Leonard Quart | Letter From New York: Amos Oz was a writer of passion, moral weight

Letter From New York


NEW YORK — Amos Oz, a leading Israeli novelist, powerful essayist, and prominent advocate for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, recently died of cancer at the age of 79. Oz's books have been translated into 45 languages and he was often considered as a candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature.

One of his most acclaimed works was the best-selling, complex and melancholy autobiographical novel "A Tale of Love and Darkness" (2002) wherein Oz chronicles his childhood in Jerusalem in the last years of the British mandate and the early years of the state of Israel. The title's love and darkness refers to his mother, whose suffering from severe depression led her to take her own life when he was a boy of 12. In the book Oz attempts to describe his feelings for his mother and his anguish in losing her. Oz also strikingly writes of the world he grew up in: "I understood where I had come from: from a dreary tangle of sadness and pretense, of longing, absurdity, inferiority and provincial pomposity "

Though Oz was born into a right-wing family, by age 14 he had become a socialist and joined a kibbutz. Living there he reshaped himself and his future political identity, even changing his name from Amos Klausner to Amos Oz (meaning "courage" in Hebrew). He became a voice for liberal Israel, and an activist as a founding member of Peace Now. After serving in the 1967 Six-Day War, Oz was one of the first public figures to advocate a two-state solution (which he saw as pragmatic) with Palestine. He declared after the conflict ended: "even unavoidable occupation is a corrupting occupation."

Over the decades he criticized the Israeli government for its unwillingness to genuinely negotiate a two-state solution as well as for helping create the settlements and supporting their dangerous proliferation. In recent years he felt "the Netanyahu government led the people of Israel to war against the world," turning Israel into an international pariah. The irony is that both Oz and Netanyahu were shaped as children by Revisionist Zionism (advocates of territorial maximalism), but moved in different political directions.


In Oz's final book, "Dear Zealots: Letters from a Divided Land," he writes of the polarization of contemporary Israel, which sets his brand of liberal Zionism against the hard line religious and messianic. Zionism that has extended its domination over the country.

Oz had no use for fanaticism of any variety, either of radical Islamists who believe they are working for God, or of any group that has contempt for "decadent democracy" and "repulsive pluralism." I share his antipathy to movements that force the individual to become part of a collective that defines the world in absolute black and white, and admire his passion for maintaining his selfhood in the midst of this war of ideologies.

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Oz was also a humanist, who believed a fanatic's fury may be constrained if he (or she) can imagine what his victims are feeling: "To imagine the inner world, both intellectual and emotional, of the other," can transform a person. In his view the zealotry of the Haredim and the Messianic nationalist settlers are seen as threatening — a "belligerent, oppressive fist" — by hundreds of thousands of other Jews who feel they don't represent them.

As a thinker he was secular and pragmatic, a man who believed "the opposite of compromise is not idealism but fanaticism and death." It's a view I myself have tried to live by politically, especially during the 1960s when the seductions of political purity often self-destructively reigned. Consequently, in the third essay in the book — "Dreams that Israel Should Let Go Soon" -- Oz wrote commonsensically that it's an "impermanent fact" that the U.S. is our ally, but Israel's permanent condition is that it "lives in the heart of the Arab and Muslim world." He differed from some of his allies on the dovish left by having few illusions that by signing a peace accord and "withdrawing from the territories, everything will be rosy." But he understodd that if Israel stays in the territories, things will only get worse.


Oz always tried to avoid political simplifications. He recognized that the occupation must end so the Palestinians can realize "their just right to national independence," and he had no use for the notion of a bi-national state. Still, in his view, Palestinians waging a fanatical Islamic war, like Hamas and Hezbollah, must be resisted. Oz saw the conflict on one level as "a tragedy of justice against justice," on another, "injustice against injustice" — a world bound by painful ambiguity.

However, Oz was sufficiently optimistic to feel that both the Islamic right and the anti-Zionist left in holding to the "irreversabilty" of the present situation may be wrong. He recalled how a right wing leader like Begin could shift and sign a peace accord with Sadat, dismantling some of the territories they won, a little more than 10 years after the Six Day War. History is never predictable. As Oz confessed, he loves Israel "because of the argumentativeness, because every staircase in Israel is full of memories and stories and conflicting ideas."

But he remained "fearful of the future" and "ashamed' of an Israel full of fanatics. He saw that a society that has lived so long with conflict has become "more racist, intolerant and unforgiving."

The death of a gifted writer as committed, sane and genuinely liberal as Oz was a great loss to Israel, and the world. He always stood beyond the clamor of fanatics and ideologues, conveying a complex clarity and moral weight about the Israeli situation that few other writers could ever achieve.

Leonard Quart can be reached at cinwrit@aol.com


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