The controversy that has sprung up around the story of writer Amos Oz’s family reflects the spirit of our times. It is a blend of all that we see on the evening news: victims and abuse, parallel realities, distorted memories, fallen elites. It is being played out as a passionate legal drama such as one might find in a work of literature: the witness for the prosecution daughter Galia Oz has only just stepped off the witness stand when her younger brother Daniel Oz walks up to it, as a witness for the defense. The role of jury, judge and hangman is filled by the reading public and a few journalists.
Many of these readers felt a need to issue declarations on social networks (“I believe Galia,” “I believe the family”). These verdicts were intimidating – not merely because they were based on intuition, projection or issuing of judgment in the presence of only one side, but also because their purpose was to establish the social capital of the speaker: I, who believes or does not believe, hereby issue this statement in the public domain in order to declare and confirm my own moral superiority. These resounding affirmations were utterly unfounded and self-righteous. They provoked a storm that did not soon abate.
Daniel Oz’ new book, “A Collection of Shells” has been released just as the debate is dying out; newer scandals have by now grabbed the public’s attention. He writes an intimate memoir, an eyewitness account in defense of his father Amos and his mother Nili, as well as strident criticism of the book by Galia Oz, “Something Disguised as Love” (Kinneret, Zvora, Dvir Publishing House, 2021), and of her appearances in the press.
The witness for the prosecution, daughter Galia Oz, has only just stepped off the witness stand when her younger brother Daniel Oz walks up to it, as a witness for the defense.
The book stands on its own. It is direct, sharp and insightful. Daniel Oz reacts with self-awareness and sobriety to the public climate that has against his will turned him into a disavower and abetter of abuse. “I am not writing for those who are looking to other people’s families for their own rehabilitation,” he notes. The primary motivation behind his slender book is first-person rehabilitation of his take on reality: “It is for myself that I write, in order to prove to myself that I am not unfit to bear witness, that I have memory, sense and voice. For my own sanity.”
Early in the book, Daniel Oz recalls a conversation that once took place between him and his sister Galia. She said to him: “You were on the receiving end of it, too, you were abused, too. You do remember it, right? And if you don’t remember, don’t worry, you will.”
And then, when he did not play along, another option arose. In her book, just as in the public discourse that developed around it, her brother was assimilated into the faceless body that is called “family”: an anonymous and dim entity that is all repression, lies and collusion with horrific abuse. And that is the role that was forced on him.
What hurts him more than anything else is the erasure: the erasure of names of family members, him included. The erasure of his identity, his voice, his testimony. Although Amos Oz is the bullseye of the target, his sister’s book, he writes, “is also my own unauthorized biography, and practically nothing in it is correct.” Daniel Oz is not represented in the story about himself, which has become public legacy. In it, his character darts between the two contradictory roles allocated to it and that have instantly become the truth: He is a victim of violence who represses the hell that he has been through; but also a partner in the devilish scheme to continue abusing his sister. He is depicted as being brainwashed, devoid of selfhood, lying to himself and to the world.
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Everyone knew everything about us
In “A Collection of Shells,” Daniel Oz reclaims his voice and his biography. The mission requires a re-reading of his sister’s book. He addresses the specific examples presented by Galia Oz and disclaims the terrifying framing she lent to them. Amos Oz would squeeze orange juice for the children every evening and ask them to drink it. Was this an act of oppressive violence or a trivial parental act? Amos Oz did not like the rock music that his daughter listened to and would make comments to her about it. In her book, she describes this as an act of degradation. But his father was the one who would bring back rock ‘n’ roll records to her from his trips abroad. Galia Oz describes how on the day after her father’s death “a delegation with a narrow purpose sat down in my living room, asking that I continue to remain silent.” Daniel relates that the members of this delegation were Dean and Nadav, the sons of their eldest sister Fania Oz-Salzberger, both young men in their early 20s. They came to pay a condolence call, against their parents’ advice. They were not emissaries of sin. Just nephews.
His account is written with punctiliousness, focusing on the details. Daniel Oz notes the only time that his name is mentioned in his sister’s book: She describes how her father beat her mother, because he was scheming to throw out her young son’s shell collection, which was stored in the attic, and his mother opposed this.
Daniel Oz has no recollection of a shell collection. He was there when the fight broke out: When they moved from Kibbutz Hulda to Arad, his father did not pack the collection of pottery shards of his daughter Fania, which was glued on oaktag and stored in an overhead storage space. There was a fierce argument over it, Daniel Oz testifies, that included tears and shouting. It is etched in the memories of the children who watched it happen because it was so out of the ordinary.
Daniel has no recollection of a shell collection. But when they moved from Kibbutz Hulda to Arad, his father did not pack the collection of pottery shards of his daughter Fania.
He describes his father – who was not a perfect parent – as an easygoing person, who tended to apologize, whose children would laugh at him about his weaknesses. He describes the good relationship that once existed between the father and his daughter Galia: He would babysit for her children, he bought her an apartment and a car; there was great pride in her accomplishments, and also laughing together. And then came the fracture.
Daniel Oz knows very well what is said about him – that he suffers from cognitive distortions, denials, false illusions and falsification of memories. He is tormented due to the impassioned herd of therapists, psychologists and self-appointed experts, which has issued the verdict on a venomous monster and employed an exaggerated array of psychoanalytic determinations to base their claims. They reveal the true face of Daniel, his mother, his late father and his elder sister by means of their professional authoritativeness. But they have never met him or spoken with him. “Nobody knew our family, but everybody knew everything about us, down to the most private recesses of our souls,” he writes. It is so easy to erase and to desecrate, to judge and to convict, without knowing.
Oedipal murder and canonical place
This is the spirit of the times in which we live, and the books by both Galia and Daniel Oz reflect that truth. Beyond the family story, they are rooted in the cultural and historical processes and, consciously or not, they testify to them.
The progression of events is well-known: The important author Amos Oz died, and the eulogies that were written upon his death dwelled on his literary and ideological primacy. Subsequently, a book that committed a strong case of symbolic “patricide” was released; it undermined his canonical sanctity, smashing to bits the recently erected monument to him. Several months passed before another book was published, one that seeks to restore the good name of the shattered image – not only as family man but also as public-parent persona.
This is a common and classic pattern that has been repeated in human culture since ancient times: A community crowns a father or leader, mourns his death, and then stokes a mythical, large-than-life stature. Subsequently, it will withdraw and allow his symbolic slaying to take place, takes its distance from him and judges him from the remove of time, and eventually restores his lustrous image in the collective memory. Oedipal murder is a condition for canonization. This is the case for numerous figures in human, and also Israeli, history; examples include Lincoln, Ben-Gurion, Tolstoy and Begin.
The contemporary drama that has formed around Amos Oz regenerates this cultural-historical dynamic, but is the exception to that rule in two senses. The first is that these steps are taking place within the family, with an internal division of roles – Fania eulogized, Galia destroyed, Daniel rebuilds – and not through outside agents, such as historians or literary scholars.
The second sense is equally fascinating: Usually, these sorts of moves toward commemoration take long years, generations even, to ripen and come to fruition. In this instance, they have been whittled down to a period of only a few months.
The concision of this process means that the future does not leave room for any more disinheritors or recrowners of the Amos Oz legacy. The family drama has put an end to the cultural history, in the traditional prolonged and protracted sense. It said all there was to say about it, in record time.
Perhaps that is the preferable course of action. The world is moving too quickly, and the mechanisms of canonical pathos are no longer relevant. They are part of the world of yesterday. The terrible family feud has given rise to a commemoration enterprise well adapted to the spirit of the times, in its rapid melodramatic compression and its use of digital platforms, but mainly in the current rules of the game, those that drive popular public opinion and how it is conceived: conspiracies, violence, psychobabble, and court martials conducted in the public eye.
The only mechanism that leaves Oz in the public memory speaks in the up-to-date language of the present. His name is on everyone’s lips, be it in denunciation or in empathy – but the sense of boredom is already insinuating its way in. The drama has played itself out, we’re getting fed up with it. It gives the impression of a gala aristocratic ball taking place on the deck of a sinking ship. The curtain has already dropped on the Oedipal drama of the memorialization of Amos Oz. It is past tense. The family is etching Oz’s name into the walls of oblivion.
Daniel Oz is aware of it. He offers a sober acceptance of the state of affairs of one who is delivering the final monologue in a play. “I am not writing for those who are tired of hearing about the Oz family,” he declares. “You’re right. It is my fervent hope that I will succeed in swelling your ranks.”