Losing Amos Oz … but savoring his insights

On December 28, 2018, Amos Oz, one of Israel’s foremost literary figures and thought leaders, died. Those of you who have read any of his novels or short stories know how deep in feeling his writing could be, as in the case of his autobiographical “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” and how amazingly it caught the complicated and conflicted soul of Israel, as in Oz’s 1968 novel, “My Michael.”

Less known are his political essays and cultural writings. He clearly was the most eloquent and well-known voice of Israel’s left. He was among the first to propose a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and he was an ongoing and trenchant critic of the Israeli occupation of the territories conquered in 1967, of the government support for settlement there, and of those settlers who turned to violence sometimes directed against IDF soldiers, sometimes directed at local Arabs.

For all that the Israeli right denounced him as a traitor, his love for the Land and People of Israel and his army service in their defense showed him to be a consummate patriot, the quintessence of “the loyal opposition.”

For example, Oz fully supported the second Lebanese war until the government decided to extend the action beyond the destruction of Hezbollah, thereby causing one of the worst military disasters in Israeli history.

He fully supported the security wall that snakes through Israel, with the proviso that it hew to the Green Line, which might have opened the way to greater clarity about borders.

He also supported Israeli actions in Gaza during the 2014 Israel–Gaza conflict, criticizing Hamas’s use of human shields and terror tunnels, asking: “What would you do if your neighbor across the street sits down on the balcony, puts his little boy on his lap, and starts shooting machine-gun fire into your nursery? What would you do if your neighbor across the street digs a tunnel from his nursery to your nursery in order to blow up your home or in order to kidnap your family?”

Oz was a truth teller, and as such he was willing to be castigated by the Israeli left as much as he was willing to draw fire from the right. As part of his obituary, Haaretz’s Ofer Aderet wrote, “In the early 1960s he opposed David Ben-Gurion’s fierce grip on power, and in the ‘70s he was a spokesman for Peace Now. As an adult he identified with the Labor Party. He was close to Peres and Yitzhak Rabin, but has said he never voted for either of them.”

Amos Oz up close and personal

One day I received an email from Miri Varon, a close friend of our family and a writer who was close to Oz. In it was an attachment containing a political essay by Oz. The email contained a request, “Make this essay your homework.” I am pretty sure Miri just wanted me to read what Oz had written, and to emphasize how important reading it was she called it “homework.” As I read it, however, I could not refrain from commenting on it, because of some of the very provocative ideas it contained. I sent the essay with my comments back to Miri, thinking that would be the end of it. I never imagined she’d send my comments on to the author of the essay, but she did. His response was, “I would like to meet this fellow.” I couldn’t believe it.

In fact, Amoz Oz, the Varons, and the Stern-Chernicks did meet for breakfast on the shores of the Yarkon River in Tel Aviv. I wasn’t sure whether I was going to a social event or a repeat performance of my doctoral orals. Was I going to be angrily grilled about my comments on Oz’s article by Oz himself? Was my Hebrew going to be sufficient for a conversation with this giant of Hebrew literature? It was with excitement and trepidation that I went to breakfast that morning.

There was some small talk, but then things turned more serious. He asked about some of the views I expressed in my comments.

I had been particularly struck by his idea that the Jewish people definitely had the right to the entire biblical Land of Israel. He noted, however, that just because someone has a right doesn’t mean it is necessary to use it. For him, that meant that while Judea and Samaria might by right be ours as a matter of history, for the sake of peace with the Palestinians it was prudent to use it in a sharing manner.

Knowing how dedicated Oz was to the two-state solution, I found his view paternalistic. On one hand, he wanted the State of Palestine to exist. On the other, his view seemed to be that a Palestinian state actually would belong to us by virtue of our historical right to the entire biblical Land of Israel. He seemed to be saying, “Out of our graciousness, due to our quest for peace and security, we will allow you Palestinians to have a part of our patrimony.”

He saw my point, but said that it was simply too hard for him and for many other Israelis on the left and right to dismiss our history with the Land of Israel along with our attachment to those places that figured so prominently in the foundational document of the Jewish people, the Tanach. He pointed out that his position was not all that different from King Solomon’s. Did he not made a gift of 20 Galilean cities to King Hiram of Tyre for his help in building the first Temple in Jerusalem? Oz was clear about the fact that the Palestinians hadn’t helped the Jewish people build the State of Israel, with an aside about that being an understatement if there ever was one, but the principle of giving up part of the biblical Land of Israel for a reason was there.

As a means of keeping the options for peace open, he also contended in his essay that Jews should not make use of their right to pray on the Temple Mount. Jewish prayer now is forbidden on the Temple Mount by Israeli law out of deference to the Wakf, the Arab guardians of the Muslim holy places there. That injunction is enforced by Israeli police. As it stands, a bracha over so much as a sip of water can land you in jail for a few hours and prevent you from ever going up to the Temple Mount again.

I reiterated the point I made in my comments on his article: Freedom of religion was a right everyone should have. It is ensconced in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. Why should Muslims have it and not Jews? As a liberal, would he not admit that freedom of conscience, of which freedom of religion is a part, could not be a bargaining chip in order to gain peace? Where was the share-and-share-alike he was proposing coming from the Arab side when a Jew caught whispering a prayer in the Jewish people’s most historically and religiously sacred site could be jailed for that act? Did Jewish civil and religious rights count for nothing?

His response was telling about how complicated a person he was. He said, “You are right. The Temple Mount and the deprivation of our rights there are painful and unjust. But we have the choice of demanding our rights and winding up with violence and bloodshed on all sides because of the inflamed passions of both Jews and Muslims or holding back in order to advance the cause of two states for two peoples. The sooner movement toward a two-state solution happens, of necessity there will be a reckoning of the rights of access to the places sacred to various groups in Jerusalem. I cannot believe that even a cold but acceptable peace would not include sharing the Temple Mount. Unwillingness to do so, depending on who was the intransigent party, would show who really was seeking a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and who was not. Should that intransigence emerge, then my countrymen and I would have to resign ourselves to endless conflict, which indeed may be our fate.”

Woe for those whom we have lost and cannot be found

I sense that before Israel lost Amos Oz, to a great extent Amos Oz lost Israel. People describing themselves as left wing in their politics numbered 8 percent of the entire Israeli Jewish population as of 2016. (That’s from a Pew study, Israel a Religiously Divided Country.) It might be argued that Amos Oz was part of the center-left that has a greater share of the Israeli population’s allegiance, but he was neither perceived that way nor did he present himself to the public as such when it came to the most burning political issues roiling the country. When he opposed something, he did so in caustic and provocative terms. Perhaps that was a mistake, one that caused his positions to go unheard.

Here is a potpourri of those positions cited in his Haaretz obituary so you can hear the voice that has been lost and can no longer be found in most Israeli circles:

“A great many Israelis, too many Israelis, believe — or are being brainwashed into believing — that if we only take a very big stick and beat the Arabs with it just one more time, very hard, they will take fright and once and for all let us be, and everything will be fine. For almost 100 years the Arabs haven’t let us be, despite our big stick.”

“I have said that in contrast to some of my friends in the dovish left, I cannot guarantee that if we leave the territories with a peace treaty, everything will be wonderful. … It also might not hurt the dovish left to share in that fear a little. There is something to be afraid of. A person who is afraid, rightly or wrongly, never deserves contempt or ridicule, or scorn either. We have to debate the idea of peace for land not with ridicule or scorn, but as people who weigh one danger against another danger.”

“I have fears about the kind of seeds we will sow in the near future in the hearts of the occupied. Even more, I have fears about the seeds that will be implanted in the hearts of the occupiers.”

“The idea of a binational state that we hear about these days from both the extreme left and the lunatic right is, I believe, a sad joke. After 100 years of blood, tears and disasters, it is impossible to expect Israelis and Palestinians to jump suddenly into a double bed and begin a honeymoon. No, we and the Palestinians will not be able to become ‘one happy family’ tomorrow. We need a fair divorce.”

“They called me a traitor. I’m in good company.”

After an ongoing battle with cancer, Amoz Oz died. His life was, at least as far as I am concerned, a blessing. To have met him was an even greater one. He provided me and millions of others with hours of good reads in gorgeous and moving Hebrew and in translation. His cultural essays opened vistas of understanding into the nature of Jews, Judaism, and the meaning of language in the Jewish tradition. He spoke his sharp truths to his people and to power.

May his memory be a blessing as well. Yehi zikhro barukh.


About the Author
Rabbi Michael Chernick holds a doctorate in rabbinic literature and semikhah from Yeshiva University, and he is the chair of the executive committee of Ruach Hiddush (Rabbis and Cantors for Religious Freedom and Equality in Israel).He served as professor of rabbinic literature at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion for forty years.He is an oleh hadash with continuing close ties to the United States. Rabbi Chernck regards himself as "a Jew for all Jews."
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