Amos Oz's Last Prophecy: Zionism, Violence and the Future of Jews

In a lecture before his death that’s now been published as a book, Amos Oz sums up his world view, and explains why he is still optimistic

Isaac Herzog
Isaac Herzog
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Amos Oz. 'I have never thought that violence is the ultimate evil in the world'
Amos Oz. 'I have never thought that violence is the ultimate evil in the world'Credit: \ Ilan Assayag
Isaac Herzog
Isaac Herzog

“Hate evil and love good, And establish justice in the gate” (Amos 5:15)

From Amos to Amos there were none like Amos. Amos Oz was a literary giant and, as he was described by Prof. Dan Laor, “a guide unto the generations,” who is at the level of Haim Nahman Bialik and Natan Alterman, who not only wrote but also made a point verbally as well. I assume that due to his modesty Oz did not consider himself a prophet, but for me he was a prophet for generations.

About a year ago, on June 3, 2018, Oz delivered his last lecture from the podium of the Cymbalista Jewish Heritage Center at Tel Aviv University. He died on December 28, 2018, and after the fact we know that this lecture – which he delivered uninterruptedly for 50 minutes, by heart and without any notes whatsoever – was a kind of last will and testament.

In an interview on Kan public radio, literary scholar Laor, director of the Cymbalista center, who had invited Oz to speak, later recalled that before the latter went up to the podium, Laor asked him tactfully whether he had a written and prepared speech. Oz replied that he would decide what to say when he went up to speak. However, it seems as though the ostensibly extemporaneous lecture had been ripening inside him and sums up his political world view and his vision. The lecture became very popular on YouTube, and his children, Prof. Fania Oz-Sulzberger and Daniel Oz, did the right thing when they had it published in full, in a lovely edition subtitled “The Last Lecture” (there is no English translation available as of yet).

>> Read more: Amos Oz challenged Israelis. Now his work should be our moral compass The surprising letter Tolstoy wrote to Amos Oz His halo weighed on him, but Amos Oz was above all mensch

An illustration of Amos Oz. A literary giant and, as he was described by Prof. Dan Laor, 'a guide unto the generations.'Credit: Eran Wolkowski

Throughout the lecture Oz hints at the possibility of his impending demise, commenting with wry humor that “Only death is irreversible, and I will also check it out soon.” Although he refused to describe his words as a last will per se, claiming that he “doesn’t like that term” – he described “Dear Zealots,” a booklet of essays published during his lifetime (2017), as something that he was leaving behind him “in the realm of political, cultural, historical, Zionist thought.”

Oz’s words touched on several central motifs, and between the lines one can find things that are similar to what he wrote and said over the years, relating to the clash between highly emotional nationalistic Jewish and Israeli feelings, and rationalistic universalism and a humanistic approach to the Israeli-Arab conflict.

Oz’s starting point is that today, as in the past, the Jewish people have no place to go except for the Land of Israel, because we were not wanted anywhere else. His declaration that “the Jews had nowhere to go” is based on many examples, some of which are also familiar from the history of his family as recounted in “A Tale of Love and Darkness” (Hebrew, 2002; English, 2015)

Along with those examples, he describes the persecution and abuse experienced by the Jews in Islamic countries, with an emphasis on an extremely important dimension that has not been talked about sufficiently and is sorely missing in the Jewish and Zionist narrative (this particular aspect was described recently in a fascinating manner in the essay collection entitled “The End of Judaism in Muslim Lands,” which came out in Hebrew last year and was edited by Prof. Shmuel Trigano, who teaches the sociology of religion and politics at the University of Paris.

I may beg to differ with Oz about the fact that he omitted to mention in his lecture the dream of returning to the ancient homeland, but nevertheless he clearly draws his views from Theodor Herzl’s classical concept of Zionism.

‘A big stick’

From the above-mentioned basic assumption, Oz progresses (although in a different order, in the lecture itself) to one of his less familiar assertions: that in order to safeguard our refuge and national home, the use of force is right and justified. On this issue he actually clashes with parts of his camp, including his many liberal fans abroad. “I’m not a pacifist,” he says, adding: “As opposed to my colleagues in Europe and North America, who often embrace me for the wrong reasons – as opposed to them, I have never thought that violence is the ultimate evil in the world.”

His conclusion on this issue is clear: “Were it not for the State of Israel, were it not for the fact that the Jewish people finally have a big and powerful stick, none of us would be here. Either we would be dead in the ground, or would in any case be prevented from being here by force. We are here because there’s a big stick.”

On this point I totally agree with him. The concept of the “villa in the jungle” is still existent and valid – and particularly in the present era.

From here Oz reaches a complementary conclusion: that ultimate evil does not derive from the exercise of force in and of itself, but rather from the use of aggression by means of superfluous belligerence – a phenomenon that he says should be stopped at any cost. He continues by saying that we must therefore act to heal the wounds of both nations – Israelis and Palestinians – by using a language of healing wounds, by understanding the pain of the Other.

Oz speaking at an event organized by the Israeli left wing party Meretz in 2015. Credit: \ Moti Milrod

“Not [to say] the words ‘I’m ashamed of everything,’ but rather these simple words: ‘It hurts you, I know, it hurts me too. Let’s search for something [together].”

Here I will regretfully say that since the great speech by Yitzhak Rabin at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in 1994, no such important declaration has been heard in Israeli public discourse with such immense forcefulness – nor has it ever been heard, to our regret, from the Palestinian national leadership. That may be a good explanation of why we are where we are, as opposed to the situation of the Irish or South African conflicts.

From here Oz goes on, with his inimitable rhetorical abilities, to his main conclusion: “If there aren’t two states here, and quite soon – there will be one state here. If there is one state here – it won’t be a binational state … It will be an Arab state, from the sea to the Jordan.”

As we know, Oz prophesies in this spirit for years. As part of the philosophy that he expounds in his lectures, he deals keenly and insightfully with explanations that contradict this statement – and refutes them. He explains knowledgeably why a binational state has no chance (a state that this writer has in the past called by a name that reflects its inherent danger: “Israstine”), and says that instead of it there will be an Arab state on the time line, in which the Jews will be a minority and their dream of a national home will be shelved.

Therefore, Oz concludes that the Palestinians must give up their dream of returning to their villages and homes within sovereign Israel, and that they have no chance of implementing their national aspiration of “the right of return.” But on the other hand, he warns of the messianic right’s vision of Greater Israel, which he believes is not only impractical, but also fails to reflect the will of the people. He describes the situation in which we, the Israelis, are conducting what he describes as “two wars” – one of them just and the other unjust.

The cover of 'The Reckoning is Not Over Yet – The Last Lecture,' by Amos Oz, Keter (Hebrew)Credit: Photo on the bookcover: Jack barokas

He repeats the metaphor of the apartment building of which he spoke to world leaders at the funeral of his close friend, President Shimon Peres. “The Jewish people in the State of Israel are fighting a supremely just war, which is the Zionist idea: to be a free people in our country. Not to have masters. Not to be a minority. Not to be persecuted. Not to be discriminated against. But at the same time we are waging a war because we want another two rooms in the apartment building, at the expense of our neighbor.”

If I may be permitted to give some advice to U.S. President Donald Trump: Here you have an ideal opening for a speech in which you will present your proposed peace plan, in which, I hope, the principle of two states will be the central motif. In any proper calculation of interests, that is still the only formula that can preserve Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

Back in time

If there is anything that was noticeable in its absence in Oz’s last lecture, it is a reference to the security issues that must be part of any future arrangement between the two states. When I had asked Oz about this during a meeting in my Tel Aviv home in 2014, I discovered that he wants to leave the answer to that to those in-the-know. For my part, I continued to question him and I tried to clarify the dilemma between the desirable and the possible.

I was running at the time for the premiership of the country, prior to the 2015 election, and I told him that I wished to go to Ramallah and to speak before the younger generation of Palestinians in order to offer them a shared hope. But in the same breath I said that I would be obliged to stress Israel’s security needs as well, as a condition without which there is no hope for any future arrangement.

In his “prophecy” in the lecture last year, Oz warns both nations about the two-state idea because of what he calls the disease of “Reconstructis” – in other words, going backward in time like a patient who recovers but doesn’t stop complaining about his illness. Oz says that the Palestinians are afflicted by this disease in a way that paralyzes their diplomatic and political perception, and expresses his fear that the Israelis are en route to a similar situation.

He warns against the vision of rebuilding the Temple, which is taking root in various reaches of the far right and threatens to dominate the core of the Zionist enterprise, a situation about which Oz said: “Not only is it a headache, but it’s also absurd.” He says that the vision that centers around an attempt to travel back in time is neither reasonable nor possible.

At the same time, according to Oz, it is definitely permitted to be homesick. In his beautiful and sensual writing, he even compares the public-political longing for the past to the longing and fantasies surrounding young love: In both cases we must understand rationally that the nostalgic desire can never be fulfilled. Unfortunately, I have often sat in the Knesset and heard speeches by important leaders from all parts of the political spectrum who are incapable of understanding that life continues – and does not go backward.

Letters of fire

Oz concludes his lecture with an optimistic statement, based on the history of the second half of the 20th century: He says that deep down the Jewish people understand perfectly well the need to separate from our neighbors, for our own good and for the benefit of our future. Therefore, Jews are convinced that a leader will arise who will help them cross the desert and lead them to the divided Promised Land. In Oz’s instructive language, it’s as clear as “letters of black fire on white fire” that some day such a leader will emerge – someone like Truman or De Gaulle, who will do the right thing.

Prophet Amos as depicted by Gustave Doré

The contemporary prophet Amos uttered the following words on that subject – words that encompass his entire world view. “Just as [Prime Minister Menachem] Begin greatly surprised himself, think about this irony of history: In 1967, Levi ben Dvora Eshkol of Kibbutz Degania, a Tolstoyan follower of Labor Zionism philosopher A.D. Gordon, almost a pacifist, a vegetarian, a man of peace – found himself ruling over the largest Hebrew kingdom since the days of King David and King Solomon.

“A decade, exactly 10 years later, arose the leader of the right-wing Zionist Betar movement in Poland, Menachem Begin, a follower of Revisionist leader Zeev Jabotinsky, and dismantled this empire for the sake of peace. So don’t say ‘irreversible’ … Nothing is irreversible. It’s a matter of leadership. It’s a matter of telling people what they already know deep in their hearts.”

Indeed, how true. The bloody Gordian knot that has tied us to our Palestinian neighbors for generations could be cut by a courageous leader who is willing to pay a high price for peace, and in order to prevent generations of bloodshed. I have often seen from up close how difficult this is, and how it tortures leaders confronting such a decision. I have often been up close when I knew that for the sake of a potential diplomatic breakthrough, I may be endangering my political future, as was in fact the case.

Oz is right: It is definitely possible that such leaders will arise and bring that day.

And in conclusion, the prophet Amos, the one from the Bible, also ends his prophecies on an optimistic note. “The days are coming,” he says, and in strong terms predicts the “return of my people Israel.” He prophesied – and he was right.

The late Amos Oz, at the end of his last testament-farewell, prophesied that the leadership will arise that will bring peace and will guarantee the return of Israel forever. We can only hope that he will be proven right.

“The Reckoning is Not Over Yet – The Last Lecture,” by Amos Oz, Keter (Hebrew), 40 pps., 40 shekels

Isaac Herzog is chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency, former chairman of the Labor Party and former head of the opposition in the Knesset.

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