'Judas' debates the founding of Israel in twisting, searching conversations

Amos Oz’s melancholy new novel suggests that the real tragedy of humankind is that the persecuted yearn to be persecutors.

Judas By Amos Oz and Nicholas de Lange (Translator) Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 320 pp.

In the study of an old stone house in Jerusalem, a young Jewish man asks an old Jewish man to consider the founding of Israel from the perspective of the Arab populations the state has displaced. “You tell me if there is any other people in this world who would welcome with open arms an incursion of hundreds of thousands of strangers, and then millions of strangers, landing from far away with the weird claim that their holy Scriptures, which they brought with them also from far away, promise this whole land to them and to them alone.”

The year is 1959. The critic of Israeli statehood is a young biblical scholar interested in Jewish views of Jesus; his interlocutor is a retired history teacher who spends his days reading everything from Tolstoy to the Talmud. They rarely agree, and neither is particularly good at listening. Their twisting, searching conversations form the heart of the Israeli novelist Amos Oz's melancholy new novel Judas.

The title of Oz’s novel evokes several sly, suggestive echoes. Jewish critics of the legitimacy of Israeli statehood are often seen as Judas figures – traitors forsaking a cause they should love and defend. And the biblical Judas, a Jew, has become a cultural byword for treachery: In the New Testament he betrays Christ for 30 pieces of silver. Oz uses this backdrop to ask a pair of powerful questions: What if Judas was in fact the most faithful of all the disciples, a believer whose faith was stronger even than Christ’s? And what if the harshest critics of modern Israel are actually the heirs to this tradition of love?

Oz has written a novel, not a polemic, so these queries emerge from dialogue and narrative as possibilities; while characters defend and attack ideas, no single position is anointed with the halo of absolute authority. But the novel also contains a strong undercurrent of sadness and futility that implies there is some truth about these matters.

The story begins in 1959 when a young biblical scholar named Shmuel Ash answers a notice seeking companionship for an old man whose son was killed in the fighting of 1948. In exchange for five hours of conversation each day, he receives food and lodging and some pocket money. Also living with Shmuel and the old man is Atalia, a beautiful and aloof woman in her 40s. The daughter of one of the few Jewish leaders to oppose an independent state, Atalia is also the widow of the old man’s son. Her husband died while fighting to advance a cause that neither she nor her father considers just.

These tangled connections gradually become clear as Shmuel befriends the old man and falls in love with the widowed Atalia. But none of the relationships in the novel ever fully flourish; every personal bond is poisoned and stunted by the toxic political atmosphere. Atalia is permanently scarred by the violent death of her young husband and unable to sustain more than furtive and fleeting erotic encounters. Her father, the opponent of Zionism, retreats into a permanent silence after being publicly denounced as a traitor of the Jewish people. Shmuel is alienated from his family by his interest in Jewish views on Jesus, a figure they consider a symbol of the persecution that has haunted Jews for millennia. The old man, a political realist who admires Ben-Gurion, buries his grief in esoteric word games and laments the futility and naïveté of idealism.

By making two of his central characters experts at biblical exegesis, Oz suggests that the tragic history of modern Israel is a transformation of patterns already set down in these ancient stories. Shmuel’s description of how Jesus “went from being a persecuted figure to a symbol of persecution and oppression,” for instance, inescapably suggests the similar trajectory of those European Jews who fled the Holocaust in the 1940s only to displace and terrorize local Arab populations in Palestine. Atalia’s father puts it this way: “The real tragedy of humankind is not that the persecuted and enslaved crave to be liberated and to hold their heads high. No. The worst thing is that the enslaved secretly dream of enslaving their enslavers. The persecuted yearn to be persecutors.”

Near the end of the novel Oz includes a first-person narrative from the perspective of Judas a few hours after the crucifixion. This section elaborates an interpretation that Shmuel has already advanced in conversation with the old man: Judas believed in the divinity of Christ so fervently that he encouraged his master to provoke the priests and publicans in Jerusalem to crucify him. Confident that Jesus would manage by miraculous means to free himself from the cross, Judas is shocked and devastated by his death. He hangs himself out of genuine sorrow, not because he feels guilty for betraying Jesus.

The modern corollary to this story is the narrative of Atalia’s father. Moved by compassion and love for all humanity, he betrays and denounces the cause of violent Zionism. But the real betrayal lies elsewhere, Oz suggests. Just as Judas’s act hastens his master’s crucifixion because of his hopeful confidence in the divinity of Jesus, Atalia’s father rejects Zionism because of his idealistic faith in the possibility of peaceful coexistence. Both men act out of love and idealism and are branded as villainous traitors.

The poignant possibility that there might have been a better course of action for the Jewish settlers in post-World War II Palestine hovers over the entire novel. At one point, Shmuel defends the common argument that there was no way for the Jews to survive amidst the local Palestinian populations without using force to defend themselves. He asks: “‘Don’t you believe that in 1948 we fought because we had no alternative? That we had our backs to the wall?’” Atalia replies: “‘No, you didn’t have your backs to the wall. You were the wall.’”

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