A few years ago, I picked up a little book at a bookstore called How to Cure a Fanatic, by Amos Oz. The book includes two essays –“Between Right and Right” and “How to Cure a Fanatic” — which were actually speeches that Amos Oz delivered in Germany in 2002, not long after the attacks on the USA by Al Qaeda in September 2001, which clearly influence these essays.
After Oz’s death not long ago, I decided to re-read these essays, especially the one on how to cure a fanatic. This is because we are living in a period of growing fanaticism not only in Israel and Palestine, but also in many places in the world, especially in the United States of America, which is suffering with the most fanatic and irresponsible president in its history. Since I have often been inspired by Amos Oz’s essays, novels and memoirs, I wanted to see once again what I could glean from this essay that might help me deal personally with the current crisis of escalating fanaticism.
Who are the fanatics and what is the struggle with them all about?
This is a battle between fanatics, who believe that the end, any end, justifies the means, and the rest of us, who believe that life is an end, not a means. It is a struggle between those who think that justice, whatever they would mean by the word, is more important than life, on the one hand, and those of us who think that life takes priority over many other convictions, values or faiths. The present crisis in the world, in the Middle East, in Israel/Palestine… is about the ancient struggle between fanaticism and pragmatism. Between fanaticism and tolerance.
We are indeed in the midst of an ongoing crisis, in which the voices and actions of fanatic extremists are growing every day, and getting more and more attention, both in the mainstream media as well as in social media via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and all the rest. The situation is getting so bad that at times it seems that the fanatics have become the mainstream in many places, like Israel and the United States, and the moderate voices seem to have been shunted to the sidelines.
There are many forms of fanaticism. Some, according to Oz, are milder than others. But the ones that appear to be the most dangerous emerged in a big way in the twentieth century:
Very often the cult of personality, the idealization of political or religious leaders, the worship of glamorous individuals, may be another widespread form of fanaticism. The twentieth century seems to have excelled at both. Totalitarian regimes, deadly ideologies, aggressive chauvinism, violent forms of religious fundamentalism, on the one hand, and the universal idolization of a Madonna or a Maradona, on the other hand.
We see this all the time in the 21st century, with the rise of more and more “populism” where the cult of personality is leading the way, no matter how obscene or corrupt or immoral. We see this clearly every day in the two countries in which I live — the USA and Israel — where so-called “leaders” who are on the verge of being indicted for all kinds of serious and systematic corruption, continue to rule with unbelievable self-righteousness while they incite “their base” to hatred — and even to violence — all the time. In Israel, in recent weeks, this has gotten much worse due to election season, in which there is already so much negative campaigning that all we know is who is against whom, with vicious attacks on the other’s political party on a regular basis, leaving us voters disgruntled and disappointed, with hardly anyone offering a positive platform for anything.
Oz also relates in his essays in this book to what he calls “the gloomy role of fanatics and fanaticism” in the conflict between Israel and Palestine, Israel and much of the Arab world:
The Israeli-Palestinian clash is essentially not a civil war between two segments of the same population, or the same people, or the same culture. It is not an internal but an international conflict… Essentially the battle between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs is not a religious war, although the fanatics on both sides are trying very hard to turn it into one. It is essentially no more than a territorial conflict over the painful question ‘Whose land?’. It is a painful conflict between right and right, between two very powerful, very convincing claims over the same small country.
So how can we overcome these phenomena of fanaticism? Oz does not provide us with any simple or comprehensive answers but he offers some suggestions which are worth thinking about.
One idea he offers us to use our imaginations — “Imagination may serve as a partial and limited immunity to fanaticism.” Reading certain works of literature can help us in this process, and he lists some of the most classic writers who are good educators in helping us understand and overcome fanaticism: Shakespeare, Gogol, Kafka, Faulkner, and last but not least, the great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai. He brings a wonderful quote from Amichai which summarizes his main point here:
Where we are right no flowers can grow. — Yehuda Amichai
Oz also offers us another partial remedy, with a grain of salt, that I really like, and that I and some of my colleagues used often in our work in interreligious dialogue as a form of peacebuilding during the last 28 years: a sense of humor.
Humor contains the ability to laugh at ourselves… Humor is the ability to see yourself as others may see you, humor is the capacity to realize that no matter how righteous you are and how terribly wronged you have been, there is a certain side to life that is always a bit funny… You can be a self-righteous Israeli or a self-righteous Palestinian, or a self-righteous anything, but as long as you have a sense of humor, you might be partially immune to fanaticism.
Oz adds two additional partial remedies: the ability to see ourselves as others see us, and the ability to exist within open-ended situations, even to learn to enjoy diversity. This, of course, is why Oz wrote so many wonderful novels. Writing a novel, he reminds us, is essentially about using one’s imagination, to start to understand the other–“what if I were her, and what if you were him” is the main method used in imagining his characters in his novels.
As someone who spent much of my professional career in interreligious relations, including many years in dealing with Jewish-Christian relations, I deeply appreciated a story he brought near the end of the essay from his grandmother, when he was a child:
My very wise grandmother explained to me in very simple words the difference between a Jew and a Christian… ‘You see’, she said, ‘Christians believe that the Messiah was here once and he will certainly return one day. The Jews maintain that the Messiah is yet to come. Over this’, said my grandmother, ‘there has been so much anger persecution, bloodshed, hatred… Why? she said. ‘ Why can’t everyone simply wait and see? If the Messiah comes, saying, ‘Hello, it’s nice to see you again’, the Jews will have to concede. If, on the other hand, the Messiah comes, saying, ‘How do you do, it is very nice meeting you,’ the entire Christian world will have to apologize to the Jews. ‘Between now and then,’ said my very wise grandmother, ‘just live and let live.’
In Oz’s view, his grandmother was immune to fanaticism. She knew how to live in open-ended situations, in periods of unresolved conflicts, with the otherness of other people.
I believe that we can all learn some valuable lessons — even partial ones — as to how to deal with fanaticism, even if we can’t cure it. Amos Oz has offered us some creative and clever strategies. We are grateful to him for this, as we are appreciative of all of his amazing writings, both fiction and non-fiction. May his memory be for a blessing and as a source of inspiration to us all.