Amos Oz and Haim Gouri: The Fundamental Political Difference Between the Two Literary Giants Israel Lost

There were major differences between Haim Gouri of the ‘Palmach generation’ and Amoz Oz, who rebelled against it, yet with their deaths, we have lost two of the greatest lovers of Israel, and also two of its greatest critics

Amos Oz / Haim Gouri
Ilan Assayag, Daniel Tchetchik

In the last year, Israel has lost two authors who became symbols of this country. The first, Haim Gouri, died almost exactly a year ago, at the advanced age of 95. The second, Amos Oz, died at the end of 2018, at the much younger age of 79.

From a strictly literary standpoint, the two represented opposing literary currents. Gouri symbolized the group of writers known as the “Palmach generation,” referring to the eponymous pre-state underground militia. They saw their main role as giving voice to the collective rather than the individual, and to mainstream, consensual values rather than those at the margins.

Nurith Gertz wrote that, “The norms of mainstream literature in the 1950s were entirely derived from one fundamental assumption, that literature had a national and social role, and to play that role, it had to express and embody clear values via an authoritative, omniscient narrator” (from “Amos Oz: Monograph”).

During the 1948 War of Independence, Gouri’s writings and poetry powerfully reflected his feeling that this was a war of “no choice,” as well as his attitude toward his friends – both living and dead – who were the “silver platter” on which the state was presented to the Jewish people, as Nathan Alterman put it in a famous poem.

File Photo: Amos Oz, November 4, 2015
Dan Balilty/AP

In contrast, Oz symbolized a new and different literary current, that of the “statehood generation,” which came of age during the early 1960s. These were the waning days of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s reign, marked by a public uproar over the so-called “Lavon affair” (Oz saw himself as a disciple of Pinhas Lavon, the defense minister at the center of this scandal).

Members of Oz’s group focused on the individual rather than the collective. They were tired of the flags and the slogans and gave voice to feelings of doubt and irony. In their eyes, great Hebrew literature isn’t a literature mobilized on behalf of Zionism, but a literature of ambivalence, consumed by doubts, which writes about disconnected people who haven’t found their place in the world.

Oz and A.B. Yehoshua tried to create a new kind of literature. Oz did this by deliberately distorting, to the point of ridicule, the character of the charismatic man of action and his heroic deeds. He rebelled against Gouri’s generation, and thereby broke new ground in the “republic of letters.”

But the major difference between Gouri and Oz emerged only later. Immediately after the Six-Day War in June 1967, Oz understood the depth of the danger posed by the “liberated” territories. In August, he published what could be considered a formative essay in the newspaper Davar, under the title “The defense minister and lebensraum.”

The essay targeted Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, whom many at the time saw as a veritable son of the gods, for urging that Israel scrap “the formula of withdrawal from the territories that have been conquered in exchange for peace agreements” (a formula Dayan himself adopted 10 years later, during the peace process with Egypt). Oz wrote something that to this day is a kind of motto for opponents of the occupation, including the author of this article.

“We must tell the inhabitants of the occupied districts one clear and simple thing: We don’t covet your land,” he wrote in Davar. “We didn’t come to Judaize you. We will stay and rule here until a peace agreement is signed. A year, a decade or a generation, but when the day comes – the choice will be in your hands... We weren’t born to be a nation of masters. ‘To be a free people’ – we have been sentenced to have this desire awaken an echo in our hearts as long as we haven’t lost our [human] image.”

File photo: Haim Gouri, April 11, 2009.
Daniel Tchetchik

In contrast to Oz, Gouri in 1967 became one of the founders of the Land of Israel Movement, which advocated keeping all the newly captured territories, together with other prominent authors and poets affiliated with the Labor movement, such as Alterman, Haim Hazaz, Moshe Shamir, Moshe Tabenkin and Zerubavel Gilead.

But of all the members of that group, Gouri was the only one who eventually changed his mind. He understood that the shining ideal of the Greater Land of Israel had become a poisonous monster. In 1993, he wrote the following of the participants in conversations that later became the book “The Seventh Day,” of whom Oz was one:

“The book’s conversationalists feel a great discomfort in the face of what seems to most of them like the beginning of an occupation. The breach of the Green Line, within which the conversation’s participants grew up, also entails a discomforting feeling of the breaking of a moral code, the abolition of the State of Israel to which they had grown accustomed and its metamorphosis into a binational Land of Israel. This was quickly seen as a den of troubles” (“On Poetry and Time”).

Thus it’s clear that Gouri eventually accepted and internalized the view that Oz formed back during the days of deceptive euphoria, shortly after the Six-Day War ended.

It is possible to identify other similarities and differences between the two authors. A prominent example of the latter is their attitude toward Jerusalem. Oz was born and raised in the city, but as a member of Kibbutz Hulda, he wrote in his essay “An Alien City” that after the conquest of East Jerusalem, he wandered through its streets “clutching a sub-machine-gun, like a figure in one of my childhood nightmares: an alien man in an alien city.”

Gouri’s story was the opposite. He was born in Tel Aviv in 1923, near the golden dunes along the seashore, but lived most of his life in Jerusalem, from his days as a student at Hebrew University in the early 1950s to the day of his death – some 70 years all told. Every day, Gouri would climb the stairs to his fourth-floor apartment on Pinsker Street. He always saw himself as a typical Jerusalemite.

Gouri and Oz were born and lived here among us, “Under This Blazing Light,” as Oz titled one of his books. With their deaths, we have lost two of the greatest lovers of our country and our people, and also two of its greatest critics.