It seemed that we could make any plans we chose and turn them into reality. The myth of the "sabra," the youth born in this land, whose character traits were the exact opposite of those of the Diaspora Jew, was just taking root. That younger generation believed in its capabilities in every realm. Although the "Canaanite" idea attracted only a few followers, in one way or another its ideas influenced other groups, too.

There was a new creativity here that many perceived as a new Hebrew culture which was not a continuation of the previous Jewish culture. There was a new generation of poets, authors, composers, dancers and other artists - including people like sculptor Yitzhak Danziger, author and playwright Moshe Shamir, novelist Natan Shacham and poet Avot Yeshurun, to name just a few. Tammuz was a prominent member of this group. Almost all were secular, anti-religious, proud of the land-of-Israel reality, and even those who did not accept the "Canaanite" ideas differentiated between "Hebrew" (Hebrew Yishuv, Hebrew army, Hebrew underground) and "Jewish" (Jewish religion, Jewish tradition, Jewish Diaspora). Most of these artists drew their inspiration from the Bible, from the language of the biblical stories that took place in this country.

The new Hebrew culture did not, however, stand the test of time, gradually declining in the years following the establishment of the state. One explanation is that the terrible trauma of the Holocaust, whose details began trickling out toward the end of World War II, sent the Yishuv back to Judaism. Another influence could have been the tremendous waves of immigration in the early years of the state, which put an end to the myth of the sabra and everything connected with it. Some blame the War of Independence, which wiped out an entire age group, including those who could have become the creators of culture in all fields.

On the eve of my enlistment in the army, at the beginning of that war, Tammuz asked me to write a war diary for the Yom-Yom newspaper, the evening edition of Haaretz, of which he was the editor (although officially he was just the deputy editor). Throughout that year of the war I flooded him with reports of battles and of my personal experiences, and thus, without forethought, the book "B'sdot pleshet 1948" ("On the Fields of Philistines 1948") was born.

At that time Tammuz made a very important contribution to the Hebrew experience: He wrote a satirical column called "Uzi & Co.," which I feel is one of his most important works. Among his books, I particularly liked "Pundako shel Yirmiyahu" ("Jeremiah's Inn") - a horror story that describes the state after the establishment of a religious dictatorship. It probably looks less fantastic now than when he wrote it.