In his last book, “Mimah Asui Hatapuah?” (“What Is in an Apple?,” published in Hebrew this year), Amos Oz told his literary editor, Shira Hadad, that prime ministers often invited him for heart-to-heart talks and asked, “Where did we go wrong?” and “Where do we go from here?” All of them spoke admiringly of his skill at putting his ideas into words, but disagreed with his opinions. “Once in my life, just once, I want to have some prime minister tell me, ‘Amos Oz, you’re talking crap, you’re putting it really terribly, but you know what? You’re right.’ That’s the only thing I want to hear before I leave this world.”
He did not get that, neither during his life nor at his death. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paid tribute to Oz, saying: “I deeply admired his contribution to the Hebrew language and the renewed Hebrew literature.” But he didn’t forget to add, “We disagreed on many issues.”
With the death of Amos Oz, Hebrew and world literature lost one of the greatest writers of the generation. But Oz wasn’t just a magnificent literary stylist who enchanted millions of readers in dozens of languages. Oz didn’t make do with writing best-selling novels and winning dozens of awards. He enlisted the reputation that his wise and profound insights earned him — rendered into precise, elegant Hebrew and with mankind always at the center — in the battle for Israel’s moral character. This universal language was also understood by millions who did not understand his mother tongue.
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Even in his final years, he swam against the current of ugly fanaticism that has swept through Israel. He proudly bore the title “leftist. He supported persecuted human rights organizations such as B’Tselem, which strives to end the occupation, and called for recognizing East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine hand-in-hand with recognizing West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
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Oz’s book “Dear Zealots”: Letters from a Divided Land” is an indictment of those who turn multiculturalism and identity politics into a politics of hatred of identities, of obstructing horizons, of insularity, of loathing the other and of growing fanaticism. In the face of this zealotry, Oz represented the voice of sanity, of reason, of love for humanity and the homeland.
In recent years, Oz increasingly felt himself to be a voice crying in the political wilderness. “I stand at an intersection, full of self-importance, and expect the lights to change when I clap my hands,” he said. “More than a few people mock me, and they’re evidently right.”
Nevertheless, Oz refused to despair. “After all, we still have two or three things to settle here,” he told Hadad, and concluded, “The light is so sweet to the eyes.” We must hope that noted intellectuals and authors who fear this benighted zealotry will walk in Oz’s light.