What Amos Oz Couldn’t See

What Amos Oz Couldn’t See

The late writer’s displays of moral courage will serve as a kind of record for future historians, proof of the efforts of Israelis who did not stand idly by as their country’s skies darkened—as well as proof of their shortcomings.

Amos Oz poses at the Basilica of Maxentius during the 2005 International Festival in Rome. (Marilla Sicilia/Archivio Marilla Sicilia/Mondadori Portfolio)

Amos Oz wrote that as a child he would imagine his own funeral. It would be a state funeral, with eulogies by politicians, “marble statues and songs of praise in my memory,” he recalled in his 2002 memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness. He was not far off the mark. Oz died in late December 2018 at the age of seventy-nine as one of Israel’s most celebrated writers—perhaps its last “national” writer, for no other contemporary Israeli author has as insistently, or successfully, grafted their own biography onto the country’s history. Oz did not die young as a hero on the battlefield as he had once fantasized, but as a different kind of warrior, arguing over Israel’s national culture and political future. To many, his death signified that he, and his camp, had lost.

To those in his camp, Oz represented the romance of the kibbutz, the peace movement, Israel’s enlightened face abroad. To those outside of it, he embodied the Ashkenazi, secular elite and its enormous condescension toward religious and Mizrahi Jews (of North African and Middle Eastern descent). To the right, he represented the kind of Zionism that always apologized to the world for doing what was necessary to survive. To the left, especially the left outside of Israel, he exemplified the kind of Zionism that justified whatever it did as necessary to survive and cried about this terrible necessity, as if tears were enough to expiate its crimes.

Aware of how he was seen, Oz cultivated his roles as ambassador—first of one Israel to the others, then of Israel to the West. He assumed these roles with a combination of agony and relish that can be felt across his work, but which is most perceptible in his nonfiction. In his collection of reported essays, In the Land of Israel (1983), for example, he traveled to ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, the offices of a Palestinian newspaper in East Jerusalem, working-class Mizrahi districts in Beit Shemesh, and right-wing religious settlements in the West Bank, as much to argue as to listen. Intended as a set of snapshots of various “other Israels,” it was also an attempt by Oz, acting as emissary of a waning Labor Zionism, to explain the dovish position, particularly to the ascendant settler right, on the eve of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon.

 

Oz emerged on the Israeli literary scene as part of the kibbutz movement’s vanguard. In the early 1960s, he positioned himself as an ardent defender of “kibbutz values,” which appeared increasingly threatened by the demands of state-building, the growing power of commercial society, and cultural currents coming from abroad. As he proudly remembers in his memoir, he even challenged Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion in the pages of Davar, Labor Zionism’s official organ, for abandoning the core ideal of fundamental human equality. (This idea was preached far more than practiced by the kibbutznikim when it came to Palestinians and Jews from North Africa and the Middle East.)

Oz’s zealous defense of the kibbutz may have stemmed, in part, from his fear that he would never truly belong there—that, as he wrote in his memoir, he would “always be just a beggar at their table, an outsider, a restless little runt from Jerusalem.” Oz was born Amos Klausner, not on a kibbutz but in the West Jerusalem neighborhood of Kerem Avraham, to an émigré family deeply committed to European high culture. He grew up surrounded by books in over a dozen languages and heady debates over literature, Zionism, and the future of Jewish people. His great uncle Joseph Klausner, a major influence on Oz, was a prominent linguist, scholar, and critic who kept busts of Ludwig van Beethoven and Vladimir Jabotinsky, the father of Revisionist Zionism, in his living room.

After his mother’s suicide, the teenaged Oz abandoned his family’s petit-bourgeois nationalism for the völkisch socialism of the Hebrew “pioneers”—the “blond-haired, muscular, suntanned” warrior-farmers, with “their rugged, pensive silhouettes, poised between tractor and plowed earth.” (Oz’s writing tends to treat fair hair, light eyes, bronzed skin, and brawn as marks of character, a symptom of the hatred for the stereotypical diaspora Jew at Zionism’s core.) He left Jerusalem—though the city would become the setting of his most successful books—for Kibbutz Hulda, a Labor Zionist stronghold in central Israel, and changed his last name to Oz—in Hebrew, “courage” or “might.”

There was something untimely about Oz’s adoption of the kibbutz movement. He sensed this, too; even as he joined the movement, he worried that its high idealism was becoming a thing of the past. In 1967, with Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War and subsequent occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, it became even clearer to Oz that Labor Zionism had begun to falter.

Though he did not call for an immediate withdrawal from the occupied territories, as others on the Israeli left did, Oz was among the few Jewish Israelis at the time to warn that a protracted occupation would lead to disaster. “Even unavoidable occupation is a corrupting occupation,” Oz wrote in 1967, “an enlightened and humane and liberal occupation is occupation.” And while Oz recognized what the occupation meant for Palestinians, who now found themselves under military rule, his primary concern then and later was what the occupation was doing and would do to Israelis.

The reactions to Israel’s victory shocked Oz. What was supposed to have been Zionism’s rationalist, secular left wing seemed overtaken by the euphoria and even messianism unleashed by the end of the Six-Day War. Oz was repulsed, he wrote, by “the mood that had engulfed the country immediately after the military victory, a mood of nationalistic intoxication, of infatuation with the tools of statehood, with the rituals of militarism and the cult of generals, an orgy of victory.” Oz would never abandon Labor Zionism, but from 1967 on he would represent its dissenting tendency.

 

For Oz, as for many Labor Zionists, 1967 was the year Zionism’s rightful captains lost control of the ship. Though members of the Labor Party would remain at its helm for a decade more, the winds had turned against them. Religious Zionism surged, its spiritual leaders heralded the opening stages of the Messianic Age, and true believers moved—quite a few from the United States—to settle the newly “liberated” territories. In 1974, following the Yom Kippur War, this movement would gain institutional form with the establishment of Gush Emunim (the Bloc of the Faithful) and dramatically alter the course of Israeli history. Then, in 1977, the event still referred to in Israel as hamahapach, or the upset: Menachem Begin—a man whom Oz recalled mocking as a child for his unidiomatic Hebrew—was elected, in part by Mizrahi voters frustrated and marginalized by three decades of Labor Party rule.

Begin’s victory—Israel’s first transition of power from one party to another—seemed to confirm that Labor Zionism could no longer claim to represent the core of Israeli society. The right took over the pioneer mantle and pursued settlements in the occupied West Bank, Gaza, and Sinai. Begin’s victory also marked the first major crack in Ashkenazi hegemony. Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, “the throngs of Sephardim, Bukharians, Yemenites, Kurds, and Aleppo Jews” Oz had encountered at Revisionist movement rallies in Jerusalem, could no longer be ignored.

Oz would often insist that his political writings and fiction were separate. “Novels for me have never been a political vehicle,” he told the Irish Times in 2014. And yet his 1987 epistolary novel, Black Box, gives an expressly libidinal interpretation to this historic shift in power. The book’s male protagonist, Alex Gideon, is a famous professor, decorated general, and expert on fanaticism—one of Oz’s enduring interests—living in the United States with terminal cancer. The plot begins when his ex-wife, Ilana, sends him a letter from Israel seven years after their acrimonious divorce asking for money to help with their troubled son, Boaz. Ilana has remarried, to a French-Algerian Jew named Michel, whom Oz caricatures as a swarthy, scripture-quoting zealot with gold-rimmed glasses, a gold-chain watch, and bad cologne.

Alex, exemplar of the old Ashkenazi elite, is dying. He has been replaced—in the home, in bed, in politics—by Michel, the traditionalist North African Jew dedicated to settling the occupied territories. But that is not all. After Alex first agrees to send money to his ex-wife, he becomes increasingly involved in her new family’s affairs. The checks he sends, intended to aid Boaz, become increasingly large: they finance Michel’s renovation of his and Ilana’s house, an update to Michel’s wardrobe, and, eventually, enable Michel to quit his job as a French teacher to focus on organizing the settlement movement in the West Bank. The reader is left wondering whether Alex’s late-life generosity is the result of subtle extortion, or simply a dying man’s desire to set his affairs in order.

At the core of the novel is a truth that Oz was reluctant to admit. In his nonfiction, he frequently wrote as if the religious Zionists were entirely to blame for the settlement enterprise—“their messianic intoxication” and “moral autism,” as he put it in In the Land of Israel, having “brought about a collapse of Zionism’s legitimacy” after the 1967 war. But the fiction of Black Box was much closer to reality. The occupation would not have lasted as long as it has if Labor Zionist leaders had not helped perpetuate it. Oz, like many Labor Zionists, focused his criticisms on Israel’s Michels and too infrequently acknowledged the extent to which Israel’s Alexes were just as deserving of blame.

Oz’s characterization of Michel most clearly exemplifies the combination of condescension, jealousy, and contempt with which the deposed Labor Zionist elite viewed their “Oriental”—the literal translation of Mizrahi—compatriots. The Mizrahim found themselves doubly stigmatized. When they were out of power, confined to remote development towns in the desert or urban slums, they were written off as backward, primitive, inclined to petty crime; once they’d gained a measure of political power, they were to blame for the “collapse of Zionism’s legitimacy,” for the corrupting violence of the occupation. But was it not the Ashkenazi pioneers, the Zionist settlers from the Pale of Settlement, who were responsible for the violence that drove hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes? Who were the kibbutznikim, who built their ethnic-exclusivist communes over the ruins of Arab villages, to talk about morality? What made 1967 different from 1948?

 

Oz’s answer to this last question was his greatest blind spot. Until his very last days, he was prone to facile, often marital metaphors for solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the two sides needed “a divorce”; coexistence would not be “a honeymoon”; the land was like a house that needed to be divided “into two smaller next-door apartments.” The idea that such a neat separation could be possible is ludicrous to anyone who has been to the West Bank in the last decade, where more than half a million Jewish settlers now live, many in militarized gated communities wedged between Palestinian villages. In 1967, and perhaps even in 1995, things looked different. But the more Israel changed, the more Oz stayed the same. A self-described opponent of fanaticism, Oz never wavered in his devotion to the two-state solution, even when it began to appear like the kind of messianic vision he had spent his whole life opposing.

In the end, Oz refused to fully accept the Palestinian perspective as legitimate. He had no trouble recognizing the injustice of forcing Palestinians in the West Bank to live under perpetual occupation; he even tried valiantly, though perhaps unsuccessfully, to convince Jewish Israelis of this. “If they feel themselves to be under occupation, then this is indeed occupation,” Oz said of the Arabs before an audience in the West Bank settlement of Ofra. “One can claim that it is a just occupation, necessary, vital, whatever you want, but you cannot tell an Arab, You don’t really feel what you feel and I shall define your feelings for you.”

But while Oz could accept the Palestinians’ feelings about 1967, it was different for 1948. For Oz, 1967 was the beginning of the corrupting, unjust, and unjustifiable occupation; it was the primary obstacle to peace, and its end would mark, if not the end of the conflict, then at least the beginning of the end. But 1948—the violent displacement of roughly 700,000 Palestinians from their homes—was nonnegotiable and entirely morally justifiable. The Jews in 1948, Oz claimed, were like a drowning man; the land was his plank. “And the drowning man clinging to his plank is allowed, by all the rules of natural, objective, universal justice, to make room for himself on the plank, even if in doing so he must push the others aside a little.” The cumulative effects of rapid Jewish settlement and the war of 1948, however, did far more than “push the others aside a little.” They ended Palestinian society as it had existed for generations and turned an entire people into refugees.

Oz knew that for Palestinians, 1948 was the Nakba—the catastrophe—and 1967 the Naksa—the setback—and not the other way around. Yet he demanded the singular right to define the legitimate way to think and feel about what had happened. For a writer who spoke so much about the imperative of empathy—who captured so sensitively the suffering of refugees and “the darkness of exile”—Oz could not accept that for Palestinians, the events of 1948 would always be at the heart of the conflict. It is a shame, too, that Oz was unwilling to use his powers of imagination and sensitivity to envision what real, egalitarian Arab-Jewish coexistence could have looked like.

 

Was Amos Oz a great writer? He certainly thought so. He believed that Hebrew literature was a branch, though perhaps a small and brittle one, of the same great tree of European literature to which Chekhov and Tolstoy belonged. And he wrote to prove this was true.

His fiction, however, was strongest when evoking the particulars of place: the winding streets and narrow alleys, the smells and sounds of Jerusalem immediately before and after Israel’s founding. In his prose, the city itself became like a character, its architecture—limestone buildings and enclosed courtyards—enchanted, almost sentient.

His fiction was weakest when attempting to inhabit the subjectivities of people unlike himself, especially women, whom Oz often imagined as promiscuous, selfish, and untrustworthy. My Michael (1968) is a haunting portrait of Jerusalem in wartime, but its protagonist, Hannah Greenbaum, is an unconvincing depiction of an unstable woman given to lusting after young boys. Ilana, the main female character in Black Box, is a compulsively adulterous sex addict who, in a somewhat notorious passage, describes Michel, during sex, “like a humble restaurant violinist who has been permitted to touch a Stradivarius.” Arabs, meanwhile, only occasionally appear in Oz’s fiction and rarely as full characters.

Mostly free of these missteps, his nonfiction was uneven. He thought himself a man of peace, and yet he often seemed compelled to justify wars. He could be sanctimonious and unoriginal. Whatever socialist commitments he had held in his youth had mostly attenuated by middle age, as he turned toward a kind of anti-political criticism of fanaticism—his final book was titled Dear Zealots—and identified one of his enemies as “the sentimental gauche,” Western defenders of national liberation movements in the Global South. But at his best, and A Tale of Love and Darkness is indeed his best work, Oz succeeded in etching an image of a lost world down to its most granular detail, and in so doing brought it to life.

It’s no coincidence that A Tale of Love and Darkness won accolades internationally as well as in Israel. Though the book is indeed a memoir, to view it solely as such is to miss the scale of its ambition. It is an attempt at a total history of Oz’s family and, by extension, of a particular but significant segment of European Jewry—the Jews from what the American-Jewish poet Philip Levine called “Russia with another name.” With novelistic flourish and abundant digressions, Oz traced his distant forbearers back to their towns in Lithuania and Ukraine and followed their path to Mandatory Palestine in the shadow of the Second World War. That the book retrieved the common ancestry of a portion of Israeli and American Jews may partially account for its popularity in the United States, where it was made into a film, directed by Israeli-born American actress Natalie Portman, in 2015.

But A Tale of Love and Darkness was also published in the midst of the Second Intifada. Instead of a Jerusalem of blown-up pizzerias and suicide bombings, where violence and death had become part of the everyday routine, Oz conjured a Jerusalem of émigré scholars, displaced rabbis, and resilient refugees, a city bustling with activity and life, filled with incessant philosophical musing and political sparring, but where the ghosts of Europe’s atrocities were never fully out of sight.

Most of all, without having to do so explicitly, A Tale of Love and Darkness argued for Israel’s moral legitimacy and necessity at a time when it seemed to be in jeopardy. The characters in Oz’s memoir are men and women who narrowly escaped drowning and found, just in time, a plank—the land of Israel—that could save them. Reading the book made it all but impossible to claim they did not have a right to be there.

Which is perhaps why Oz, in 2011, sent a copy of the book to Marwan Barghouti, the imprisoned former leader of Fatah’s paramilitary wing, with a dedication reading, “This is our story, and I hope you read it and understand us better. Hoping you will soon see peace and freedom.” Oz’s gift, and particularly the dedication, caused a public outrage in Israel. Speeches were canceled. There was even talk of revoking his prizes.

It is hard to think of another act that better encapsulates both the bravery and the insufficiency of Oz’s politics. On the one hand, here was a small yet powerful act of resistance to the prevailing common sense, a gesture of reconciliation toward a man most Israelis consider a terrorist. On the other hand, it implied not only a desire for dialogue but a hope for a kind of conversion—that Barghouti would read the book and recognize its rightness.

How Oz will be remembered is, of course, impossible to say. But public displays of moral courage such as his letter to Barghouti will likely serve as a kind of record for future historians, proof of the efforts of Israelis who did not stand idly by as their country’s skies darkened—as well as proof of their shortcomings.


Joshua Leifer is an associate editor at Dissent.


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