“Dear Zealots” is the name of one of the last published works of Amos Oz, Israel’s celebrated writer who died recently. Oz was not only a popular novelist, having penned over 20 novels, he was also an essayist, his non-fiction focusing on his life’s passions: the case for Israel and his ardent beliefs in the peace process and the centrality of family.
Even though he was a founder of the “Peace Now” movement, he was never idealistic or starry-eyed about the attainment of peace between Palestinians and Israeli’s. As he once said: “It is crystal clear to me that if Arabs put down a draft resolution blaming Israel for the recent earthquake in Iran, it would probably have a majority, the US would veto it and Britain and France would abstain.”
He sought not reconciliation with the Palestinians, but a necessary separation; a separation as in a divorce settlement is about a painful compromise. The failure to compromise will only deepen the divide and cause more sorrow. Again he expressed this powerfully and poignantly: “The opposite of compromise is not integrity. The opposite of compromise is not idealism. The opposite of compromise is fanaticism and death.”
And in his last works, “Dear Zealots – Letters from a divided land” and “How to Cure a Fanatic,” he focused on the thirst for simplification in a complex world. The zealot or fanatic is defined by the inerrant belief in their viewpoint; their absolute certainty that they have the only possible answer or solution to the complex issues that confront us. While extremism today is most obvious in the religious world with fanatical Muslim murderers, frenzied Hindus, belligerent Buddhists and, to our regret, some wild-eyed Jews in Israel, it is not confined to religionists. Violent fanaticism dates back earlier than Judaism, Christianity or Islam and is evident in those who bomb abortion clinics or fanatical vegans who, as Oz puts it, “sometimes sound ready to devour people who eat meat.” It was obvious in the right-wing rally in St Kilda just a few weeks ago.
This is not to downplay or overlook the fact that the most extreme form of global fanaticism today is fundamentalist Islam. We, however, overlook the root causes of zealotry when we conveniently consign it all to al-Qaeda, Hamas, Isis or Hezbollah.
As the questions and issues of our time grow more complicated, people long for more simple answers, a culprit who can be blamed for our perplexity-‘the Muslims,’ ‘the permissive protagonists of our society,’ ‘the immigrants,’ ‘the left-wing radicals,’ ‘the right-wing Zionists’ – if only we wipe them out, then all our troubles will vanish…
Zealotry, says Oz, begins with innocuous symptoms, not with beheadings, car bombs, or burning people in their homes, but rather in the bosom of the family. We all harbour corners of extremism in our selves .It may begin with the milder form of wanting to change our spouse or our children ‘for their own good.’ It may start with seemingly noble impulses of self-sacrifice (‘look how much I am willing to do for you’) but self-sacrifice is not necessarily about putting my ego aside for others, it can mask a destructive emotional or manipulative purpose and “those who are eager to sacrifice themselves will not find it difficult to sacrifice others.” We are all capable of surrendering to the violent passions of our hearts.
So what, if anything, gives us some immunity against fanaticism? Oz contends that partial immunity comes from curiosity and imaginative power. These allow us to step into the inner world of the other, to use it especially when we feel wronged by another. To ask once in a while: ‘what if I were him or her?’ This curiosity, he argues, will not necessarily lead us to moral relativity or abdication to the other, but rather: “It will lead us, sometimes, to an exhilarating discovery which is that there are many rivers, each of whose banks can show us a different landscape that may be fascinating. Fascinating even if they’re not right for us, surprising even if they do not appeal to us…”
Amos Oz through his writing invited us to explore the different landscapes of emotion and intellect. In this sense he was quintessentially Jewish for what is Judaism if not an invitation to open our minds to different ideas, our hearts to different.
Reading these letters of Oz, I was reminded of the definition of a prophet by Rashi (Exodus 7:1): wherever you find the term נבואה or prophecy it refers to a person who speaks out and lets the nation hear critical words. In old French he is called preideor – preacher…
In other words a prophet is not a predictor of the future but a preacher, a perspective-bringer, one who speaks the uncomfortable truth, one who is also willing to speak truth to power. In this sense the poet and novelists like the responsible journalist (especially the investigative journalist) are the prophets of today. (Even though it sounds self-serving, I would also like to think the rabbi who tackles uncomfortable issues is acting in the role of prophet!) Oz was a modern-day prophet, part of the forth-estate or the forth force of today’s society.
Torah and Judaism are about the willingness to engage with different viewpoints and opinions. Talmudic debate is a training in discerning the differences. The Torah is a sensationally subtle work. To read the Torah is to appreciate the curious complexity of humanity and relationships. It doesn’t mean I will embrace everything of the other, I may even fiercely disagree with them, but I will be a more respectful Jew and better human being, for having opened myself to them with understanding and empathy.
And that is why Rabbi Jonathan Sacks could say after his dialogue with Amos Oz, a passionate secularist, at Bar Ilan University in 2001: “After a genuine dialogue both participants change. Each has learnt something from the other: one’s horizons are widened. I think something special has occurred this evening and for this I thank Amos Oz very much. I pray that there will be more people like him in Israel.”