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In a eulogy for Amos Oz, President Reuven Rivlin, a childhood friend of Israel’s preeminent writer, praised his courage. “Not only were you not afraid to be in the minority and hold a minority opinion, but you weren’t even afraid to be called a traitor,” he said. “On the contrary, you saw the word as a title with honor.” It was a remarkable tribute from the head of state, a member of the conservative Likud party, for Oz, who for decades was an unofficial spokesman for the peace movement. Oz, whose love of country filled the pages of his internationally acclaimed books, was among the first of Israel’s intellectuals to criticize the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. The Zionist left still reveres him as a hero, the conscience of the nation. But for many on the right, even those who cherished his books, his politics made him at best a prattler of impossible bleeding-heart hopes. In a tribute, Haaretz reporter Amir Tibon wrote: “What Oz considered the greatest act of patriotism – trying to end Israel’s military occupation over millions of Palestinians – his critics and attackers viewed as dangerous disloyalty.”
For decades a tradition was honored in Israel, that its most celebrated poets, novelists, and thinkers occupied a rarefied place in the halls of power and influence.
They were the moral, sometimes spiritual guides in this experiment in Jewish self-determination.
But in recent years Israel’s preeminent writer, Amos Oz, who passed away Friday, had seen his influence as a modern-day prophet slip into the cracks of the divided, polarized land Israel has become.
Oz, whose love for his country filled the pages of his best-selling and internationally acclaimed books, was for decades also an unofficial spokesman for the peace movement.
The Zionist left still reveres him as a hero, the conscience of the nation, and now reels in grief and wonders how Israel will find its way without him. But for many on the right, even those who cherished his books, his politics made him a prattler of impossible bleeding-heart hopes at best, a traitor at worst.
“He saw what happened in the [occupied] territories as messianic lunatics taking over the Israel he loved and who responded to him with a lot of anger and even hate,” says Meir Azari, senior rabbi of Beit Daniel, Tel Aviv’s first and largest Reform synagogue.
He cites hateful responses to the news of Oz’s death on social media, even calling for him to “rot in hell.”
“No one in Russia would write this about Pushkin,” Rabbi Azari says, “and here we have a national writer out there in the world, a symbol of culture in Israel, and half of the country cannot stand him.”
Among the prestigious prizes Oz was awarded were the Goethe prize and the Prix Méditerranée Étranger. Twice he was a finalist for the Man Booker prize.
“My Michael,” a novel published in 1968, about a troubled young woman in 1950s Jerusalem and her disintegrating marriage, and “In the Land of Israel,” published in 1983, a nonfiction travelogue chronicling the people and politics of Israel and the West Bank, are among Oz’s most widely read books in Israel and abroad.
But “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” an autobiographical novel published in 2002 about growing up in Jerusalem in the years before and just after Israel became a state in 1948, is considered his masterpiece. It was made into a movie by Natalie Portman in which she portrayed Oz’s mother, who took her own life when he was 12 years old.
This enduring wound drove his writing: “Without a wound there is no author,” he said.
Patriotism or disloyalty?
The title and contents of Oz’s final book, “Dear Zealots: Letters from a Divided Land,” published just over a year ago, speak to the current polarization, one that pitted him and the world of old-school liberal (critics would add: Ashkenazi elite) Zionism he represented against an increasingly popular hard-line brand of religious, messianic nationalism.
“Oz’s brand of patriotism was one that many Israelis – those who belong to the country’s growing religious and right-wing majority – found increasingly difficult to tolerate over the years,” Haaretz reporter Amir Tibon wrote in a tribute. “What Oz considered the greatest act of patriotism – trying to end Israel’s military occupation over millions of Palestinians – his critics and attackers viewed as dangerous disloyalty.”
Oz combined a generous, warm spirit with a sharp tongue – he called settler youths who vandalized mosques “Hebrew neo-Nazis.” And he was among the first of Israel’s public intellectuals to criticize the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, among the lands Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.
Shortly after the war, which was launched in the tense days after Arab leaders declared they planned to destroy Israel, he wrote an article warning, “Even unavoidable occupation is a corrupting occupation.”
In a eulogy delivered at a memorial at a Tel Aviv arts center, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, a childhood friend of Oz’s, praised his courage.
“Not only were you not afraid to be in the minority and hold a minority opinion, but you weren’t even afraid to be called a traitor,” he said. “On the contrary, you saw the word as a title with honor.”
In Oz’s 2014 novel, the prize-winning “Judas,” Oz challenges how societies define the concept of a traitor.
Two states for two peoples
A founder of the Peace Now movement, he never stopped crusading for what he saw as the most pragmatic solution for Israelis and Palestinians – two states for two peoples.
“We are speaking about a very small house – about the size of Denmark. It’s the one and only homeland of the Jews, it’s also the one and only homeland of the Palestinian Arabs. We cannot become one happy family because we are not one, we are not happy, we are not family,” he said in an interview with Die Welt. “We are two unhappy families. We have to divide the house into two smaller next-door apartments. There is no point in even fantasizing that after 100 years of bloodshed and anger and conflict Jews and Arabs will jump into a honeymoon bed and start making love not war.”
But the nagging divide in Israel over the best approach to take bothered Oz, even as he described that kind of internal quarreling as quintessentially Israeli.
Yoaz Hendel, chairman of The Institute for Zionist Strategies, a right-wing think tank in Jerusalem, says the nationalist camp admired Oz for his writing talent and the love of Israel infused in it, but were vehemently opposed to his political positions.
“His ideas were not practical. Ultimately, we are talking about policies and risk management – not about literature. And these are two sides that see the risks very differently. Amos Oz, as I see it, could take risks with his own opinions, his world of imaginings, which politicians and leaders could not take,” he says.
Thou shalt not hurt
Ora Ahimeir, an author and former director of a think tank called The Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research, who also grew up in Jerusalem in the early years of the state, shared Oz’s ideology and counts herself among the many Israelis who are deeply saddened by his sudden absence.
“His was always a humane point of view, and it was this humanism that spoke to me. He tried to understand their [the Palestinian] point of view, and he did not delegitimize it. He preached another way,” she says. “We have lost a great writer first of all, a great contribution to Israeli culture and someone who set a certain tone.… When you listened to him it was like being under a spell.”
But that influence that he and other artists used to have no longer exists today, she bemoans.
“This is a thing of the past,” Ms. Ahimeir says, sadness in her voice. “For many years people really listened to writers, to poets, to people who really were spiritually gifted, the same way Jews once listened to great rabbis. The traditional Jewish admiration for education and wisdom – for the non-religious community in Israel – went from rabbis to the great artist, believing that these extraordinary gifted people have a message for us and that their torch should lead the way. And certainly Amos Oz always had something important to say about our existence here,” she says.
“And for many years he enjoyed that status, but not in recent years, when we became rough and tough and single-minded and despising of spirituality and high learning,” she says, noting, too, the growing influence of religion and the increased admiration for even extreme rabbis.
At the Tel Aviv memorial, his daughter Fania Oz-Salzberger said, “Dad said, ‘I can distill all the edicts of morality as well as the Ten Commandments to one commandment only: Thou shalt not hurt. That’s all. And if that’s impossible, at least try to hurt less. As little as possible.’ ”