Love and criticism: An Amos Oz interview


The first question I asked Amos Oz is whether it bothers him to be called a traitor.

The renowned Israeli author was sitting across from me in a quiet room off the lobby of the SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills, two cups of coffee between us. At 76, age has grayed and slightly thinned his hair, and given him a slight paunch. But he still has that strong square jaw and those disturbingly piercing eyes. Which he fixed on me. 

Many Americans considered Abraham Lincoln a traitor, he responded. Churchill, Theodor Herzl, David Ben-Gurion, Gorbachev, Rabin, Sharon — all, at some point, were called traitors.

“I’m not sure whether it’s more respectable to belong in the club of those who are called ‘traitor’ or in the clubs of those who are never called traitors,” he said. 

He has clearly given the matter some thought. His new novel, “Judas” — not yet translated into English — reimagines history’s most reviled Jew as a hero. 

“In many cases,” Oz continued, “traitors are simply pathfinders. Or, as my protagonist defined them, people who have the courage to change in the eyes of those who despise change, who don’t understand change or are totally incapable of changing.”

Every so often, Oz comes calling on Los Angeles, to help us think more clearly about Israel — because we need help.

On May 5, he was here to accept an honor from the UCLA Younes & Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies. And in his remarks at that event, and in a long private interview with me, he charted a thoughtful course between the two camps that dominate our discourse: Israel-can-do-no-wrong and Israel-can-do-no-right.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Oz said as he accepted his honor at a gala event at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, “it’s no secret that, for several years now, I am very, very critical of the policy of my government. I’m critical of its policy on the Palestinian issue. I’m critical of its policy on settlements. I’m critical of its policy on many domestic issues. But it’s also no secret that I love Israel. I love Israel, even at times when I don’t like it. And I’ll tell you a secret: I love Israel even at moments when I cannot stand it.”

That, in a paragraph, captures the thrust of Oz’s thoughts on Israel — and of how we should all think about Israel. Don’t suspend our moral and critical faculties, he cautions; engage in vigorous debate, but do it with a sense of love and amazement.

“If anybody ever talks to you about the Zionist dream,” Oz told journalist Ari Shavit during an onstage interview at the Nazarian Center event, “you should immediately correct her or him by saying, ‘There has never been such a thing as the Zionist dream.’ There has been a full spectrum of conflicting and contradicting dreams, master plans, visions and hopes. … 

“And this is historically Israel. Half the people, or all those people, or almost all, are still alive and kicking — kicking each other, kicking each other around the house, and I like it. And I like the diversity. And I like even language I can’t tolerate, because I enjoy the variety, because I enjoy the argument.”

I sat down with Oz on May 4, the day before the glamorous event — which he neglected to tell me also happened to be his 76th birthday. After the black coffee arrived, we began.

Rob Eshman: In your essay that we published (“Last Chance for a Jewish State,” March 6), you talked about how it’s a “matter of life and death” to think that we can just manage the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But the Israelis just re-elected somebody who basically ran on a platform of managing the conflict.

Amos Oz: When you say, “The Israelis re-elected,” you may be thinking of Israeli democracy in terms of American democracy. Bear in mind that three out of four Israeli voters voted against Netanyahu. Also bear in mind, that the parliamentary block, which is officially committed to the ideal of greater Israel, numbers exactly 44 MPs [members of parliament], which is barely more than one-third of the house. That means the distinct majority of the nation voted against the idea of greater Israel and lasting occupation of the West Bank.

RE: But if enough people had cared to vote the other way, Netanyahu would not be in office now, forming a government.

AO: You know, one of the things that outsiders fail to realize about Israel is how insecure Jewish Israel is. Underneath the arrogance, there are generations upon generations of insecurity. The Jewish people have no family. There is a European family of nations. There is a Latin American family of nations. There is an English-speaking family of nations. There is a democratic family of nations. There is a Muslim family of nations — not a happy family, but a family. There is a Slav family of nations. The Jews have no family, and [have] never had a family. They had a strong ally in the United States of America, but an ally is not necessarily a family.

And the fact that Jewish people, for a millennium, have [had] no family, and suffered from lasting isolation and exclusion, provides, for certain, toughness and deep insecurity. And I think the Israeli left wing, the Israeli doves, are very, very wrong in overlooking this deep insecurity of millions of Israeli people. … Not just overlooking it, but sometimes even mocking it. And I take part of the guilt myself; I’ve not always been sensitive enough. The least genuine insecurity of many Israelis — now insecurity may be exaggerated, it may be paranoiac — but it’s never to be taken lightly.

RE: But do you think Netanyahu’s single-minded focus on Iran, to the exclusion of the Palestinian issue, has been a mistake?

AO: I think so, yes. In the first place, I think Netanyahu is deliberately manipulating a legitimate apprehension of many, many Israelis. I think Iran is dangerous, but it’s dangerous because the future is dangerous. The idea that if, somehow, nuclear Iran can be blocked, everything will be fine is historically shortsighted. In 10 years, 15 years, everybody who wants to have means of massive destruction will have it. … I’m sorry about it. It’s a disaster. But, it’s going to be a universal problem. And the world of our children will depend on a balance of the terror, or if you wish, a balance of horror. Just like the Cold War. 

Look at Pakistan. It’s a nuclear power now. And it’s a few inches away from becoming a fanatic Muslim country overnight. And there’s no guarantee that we will not wake up tomorrow morning and discover that Pakistan is lot more fanatic, fundamentalist, extremist than Iran. What will it do then? … Are we going to send the Israeli army to come kill the entire globe? Are we going to bomb everybody? It’s easier to recruit Israeli public opinion, and to some extent even world public opinion, against the threat of Iran nuclear development than to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian issue. It’s a hard one to resolve, I’m telling you this as a political dove.

RE: Because?

AO: Because resolving it is going to involve something like a massive amputation for both the Israelis and the Palestinians.

RE: The metaphor you used in the past was divorce; now it’s amputation. It’s getting more and more personal.

AO: Yes, yes, it’s getting more and more personal because with time, it’s becoming not easier, but more difficult. With time, settlements and deepening of humiliation on one end, the security threats on the other — yes, I’m talking now about amputation, not about divorce. 

RE: You wrote in the piece we published that the time has never been better for a deal. But many say it’s the worst time because there’s so much unrest in the Arab world. So why cut a deal?

AO: You know, people who use this argument are the same people who told us, just a few years ago, that the Arab regimes are too strong, too stable, too rigid to make peace with. …

But it’s a good time, because there is, objectively speaking, common interest. And even a common enemy. For Israel, for Egypt, for Saudi Arabia, for almost all the others, Iraq, even Iran, if you wish.

RE: And do you believe Israel should sit down and talk to Hamas in Gaza?

AO: No. Israel cannot talk to Hamas as long as Hamas officially insists that Israel ceases to exist. Even a dove like myself would not concede a kind of compromise in which Israel will only exist Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. I’m sorry. 

RE: So, work out a deal with the West Bank, and leave Gaza to fester until they come around?

AO: Yes, yes, practically speaking, it is a good time to reduce the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into an Israeli-Gaza conflict. This would not be the beginning of the redemption of humanity or the redemption of Israel, but it will be a huge step forward. Just like the peace with Egypt and the peace with Jordan. It was not the beginning of a wonderful friendship, but it was a huge step forward.

RE: As a person of the left, how do you respond to the growing calls for boycott and sanctions against Israel from the left abroad?

AO: I keep telling those people that all the pressure in the world against Israeli occupation of the West Bank is legitimate. Boycotting Israel altogether or presenting a question mark over Israel’s right to exist because of its political conduct is not legitimate. Moreover, it’s dangerous, because it will push the Israelis into even more paranoia and more claustrophobia and more of the Masada complex. 

The 20th century produced many international conflicts that were clear-cut, black-and-white, good-and-evil. … The Israeli Palestinian/Israeli Arab/Israeli Muslim clash is not black-and-white. It’s not about good guys and bad guys. There are bad guys on both sides. 

And therefore, it’s wrong to relate to this conflict in Western movie terms: good guys and bad guys. Launch a demonstration against the bad guys; organize a boycott against the bad guys; sign a petition in favor of the good guys, and go to sleep feeling good about yourself. It’s not that simple, you see. 

There is a fine line, but a very clear line, between legitimate criticism, which is what Israel deserves, and illegitimate criticism, which leads to the conclusion that perhaps it will be better if Israel ceased to exist. This is not only illegitimate in my view, this is vicious. And dangerous. 

RE: In a 1992 postscript to your book “In the Land of Israel,” you wrote, “Possibly the worst patch of the Israeli-Arab conflict is now over.” Do you still believe that?

AO: I still agree with myself. The worst patch was when the Arabs refused to even pronounce the word “Israel,” and most Israelis refused to pronounce the world “Palestinians.” They resorted to euphemisms. … But most people on both sides know that the other is not going to go anywhere. This happened in my lifetime, and this means that, yes, the worst patch is over.

But, again, as one of my protagonists in the new novel, “Judas,” says, “As long as everyone in the world has bars on the windows and locks on the doors, the Jews of Israel will too.” Am I in love with bars on the windows and locks on the doors? I swear to God, no. But I will have them, as long as everyone else in the neighborhood has them, and, in fact, every man in the world has them still.

RE: You look forward to a time when we don’t need them.

AO: This is my vision for the future. This is the world I wish for my grandchildren. But I don’t see this materializing overnight. I don’t see deadly enemies becoming one happy family overnight. It doesn’t work like this. 

RE: So, patience.

AO: And if you are impatient, you think it will help you? The most honorable Jewish tradition: I answer a question with a question. Of course I’m impatient — I would like all of this nightmare to be over today, tonight. I would love it to be over. I’ve had enough of it. Up to here. My grandchildren are now serving in the army, and, my God, I am not happy to see them in uniform. Not at all. Just as I was unhappy to see my children in uniform, a generation earlier. But …

“My grandchildren are now serving in the army, and, my God, I am not happy to see them in uniform.”

RE: … But doesn’t it make you proud, in some way, to see them in uniform? You still feel pride, right?

AO: It makes me proud to see that my grandchildren serve in the army as educators. They both work in the education section of the army, working with less-privileged components of Israeli society — of this, I am very, very proud. I am proud of them, yes. But I’m not proud of the uniforms. There is nothing to be proud of.

RE: But you’re not a pacifist.

AO: Look, you have to live in this complicated world. You have to be clearing the sewage from time to time, clean a blockage in the sewage. And you do that, and you do that as well as you can do. But, there is not much pride in coming out of the sewage, stinking all over — you take a quick shower, you don’t walk in the street claiming, “I just cleaned the sewage.” No, I don’t find any pride in wearing uniforms. I find necessity. I don’t find — as I told you — I don’t find any beauty in bars on the windows and locks on the doors. But they are a necessity.


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.