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Foreign Means to Local Ends: Bialik, Emerson, and the Uses of America in 1920s Palestine


In 1926, Haim Nachman Bialik, the premier poet and leading intellectual light of the Zionist movement, sailed for New York on a five-month-long fundraising mission on behalf of the yishuv, the pre-statehood Jewish settlement in Palestine. After his return, the poet gave a long speech in Tel Aviv, recounting his impressions of the United States before an audience of thousands. The America that Bialik presented to his listeners, this essay begins by arguing, should be read as tissue of widely circulating tropes and mythemes, which the poet had absorbed during his formative years in Europe as well as in the course of his 1926 tour. The essay then proceeds to discuss the uses to which the poet puts this (largely borrowed) narrative of American difference, focusing in particular on Bialik’s ambivalent response to the futural (largely Emersonian) ethos to which he returns time and again in his speech, and which he seems to simultaneously endorse and reject. The main part of the essay’s argument is devoted to making sense of this ambivalence, which I attribute to the diverging “temporal imaginaries” that underwrite Zionist and American exceptionalisms.

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