Widely the recognized as one of Israel’s great poets at the time of its founding, Uri Zvi Greenberg (1896-1981) produced verse in both Hebrew and Yiddish. Greenberg gradually moved during the 1920s and 30s from a commitment to Labor Zionism to the Revisionist Zionism of Vladimir Jabotinsky, even serving in the first Knesset as a representative of the party that would later become Likud. In the wake of the Arab riots of 1929, which left 133 dead, Greenberg wrote the short poem “Sicarii II,” which took its name from a group of radical anti-Roman zealots from the Jewish Revolt of the 1st century CE. Yisrael Medad comments on its meaning:
Greenberg’s poetry became more responsive to Arab hostility—and British obsequiousness to that hostility—to Zionism’s goals of reconstituting the Jewish national home, a goal that had been guaranteed by the League of Nations in 1922. . . . In this poem Greenberg places an immediate emergency—the pogroms of August 1929—in a familiar religious and historical frame of reference. Layers of history are invoked to mobilize and encourage, and to suggest the value of reviving old patterns of response to contemporary threats. He is enlisting recruits for a new Hebrew renaissance, which will correct the past mistakes of the Jewish people.
Greenberg employs phrases or terms straight out of talmudic and rabbinic sources or prayers such as . . . Psalm 44:23: “for Thy sake are we killed all the day; we are compared to sheep for the slaughter.” [Likewise his invocation of a] pillar of fire recalls the trek of the Children of Israel leaving Egypt. The Sicarii were the extremist faction during the siege of the Second Temple who used short swords, hence their name, [which is Latin for “dagger-men”]. The events of 2,000 years are made available as resources for Jews in Palestine.
Greenberg’s choice of “heroic fighting Jews” is eclectic yet subversively inclusive. . . . He adds those who died in pogroms, Inquisition torture chambers, and autos-de-fé. Yet Greenberg’s twist is to turn this lachrymose history around by returning to the Sicarii to create a new myth.
Greenberg is using his poetic genius to sharpen awareness of the need for a recalibration of the policies required to assure the success of the Zionist enterprise in the Land of Israel. This territory is not a “land of the Exile,” a corner of the Dispersion. It is the territory of recall of the heroic deeds of the Hebrew nation, of David the guerrilla warrior, his “mighty men,” of the Zealots, Bar Kokhba, and the Sicarii.