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Deconstructing Amos Oz

The renowned Hebrew writer represents a literary tradition that wants to eliminate Israel's Jewish identity

For the second time in as many weeks,novelist Amos Oz has favored us with his wisdom. Last week, he declared to Israel and the world (urbi et orbi, as the Catholics put it) that the Hilltop Youth, who he assumes to be responsible for the ‘Price Tag’ attacks, are nothing less than Neo-Nazis. Today, Professor Oz summarily dismissed Prime Minister Netanyahu’s insistence that any agreement with the Palestinians include a declaration acknowledging Israel’s right to exist as the nation state of the Jewish People as ‘superfluous.’ One gets the sense from his statement, moreover, that he judges the Prime Minister’s demand to be nothing more than a tactical move to avoid making peace.

Both of these assertions can be addressed, and taken down, separately. Indeed, Oz has already drawn a tremendous amount of criticism for the first (despite the fact that such attacks, whoever perpetrated them, should be duly prosecuted). As to the second, more recent pronouncement, there is also a plethora of articles cogently defending the absolute necessity for such an Arab/Muslim recognition, from both right and left.

I would like, here, to call attention to the fact that the Oz’ two assertions are really connected. They are both acute expressions of his integrated worldview. Oz is the foremost, living representative of an established tradition in modern Hebrew literature that espouses the total elimination of Israel’s Jewish identity, and cultural and religious character. The tradition can be traced back to Yosef Haim Brenner, through the Canaanite movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s, down to Oz and his compatriot A. B. Yehoshua (among others).

I first realized this fact almost twenty years ago, at the Israel Conference of the Wexner Heritage Foundation in 1995. It was the halcyon days of Oslo when the mainstream thought that peace was around the corner, and the organizers invited Oz to engage in a dialogue with the right wing activist and thinker, Elyakim Haetzni on the future of Israel. Upon arriving, Oz adamantly refused to sit next to Haetzni, or even to acknowledge his presence. The moderator, Professor Arnold Eisen, was forced to sit between them. (Oz’ pointed refusal to even look at Haetzni shocked the Israelis who were present. The Americans didn’t realize what was transpiring.)

In his remarks, Oz laid out his vision for Israel’s future. He took the city of Jerusalem as an allegory. The city, he said, is divided into the New City and the Old City. The former is full of life, progress, and intoxicating vitality. Living there, with its energy and drama, is like living in a world of Live Theatre. The Old City, by contrast, is a place of the past. Living there is like living in a museum, a tribute to a long lost, dead world. ‘No one,’ he concluded, ‘wants to live in a museum.’

When I heard that, I sat there stunned. My jaw literally dropped. Amos Oz, Israel’s premier writer (and perpetual Nobel candidate), was a proponant of one of history’s oldest anti-semitic ideologies. Its classic formulation was presented in the fifth century CE by the great Catholic theologian, Augustine of Hippo. He declared that the Jews and Judaism were relics of a past era, bereft of validity or vitality. If God suffered them to exist, it was to serve as a testimony to the world to which Jesus of Nazareth had put an end. They were, in short, a living museum (City of God, XVIII, 46). This belief has been a central feature of Christian, anti-Judaism from Augustine down to the twentieth century historian Arnold Toynbee, who famously deemed Judaism ‘a fossil,’ and beyond, all the way to Amos Oz. 

Amos Oz opposes the demand that Israel be acknowledged as the nation state of the Jewish People, because he summarily rejects Jewish religion, culture, history and memory. He rejects everything that would render the State of Israel qualitatively Jewish. He doesn’t need ‘Price Tag’ attacks to demonize the residents of Judea and Samaria. He does that anyway, because they represent everything he despises; all those artifacts who refuse to live quietly in their museum (and this is despite the fact that the majority of residents of Judea and Samaria are not Orthodox).

The next time Amos Oz and his coterie of Canaanite prophets offer us their opinions as semi-prophets, we should keep in mind that the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews reject their message. However it will end up looking, our Judaism and our Jewish identity is both vital and flourishing. On the contrary, it is Oz’ utopian cosmoplitanism that belongs in a museum.

About the Author
Jeffrey Woolf is an Associate Professor in the Talmud Department at Bar Ilan University. He is both a Medieval and Renaissance Jewish Historian, and an Orthodox Rabbi who is a long time advocate of the creation of a uniquely Israeli form of Modern Orthodoxy.