“Dear Zealot,” by Amos Oz, Keter Publishing House, 131 pages, 39.90 shekels ($11.27)
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Amos Oz, the one and only, opens his wise mind to us and – as the subtitle of his new Hebrew-language book promises – shares with us three of his thoughts. A thought, by its very nature, isn’t always fully understood and yet it clearly indicates the thinker’s direction. In Hasidism they say “the place a man’s thought reaches – that’s where the whole of him is,” and given that Oz is the unquestioned spokesman of Israel’s Zionist left, “that’s where the whole of him is.” This is both the secret of the charm and the locus of the failure of his important short book “Dear Zealot,” which consists of three essays, each of them a “thought.”
Anyone who wants to understand the psychological, or at least intellectual, situation of the Israeli left must pay careful attention to Oz’s three “thoughts.” In the first of them, “Dear Zealot,” Oz describes fanaticism in general and its Israeli branch as part of a larger worldwide tendency toward zealotry. As he sees it, zealotry has been around for a very long time and it’s not restricted to specific places, cultures, societies or religions: “All those fanatics, they and their ilk, are known to all us all.” He begins with the question: “So how can fanatics be cured?” As he proceeds, it turns out that the illness is major but Oz’s remedies anesthetize us only briefly without being able to find a cure.
In the second essay, “Lights but No Light,” he takes us from universal fanaticism to the intimate Jewish space. “There is indeed a Jewish people but its lifeline is not necessarily transmitted by genes or victories on the battlefield, but rather in books,” he writes. In this “thought,” he builds an elaborate analytical structure on the layers of Judaism’s past in order to arrive – in a forced way – at the imagined confrontation he creates between “the Judaism of the Shulhan Arukh” that evades grappling with the challenges of the current generation and “Hebrew writers who have taken on the role the proponents of Jewish law have fled as though from fire.”
Oz positions himself as the engine heading a train that claims to be cultural Judaism, as a sort of chief rabbi of secular people who believe in a varied, rich Judaism replete with differences of opinion and contradictions. He seeks and finds his innermost essence in the rich abundance of the heritage of the past and builds a whole structure of social Judaism from the days of the Prophets to his contemporaries and himself, Israeli writers today.
In the third essay, “Dreams Israel Should Jettison Quickly,” he tries as best he can to grab the bull of the occupation by its lethal horns. He exalts the compromise of the two-state solution because it is, “in effect, choosing life. The opposite of compromise is not self-respect or integrity or clinging to ideals. The opposite of compromise is fanaticism and death.” In this “thought,” he criticizes both the Palestinian side of the conflict that is viscerally connected to fanatical Islam and the fanatics of Jewish nationalism who are waging “a war of oppression, injustice and exploitation at the Palestinian neighbor’s expense.”
Each of his thoughts would have its place were it a matter of a comprehensive thought progression. Yet some of these arguments implode; they are not at all linked together and are clear testimony to the structural problems of the Zionist left that still – unthinkingly – follows Oz’s philosophy.
In “Dear Zealot,” Oz sets himself up as a “kind of expert on comparative fanaticism” because of his distant childhood in Jerusalem, when he too was “a small, self-righteous, enthusiastic and brainwashed Zionist-nationalist.” But instead of delving into the elements of the fanaticism experience, its causes and motives, he lingers almost exclusively over its wrappings – what it looks like and what it does.
“All-embracing hatred is one of the elements of any fanaticism,” he argues. Correct, but why? And he declares, “The idea of multiculturalism and identity politics in many places quickly becomes a politics of hatred of identities.” Yes, that’s the way it is, but what has gone wrong? “Often blind hatred makes the haters on both sides resemble each other,” he continues. This statement doesn’t offer us any new insight when we’re listening to certain rabbis, preachers and imams.
May his fans forgive me but Oz’s remedies are a bit like homeopathy. They have a good reputation but a meager ability to cure – of which there is no proof. Against the fanaticism that sets the world on fire he offers us curiosity, imagination and humor, especially self-humor. “These,” he says, “could be an effective antidote to fanaticism.”
Let’s also remember that Oz first wrote these things back in 2002, a year after the attack on the Twin Towers. A lot of time has gone by since then and the research, psychological and even artistic insights have become very much clearer. Some of the more profound probes are even very close to here, like the brilliant analysis of “modern religious fanaticism” from the school of Prof. Emmanuel Sivan and others. It’s a pity that none of this found its way into Oz’s thoughts, and thus we’re left stuck with him at the beginning of the 21st century as if life, like his wisdom, has hardly developed at all.
Secularism as a philosophy of life
In his second “thought,” “Lights and Not Light,” Oz moves from the discussion of fanaticism everywhere in the cultural universe to the home field for a discussion of Judaism “as a culture and not only a religion and not only a people.” Here too we have recycled material. The basic ingredients were already published back in 1998, bolstered in 2014 in the book “Jews and Words” that Oz wrote with his daughter Fania Oz-Salzberger and updated this past year.
Despite all the updates, two feelings are hard to shake off. The first is that these things were written as a defense brief for a perishing spiritual reality – secular Zionism – with a strong attachment to a nostalgia for what once existed, and nearly total obliviousness to the changes and innovations that have made contemporary Israeli Judaism something completely different from what is described in the book.
I don’t necessarily accept Oz’s axiom that the innermost heart of Judaism, the deepest and most definite nucleus of the Jewish heritage, is “a culture that saw fit to make the strong answerable for the indignities of the weak.” This is a distortion from the school of the Labor movement that had already taken root and is hard to weed out, part of the Shimon Peres-ish rhetoric about the Judaism of the “morality of the Prophets.”
So let’s say that we accept Oz’s assumption and that we love, as I myself have loved, many of his assumptions and analyses of the Jewish culture of disputation such as “the Jewish people doesn’t like to obey.” It’s still hard to ignore the secular cat in the bag of his Judaism. This cat sometimes emerges in a way that’s not really under control. The following is an example of Jewish humor in its Ozian form: “In fact our Jewish holidays all resemble one another: The bad guys tried to kill us all but they didn’t succeed, so let’s sit down now and eat.”
A little funny but isn’t there something absent from the party? The sequence of our historical holidays (Passover, Purim, Hanukkah and a few more) is like this: They tried to kill us, God saved us from them, let’s eat something. But in Judaism, according to Oz, there is no God and all the holidays have retroactively become “no miracle happened to us, we found no cruse of oil,” in the words of the Zionist pioneer song from the 1930s that debunks miracles and lauds hard work. Secularism is wonderful and God is indeed a kind of imaginary friend, but He was there in all the stories, wasn’t He? Therefore secularism as an alternative philosophy of life can’t invent historical content of its own.
Oz’s secularism also doesn’t hold up in light of his blind admiration for Zionist Hebrew’s cultural, linguistic and literary creations. Some of his fellow writers, especially in the past, were carriers not only of the emotional and impassioned prophetic vision described above but also of explosive baggage like redemption, messianism, patriotism and nationalism – notable among them some of the leading proponents of Zionist socialism. Even S.Y. Agnon, whom Oz so admires, was there at the founding of the Greater Land of Israel movement in the name of that very same renewed Hebrew literature itself.
The second feeling I have from this part of Oz’s writing is pain. Over and over again, Oz strives, in words all taken from the treasures of Judaism, to prove his great erudition. And he is indeed erudite. But the proof is so sloppy you have to be a bit embarrassed for him and his editors and friends who haven’t drawn his attention to it. It’s hard to take his argument seriously when he can’t even cite the basic text – the Bible – the way it’s written.
Let’s begin with the small stuff. King Saul was not a “pursuer of asses” but rather a “seeker” of asses” (1 Samuel 9:3). Ostensibly this is mere semantics, but it’s meaningful for anyone who loves these texts with their direct simplicity. The “seeker” is someone not very focused who wanders around hoping to find what he’s looking for, whereas the “pursuer” – such a proud Israeli – is energetic, has his eye on his goal, initiates things and in only a moment chalks up an achievement. Who if not Oz can change in a single word the character of the first king of Israel and distort the biblical story entirely for his propaganda needs?
Okay, the characterization of Saul is just style, but what about Oz’s sacrifice of Isaac? According to Oz, the patriarch Abraham had to oppose the command to sacrifice Isaac and reply to God: “You yourself forbade us to perform human sacrifices and therefore I refuse to make of my son a burnt sacrifice.” Where exactly was this prohibition imposed on Abraham, or anyone else, before the sacrifice of Isaac? In all the previous chapters in the mythology of the Book of Genesis there is no mention of this at all. Nor is there any mention in the Book of Exodus about the departure from Egypt.
It is only in the second part of the Book of Leviticus, in the part about the priesthood, and afterward in Deuteronomy, that these things are said explicitly. This is how things stand for those who believe in the chronological order of the biblical story and even more so for anyone who believes that the whole Bible is a later work written in the sixth century B.C.E., very many years after the days of the father of the nation.
And if all that weren’t enough, here’s something else from the stories about Abraham, this time Sodom and Gomorrah. The order of events according to Oz goes like this: “Abraham haggles with God over Sodom almost like a used car dealer: Fifty righteous men? Forty and when it turns out that there aren’t even 10 righteous men in Sodom, Abraham doesn’t fall on his knees and beg God to forgive him for his impertinence. On the contrary, he looks toward the heavens and utters the words that are perhaps the most daring in all the Bible: shall not the Judge of all the earth do justly?” (Genesis 18:25).
What does Oz know that we never learned at school? The biblical text is the complete opposite. Abraham cries this out to his God immediately after the threshold of 50. Afterward he apologizes explicitly: “Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, who am but dust and ashes” (Genesis 18:27). Only then does he continue his negotiation as far as 10, and then he stops.
Thus the moral outcry to God is uttered when the number of potential righteous men is still large and significant both in God’s eyes and in Abraham’s, and not, the way Oz’s invented version would have it, at the end of the bargaining. The pain the reader feels is the pain of negligence and perhaps even the pain of the castration of the original texts in the knowledge that there will be no one to pay attention and make corrections. This isn’t the way to conduct a polemic.
The third thought, “Dreams Israel Should Jettison Quickly,” is devoted entirely to the malignant occupation. Oz is right in saying that this is the life-and-death issue for Israel’s future. But on his way there he’s once again tainted by the condescension and limited vision of the Zionist left, the group that played an integral role in creating the situation.
First, there’s a slight contradiction in Oz’s philosophy. If this really is a matter of “life and death to the State of Israel,” and the essential solution is two states for two peoples, that means that delineating the border is one of the most essential objectives. How does that jibe with his statement a few pages earlier? As Oz puts it, “It’s madness to let the question of the borders’ location subordinate and distort all the other issues.”
Something here doesn’t work. Furthermore, his two-state solution is about to reach its expiration date, and all of Israel’s governments – including those in which the Zionist left served and ruled – failed to dismantle a single settlement, though they could have done so.
Oz, as a fanatic supporter of the two-state solution, tramples everything on the way to his expired solution. A single Arab state is inconceivable, and his opinions of the Arabs peer out here and there – and they aren’t exactly flattering. A shared state for Israelis and Palestinians, one secular and democratic – absolutely not. A Jewish dictatorship – of course not. A federation and a confederation – maybe someday in the vague and distant future.
Only two states. But what’s the relationship between them? A full one for the Jews and a lesser one for the Arabs, as is being proposed today by a wide range of Israelis? Or complete political equality, which means Zionists will waive the absolute privileges granted today to Jews only?
Which absolute privileges is Oz willing to give up to enable the establishment of the Palestinian state? Suddenly words fail him and us, and all we can do is imagine the sad present situation. And the relations – will they be a continuation of the separation with a high fence, or will there be a partnership in the shared space? All this is left unsaid, because apparently it’s not important. The main thing is two states.
And if not two states? What should be done isn’t specified, but there’s a broad hint: “Anyone who wants to ignite a world war against all of Islam in honor of the Temple Mount – please count me out, count out my children, count out my grandchildren.” A glorious abandonment of the battle. And why not a civil war against the arsonists? Or a religious war until they’re defeated? Liberalism doesn’t have to fight occasionally for its opinions – only the fanatics have to?
Oz’s style, too, is infuriating and marvelous at once. It’s marvelous because Oz is one of the most outstanding artists to emerge in our time: He has a wonderful command of all the registers and ranges of the language, from the ancient strata to the colloquial spoken language.
Sometimes the language is so polished that its beauty enters the incredible. But this ideological journey is accompanied by almost unbridled condescension. One example is the condescension toward the Arabs that runs through this short book like a motif. When mentioning the intifada, Oz writes, “During the days of the original intifada – our intifada, that of the Jews against the British occupation.”
Nu, really! The Zionist left isn’t willing to allow even that to the Arabs as something original of their own? There are scholars who note the first uses of this word in the Arab Revolt of 1936-1939 that preceded the establishment of Israel by a decade. They say it was inspired by the Syrian revolt against the French and has nothing in common with Oz’s “conquest of concepts.”
And the ridicule continues, at the expense of the Muslim believer as well. Oz mentions “the world to come with or without 72 virgins waiting for him as a prize and as compensation for sacrificing his life.” How does that jibe with Oz’s simple ethical commandment in his book “Do not cause pain”? And are the Jews’ stories of the Garden of Eden much better? And is the sexuality of the Jews there restrained and righteous? Or perhaps Oz didn’t read his own second thought, about the Jewish treasure of lights?
Books of this kind are essential for conducting a lively public discussion, but this is a book composed almost entirely of “I said” with almost no “I say” – something about the future. There is no genuine exploration of the meaning of Zionism today, its achievements and failures, the meaning of democracy in an era of brutalization and tweets, and the place of Jewish renewal and Diaspora Jewry.
What about the Ashkenazi hegemony? And the Jewish Arabs? Is it possible for a Jew to be an enemy and for an Arab to be a partner, or does Oz also belong automatically to the genetic Jewish collective for which a bad Jew is always preferable to a good goy? And why can’t a shared space for Jews and Arabs be part of the two-family house of Israelis and Palestinians? There are many questions, and this little book by Amos Oz offers no solutions at all.