June 27, 2019

The Last Word on Fanaticism From Amos Oz

What better way to honor the late Amos Oz, who died Dec. 28 at age 79, than by pondering his most recent book, “Dear Zealots: Letters from a Divided Land” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)?

Published in an English translation by Jessica Cohen barely a month before the author’s death, “Dear Zealots” is a brief valedictory by the revered Israeli author, whose life’s work included 17 novels (ranging from “Where the Jackals Howl” to “Judas”), eight works of nonfiction (ranging from “In the Land of Israel” to “Dear Zealots”) and two books for children.

“Dear Zealots” reflects the courage and candor that has characterized all of Oz’s work and, perhaps more importantly, his role in public life, both in Israel and the Diaspora. According to the author himself, his new book “seeks the listening ear of those whose opinions differ from my own,” an oblique acknowledgment that Oz found himself increasingly beleaguered in his own country as the pioneering vision of the founding generation of Zionists, who were predominantly secular and socialist, was overtaken by the increasingly aggressive stance of the political and religious right.

“They called me a traitor,” Oz once quipped. “I’m in good company.”

As recently as last April, for example, Oz reaffirmed his belief in the rightness of a two-state solution: “I don’t know what the future holds for Jerusalem but I know what should happen,” he told a German television interviewer. “Every country in the world should follow President Trump and move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. At the same time, each one of those countries ought to open its own embassy in East Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian people.”

Significantly, the very same stubborn insistence on speaking truth to power can be found in his latest and last book. “Many people forget that radical Islam does not have a monopoly on violent fanaticism,” he writes. “The Israeli government [dumps] the Palestinians’ fight to cast off Israeli occupation into the same junkyard from which fanatic Muslim murderers regularly emerge to commit horrors around the world.”

Oz was not always an advocate for rapprochement between Arabs and Jews in Palestine. “As a child in Jerusalem, I myself was a little Zionist-nationalist fanatic — self-righteous, enthusiastic, and brainwashed,” he writes of his experiences under British occupation in 1946 and 1947. “In my novel ‘Panther in the Basement,’ I retold the experiences that revealed to me, as a child, that sometimes there are two sides to a story, that conflicts are colored not only in black and white. … Much later, I learned to take comfort in the thought that, for fanatics, a traitor is anyone who dares to change.” 

“At the heart of Amos Oz’s last book is his insistence that, even though there are surely some fanatics among us, the core value of Judaism is argument rather than true belief, defiance rather than submission to authority.”

At the heart of Oz’s little book is his insistence that, even though there are surely some fanatics among us, the core value of Judaism is argument rather than true belief, defiance rather than submission to authority. “Moses could tell you how unaccustomed the Israelites are to being obedient,” Oz writes, and he reminds us that Abraham speaks out for the sinners of Sodom in the Torah: “He looks up to the heavens and utters what might be the boldest words in the Bible, if not in all of the history of religion: ‘Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justly?’ ” Exactly here he finds the scriptural basis for what he calls “the anarchist core, the rebellious gene that has flickered for thousands of years in Jewish culture.”

Surely, Oz intended to remind us of the irony to be found in the role of religious Zionists in Israeli politics today. Leveraging their ability to make or break a majority in the Knesset, they seek to enforce a strict code of belief and behavior on all Jews while, at the same time, arguing that the boundaries of Eretz Yisrael as described in the Tanakh ought to govern the statecraft of Medinat Yisrael, the country that actually exists in the here and now. But Oz points out that Jewish history and Jewish nature actually work against religious authority.

“It is no accident of history that the Jews do not have a pope,” he writes with characteristic charm and wit. “If someone were to stand up and declare himself, or herself, ‘the Jews’ pope,’ each of us would go up and tap him or her on the shoulder and say, ‘Hey, Pope, you don’t know me, but my grandma and your aunt used to do business together in Minsk, or Casablanca, so please sit down for five minutes — just five — while I explain to you once and for all what God wants us to do.’”

Oz suggests that the conflicts in Israel were inevitable because of the circumstances of its birth. “The State of Israel is the child of a mixed marriage … born from a merger of the Bible with the Enlightenment,” he argues. “Israel cannot be forcibly ‘Judaized.’ ” And he invites us to imagine the consequences if the biblical maximalists were successful.

“Let us say that they managed to annex all the occupied territories, eliminate all the Arabs once and for all, and cut Europe and America down to size,” he proposes. “Would this make things better for the Jewish people? Or would it perhaps bring total devastation upon us, much as our zealots have done before, more than once?”

Yet Oz actually holds his fellow Jews to the very highest moral standard, one that he regards as literally rooted in the soil of the Holy Land. “More than three thousand years ago, there was a culture here that saw fit to demand from the strong that they respect the weak,” he writes.  “It demanded not only charity (tzedaka) but also justice (tzedek) — the two words in Hebrew, unlike in other languages, are closely connected.  It demanded this justice not only from rulers, but from every human being.”

“Dear Zealots” seeks to answer the question that Oz himself poses on the very first page: “How does one cure a fanatic?” His answers will be uncomfortable to some readers, although no one who has read his earlier books will be surprised by his last testament, so sure-handed and stirring.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.