The son of a distinguished Hasidic family, Uri Zvi Greenberg was raised in Lvov and received a traditional religious education. Before he was twenty, his first poems, written in Yiddish and Hebrew, were published in contemporary periodicals. He was drafted into the Austrian army in 1915 and served until he deserted two years later. Returning to Lvov, he witnessed the pogroms of November, 1918, an experience that made a formative impression on him.
Greenberg lived in Warsaw and Berlin, continuing to write and edit both in Yiddish and Hebrew. He moved to Eretz Yisrael in 1924, and from then on he wrote exclusively in Hebrew. Although initially considered a poet of the Labor movement and a regular contributor to Davar, the Labor Party daily newspaper, by the end of the decade Greenberg distanced himself decisively from the political leadership of the Yishuv and aligned himself with the Revisionist movement. Following the Arab riots of 1929, Greenberg became one of the most extremist members of the party, and he was its representative for a few years in Poland and at several Zionist Congresses. During the 1930's, and particularly following the unrest of 1936, Greenberg deplored what he deemed an overly moderate response by the Yishuv and a deferential posture of self-restraint towards the Arabs and the British.
In Poland at the outbreak of World War II, Greenberg himself escaped to Eretz Yisrael, but the rest of his family perished in the Holocaust. In the previous decades Greenberg had envisioned and warned of the destruction of European Jewry, and to him, the Holocaust was a tragic but almost inevitable outcome of Jewish indifference to their destiny. Indeed, for Greenberg, the notion of Jewishness and the essential, inviolable difference between Jews and Gentiles is what underlies his thought.
Greenberg believed that the Covenant with Abraham, later renewed with the Jews at Sinai, is the basis of Jewish being. There is no denying that Divine election, and everything the Jew does must, in the spirit of messianic redemption, act to further and realize the sense of chosenness. The past is the basis of the future, and the Kingdom of Israel, which reached its zenith under King David, will be revived. Hence Greenberg's antipathy towards a humanistic or universalistic approach to Judaism; on the contrary, being Jewish means being different and distant from non-Jews. For Jews to ignore their path can only lead to a continuation of the violence against them that has marked much of their history, and while Greenberg blamed the world for its silence during the Holocaust, he faulted the Jews as well for their own blindness. In settling the land of their forefathers, Zionism helps Jews realize their promised redemption, and for Greenberg, the role of Hebrew poetry is to express the messianic vision.
Greenberg retained his right-wing politics throughout his life. During the Mandate, he was a member of the Irgun, and following the establishment of the State, he represented the Herut Party in the first Knesset. After the Six Day War, he joined the Greater Land of Israel camp. Despite what many deemed his extreme political views, however, his work has been widely recognized. In 1957 he was awarded the Israel Prize for his contribution to Hebrew Literature, and in 1976, on the occasion of his eightieth birthday, the Knesset held a special session to honor him.