Poet Natan Zach's comments last week on the Channel 10 television show "Hamakor" ("The Source" ) have resulted in a petition accusing him of racism.

The petition, which has been uploaded to the Web, calls upon Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar to take immediate measures against the 80-year-old Israel Prize laureate.

The petition specifically calls for Sa'ar to remove Zach's works from the educational curriculum, to revoke his appointments at every academic institutions where he is employed and to add content addressing the history and culture of Jews with roots in the Middle East to the curriculum.

In an interview conducted with Zach about a week ago, the poet described his impressions of Israeli television, saying that "the Jews from the Oriental communities will get the blacks and the Ashkenazis [European Jews] will get the bastards."

The poet went on to say "The idea of taking people who have nothing in common arose. The one lot comes from the highest culture there is - Western European culture - and the other lot comes from the caves."

The petition states: "It is inconceivable that students, certainly the Mizrahim [Jews of Middle Eastern descent], will be asked to memorize poems by the man who scorns their culture and publicly defines it as an inferior culture... It is the obligation of the Ministry of Education to make it clear to him and to the entire public that it will not permit such despicable opinions to be sheltered under its wing."

While those who initiated the petition have remained anonymous, so far over 500 people have signed the petition, among them many prominent cultural figures, including writer Yossi Sukari, artist Shula Keshet, poet Mati Shmuelof, artist Shay Pardo, musician Ravid Kahalani and cultural researcher Sivan Shtang.

Responding to Zach's remarks, Sukari says the poet's view that Western culture is superior to Mizrahi culture is based on the parameters of the sole culture in which he is submerged.

"Even if we allow this relativist outlook and accept that it is possible to create a hierarchy among cultures and find specific differences whereby one culture is superior to another, the preferential treatment of one ethnic group and the diminution of another still amount to racism," argues Sukari.

Furthermore, he says, "With regard to the fact that we came from 'the caves,' I would like to say that to my great regret, the only person actually in a cave is Natan Zach himself - where it's so dark it's impossible to see even the shadows."

Shmuelof is equally harsh in his judgment, but he points the blame at Channel 10 and "Hamakor," saying they inspire "a culture of provocation."

"Channel 10's attitude toward these question is more regrettable than Natan Zach's," he says. "Instead of asking broad and serious questions on the topic, they found an easy target, this old man who is set in white elitist positions from Israel's dark days."

Scholar and poet Haviva Pedaya prefers to divert the discussion from Zach's remarks, stressing that in her opinion, "The question is not when and why great poets like Natan Zach continue to give voice to the political unconscious that has dictated the educational system in Israel, but rather when and why other great poets and writers - who came from 'the caves' - will succeed in altering social and political awareness."

A reaction from Zach could not be obtained by press time.