Was Alterman an Orientalist?

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For many years Natan Alterman, the main poetic voice of the Jewish community in Palestine before and after the establishment of the state of Israel, published a regular poetic column in major Hebrew dailies. His major body of journalistic verse—“Hatur hasheviʿi” (“The Seventh Column”) published in Davar from the 1940s through the 1960s—enjoyed unprecedented popularity and influence and, in effect, earned him the title of national poet. In “Hatur hasheviʿi” Alterman provided a resonant poetic response to all the tragic and dramatic events in the history of the Jewish people in the twentieth century, culminating in World War II, the Holocaust, and the bitter struggle for Israel’s independence. He continued this in the early years of the state. One of the challenges facing the new state was absorbing the massive waves of immigration streaming to its gates. This challenge was compounded when dealing with immigrants from Asian and North African countries (Mizrahi, or “Oriental”), whose cultural background was very different from that of the veteran absorbing population, which was mainly of European origin (Ashkenazi). In his journalistic poetry Alterman evinces a consistent pro-Mizrahi stance. He sides with them in all their struggles, empathizes with their pain and hardship, idolizes their toil and trouble. At the same time, his poems dealing with the Mizrahi aliyah (Jewish immigration to Israel) are strewn with extreme Orientalist images and motifs. This article exposes and analyzes Alterman’s Orientalist discourse but also tries to provide a reading that might bridge the gap between this discourse and his political stance.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)78-113
Number of pages36
JournalProoftexts - Journal of Jewish Literature History
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2022

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies
  • Religious studies
  • Literature and Literary Theory


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