Amos Oz Challenged Israelis. Now His Work Should Be Our Moral Compass

The giant of Israeli literature didn’t hobnob with celebrities, but put the reader in the street, the garden and the kibbutz and brought out the pain and anxiety of Israeli life

Amos Oz in New York, November 14, 2016.
GEORGE ETHEREDGE / NYT

In recent years, I never imagined that Amos Oz was in the twilight of his life, so vital and poised did he always seem. Of course, I only observed him from a distance. But Oz gave the appearance of being comfortable with his status as an Israeli icon.

When he spoke in public, his pronouncements emerged so complete and polished that he could have been reading lines written for the stage. If you heard enough interviews with Oz, you would occasionally hear the same turns of phrase, and it was tempting to conclude that he was complacent, not really struggling to confront the changing realities of the world and the country.

Now that he has left us – and one can’t help but feel bereft today – I realize how remarkable it was that Amos Oz was able to maintain his two roles, as artist and as public intellectual (for lack of a better term), at such a high level and until the very end. And just how much we needed him. If he repeated his gems occasionally, perhaps it was because he felt such a degree of responsibility for Israel that he didn’t allow himself to speak extemporaneously. Or perhaps brilliance just rolled off his tongue naturally.

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It’s hard to know what “right” and “left” mean anymore, but there is no doubt that Amos Oz remained a Zionist his entire life – he believed that the Jews had a right to their own state in the Land of Israel. At the same time, he was convinced the Palestinians had a claim on the land that was no less legitimate. Oz began saying this almost immediately after the Six-Day War, when he was all of 27 years old, and this was hardly the way to cultivate his public reputation. But while most of his countrymen were in a state of euphoria, Oz was feeling anxiety. He came by it genetically, through his family history, and by way of his own experiences.

In “The Seventh Day,” the book based on conversations he and several other kibbutzniks had with fighters who had returned from that war, he says about a friend who was killed in one of the battles for Jerusalem that “if blowing up the Western Wall with dynamite would raise him up from the dead, I’d say: Blow it up.” Who else talked that way in 1967?

Oz continued to say, even as others in his milieu abandoned this belief, that Jewish and Palestinian self-determination did not have to be mutually exclusive – that we could not allow them to be. In his refusal to see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a zero-sum game, he thought he was the one being realistic. This was the way to save the maximum number of lives, as well as the way to maintain any morality.

Speaking to the masses

Needless to say, Jews on the left, at least those who lost faith in Zionism, as well as many of his Palestinian interlocutors, saw Oz as a relic and an apologist for Israeli war crimes, for his continuing to insist that we deserved our place in the sun and that it was fair to divide the land. Whereas, right-wingers, both messianic ones and the hard-boiled realist types, mocked Oz for his naivete, his privilege, his supposedly caring more about the Arabs than about his own Jewish brethren.

In the fall of 1982, following Israel’s occupation of Beirut and the massacre of Palestinians (by Christian Phalangists) in the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps, Oz traveled around a divided Israel to try to get the measure of the political and social polarization that prevailed. He wrote up his findings in a series of articles for the newspaper Davar that were soon collected in the book “In the Land of Israel.”

In Beit Shemesh, which in 1982 was not yet a sprawling ultra-Orthodox archipelago but rather a central development town whose Mizrahi residents harbored the alienation of a far-flung corner of the country, he recounted the torrent of anger that confronted him.

“I’ll bet you’ll write, in your book or your newspaper, that we’re animals,” one of his unnamed interviewees challenged him with sarcasm.

“You’d never write what you heard in Beit Shemesh today. And if you did write it, they’d never print it in a book. … Why do you ask a hooligan how to put an end to such hated? You know better about everything – you must know better about this.”

As far as we can tell, however, Oz reproduced what he heard there faithfully, although he admits he could only scribble notes furiously as some 20 people assaulted him with their thoughts. (Today we’d characterize the writing in “In the Land of Israel” as “literary journalism.”) Nor does he tell us how he defended himself: “What I said, when silence was declared in my honor and my responses were sought, does not appear here – my opinions are known.”

Outdoors literature

Oz lived on a kibbutz until 1986 – long after he had become Israel’s best-known writer at home and abroad. He told David Remnick, who profiled him for The New Yorker in 2004, that as long as he lived on Kibbutz Hulda, all of his royalties from writing went to the collective. “It wasn’t until I was 46 and moved to Arad that I had any private property, or even a checkbook.”

Arad – not Tel Aviv. He and his longtime wife and companion, Nily Zuckerman, moved there because their youngest son, Daniel, suffered from asthma and the doctor ordered the dryness of the desert. There, Oz told Remnick, he began and ended each day with a walk in the wilderness beyond the town limits. And he wrote about the outside as well.

“I have a certain problem with indoors literature,” he is quoted as saying. “So much of what I have to tell has to do with the open, the desert, the field, a kind of arid mountains around Jerusalem, the neighborhoods, the street, the garden, the kibbutz.”

Oz wrote nearly 20 books of fiction, and some dozen works of nonfiction. Reviewing his last collection of essays, “Dear Zealots: Letters from a Divided Land,” in Haaretz in 2017, Avraham Burg referred to Oz as “a fanatic supporter of the two-state solution.” But there’s nothing fanatic about maintaining faith in a plan that offers the most good for the most people.

What I’m trying to say is that Oz remained true to himself and to his values.

That required some aloofness, for sure: He didn’t figure much in gossip columns, he didn’t do a turn on “Big Brother,” we don’t have evidence that he hobnobbed with celebrities. He was too busy writing – novels, stories, political essays, literary criticism. If anything, his writing only improved as he aged.

And it will continue to be read. We may not have Oz present to remind us how far we are falling short of the ideal of human decency. But he leaves behind a body of work that should continue to challenge us – artistically and morally – and serve as an example of how to comport oneself even in the face of temptation of so many different kinds.