Amos Oz, a Warrior on the Intellectual Battlefield for Israel's Character

The great writer, men of action like myself, and the rest of us are responsible for stopping the mad dash toward messianic zealotry, racism and darkness

Amos Oz.
Leonardo Cendamo / Leemage / AFP

We have lost a giant of the intellect, of thought and expression, someone who for his entire life kept both feet not only in the world of words, but in his own way, also in the world of action. Or at least political action. And this, as I witnessed it, is what I want to talk about.

I met Amos for the first time toward the end of 1960, before he had written any books. I was a young soldier on leave from the Sayeret Matkal commando unit, arriving belatedly for a meeting with about a dozen other young people at a kibbutz cultural center.

Everyone’s eyes were on one short but handsome young man. Some of the girls were staring at him longingly. He wasn’t using notes, and he spoke in rich, precise, hypnotic Hebrew. Yes, it was a student from Hulda named Amos Oz.

The country was in an uproar at the time, bitterly divided over a scandal that later became known as the Lavon Affair, which pit David Ben-Gurion against former Defense Minister Pinhas Lavon. Which was the righteous man and which the evildoer?

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The young Amos threw himself into the battle, supporting Lavon and vehemently denouncing Ben-Gurion’s motives and character. I wasn’t convinced; the answer depended on information that neither he nor I had. But the strong impression he made stayed with me. I had never seen anything like it.

From then on, Amos never stopped investigating and shaping our collective consciousness.

“The Seventh Day,” a project Amos and others initiated, recorded conversations with members of the kibbutz movement who had just returned from the battlefield after the Six-Day War of 1967. Kibbutz members made up only about 2 percent of the population, but they accounted for a quarter of those who fell in the war.

Moral high ground

This was when Amos began forming his opinion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A strong, confident Israel must indeed, as Ben-Gurion taught, rest on two pillars – our strength and our righteousness. Throughout his life, Amos argued with a “security-oriented” passion that Israel’s hold on the moral high ground was a necessary condition for our internal unity and strength.

In 1978, he backed the founders of Peace Now, and a year later, he hit us with the essay collection “Under this Blazing Light.” With his rich characters, precise arguments and wonderful Hebrew, Amos became the most prominent spokesman of his generation. He was the intellectual who pointed like a compass to what was appropriate and what was forbidden for a Zionist movement loyal to its values and mission.

Even then, Amos wasn’t afraid to point out the dangers of the “messianic cult” of West Bank settlements, which threatened to grow like a monster that would swallow the dream of an enlightened Zionist Israel.

From then until his penultimate book, “Dear Zealots,” Amos saw himself as a warrior on the verbal and intellectual battlefield, fighting for Israel’s character, image and the path it should follow. The three essays in “Dear Zealots” are his last will and testament, only slightly softened, for Israel’s way forward.

How, he asked, do you cure a fanatic? In this way he underscored the challenge the entire world is now facing.

Our cart – that of the active Zionism of Ben-Gurion and Ze’ev Jabotinsky, of Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin, of Hebrew writers and artists – is no less full. Indeed, the opposite is true. This is the true legacy of Judaism, of the Talmudic dictum: “These and those are the words of the living God, but the law follows the school of Hillel.”

And we are the ones responsible for stopping the mad dash down the slope of messianic zealotry, racism and darkness, and for holding the vision of enlightenment up to the light once again. At least for ourselves, if not for the nations.

From Camp David to Iraq

Over the last 20 years, we met from time to time for private conversations. And I repeatedly found him to be one of the wisest and deepest people I had ever met.

I unloaded my troubles on him as I approached the moment of decision at the Camp David Summit in 2000, describing how our comrade in arms, then-Education Minister Yossi Sarid, was bickering with his deputy from the Shas party instead of rising to the momentous occasion, as his predecessor Shula Aloni had. Amos tried to calm me down. But he was wrong.

I traded ideas with him when I thought America’s invasion of Iraq and ouster of Saddam Hussein were important and correct moves. But Amos, with the intellectual’s keen senses, said that when Saddam’s iron hand was removed, a bubbling broth of unsolvable conflicts dating back hundreds of years would spill out. Much blood would flow and we would all regret it. He was right.

He developed a deep admiration for Ben-Gurion, whom the young Amos had criticized so harshly, an admiration for both his determination and achievements. “The greatest Jew of all time, greater than King David,” he told me. “Just look at the facts.”

Amos preferred modest, sober, diligent leaders with a sense of humor – Harry Truman from the other countries, Levi Eshkol from our own. In one of our conversations, he listed four basics that any political leader must have – an ability to read the map, courage, an understanding of human nature and compassion.

“You have the first two,” Amos told me. “I think I have more of the third, having spent my life studying people. As for the fourth, I don’t know whether you’ve been blessed. Please enlighten me.” I tried.

Amos spent his life in the kingdom of words, not the kingdom of action. But in his experiences and in the path he trod together with us, the men of action, he embodied the parable he told about the blind leading the sighted through the darkness.

“As long as the caravan is moving, the men of letters merely bark or let out a howl,” he said. “But when the caravan stops, or loses its way ... the blind will come and lead the sighted. The travails and scorn and darkness of the man of letters will suddenly point the way.”