Amos Oz: The Prophet

Last Friday evening, I arrived early for a Shabbat event at American Jewish University, where I was supposed to interview Israeli writer Amos Oz in front of some 300 guests.

Amos Oz

I stopped off at the Hotel Angeleno to write an introduction and have some coffee.

If Amos Oz knew how much I admire him, and how closely I’ve followed his career, I wrote,  he would probably take out a restraining order.

Just then I looked across the hotel lobby and saw an older man in dungarees and a corduroy jacket exit the elevator. It was Amos Oz.

I walked over and introduced myself. He smiled. I told him I’d be the person interviewing him on stage. The smile vanished.

“No one told me about an interview,” Oz said.

Amos Oz gets interviewed a lot.

No man is a prophet in his own country, the Psalmist said. But Oz is the exception. On the occasion of his 70th birthday this year, media in Israel and around the world has turned to him for long, searching stories about the state of his nation.

“You know, being an Israeli of my age,” he told the audience later that evening, “is the equivalent of being a 200-year-old American. I saw the Boston Tea Party of Israel with my own eyes. Every person whose image is imprinted on our money notes, I knew firsthand.”

He is Israel’s last prophet, maybe its only one.

Along with his 17 works of fiction, Oz was, and is, an homme engagé, a co-founder of Peace Now who spoke out in favor of the two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians immediately following Israel’s heady victory in the Six-Day War. It took about 35 years before Israel’s prime ministers and America’s presidents, from both the left and the right, would all agree with him.

Oz was set to read from his book, “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” published in Hebrew in 2002. He bristled when I called it a memoir — “That’s what my publisher insisted on,” he said. It is a retelling of his childhood in Jerusalem, where he was born Amos Klausner in 1939, the son of Eastern European immigrants who struggled to find their place in pre-state Palestine. The book ends with his mother’s suicide, and Oz’s move, at 15, to Kibbutz Hulda, where he changed his name and embarked on a new, Israeli life.

At dinner I sat at a table with Oz, Jacob Dayan, Israel’s consul general to the Southwestern United States, and Dayan’s wife, Galit. The Dayans had left another dinner to race over to hear Oz — not a bad sign when a country’s top diplomats treat great writers like visiting dignitaries.

The conversation shifted into Hebrew, and drifted back to Israel’s early days. The Jews of the Second Aliyah were a generation unlike any other, Oz explained. Think about it, he said. “The religious Jews stayed in Europe in their yeshivas and died in the Holocaust. The mercantile Jews moved to America. The ones who went to Palestine were educated, idealistic and driven.”

David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, stood out even among them.

“Ben-Gurion was a once-in-a-thousand-years leader,” Oz said, not without a bit of longing in his voice. Ben-Gurion did more than King David himself to lead the Jewish people from chaos to independence.

A few minutes later, Oz was reading from his book, entertaining the audience with stories and insights — a sabra Mark Twain. He didn’t need an interview to hold his audience, but he was gracious enough to allow for one.

I asked Oz how it was that he was able to see, back in 1967 at the height of Israel’s and the Jewish world’s victory celebration, that Israel would have to compromise with the Palestinians. He thought back, he said, to how he felt as a child in British-ruled Palestine, and he imagined how a Palestinian would feel under Israeli occupation. The empathy that made him a great novelist, allowing him to enter the mind of a character, served his political vision as well.

“I realized even a humane occupation was still an occupation,” he said.

Oz supported Israel’s initial military reaction against Hezbollah forces in southern Lebanon and against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, then, in both cases, became a vocal critic of his government’s continued military operations in both wars. I asked him if this pattern of support and critique was a function of Israel’s leadership these days, or of the kind of wars Israel must now fight.

Both, he said.

Israel’s leaders suffer from too-little experience and short-term thinking, on the one hand. On the other hand, the kind of wars Israel must fight, against terrorists who use human shields, who hide behind their own children, makes such conflicts extremely difficult.

“There is no such thing as a battlefield anymore,” said Oz, who fought in the wars of 1967 and 1973. “I wish I knew the answer to this question, but I don’t.”

It was a frightening moment, when even the prophet couldn’t see the future.

But Oz, for an Israeli who has seen it all and feared the worse, hasn’t given up on the future.  Every Israeli prime minister seeks his counsel. “That’s an Israeli tradition,” he said. “Prime ministers invite me for a soul-searching conversation and ask my advice. And they admire what I say and ignore it completely”

I asked him if he had met with the current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“I met him first when he was three and I was ten,” recalled Oz.  The Klausner and Netanyahu families traveled in the same pre-state social circles. “He had the annoying habit of going under the dining table and tying our shoelaces together.  I remember I used to kick him.”

With or without a kick, did Oz think the current leadership among Israelis and Arabs could reach a two state solution?

“Miracles do happen,” he said. “No on thought Churchill would dissolve the British empire.  No one thought Sadat would go to Jerusalem, or Begin give back the Sinai, or Sharon return Gaza.”

“I have hope,” he said. “I just don’t know where to place it.”