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How Amos Oz Became the Cliché of the 'Good' Zionist

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Amos Oz talks with Palestinian men after picking olives in the West Bank village of Aqraba, south of Nablus. October 30, 2002
Amos Oz talks with Palestinian men after picking olives in the West Bank village of Aqraba, south of Nablus. October 30, 2002Credit: AFP

I was already thinking of Amos Oz as I drove through a damp, dreary Jerusalem last Friday afternoon, its dark streets evocative of a scene from his memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness.

What a cliché the seductive tedium of a rainy winter’s day in Jerusalem is. As indeed – and this is not to speak ill of the dead, or to malign a great writer and artist – Oz long ago himself became a cliché.

Not his work, which never ceased to be creative and never lost any of its literary power. But as a public figure, Oz was the ideal cipher on which others could project their own ideas of a liberal, progressive Israel.

This wasn’t about Amos Oz the man, the writer, the polemicist or even the public figure. It was the image, the illusion of a "different Israel" he personified and that so many of his admirers wanted to believe was the real Israel, just temporarily hidden from us by the Jerusalem rain.

Amos Oz with David Kimche, former deputy Mossad chief, outside Kimche's 'peace tent' by the official residence of Prime Minister Netanyahu, then negotiating the Wye peace memorandum. 4 May 1998Credit: ANDRE DURAND / AFP

Oz was the ultimate representative of an uncontaminated and moral (as well as left-wing and secular) Zionist vision. An Israeli everyman, from his childhood in a right-wing family intellectual circles of Jerusalem to his youth in a kibbutz and service in a combat army unit.

The problem is, is that there is no such thing as an Israeli everyman. Like the two-state solution for which Oz tirelessly advocated, it represents an idealistic dream that messy reality has long made anachronistic.

Thus, predictably, the obituaries and tributes quickly descended into hagiographic bingo. The canon of his work was good, everyone acknowledged, and his memoir was the best-selling book in Israel’s history - before quickly moving on to what singled him out, his status as a prophet, the country’s moral compass, gentle patriot, iconic philosopher and conscience. What a heavy weight for a single man to carry.

Like his close friend Shimon Peres, Oz was the go-to public figure who could reliably sum up this tedious conflict in easily digestible bon mots, flavoured with twinkle-eyed Jewish philosophizing.

Oz eulogized Peres at his funeral by acclaiming his "deep innocence" and "great dreams" before declaiming: "Peace is not only possible, it is necessary, because we are not going anywhere. We have nowhere to go. The Palestinians also are not going anywhere. They have nowhere to go…

"Where are the brave leaders who will stand up and realize this?...Where are Shimon Peres’s successors?" Oz continued. He could have been talking about himself.

The romantic era of Zionism, of tousle-haired suntanned youth redeeming the land through physical toil, of a brave relentless search for peace and coexistence, is long over. It’s doubtful that it ever really existed.

The coffin of Amos Oz is placed on a theater stage during his funeral service in Tel Aviv, Israel, Monday, Dec. 31, 2018Credit: Ariel Schalit,AP

The grief at his passing is also sorrow at a further and perhaps near-fatal degradation of this Zionist dream, at least as it exists in the imagination of Western elites. Where are the figures who are going to inject new blood into the clichés of vibrant democracy, start-up nation and the most moral army in the world?

Two writers remain from the classic triumvirate: the acclaimed A.B. Yehoshua and David Grossman, another conscience of the nation who has the literary accolades, even a Man Booker Prize. And both are on the "right" side of politics. Grossman braved public abuse to address a joint group of Israeli and Palestinian bereaved families this year.

But a more fitting-for-the-zeitgeist icon as cultural ambassador might be Netta Barzilai, the singer who won the Eurovision for Israel this summer. Resolutely apolitical, despite representing her country on the international stage – the Eurovision can be seen as more significant a diplomatic arena for Israel than the UN – she’s the quirky symbol of Israel’s tolerance, of Tel Aviv Pride and coexistence. Having performed her signature chicken dance with Benjamin Netanyahu this year, she is at least unlikely to fall foul of Israel’s new socio-political cultural standards. 

After all, this is the Israel where it’s politically prudent to name a party "The New Right," as Naftali Bennet and Ayelet Shaked did this week when they split from old settler stalwarts Habayit Hayehudi. And with the exception of Meretz, any party which is slightly less hawkish than Likud now calls itself "centrist." Being left-wing is an official vote loser.

It’s an Israel in which most kibbutzim have privatized their businesses and with a persistently huge economic gap between rich and poor. It’s also an Israel founded by refugees from anti-Semitism where out-and-proud alliances are now made with far-right populist leaders in Europe, and where most people reject the idea of accepting those now fleeing war-torn countries.

Let’s not even mention the occupation, because very few people do these days.

Countries and the real business of government are messy, gnarly things; it’s unfair to judge them according to strict ideological standards of purity. But Israel’s problem is that it was founded on ideology and still insists on making it core to its continued existence.

Israel is not a parable. It can’t be kept alive by symbols alone, however righteous, poetic and well-meaning. Amos Oz’s departure from the scene makes that delusion even harder to sustain.

Daniella Peled is managing editor of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting and has reported widely from across the Middle East. @DaniellaPeled

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