Argument

A Literary Star but Politically Irrelevant

The late novelist Amos Oz was an icon of an Israeli elite long shorn of its power and status.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin mourns over the coffin of Israeli writer Amos Oz during a memorial service on Dec. 31, 2018, in Tel Aviv. (Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin mourns over the coffin of Israeli writer Amos Oz during a memorial service on Dec. 31, 2018, in Tel Aviv. (Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)

The Israeli writer Amos Oz, who died last Friday at age 79, sought two things starting at a young age: to become an accomplished novelist and to influence his country’s political destiny. He achieved one of those goals, rising to literary stardom. But his dovish views on peace with the Palestinians grew increasingly irrelevant in recent decades, echoing the broader decline of Israel’s founding elite.

One of Oz’s first political writings came in the form of a letter to Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, in 1954. Ben-Gurion had recently left politics to join a kibbutz, Sde Boker. Oz, just 15 at the time, appealed to him to lead Israel’s youth in a war against “corruption, vapidity, and careerism.”

“I fear that in going to Sde Boker, you have left behind in Tel Aviv not only the [post of] prime minister, but also the leader within you,” he wrote. “And I regret that.”

“Was Sde Boker the retreat and surrender of a weary, broken, and disheartened man, or was it a stage and link in a leader’s struggle?” Oz wrote. If the former, “I can do nothing but eulogize the leader who gave up.” But if the latter, “it is my opinion that you are obligated to answer this letter.” Oz apologized for his disrespectful tone but added, “neither of us needs decorum.” He signed “in appreciation, but not without reservations.”

Ben-Gurion replied five days later. “I enjoyed your style of writing,” he complimented the boy, but corrected him: It was not the job of young people to fight corruption. Their job was to engage in pioneering settlement.

Indeed, Oz had already begun to transform himself into a proud and upright new Jew, in accordance with the Zionist ideal, beginning with dropping his Yiddish family name Klausner. Oz means gallantry in Hebrew. He too joined a kibbutz and enlisted in the prestigious paratrooper brigade. From that time on he completely identified himself with Israel’s political, social, and cultural elites, which ruled the Jewish state for its first three decades of existence. Under Ben-Gurion these elites were predominantly Ashkenazi—of European origin—often discriminating against Israelis from Muslim countries and ostensibly committed to social democratic values.

Those were good days for Israeli people of letters. The young state was still figuring out its basic values. As the leader of the “People of the Book,” Ben-Gurion (who returned to politics in 1955) consulted not just fellow politicians but like-minded writers as well. Despite his authoritarian tendencies, he also tolerated public criticism from leading intellectuals.

Oz at times found himself in opposition to Ben-Gurion’s policies, but these were mostly internal disputes within the Labor Party movement. He never doubted the basic principles of the Zionist ideology and adhered to the Israeli narrative of the Palestinian tragedy of 1948—when hundreds of thousands of them were displaced with the founding of Israel.

Following the 1967 Six-Day War, Oz recorded for publication a series of soul-searching conversations with young members of several kibbutzim who had fought in the war, mostly in prestigious mostly Ashkenazi combat units. The book that ensued from his and others’ work on the subject, titled in English The Seventh Day, presented the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza—including some war crimes—as the work of harmless boys who hated every minute at the front. The book came to symbolize Israel’s mythological self-image as a just and peace-loving country. Former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir described it “a holy book.”

Shortly after the war, Oz joined other writers in urging the Israeli government to refrain from any steps that would impair future peace initiatives, including Israeli settlement in the occupied territories. He warned that the oppression of the Palestinians would eventually corrupt Israel’s democracy. This position did not deviate from ideas some discussed at that time in the ruling Labor movement. More radical views were voiced by other intellectuals. In the following decade, Oz continued to express dovish views, but not until 1977 did he come to oppose the fundamental principles of the Israeli government ideologically and emotionally. It was the first government led by Menachem Begin’s Likud party. Labor had lost its political monopoly forever. For the first time in his life, Oz found himself on the losing side of politics and worse—a member of the wrong elite.

The upheaval that brought Begin to power was much more than a simple change of government. It signified a social and cultural revolution. Begin’s 29 years in opposition (except for a brief period in 1967) had made him an adored father figure, particularly for Israelis resentful of the country’s Ashkenazi establishment. In hindsight, the Likud’s victory can be seen as the starting point of a political and moral deconstruction of Israeli society. The Israel that Oz imagined as broadly liberal and culturally united showed itself to be bitterly divided and tribal. This process still marks Israel today; following Oz’s death, the leftist daily Haaretz newspaper ran an opinion piece that lovingly described him as the “Leader of the White Tribe.”

Oz became the most prestigious figure in the Israeli peace camp. His voice was clear and encouraging, his personality charismatic; at times even prime ministers and generals sought his advice. But most Israelis—and most Palestinians as well—no longer believe in peace. They maintain that the conflict can at best be managed, not resolved.

The last time a considerable number of Israelis gave peace a chance was during the Oslo process that began in 1993 and led to a number of agreements with the Palestinians. But Oslo begat waves of Arab terrorism and the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish extremist in November 1995. Oz, the relentless optimist, refused to give up hope. But Rabin’s assassination signified a mortal defeat not only for the remnants of the Israeli peace camp but for the entire “white tribe” as well. Israeli settlers in the occupied territories now number nearly half a million, in effect foreclosing on the idea of a two-state solution. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel joined forces with nationalist populism in other countries. Oz and other intellectuals have lost almost all public influence. By the time of his death, he was respected mainly for his international literary reputation.

The last 10 years of his life were thus particularly difficult for him. He attained more international fame and honor than ever before, particularly following the publication of his fabulous autobiography, A Tale of Love and Darkness, which was translated into numerous languages and reportedly sold over a million copies. Time and again he was now expected to condemn the policies of the Netanyahu government and tried to do so without condemning Israel itself, the land, and its people, which he had described so affectionately in his novels. As a master of words, he managed to overcome that difficulty, although his unshakable belief in the two-state solution sounded more and more detached from reality. There was a deeper problem. As a faithful Zionist, Oz failed to recognize that Netanyahu’s views corresponded with the original Zionist aspirations—those that guided Ben-Gurion: to maintain a Jewish state with as much land and as few Arabs as possible. Oz and the rest of his tribe wanted their Zionism to be more decent and peaceful than it could actually be. That made their tragic defeat almost inevitable.

Tom Segev is an Israeli historian and journalist. His biography of David Ben-Gurion, A State at Any Cost, will be released in the United States in August.

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