Amos Oz and the meaning of homeland

The title of Yonathan and Masha Zur’s sometimes lyrical, sometimes penetrative, yet always insightful and captivating 2009 documentary Amos Oz: The Nature of Dreams makes reference to a much-used and familiar thought of the author’s.

Dreams, Oz states in the film, are destined to remain rosy, perfect, and unsullied so long as they exist only as dreams. The moment they are enacted and made concrete, reality collides with vision – they take on a sour taste, they have imperfections and flaws. “Israel is a dream come true and, as such, it is disappointing,” Oz says. “The taste of disappointment is not in the nature of Israel, it is in the nature of dreams.”

Shifting between continents and time periods, reality and fiction, “Amos Oz: The Nature of Dreams” considers the place of Amos Oz within Zionism, and what has happened to the larger Zionism dream – or spectrum of dreams. After all, what is disappointing and sour to one Israeli, to one Zionist, is perhaps the consequence of the fulfillment of another Zionist dream, the dimming of Labor Zionism and the rise of more religious or nationalistic forms of this ideology, two states and one state.

In the documentary, Oz reads from an historic essay on the subject, “The meaning of homeland.” First published in 1967 during the period of light-headed euphoria and drunkenness which followed Israel’s remarkable victory in the Six Day War, Oz soberly considered what it meant to be a Zionist, what it meant to be a Jew, and what it meant for Zionism to recognise that its future was bound up in coexistence with the Arab population of the Land of Israel, of Palestine. This essay – available today in the collection “Under This Blazing Light” – warrants re-reading.

The necessity and the origins of Zionism itself are clear, Oz writes. For hundreds of years, the Jew in Europe “has been perceived as the symbol of something inhuman,” part of the “infrastructure of the Western mind” that required a character to inhabit the role of the sufferer, the wanderer, the swindler, “to be fated to be a genius and an abomination. As such:

Being a Jew in the Diaspora means that Auschwitz is meant for you. It is meant for you because you are a symbol, not an individual. The symbol of the justly persecuted vampire, or the symbol of the unjustly persecuted innocent victim – but always and everywhere, you are not an individual, not yourself, but a fragment of a symbol.

“I am a Zionist,” Oz writes, “because I do not want to exist as a fragment of a symbol in the consciousness of others” – “I do not want to live among strangers who see in me some kind of symbol or stereotype, but in a State of Jews. Such a State could only have come into being in the Land of Israel.”

But what Zionism is not to Oz – although it is to others – is a movement to liberate the land, at least not in a religious sense. Labor Zionism contained within it discourse pertaining to the renewal of man through the renewal of the land, through sweat, hard work, and endeavour. Rather, “I am a Zionist in all that concerns the redemption of the Jews” – in other words, it is a movement for the national liberation of people, not the liberation of land. “The word ‘liberation’ applies to people, not to dust and stone.”

In 1967, Oz foresaw that the clash between these forms of Zionism – liberation of the people against liberation of the land (not that these two are mutually exclusive, for Religious Zionism too concerns itself with the liberation of the Jews) – would form the basis for a future struggle within Israel. The Six Day War, he argued, had brought on an “urgent and fateful choice” for Zionism:

If from now on the current which has flowed within Zionism almost from the beginning, the current of nationalistic romanticism and mythological delusions of greatness and renewal, the current of longing for a kingdom and blowing rams’ horns and conquering Canaan by storm, the national superiority complex based on military enthusiasm in the guise of crude biblical nostalgia, the conception of the entire State of Israel as one giant act of retaliation for the ‘historical humiliation’ of the Diaspora – if that trends prevails among us, then the Middle East is fated to be the battleground of two peoples, both fighting a fundamentally just war, both fighting essentially for their life and liberty, and both fighting to the death.

The Zionism Oz believed in then – and believes in now – is one which “recognises both the spiritual implications and the political consequences of the fact that this small tract of land is the homeland of two peoples fated to live facing each other, willy-nilly, because no God and no angel will come to judge between right and right. The lives of both, the lives of all of us,” Oz concludes, “depend on the hard, tortuous and essential process of learning to know each other in the curious landscape of the beloved country.”

Both peoples — Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs — have now moved beyond the point where they could not speak each other’s names. Both peoples have recognised that the other one exists. And indeed, contrary to Oz’s general assertion religious forms of Zionism have emerged which take into account at least the necessity if not the reality of a historic compromise. But this hard, tortuous and essential process Oz alludes to – this struggle between right and right – in his essay and in Amos Oz: The Nature of Dreams is one which is still very much ongoing, still very much unresolved.

It is, in fact, a struggle not only between Israelis and the Palestinians, but also within Zionism itself, between those who value the liberation of all the land, and those who are fine to share it for the sake of the liberation and salvation of the people, for the sake of not going back to being a fragment of a symbol in the consciousness of others.

About the Author
Liam Hoare, a freelance writer on politics and literature, has written for The Atlantic, The Forward, and The Daily Beast
Related Topics
Related Posts