'They Called Me a Traitor. I'm in Good Company': The Political Journey of Amos Oz

Oz warned of the dangers of the occupation back in 1967, called radicalized settlers neo-Nazis and boycotted Israeli embassy events abroad. But he kept repeating that he loves Israel, 'even when I can't stand it'

Amos Oz in 2012.
Ilan Assayag

For more than half a century, Amos Oz tried to persuade policymakers and anyone who would listen of the wisdom of his views. “I always felt a kind of public duty, a need to be involved,” he said in an interview for the movie “Amos Oz: The Nature of Dreams.”

“I’m not sure I know how to explain this need, but it’s a sense of public and social responsibility which dictates that if I have a pen and language, I must use them to put across my opinion.”

When Oz died on Friday at 79, he left behind a right wing that saw him as an arrogant guru of the left, and a left that was angry with him for maintaining a dialogue with the right and didn’t forgive him for saying the Labor Party had ended its historic role.

In 1967, immediately after the Six-Day War, Oz was among the first to warn of the evils of occupation and caution against the prolonged control of the Palestinian people.

“Even unavoidable occupation is a corrupting occupation, an enlightened and humane and liberal occupation is occupation,” Oz wrote when he was 28. “I have fears about the kind of seeds we will sow in the near future in the hearts of the occupied. Even more, I have fears about the seeds that will be implanted in the hearts of the occupiers.”

In contrast to the voices of euphoria of that time, Oz laid out an orderly political message of another kind. “We have no space to live on the West Bank of the Jordan River because it’s populated by a people who live on their land, even if it’s now an enemy nation defeated at war,” he wrote.

“Even conquerors who excelled in oppression ... sat on thorns and scorpions in most conquered places until they were eradicated,” he added.

Amos Oz at the age of 28.
Daniel Rosenblum

Oz understood that the occupation might last a while. “We must say to those living in the occupied territories simply and clearly: We do not covet your land, we didn’t come to Judaize you. We will sit here until there’s a peace settlement. A year, a decade or a generation. ... We are sentenced now to ruling over people who don’t want us. We are sentenced and aren’t happy or celebratory. The shorter the occupation, the better for us.”

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He assailed Naomi Shemer at the time for including in her song “Yerushalayim shel Zahav” (“Jerusalem of Gold”) the words “the market square is empty” when in fact it was filled with Arabs.

A.B. Yehoshua wrote that Oz wrote with two pens, one for literature and the other for politics and ideology. Newspaper archives reveal that the latter played on many stages, from letters to the editor in Haaretz to long, reasoned op-eds in the paper and well-crafted speeches he gave at rallies and public events, such as the funeral of former President Shimon Peres.

Oz grew up in a family of supporters of Herut, a precursor of Likud. In the early 1960s he opposed David Ben-Gurion’s fierce grip on power, and in the ’70s he was a spokesman for Peace Now. As an adult he identified with the Labor Party. He was close to Peres and Yitzhak Rabin, but has said he never voted for either of them.

From 1967, he urged a withdrawal from the territories and in 1993 was among the first to welcome the Oslo Accords. A decade later, he was one of the authors of the Geneva Accords. In 1993, he switched parties to support Meretz and was later a candidate (in an “unrealistic” spot) on the party’s slate of parliamentary candidates.

Amos Oz, Israel’s literary giant, dies at 79

Sometimes he stirred provocation by intentionally choosing difficult words or controversial steps. That’s what happened in 1989 when in his speech at a Peace Now rally in Tel Aviv’s Malkhei Yisrael Square (as it was called before Rabin’s assassination in 1995), he assailed the right-wing Jewish underground and supporters of the extremist Rabbi Meir Kahana, calling them “a small ignorant and cruel messianic sect that has come from a dark place in Judaism and threatens to destroy all that is dear and holy to us, and force us into a mad ritual of bloodletting.” His critics saw this as an indictment of all settlers.

In 2010 he wrote in Haaretz that “Hamas is not just a terrorist organization, Hamas is an idea,” stirring controversy also on the left. He said Hamas could never be defeated by force, because no idea has ever been defeated by force, “not by siege, not by shelling, not by the crush of tank treads nor naval commandos. In order to defeat an idea, you have to suggest another more attractive, more acceptable idea.” The solution, he said, was to agree to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state within the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital.

In 2014 he called the so-called hilltop youth of the West Bank neo-Nazis. “We wanted to be a people like all others, we wished for a Hebrew thief and a Hebrew prostitute – there are also neo-Nazi Hebrews, it’s the icing on the cake. There’s nothing in the world that the neo-Nazis in Europe are doing that these groups aren’t doing here,” Oz said. He added that he cannot hear the term “price tag,” much less “hilltop youth.”

“The time has come to look this monster in the eyes: “Price tag and hilltop youth are sweet names for a monster that needs to be called what it is: Hebrew neo-Nazi groups.”

In a letter to Haaretz that same year, following a confrontation between the settlers and Israeli soldiers, Oz wrote: “[T]he chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, should visit the Yitzhar settlement today, carrying a large white flag. While there, he should announce that he is withdrawing all Israel Defense Forces troops from the settlement – and perhaps from all of the settlements.”

In 2015, he was again criticized by the right when he told a publisher he wasn’t interested in participating in events in his honor at Israeli embassies abroad, “after the radicalization of the current government’s policy.” He made clear this was a “protest against the government and not against the country.”

In an op-ed in Haaretz in 2015, Oz called for recognizing the limits of power, a theme he repeated in essays over the years. “I will now say something controversial: Since at least the 1967 Six-Day War, we have not won a war. Including the Yom Kippur War in 1973. A war is not a basketball game, in which the side that scores more points wins the trophy and gets a handshake. In a war, even if we burned more tanks than the enemy did, and downed more planes, and conquered enemy territory – that does not mean we won. The victor in a war is the side that achieves its goals, and the loser is the side that does not achieve its goals.”

Continuing, he wrote: “A great many Israelis, too many Israelis, believe – or are being brainwashed into believing – that if we only take a very big stick and beat the Arabs with it just one more time, very hard, they will take fright and once and for all let us be, and everything will be fine. For almost 100 years the Arabs haven’t let us be, despite our big stick.”

Amos Oz in a Meretz event in Rishon Letzion, 2015.
Moti Milrod

A just divorce

Oz didn’t aim his pen only against those on the right responsible for establishing the settlements, but also against the far left, which sometimes shut its eyes to reality.

“I have said that in contrast to some of my friends in the dovish left, I cannot guarantee that if we leave the territories with a peace treaty, everything will be wonderful. ... It also might not hurt the dovish left to share in that fear a little. There is something to be afraid of. A person who is afraid, rightly or wrongly, never deserves contempt or ridicule, or scorn either. We have to debate the idea of peace for land not with ridicule or scorn, but as people who weigh one danger against another danger,” he wrote in that 2015 op-ed.

In 2008, breaking with many of his friends on the left, Oz supported the Israeli army’s actions in the Gaza Strip at the start of Operation Cast Lead and held Hamas responsible for the confrontation, but urged Israel to seek a cease-fire. He also rejected any Palestinian “right of return” and argued that he saw no contradiction between this position and the Palestinian right to self-determination.

He rejected the non-Zionist left’s ideas as well. “The idea of a binational state that we hear about these days from both the extreme left and the lunatic right is, I believe, a sad joke. After 100 years of blood, tears and disasters, it is impossible to expect Israelis and Palestinians to jump suddenly into a double bed and begin a honeymoon,” he wrote in the same op-ed in Haaretz in March 2015.

“No, we and the Palestinians will not be able to become ‘one happy family’ tomorrow. We need a fair divorce,” he wrote.