When Tolstoy died in 1910, it was a world spectacle. The octogenarian giant seemed incapable of aging, to the end of his life a religious guru to the world and seemed a paragon of serenity and family contentment. But, as he froze to death in a faraway train station, the world learned he so tired of rows with his wife that he’d sooner risk starvation and the Russian cold than abide one more night under the same roof as the woman with whom he’d shared his life. The world thought Tolstoy was Levin, the epitome of the sturdy family man from Anna Karenina, but after all that time, it turned out he was Fyodor Karamazov. And as the literary giant of the most literary century expired, it surely must have occurred to many that the social order he so embodied expired with it.
Amos Oz loved to compare himself to Chekhov, but he was much more like Tolstoy. Tolstoy, like Amos Oz, was as much a sage as a writer. They both seemed incapable of aging, they might have been too self-serious, too fanatical, more interested in their ideals of what people should be rather than what people are, but had the world listened to Tolstoy’s admonitions about imperial power, about the renunciation of violence, about the importance of common ground between nations, about justice reform, the World would have been spared its two Wars.
The writings of both came out with almost numbing frequency. The fiction was inevitably realistic, and its quality was sometimes marred by its tendency toward political preaching. But even when their writing was sub-par, it was touched with a force of utterance issued from a searing personality. Even in English, an Amos Oz sentence is unmistakable. Objectively speaking, it’s a little overly lyrical, but the self-conscious beauty conceals within it a flint that almost sears the page. It could never have been written by anyone else but him.
Oz was probably not a literary genius. Nevertheless, Oz’s books are full of feeling, and sometimes with the intermingling of humor and pathos which only the generous spirits among writers possess. His plots can be pretty heavy-handed, and the ideas expressed are so blatant that they often get in the way of the stories. Personally, I love certain of his fictions, particularly Between Friends — a series of interconnected short stories about life on a kibbutz — but in my experience, there’s not a single fiction of Oz’s that comes even close to the heartbreaking power of his novelization of his life, A Tale of Love and Darkness. It’s simply one of the best books in the entire world. It’s only 15 years old, but a life without reading that book is an incomplete life. In the Land of Israel, based on interviews with Israelis of all stripes from around the country, is another not-quite-fiction that sears into your memory.
A.B. Yehoshua is a genius, and yet he’s probably not quite as great a writer. Yehoshua’s novels are like dreamscapes, they would seem almost surreal if you didn’t realize his stories and characters were mouthpieces for deeply embedded allusions to history and philosophy. If there’s a more intellectually dazzling novel in any country’s literature than Yehoshua’s Mr. Mani, I have yet to read it. But Yehoshua can be a cold fish, and his books are usually more fascinating than moving. Nobody can accuse Oz of writing from anywhere but his heart, and he was a writer in the language of everybody. Sometimes his fiction wasn’t great, but it was always part of the Oz package – like Tolstoy, a writer burning to communicate with us so urgently that, however heavy-handed the mark, whatever it was he said left an impression.
Tolstoy’s death signified the moment when international cooperation to solve the problems of his era was no longer possible. By 1910, it was only a matter of time before the problems of Europe became catastrophes. And now there’s Oz’s death at the end of 2018…
Oz was the proof that you could be blisteringly critical of Israeli policy and still be an absolutely committed Zionist. For 50 years of effort to make Jews see the precariousness of their position, Amos Oz was called a traitor. His crime against the state? Warning that the Palestinian issue could end us. Hard as it is to solve, if you solve it, Israel survives into the 22nd century. If you don’t, Israel probably won’t survive the 21st. It is unfortunately as simple as that. Oz had a gift for putting the problems of leaving Palestine in practical terms. Consider this quote:
If we don’t stop somewhere, if we don’t accept an unhappy compromise, unhappy for both sides, if we don’t learn how to unhappily coexist and contain our burned sense of injustice — if we don’t learn to do that, we end up a doomed state
or this one:
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been a tragedy, a clash between one very powerful, very convincing, very painful claim over this land and another no less powerful, no less convincing claim. Now such a clash between right claims can be resolved in one of two manners. There’s the Shakespeare tradition of resolving a tragedy with the stage hewed with dead bodies and justice of sorts prevails. But there is also the Chekhov tradition. In the conclusion of the tragedy by Chekhov, everyone is disappointed, disillusioned, embittered, heartbroken, but alive. And my colleagues and I have been working, trying…not to find the sentimental happy ending, a brotherly love, a sudden honeymoon to the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy, but a Chekhovian ending, which means clenched teeth compromise.
Compromise, Oz also famously said (I’m quoting verbatim), is life, and where there is no life, there is only fanaticism and death. Oz had no illusions about the mendacity of the Palestinian government, about the unwillingness of either Arabs or the international community to be considerate of what we need.
But those who thought Amos Oz was an anti-Zionist have seen nothing yet. J Street, for all its problems, and there are hundreds, was the best possible chance of our generation to have a left-wing voice on the issues of Israel that still remained fundamentally Zionist. Now that AIPAC has so successfully consigned J-Street to the margins of Israeli discourse, virtually the entire worldwide Left works with the anti-Zionist Jewish Voice for Peace. Israeli conservatives have driven the worldwide Left away from any option to support Israel, and therefore have created Israel’s deadliest situation for the 21st century’s second third. Many leftists of previous generations at least conceded that Jews had a powerful claim to Israel that warranted our right to part of the land promised to us, the coming generation will make no such concession.
There is a long overdue Democratic wave coming to America, all the more progressive and perhaps even socialist for having been so long delayed. Anti-Israel sentiment will be red meat to them. Israel as anything but an underdog cannot ever exist without enormous American help. If Israel’s aid package has to be renegotiated by a progressive president and Congress in 10 years and Israel is still under a Netanyahu-like prime minister; and realistically speaking, all of Netanyahu’s potential successors at this point are to his right, then Israel’s funding from the United States could be cut to nothing. Once Israel’s money for innovation in science, tech, and business, disappears, so eventually does the money for Israel’s national security. When that happens, there might be five million Palestinians released on Israel who’ve been fed anti-Semitic propaganda for 80 years and could be out to claim land from Israelis with an army no longer sufficiently funded to stop them. If Israel one day finds that it can no longer control the territories and Palestinians can break out into Israel proper, it will be war, bloody on both sides on a scale past either the Lebanese or Syrian Civil Wars. This level of blood will have been unseen in this region since the Middle Eastern theater of World War I, in which well over 2.5 million people died.
As we speak, the potential for a perfect storm gathers ever closer. Hezbollah amasses 10,000 Qassam rockets on the northern border with Lebanon with new tunnels into Israel seemingly popping up everywhere. Netanyahu, faced with the possibility of three separate criminal charges, needs a strategy to compel Israelis to unite behind him. Hezbollah controls nearly half of Lebanon, and the Syrian Civil War shows only signs of going on indefinitely. Netanyahu knows that if Trump loses in 2020, his ability to act in the interests of Israeli security will be significantly curtailed. War is a near-inevitability. It is almost a miracle that it didn’t break out with the skirmishes at Gaza fence. Netanyahu probably did not pursue it back in May because he knew just how dangerous this war could be. This time will probably not be like the conflicts since 2000. It will probably be, at very least, the worst since the Yom Kippur War, and possibly much, much worse.
Readers of this column may hate liberals. But Israel eventually became a country because of liberal advocacy. Had the UN vote happened under the watch of a Republican president like Dwight Eisenhower, or perhaps Thomas Dewey, the resolution would probably never have passed. The existence of Israel is not proof that nationalism works, but that liberalism works. When Israel betrays liberal principles, Israel betrays itself.
Since liberty generally extracts the best possible results, liberalism does not imply pacifism, liberalism implies pragmatism. In the face of totalitarian anti-Semitic threats like Hezbollah and Hamas, Israel has to bear any burden for groups with large flanks that still agitate for our elimination like Fatah and Kataeb and Guardians of the Cedars. No matter how distasteful we find their authoritarianism and antisemitism, no matter how much they will eventually spit our help back in our faces, no matter how much our backing of their atrocities will be blamed entirely on Israel — just as Sabra and Shatilla were, they are our only option. Military coercion of the Palestinian territories cannot last forever, eventually it must end, and it will either end with Israel finding a way to give Palestinians their own state, or it will end with Arab forces taking a Palestinian state by force.
The State of Israel’s future depends not on defense, but on money. This war is almost inevitable, but it is a war Israel cannot win. If Israel pursues its tactical objectives as a full-scale war, the comeuppance can be horrific. The international community will crow: “Hezbollah has killed its thousands, and Israel has killed its tens of thousands.” Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction, just a small movement at the moment, will have millions upon millions of followers, if it becomes a full-fledged movement, Israel can only live on borrowed time.
Oz knew when to bow out.