Israel Prize-winning poet Natan Zach dies at 89

Berlin-born writer who helped shape Israeli poetry was a lightning rod for controversy in his later years over a number of political, racial statements

Israeli poet Natan Zach (screen capture: YouTube)
Israeli poet Natan Zach (screen capture: YouTube)

Israel Prize-winning poet Natan Zach died Friday at the age of 89.

Zach was seen as having had a great influence on Hebrew poetry throughout its early decades. Multiple renditions of his poems have been performed by a wide variety of Israeli artists over the years.

Zach published more than two dozen books, including several that were translated into other languages, and won a number of international prizes.

Zach was born in Berlin in 1930 and emigrated to Israel in 1936. He participated in the 1948 Israeli War of Independence and published his first collection of poetry in 1953.

A graduate of The Hebrew University with a degree in philosophy and political science, Zachs traveled to England and lived there between 1968 and 1978 where he earned a doctorate from Essex University. Upon his return to Israel, he taught at Tel Aviv University and the University of Haifa.

Natan Zach, undated (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

Zach won the Bialik Prize for literature in 1982 and the Israel Prize for Hebrew poetry in 1995.

“A poet, critic, editor and translator, Zach has exerted great influence on the development of modern Hebrew poetry,” the Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature says in its online biography. “He was the leader of a group of post-Independence poets who changed the face of Hebrew poetry in the 1950s and 1960s.”

Despite his critical acclaim, he had been a divisive figure for years for both his political and his racial comments. His most controversial moment may have been in July 2010, when, in an interview on Army Radio, he made a comparison between European and Middle Eastern Jews, saying: “The one lot comes from the highest culture there is – Western European culture — and the other lot comes from the caves.”

That comment caused hundreds to sign a petition to have his writings removed from the national education curriculum.

In 2014, Zach again stirred up controversy when he took out an ad in the Haaretz daily defending Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s use of the term “genocide” to describe “Protective Edge,” Israel’s military operation in Gaza that year.

Controversy followed Zach into 2015 after he placed an ad in Haaretz supporting Abbas in one of his exploits. Zach wished the Palestinian Authority president “blessings on the way to the Hague,” as he traveled there for a preliminary investigation into alleged Israeli crimes during the same Gaza conflict.

In 2014, Zach, over 80 at the time, married his longtime cleaner and helper Sarah Avital, and was soon after hospitalized for Alzheimer’s.

Controversy also followed Zach to the hospital. According to a Channel 13 report from February of this year, his wife hospitalized him quickly after getting married and, being his legal guardian, did not allow his friends to visit him.

The report cited a number of his friends and associates who claimed they were kept from visiting him for no reason other than to isolate Zach. The report even featured a recording of Zach asking a friend for legal help against his wife who wanted to “take control of all my property.”

A number of his associates turned to the High Court of Justice and even the Israeli president in an effort to visit Zach, according to the report.

President Reuven Rivlin on Friday eulogized Zach: “Who will now encapsulate for us the essence of pain? Who will knead the Hebrew language with such an original, precise hand? Who will describe for us the life we could yet have between us?

“Rest in peace dear Natan, poet of day-to-day life, poet of the now.”

Culture Minister Chili Tropper called Zach “one of the most important Israeli poets, and his huge influence on Israeli culture and song will last for generations.”

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