In this essay I offer a radical Mizrahi reading of the poetry of the Ashkenazi Zionist poet Haim Nahman Bialik—that is, a reading that examines Jewish and Israeli history and culture through the radical Mizrahi discourse that has evolved in Israel during the past generation, as part of Mizrahi resistance to the cultural and social oppression of Mizrahim. Equipped with these critical lenses, I read Bialik's poems both in the context of their own time and in the Israeli context of my own life. I focus on three poems that I believe are central to his national poetry: “To the Bird” (“El Hatzipor”) from 1892, “A Small Missive” (“Igeret Ktana”) from 1893, and “City of the Killings” (“Be'ir Hahareiga”) from 1903. I also examine alongside these poems two of Bialik's lesser known lectures: “The Revival of the Sephardim” (“Tchiyat Hasefaradim”), which he gave to an audience of young Sephardim in Jerusalem in 1926, and “Eretz Yisrael,” (“The Land of Israel”), which he delivered to Jewish youths in Kovno (Kaunas), Lithuania, 1929.
In the course of the essay, I argue that by configuring Arab-Jews (Jews from the Arab world) and, with greater vigor, Palestinians, as those who live outside of history, Zionist historiography has enabled both the economic dispossession and cultural oppression of these groups, including their uprooting and relocation from one region to another. A close and retrospective reading of “poems of diaspora and redemption” written by Bialik and his contemporaries reveals the Orientalist and colonialist world view held by the Ashkenazi-Zionists. By speaking always of Sephardicness but not Jewish-Arabness, Bialik acts as a pioneer of the de-Arabization of Arab Jews and their culture, a trend that grew evermore deeply entrenched in Israel's official policy towards Mizrahi Jews. Indeed, it was Bialik—the institution and the literary symbol—who served three generations of Zionist educators devoted to writing a new Jewish history from which the Jews who lived in Arab and Islamic lands during the last few centuries were erased.