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belated obituary:

Sabba, how do you say, in Hebrew, Decolonization?*

On the 20th anniversary of poet Yonathan Ratosh's death

Oz Shelach

6 Apr. 2001

Listening to memory I can hear my grandfather saying, his daughter in law's, my mother’s name, grammatically emphasizing the last syllable:Illana. The menthol odor of Polaris cigarettes permeates the room; a bottle of 777 Brandy materializes on the table, and books cover the wall. My mother did not like the Hebrew name affixed to her when she was eight, replacing her original name, Liane. She disliked it even more when people corrected her in its pronunciation. She presented herself as Illana, emphasizing the middle syllable, the way most people pronounce this name. But Sabba knew what was right and what was wrong, determined what was right and what was wrong. In a poem my father, his son, liked to quote, he wrote: “In the beginning was Justice/ And Justice was with me.”

Sabba was immersed in his life. He did not visit us much. We did not visit him much either. I grew to know him through relatives, friends, and books. They told me anecdotes. How in the 1930’s he collected and constructed a Hebrew military vocabulary when he edited a booklet written by his terrorist friends, HaEkdo’ah, literally The Pistol. How for this purpose he invented a Hebrew word for “range,” based on a similar word from the bible. How he denied knowing Yiddish. About his slip of the tongue, when he told a journalist that only someone born in Israel could be a true Israeli; forgetting that he was born in Warsaw himself.

His presence was well felt at our home. In the rich,accurate, sometimes literary language we spoke, in the love for word games, in the knowledge that language creates the world; and in our “Israeli,”or “Hebrew,” or “Canaanite” identity. To this day the Israeli Ministry of the Interior grants members of our family, and no one else, identity cards that read “Nationality: Hebrew.” Some of us, and I among them, carry these cards in spite of a Supreme Court ruling (!) that “Hebrew” is nothing but a synonym for “Jewish”; a kind of historical privilege, like, say in England, special permission to wear a red scarf in the presence of the Queen**. I was taught from a very early age that we are Israelis, that Judaism is a religion, and is behind us. I understood our identity primarily as a harsh debate with the state that refuses to recognize its own true identity, and ours; an unbridgeable gap between us and religious people, as well as Jews of all kinds.

I recognize this debate, but wish now to belittle its importance. All in all it was an internal affair, a private discussion among Jewish colonists in Palestine. As boring as the internal debate between religious and secular Jews in Israel. As heated and sterile as this last decade’s debate about “Post”-Zionism. Like the supposed disagreement between open supporters of mass deportation and war criminals who speak highly of Peace; a false representation of an argument between parts that stand together as one body to block the gate, to barricade the border, to keep five million refugees locked outside the house.

And in these dark days, in the transition period between one murderers’ government and the next, I was approached by an editor in Haaretz – a newspaper whose name alone, literally “The Land,” or “The Country,” illustrates its problematic status; a paper that Grandfather had once worked for; the very paper which, since the beginning of this current massacre, tries to include an op-ed by a Palestinian writer once a week – inviting me to write something about my grandfather, to mark the 20th anniversary of his death. A privilege of the kind that lands in the laps of me and my likes, the children of the oligarchy. Grandfather’s poetry books are available from libraries***, and I can look things up, even do some fact checking in the biography written about him,another one of those privileges etc… and say what I think.

I think the urge to erase Jewish identities is inseparably bound with the erasure of Palestinians. I think it is inseparably bound with the Zionists’ embracing acceptance of the erasure of Jews from Europe and from the Arab world. I think my grandfather gave this urge an extreme variant – fascism with a particular fetish for language, so close in time and place to the Arab Ba’ath ideology, so disconnected from it – but that it characterizes the entire Zionist project from its inception to this day, inseparably bound with the wish to repress the big ethnic cleansing which is the state of Israel.

I think this urge is also manifest in our custom, us Israelis, to speak loudly, to correct everyone, to start whatever we have to say with “You need to understand that…” generally not to listen, not to listen to anyone who doesn't threaten us with violence, and, more than anything, not to listen to the refugees on whose destruction we live. Indeed, “Israelis,” or “Canaanites”, “Sabras,” or “Settlers”, how could we think of ourselves as locals if we notice the locals?

From my grandfather’s poems those that interest me here were written in the 1930’s, before the Canaanite ideology, before the “debate.” But he considered them important. In 1969 he revised them and published them in a special limited edition, a facsimile of his handwriting, under the title “Sword Poems.” Here are three examples from the chapter “Blood Poems”:

Rot! Rot! […]
On the wall a foreigner stands And there is no hero among the people

(“And he will ask”)

In black conspire the tents of Arabs […]
And the alien is on the land of Israel […]
Wondering, rambling is a nameless Arab […]
And the enemy is on the land of Israel […]
Preparing, gathering is a nameless Arab […]
And the next morning, you will find my back stabbed


And land was given - to the conqueror

("To the Dreamer")

“Foreigner…” “alien is on the land of Israel…” Poems of praise to robbery. Poems of service to arms manufacturers and real-estate dealers. Poems that are as appropriate to the first twenty years of the project as they are appropriate to the recent twenty.

There are many things I would like to ask my grandfather. About his childhood in Warsaw, about emigrating at age 11, about grandmother, about relating to women, about nationalism, about possible uses for talent and status. The conversations I would like to have with him I simulate on my own.

Let’s say we are seated in a coffee shop, in Tel Aviv.

Sabba, I ask, how do you say, in Hebrew, decolonization?

He pours us generous portions from the bottle of cheap brandy.

Sabba, I ask, have you ever thought of writing in Yiddish? Or in Arabic?



* This piece was commissioned by Haaretz Culture and Literature section and published on April 6, 2001, in an edition dedicated to my grandfather,Yonathan Ratosh (1908-1981). My grandfather was born Uriel Heilperin and later Hebrewized his surname to Shelach, but is best known by the pseudonym he used for his poems. In addition to poetry he wrote essays and polemics,and was a prolific translator of literature to Hebrew from French and English. To this day his poetry is considered innovative and influential among Hebrew poets. He was the prominent speaker for the highly controversial “Hebrew”,or “Canaanite” ideology – professing the birth of a new Israeli nation,connected to the land and its pre-jewish Hebrew culture, calling for a total break from Judaism and Jews in the diaspora – arguably its founding father.

** Indeed the State of Israel does refuse to acknowledge an Israeli nationality. The said id cards, which all citizens and residents are required by law to carry on their body at all times, can state “Nationality: Jewish,” or “Nationality: Druze,” or “Nationality:Arab,” but not “Israeli.”

*** Even in NYC.


Oz Shelach is an Israeli writer, and journalist. He runs this web site, and his book, Picnic Grounds: A Novel in Fragments, was published by City Lights Books, SF, in 2003.