Alterman in Newspeak

Judge Menachem Finkelstein's book on Natan Alterman's political poetry obfuscates history in ways the poet rejected, possibly due to his own needs to justify his actions while serving as military advocate general.

Hatur Hashvi'i Vetohar Hanesheq (The Seventh Column and the Purity of Arms ), by Menachem Finkelstein, Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 2011, 286 pp.

Natan Alterman.
Boris Carmi

There is nothing like this book to explain the angry title people used to apply to the Natan Alterman who wrote the weekly poetry column "The Seventh Column" in Davar: a court poet.

Nevertheless, against the background of the banality of the discourse in which this book takes part ("collective security, individual rights" ), Alterman is evident in all his glory, in part thanks to choices made by the author, Menachem Finkelstein: He has chosen the most provocative columns, but by the end of the book, it is clear that Finkelstein agrees with Alterman and Alterman agrees with Finkelstein.

The verses of "The Seventh Column" spanned a generation. They were political verses, written weekly in response to current events from the 1940s to the 1960s. They do not need commentary.

In comparison, it is impossible to read Alterman's poetry books "Stars Outside" or "Joy of the Poor" without commentary. There is a clear division between the political nature of "Joy of the Poor," for example, which requires interpretation in order to be appreciated, and the simple political nature of "The Seventh Column". True, an intellectual or spiritual world that merits serious discussion lies behind these columns, but this book transforms Alterman into someone who sanctifies what exists, with the help of "dilemmas" drawn from poems from the past, and especially from their reduction.

Example: Is it permissible to court-martial soldiers for combat activities? This is a dilemma facing the author or his readers. Not Alterman. He believed it was obligatory to do so and his poetic wrath poured down on those who doubted this. Moreover, here the author, who was military advocate general from March 2000 to September 2004, enlists the not very distant past: "For example, there was criticism when officers and soldiers were tried in military tribunals during the first intifada, at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, and during the fight against terror from 2000 onward."

Note the phrasing "during the fight against terror from 2000 onward." The man who was military advocate general during the second intifada is refusing to call it by its name. What else has been eradicated through invented names? The killing of Palestinian demonstrators throughout the West Bank that October or the targeted assassinations that led to the wave of terror that month, for instance.

Finkelstein himself approved the assassinations. And thus, in the chapter on Alterman's attitude regarding conscientious objection (the Amnon Zichroni affair ), Finkelstein writes: "Refusal to serve in the military has come up often since the 1980s ... and peaked during the fight against Palestinian terror that began in 2002." Again, no reference to the Al Aqsa intifada or any other term aside from "Palestinian terror."

This laundering of language is even more obvious in the context of some of Alterman's columns on slaughter by the Israel Defense Forces. Three of these are discussed in the book: the Lod massacre in June 1948, the massacre in the village of Duweimeh shortly after and the slaughter at Kafr Qassem in 1956. All of them are related directly to a discussion on "The Seventh Column".

Yet in writing about these matters, Finkelstein does a strange thing. As a district court judge, he knows well how these events were presented in court verdicts, but he blurs the details in this book. In discussing the Lod massacre, he refers to the "killing of civilians." And he cites, of all the books written about Lod, the notorious study by Elhanan Oren, which earned him a bad name for how he described the massacre as "the necessary suppression of an uprising." There was no uprising in Lod. Soldiers opened fire indiscriminately at close range on unarmed men in a mosque courtyard, and Alterman wrote about it in "On This."

Finkelstein believes the poem was not written about the massacre in Lod but rather about Duweimeh (on whose ruins Moshav Amatzia was established ). Of course, the former chief military prosecutor's description doesn't contain a single word about the number of dead, the smashed skulls found in a well, the children murdered in cold blood. Finkelstein even mitigates the slaughter at Kafr Qassem, despite the descriptions that appeared in court rulings. Finkelstein describes it thus: "After finishing their work around the region, dozens of people returned to the village. Most of them did not know about the curfew, and upon approaching the village they encountered a Border Police unit, which fired on them at close range."

This is not a full description: Over the course of hours, individuals, couples, people in vehicles and groups returned home, and all were shot at close range, not in a single round, and their corpses were thrown onto a large pile. Even this Finkelstein can launder.

Why is this important? Because Alterman knew the magnitude of the horror, and he hinted at it in his columns on the censoring of the slaughter. His columns addressed the trial and the swift amnesty granted to participants. Did Alterman describe the actual killing? Initially he did not dare. In January 1957, more than two months after the mass murder, he angrily denounced the attempt to establish a public committee to defend the accused. "To the extent the shocking crime has reasons and roots, their sentence should be harsh." That is all he wrote at the time.

Two years later, in October 1958, after the trial, a farce that was compounded when two of the main murderers were granted clemency and received new appointments (one as the security officer at the Dimona reactor and the other as head of Arab affairs at the Ramle municipality ), Alterman had the courage to compare them to "the other sector commanders who enforced the curfew without piles of corpses /and kept it without a pogrom," and further along, without irony, he writes: "Ongoing killing during a curfew in the village."

But something reminiscent of Finkelstein's rhetoric peeped through in Alterman, thus creating continuity between the contemporary jurist and the late poet: Both keep the full story bottled up inside, they don't really talk about it and they certainly don't go into detail. Thus, the quoted verse "On This" - whatever the specific slaughter in the background may have been - states: "He traversed in a jeep the occupied town / a brave, armed youth, a lion cub youth / and in the overcome street / an old man and a woman / were pressed up against the wall." There were not just one jeep and just one soldier, and his victims were not just one old man and woman, but rather scores of people massacred.

That was the secret of Alterman's magic for the regime: You could rely on his poems thanks to his viewpoint, not just behalf of the collective but specifically on behalf of the military elite itself. Therefore Finkelstein can cite Alterman's poem supporting Zichroni's refusal to serve in the military because he was "a conscientious objector," yet jail six youths because they are "not pacifists," but rather "politicals."

While he was military advocate general, the Israel Defense Forces did a number of terrible things to a civilian population. So he decided to adopt "The Seventh Column" to kosher his can of worms. In general, Alterman's attitude toward the law is complex, and it is impossible to understand it only by means of "The Seventh Column." Take, for instance, his horrible rhyme: "For the dagger is righteous in its judgment / But always, as he passes bleeding, / He leaves behind, like the taste of salt / The tears of the innocent" (from "Poems of the Plagues of Egypt" ).

The distinction Alterman makes between "the Law" in its Kantian meaning, which he refers to as "judgment," and the law in its everyday judiciary meaning, is essential in writing about Alterman and his adoration of "the State" and the Law (with capital L ), and his abhorence of anarchy and injustice. One cannot write about Alterman's ambivalence and infatuation with the law based only on "The Seventh Column." But, most of all, when the military advocate general seeks to show his own righteousness based on Alterman, he should be prepared to take some slaps, even if contemporary interpreters of "The Seventh Column" are hooked on the narcissistic need to be "righteous" even when facing the "tears of the innocent."