A Wonderful Israeli Poet – and Also a Racist

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Acclaimed Israeli poet Natan Zach, who passed away on November 6, 2020, in 2009.
Natan Zach at his home in 2009.Credit: Alex Levac
Mati Shemoelof
Mati Shemoelof

“The idea arose to take in people who have nothing in common. Some come from the highest culture – Western European culture – and some come from the caves.”

This is how the late prominent poet Natan Zach, who passed away last week, described Israeli society in an interview for Israel's Channel 10 in July 2010. Talking about current Israeli television he also added “It's filled with screwing and with colored people shooting other colored people, probably for the Mizrahi viewers. The Mizrahim get the colored, and the Ashkenazim get the screwing....” 

No, Zach did not invent racism in Israel but he gave it a voice, provoking demonstrations and boycotts against him and becoming a disgrace among the educated Mizrahi community (descendants of Jewish communities from the Middle East and North Africa).

Rising Mizrahi poet Roy Hasan even referred to Zach's racism in his critical and significant poem “The State of Ashkenaz” which made waves back in 2013. Hasan, referring to the Ashkenazi (a descendant of Jewish communities in Europe) writer Yoram Kaniuk, who died in 2013, wrote: “I did not mourn Kaniuk / And I burned Natan Zach’s books / And I do not celebrate your independence / Until a state is established for me / If you divorce me, I’ll go.” 

Natan Zach’s racism is so different from his heartfelt writing about human destiny: “Not good, a man being alone / But he is alone anyway. / And he’s waiting and he’s alone / And he lingers and he’s alone. / And he alone knows / That even if it is delayed / Let him come, he will come.”

Upon learning of his death, most writers treated Zach’s poems in a dignified and loving way. Kindness and lamentations poured out from all corners of Facebook. I waited until after the shivah, the seven-day mourning period, to write about the Ashkenazi left’s euphemisms and the silence of the Mizrahi camp after the passing of someone who was called a national poet.

How can one write about “Not good, a man being alone” and forget his words about the Mizrahi people who came “from the caves”? How can one forget an entire generation of Mizrahim who were educated on Ars Poetica’s poetry events, the verse of Adi Keissar, Roy Hasan and others?

The euphemism was celebrated. Articles celebrated Zach’s universality, his existentialist writing, his joining of the literary group Likrat (Toward), the many musical adaptations of his poems, and so much more. No mention was made of the fact that European racism internalized by German Jews had emigrated with them to Israel.

Natan Zach was born in Berlin in 1930 as Harry Seitelbach to a German-Jewish father and an Italian-Catholic mother. Like many German Jews, the struggle between East and West penetrated into their way of thinking. The German Jews saw themselves above the East European Jews, and so the ethnic hierarchies of Europe penetrated into the internal Jewish discourse.

Natan Zach in 2004.Credit: Nir Kafri

Later, with the emigration of German Jews to Israel, the East-West classification also emigrated. And what Zach said about the Mizrahim is actually a whole genre that was brought into Israel, and within “the East” the Mizrahim were placed, and within “the West” the Ashkenazim were placed, and the deal was sealed.

Researcher Aziza Khazzoom explained this in her 2003 article “The Great Chain of Orientalism: Jewish Identity, Stigma Management, and Ethnic Exclusion in Israel.” She showed that an entire discourse in which Mizrahim didn’t exist had moved into the Middle East and imposed on Mizrahim’s ethnic hierarchies something they did not know before (within the Jewish discourse).

Amid all the lamentations, I would expect those same men and women with intellect, daring and integrity to connect these two extremes of the universal so-called writing of poetry in Israel with racist writing and thinking, and to tell the truth. Natan Zach was a wonderful writer but was part of a generation of Ashkenazi poets who were racist and imported racial and ethnic classifications into Israeli culture. And in retrospect, we couldn’t have enjoyed Natan Zach’s poetry without understanding the context in which it was cast.

It’s not good to be alone, but I’m alone in this review, and I expected many to write similarly and connect the dots without losing love for Natan Zach, though without ceasing to be angry at his ignorance.

Mati Shemoelof, a poet and writer, is the author of the German-Hebrew work “Bagdad-Haifa-Berlin,” published by Aphorisma Verlag in Germany. He blogs at https://mati-s.com/.

Click the alert icon to follow topics: