Erez Bitton
Erez Bitton Flash 90

After 67 years, Israel has still not learned how to deal properly with immigrants, said Balfour Hakak, former director of the Hebrew Authors Association. 

Hakak, along with his brother Herzl - the current director of the group, were responsible for sending the petition calling for the Israel Prize in literature to be awarded to poet Erez Biton.

Biton, known as the “poet of the immigrants,” was born in 1942 in Oran, Algeria, and immigrated to Israel in 1948. At the age of 10, he was blinded by a stray hand grenade that he found. He spent the rest of his childhood in Jerusalem's Institute for the Blind.

He earned a degree in social work from Hebrew University and worked as a social worker. Later in life, he studied psychology at Bar-Ilan University. Biton also published a weekly column in the Israeli newspaper Maariv.

He has published five books of poetry, most of them describing the trials and tribulations of Sephardic and Mizrahi families who immigrated to Israel in the 1950s and 1960s, and were unable to easily fit in.

“Biton was a pioneer, giving voice to the changeover from a culture dominated by respect for fathers to one where the young ruled,” said Hakak. “In the east the family structure was traditional, led by a great grandfather or grandfather, surrounded by his children and their wives, and their children. As the patriarch, he felt greatly honored, like the High Priest in the Temple."

“But here, all that evaporated,” Hakak explained. “Everyone lived on their own, and in the end the elders, like my grandfather, were sent to an old-age home.”

Today, as well, Israel is failing to properly relate to new immigrants and their cultures. “Zionism takes in the children, but ignores the elder generation," Hakak argued. "The children go to school where they are taught things that are in opposition to what they learn at home. Schools ignore the culture of the home, and this causes a dichotomy that is difficult to bridge.”

So it is especially rewarding that the state is finally beginning to understand its mistakes, and the awarding of the Israel Prize to Biton is a symbol of that realization, Hakak said.

“When we were young, the only modern history that was taught was that of European Jewry. Now, there are special courses in schools on the history of Eastern Jews. There has definitely been some success in changing things.”