No, Zach didn’t invent racism in Israel but gave it a voice, provoking demonstrations and boycotts against him and becoming a disgrace among the educated Mizrahi community. The poet Roy Hasan wrote his poem “The State of Ashkenaz,” which made waves at events by Israel’s Ars Poetica poetry collective.
Hasan, referring to the Ashkenazi 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.” (This poem appeared in Hasan’s first book of poetry, which translates as “The dogs that barked in our childhood were muzzled.”)
Natan Zach’s racism is so different from his clean 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 clean, 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 poetry 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.
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.