The Story Behind the Most Influential Newspaper Column in Israel's History

An intimate conversation with the leaders of the Jewish militias on the night that the UN announced the partition of Palestine inspired Natan Alterman to write the quintessential poem of bereavement and resurrection.

Israeli poet Natan Alterman.
Courtesy of Channel 1

In the evening, after the end of the Sabbath, on November 29, 1947, two closely connected events occurred. The United Nations General Assembly adopted by a large majority the plan for partitioning Palestine, and, at the spontaneous party that broke out at Tel Aviv’s legendary Café Kassit – the hangout of bohemian literati and artists – the proprietor, Hatzkel (Yehezkel Weinstein), did the unimaginable: He treated the guests to champagne, on the house.

There, amid the sounds of the loud singing and the fumes of alcohol, a new poetic infant was conceived. The poem, which came into the world 20 days later, earned its progenitor everlasting glory. Natan Alterman wrote “The Silver Platter,” probably the ultimate poem of bereavement and resurrection in Israel’s history, about half a year before the state’s establishment.

Not everyone who grew up here over the years with that iconic text is aware of the chronology. And it is perhaps the most astonishing fact of all about “The Silver Platter” – more than its poetic power and even more than the pretentious opening Alterman allowed himself. (It starts with an ellipsis, which generally appears at the end of a sentence, not the beginning, and it is immediately followed by a conjunction, vav [“and”] – a letter which in standard Hebrew is not used to open a sentence and evokes biblical texts.)

The author deserves kudos for the timing of the poem’s publication: Indeed, the text catapulted Alterman from the status of diligent, witty chronicler to prophet. The time period covered by the prophecy is about a year and a half.

In “The Silver Platter,” Alterman describes the end of the War of Independence. In reality, its very last battles were fought between March 5 and March 10, 1949 (during Operation Uvda, involving the conquest of the southern Negev desert, including Eilat), although the final armistice agreement, with Syria, wasn’t signed until July of that year. Between the UN resolution and the actual end of the hostilities (“And the land will grow still,” Alterman’s poem begins), the country was swept up by a military, social and human drama. That was foreseeable. Alterman chose consciously to pass over it with the ellipsis and proceed directly to the finish line.

People celebrating the UN decision on the partition of Palestine ride on an armored police car in Jerusalem, 1947.
Hans Pinn, GPO

In his illuminating biography, “Alterman” (in Hebrew), Prof. Dan Laor relates that already in the course of that champagne-heady night in Kassit, Alterman was afforded an intimate opportunity to grasp the scale of the expected drama and tragedy.

Between the boisterous songs and dances, Laor writes, the poet listened to a conversation between his friend Yitzhak Sadeh, the founder of the Palmach, the strike force of the pre-state Haganah militia, and Yosef Avidar, a senior Haganah commander. Avidar whispered to Sadeh that the creation of the state would exact 10,000 victims. Alterman listened on in silence. Laor cites a later interview with Avidar’s wife, the poet Yemima Avidar-Tchernovitz, who was also in Kassit that night and recalled that Alterman had a look on his face that was “filled with anxiety and pain.”

Alterman, for his part, was adept at translating his impressions about current events into a weekly newspaper column, written in the form of a poem with rhyme and strict meter. This was second nature for him, at the time. From 1934 until 1943 he published the poems in Haaretz, in a column titled “Moments,” and signed them “Agav” (literally, “by the way”) – but everyone knew who the author was.

The column was secondary to Alterman’s main job at the newspaper: He did five or six shifts as an editor on the night desk, and because he was fluent in four languages, he was also in charge of translating reports from foreign news agencies and newspapers. He did not receive a separate fee for his rhyming columns – remuneration for them was considered part of his monthly salary.

At the age of 33, after nine years of working at Haaretz and with a series of successes as a poet and a popular songwriter under his belt, Alterman asked the paper’s editor-in-chief, Gershom Schocken, for a raise. Alterman’s personal expenses had risen, not least because he was dividing his days and nights between two women: his lawful wife, the actress Rachel Marcus – the mother of their only child, Tirza Atar, who would herself gain fame as a poet – and his paramour, the illustrator Tsila Binder.

The UN vote on the partition of Palestine, 1947.
GPO

When Schocken turned down his request for a raise, Alterman crossed the road to Davar, the organ of the Labor Zionist movement. Some maintain that the move suited his goals politically as well as financially. It’s also said that the source of Alterman’s frustration with Schocken was not only financial, but also related to the latter’s refusal to issue a collection of “Moments” columns under the imprint of the family’s prestigious publishing house.

In any event, Davar was a major newspaper at the time, and Alterman’s rhyming column was given a central platform there. It appeared every Friday on the far-left column of page 2 – the position that was the source of its mythic name: “The Seventh Column.”

Capturing the drama

The column now appeared under the byline “N. Alterman,” and accorded its author the singular status of poet-journalist. Indeed, in the context of “The Seventh Column,” Hebrew literary scholar Dan Miron attributed to Alterman the “persona of the national poet, who speaks in the name of the whole nation and expresses its innermost feelings during a test of unprecedented gravity.”

The momentousness of the period and the nation’s innermost feelings became very clear to Alterman after the UN partition resolution and the conversation he heard at the cafe between the two ranking security figures.

Six days later, he published a column in which he sought to evoke the dimensions of the drama. He titled it “And There Was Evening,” a transparent reference to Genesis, juxtaposing the creation of the world with the creation of the state – even as the intoxicated celebration of the end of the British Mandate and the anticipated establishment of the Jewish state was intermingled with looming horror at the impending war of survival. But the poem did not arouse any special feelings among Alterman’s loyal readers.

His second attempt to capture and translate the coming drama appeared two weeks later: “The Silver Platter.” The inspiration for the poem, which appears in an epigraph – a device Alterman commonly used in his newspaper columns – was the dictum, “A state is not given to a people on a silver platter.”

Ironically, that phrase came from Haaretz: The writer and historian of the Land of Israel Dr.Mordechai Naor author of the book “The Eighth Column,” about Alterman’s pieces in Davar, has noted that four days earlier, Haaretz published it in the course of a report derived from the coverage of Reuters and two Jewish news agencies a speech delivered by the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann at a conference of the United Jewish Appeal in Atlantic City.

Weizmann had been speaking in English, and it was Shmuel Gilai, a translator at Haaretz, who rendered his words into Hebrew, and thus coined the phrase “magash hakesef” (literally, “silver platter”), which Alterman then picked up from the paper.

The context in which Alterman wrote was, however, far more dramatic. After their conversation in Kassit, the dire prophecy of Sadeh and Avidar had become a concrete reality: The hostilities erupted the very next morning and were becoming more intense by the day. By December 18, the day on which Alterman submitted the column for publication, the violence had already claimed the lives of no fewer than 120 Jews.

In his work on Davar’s night desk, Alterman learned about the tragic events in real time and first-hand. The reports came thick and fast. The most searing was perhaps an account of an incident in which 14 escorts of a convoy en route to the Ben Shemen youth village were killed by an Arab Legion force. Alterman dedicated “The Silver Platter” to the symbolic image of “a young girl and a boy,” wearing battle gear and covered in dust – salient representatives of the so-called Palmach generation that was the object of his admiration in that decade. In an almost erotically charged image, he writes of “the dew of their youth.” From the other side, the grateful nation is described as “in tears / And amazed.”

In his portrayal of this rite of passage-sacrifice, the poet embalmed the image of the 1948 war for the coming generations as a life-and-death war of defense in which the finest of the homeland’s young people gave their lives to obtain Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel. Alterman was also diligent about ensuring the desired impact of the poem, ending it by writing, “And the rest can be found in the history books” – though a better translation of the original, in keeping with Alterman’s evocation of the Bible, which he knew well, might be, “And the rest shall be told in the chronicles of Israel.”

People celebrate the UN decision on the partition of Palestine in Tel Aviv, November 29, 1947.
Hans Pinn, GPO

The fact that the 6,000 Jews who would die in the war (the country’s Jewish population was 600,000 at the time) would include many civilians – some of them elderly, together with a not inconsiderable number of new immigrants and Holocaust survivors, some of whom were sent to the killing fields with all possible dispatch – was of course not known then. And even if Alterman had somehow intuited this information from his prophetic powers, it’s unlikely that he would have let those facts impinge on the unity and power of his imagery.

By this time, the poet-journalist, who was only 37, had published 216 weekly columns. Many of them generated spirited public discussion. But nothing compared to the influence, both immediate and cumulative, of “The Silver Platter.”

By this stage, the national-Zionist pathos that Alterman embraced from a very early stage in his publicist writing was familiar to his readers, as was the acuity of his perception and his linguistic virtuosity. But something more was present here. As Laor also observes in his biography, it’s not only the incredible speed of the response by Alterman that’s astonishing, but also his ability to cut to the bone and distill a subject. Six stanzas, 27 lines, 136 words in the original Hebrew.

Sometimes that’s all that’s needed to write history.

The Silver Platter

And the land will grow still
Crimson skies dimming, misting
Slowly paling again
Over smoking frontiers 
As the nation stands up
Torn at heart but existing 
To receive its first wonder
In two thousand years
 
As the moment draws near
It will rise, darkness facing 
Stand straight in the moonlight
In terror and joy 
 
...When across from it step out
Towards it slowly pacing In plain sight of all 
A young girl and a boy 
Dressed in battle gear, dirty
Shoes heavy with grime 
On the path they will climb up
While their lips remain sealed 
To change garb, to wipe brow
They have not yet found time 
Still bone weary from days 
And from nights in the field 
Full of endless fatigue
And all drained of emotion 
Yet the dew of their youth
Is still seen on their head 
Thus like statues they stand
Stiff and still with no motion And no sign that will show If they live or are dead 
 
Then a nation in tears
And amazed at this matter
Will ask: who are you? 
And the two will then say 
With soft voice: We--
Are the silver platter On which the Jews’ state Was presented today 
 
Then they fall back in darkness
As the dazed nation looks
And the rest can be found
In the history books.

Translation by David P. Stern