Author Amos Oz Reflects on Israel
The northern Negev desert is a palette of dramatic colors: blue sky, yellow hills, a ribbon of black asphalt wending into the distance. The two-and-a-half-hour drive from this barren landscape to the high-rises of Tel Aviv is a trip across time and civilization. It is a journey that mirrors the brief, dense history of Israel itself, which in just 50 years has gone from an inhospitable Middle East backwater to a modern, Westernized powerhouse.Amos Oz has been there to witness every step of this transformation. Israel's preeminent novelist and one of its most outspoken political commentators, Oz is regarded by many as the spiritual heir of the biblical prophets. His place in this landscape seems almost sanctified. Oz is sitting in the back seat of a taxi, ready to begin our trek from the desert to Rishon Letzion, a small community just south of Tel Aviv, where he is giving a lecture on literature. He hates to drive long distances alone at night, so his hosts have sprung for the cab."I am almost 57 now," says Oz, settling in for the trip. "That's the equivalent of being a 360-year-old American." A compact man dressed in a simple blue cardigan and gray slacks, he is at once approachable and remote, composed to the point of being rigid. The striking, rugged looks evident on his book jackets are muted now, but his green eyes are still penetrating and clear. "I saw the Boston Tea Party with my own eyes, I shook hands with George Washington and Abe Lincoln," he continues, assuming the mantle of elder statesman. "Every single personality who is on our money-bills has entertained me in their homes. I've seen everything except for the Mayflower."With Israeli elections scheduled for May 29, it's unclear whether Oz's VIP privileges will extend into the next government. He refuses to speculate as to whether his friend Shimon Peres will stay in power or if the conservative Likud party will sweep in on the recent wave of terrorist attacks. "It's for the Palestinian people to decide who wins this election," he says, ruefully. "If the Palestinians press a hawkish Israeli government into power, this might be a tragedy for everybody." As we pull out of his driveway in the northern Negev town of Arad, Oz glances out the car window at the quiet suburb where he has lived for the past ten years. He was forced to leave Kibbutz Hulda, where he had lived from the age of fifteen, because of his son's asthma. "Everything here has been imported, from the water to the soil," he explains, glancing at the neat split-level houses that line the streets. In defiance of the surrounding desert, the atmosphere is strangely Mediterranean, with terra cotta roofs and manicured gardens -- the result of visionary planning in the face of huge odds.Oz's politics reflect an ideology that, until recently, also defied the existing climate. Since Israel's stunning victory in the Six Day War almost 30 years ago, he has been a staunch advocate of giving up land in return for peace, even when such an approach was considered treasonous. Today, he continues to assert that the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is a case of right versus right. In a land ruled by history and passion, Oz is antisentimental. In a society where everyone must choose sides, he is a pragmatic moderate, whether that means pushing for a two-nation solution or clamping down on Yasser Arafat to prevent terrorism. Writer David Grossman vividly remembers reading an article by Oz when he was fourteen years old. The essay, written one month after the Six Day War, foreshadowed the consequences of occupation. "We were euphoric after the war, and it seemed Amos was ruining the party," says Grossman, who is considered Oz's literary heir. "Of course, he was one of the very first people to recognize the danger. He has a flexibility of the mind that allows him to recognize immediately the mistakes that most people surrender to. He can see the two sides of justice." With more than a dozen novels and short-story collections as well as four books of essays to his credit, Oz is often called a prophet. It is a title he dismisses with what is clearly feigned modesty. "To me this is a joke," he says, leaning back against the blue seat cushion, his arm dangling from the hand rail above the window. "Of course I am not a prophet. Of course I've never heard any voice from above. Of course there is nothing I know that other people don't know and cannot know." But after 30 years of preaching land for peace, he admits that he feels like a doctor whose patient has finally taken the prescribed medicine. When Oz speaks, the words flow with measured precision. Sometimes they are so well rehearsed that they virtually peel off the pages of his books. But if Oz's replies often seem canned, they still cut to the point.Now, with the peace process unfolding, Oz has to reframe his ideas to meet the shifting reality in the Middle East. He has never espoused the sort of "New Middle East" heralded by Shimon Peres, where open borders and a free market will normalize life in the region. Instead, he endorses a comfortable separation between Israel and Palestine in which the two need not like each other but agree to respect each other's statehood. The dispute with the Palestinians is an international conflict, he explains, and Israel must stop behaving like an occupier, especially now that the Palestinian Authority is in place. As an example, he cites the Israeli government's policy of blowing up the homes of terrorists, pointing out that this is a blatant violation of international law. Oz's views have made him an obvious opponent of the right, both at home and in the influential American Jewish community. "His moral vision is impaired," says Ruth Wisse, chair of Harvard's Department of Jewish Studies. Wisse is scathing in her criticism, branding Oz a "second-rate thinker," a man who stands hat-in-hand before the Arabs. "He seems to accept the moral equivalence of Arabs and Jews when what he's really saying is Arab might is right," she argues. As a result, she believes that Oz devalues Israel's achievements while betraying a naivete about Arab intentions. After a series of bus bombings in February claimed the lives of 60 Israelis, Oz had to examine his own beliefs. "When the bombs went off in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, I really felt I ought to do some soul searching." Oz's voice drops to a soft, cautious tone, as though he is writing his thoughts before speaking them. "These were not the victims of a negativist policy of the Likud party. These were not the victims of the nyet policy of [former Prime Minister Yitzhak] Shamir. These were people who died after Israel turned our way. I couldn't simply shrug my shoulders and say, 'Haven't I always told you that this will happen because you don't listen to wise old me.' I had to check the wisdom of wise old me. Some left-wingers did not do that at all." The bombings left Oz feeling angry and personally offended, revealing the extent to which he claims responsibility for the peace movement. He acknowledges that the Oslo Accords were an imperfect compromise that didn't fully address the issue of Palestinian autonomy. But after arguing for peace for so long, he didn't expect ingratitude in return. No one coerced the Palestinians into signing, says Oz tersely, it was a mutual agreement, and there should be no "moral concessions." He insists that Israel should not relent in forcing Arafat to uphold his end of the deal, and if he can't come through, then the deal should collapse. He still supports the two-nation solution, but in light of recent events, he says it will be necessary to create "a dependency between the level of violence and the pace of Israeli concessions." "I am a peacenik, not a pacifist," Oz is quick to point out. It is a sharp distinction, a reminder that the rules of the game in the Middle East are different than in the West. As Israel's U.S. Ambassador Itamar Rabinovich recently said, "Unfortunately, in the Middle East, peace cannot be separated from violence." Having served in a tank division in the Sinai during the Six Day War and again in the Golan Heights in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Oz is prepared to fight again if Israeli security is threatened. He is willing to make a lot of concessions to the Palestinians to see that they secure a homeland, but he insists that the peace process cannot be allowed to jeopardize the existence of Israel. "I am the hawk of the doves," says Oz defiantly. Some of his colleagues in Peace Now, which he helped found in 1977, are willing to trade everything for peace, he says. "I am not one of them." Given these views, Oz sometimes draws fire from the left as well as the right. Even David Grossman, who generally agrees with Oz, finds his mentor's politics too cautious. Younger leftists like Grossman came of age during an era when Israel transformed itself from a besieged underdog to a formidable military power. As a result, they tend to view Israel as an aggressor and would like the peace process to move at a much more rapid pace. One of Oz's most acerbic critics is Noam Chomsky, who has accused Oz of playing the tragic victim from a peace-seeking country surrounded by hostile foes. Oz dismisses Chomsky, saying, "He is beyond argument. The moment he assumes there should have been no Israel in the first place and Israel should dissolve into something else in the second place, how can I find even a common ground?" Then, in a rare conciliatory moment, he shrugs his shoulders and admits that Chomsky's perspective may be more objective than his own. "I live in the middle of the battle. I grew up in the battle and I live at the gun point. Maybe my perspective is distorted." A case in point might be Oz's reaction to the recent fighting in Lebanon, during which Israel mercilessly bombed suspected Hezbollah targets in retaliation for rocket attacks into northern Israel. More than 150 Lebanese civilians died and thousands more were wounded, while countless homes were destroyed and severe damage was inflicted on the country's fragile economy. No Israelis were killed, though more than 50 were wounded. But Oz -- who condemned the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon in his book The Slopes of Lebanon -- refuses to harshly criticize his government, insisting that the recent campaign was an act of self-defense. "What would have been a sufficient level of response for the systematic harassment of Israel's civilian population?" he asks, posing a question he feels cannot be answered. A few minutes later, he concedes that a limited attack on strategic military targets would have been more appropriate. One moment he condemns Hezbollah for hiding behind civilians, the next he criticizes Israel for uprooting hundreds of thousands of Lebanese civilians from their homes in an attempt to weed out Hezbollah guerrillas. It is typical of the conundrums surrounding the issues of peace and security in the Middle East, and also reveals Oz's own discomfort with the situation. One point is clear to Oz, however: Prime Minister Peres' motives were pure. "If he was using it as a political tool, he would have responded a long time ago," he says defensively. "He pleaded on his knees for weeks to the Syrians, to the Arab world, to the international community, to do something about it. Nothing happened whatsoever. His only option would have been to tell the Jewish and Arab population in northern Israel that the country cannot defend them and they should move elsewhere." It is a no-win situation for Israel and for peace, he admits.As our taxi leaves the camel-back hills of the northern Negev for the agricultural plains of central Israel, Oz pulls off his glasses and lets them dangle on his chest. He says he is reminded of a story his father once told about seeing graffiti on the walls of Poland in the 1920s. The graffiti read, 'Jews go to Palestine.' When his father returned to Poland 50 years later, the graffiti read, 'Jews out of Palestine.' He glances out the window as the sun sneaks below the hills in the distance and rows of fruit trees speed past. Oz grew up in a family of ardent Zionists who emigrated to Palestine in 1933 from Russia via Poland. A sabra (native Israeli), Oz was born Amos Klausner in a working-class neighborhood of Jerusalem. His father, a librarian, spoke eleven languages; his mother spoke five. He was only thirteen when his mother committed suicide. Two years later he left home and moved to a kibbutz, rejecting intellectual pursuits for a life of physical labor. It was there that he changed his name to Oz, which means courage or strength, qualities Oz says he was sorely lacking at the time. "I wanted to be everything my father was not. I realized that my father's world was entirely intellectual and verbal, which at that time struck me as dishonest." Writing didn't belong to the revolutionary world of socialism to which Oz aspired. But as with all rebellions, Oz's life brought him back full circle to his roots. Despite his commitment to the kibbutz ideal of physical labor, he still felt compelled to write, which he did secretively at first. "The realization that I had to write, that I can't contain myself, came slowly," says Oz. After finishing his military service, he published several short stories in Israeli literary publications and then struck up the courage to ask the kibbutz elders to grant him one day a week to write. They agreed, but only on condition that he work twice as hard the rest of the week. Oz's early works were written mostly at night in a bathroom the size of an airplane toilet.Elsewhere, Perhaps, his first novel, dealt with kibbutz life and how the dark side of human nature colors even the most enlightened societies. It received mixed reviews and drew criticism from kibbutz dwellers who didn't like what they read. His next book, My Michael, appeared after the Six Day War and is considered his breakthrough novel. It became a bestseller in Israel, racking up unprecedented sales, and introduced Oz to American audiences. As his success grew, so did his privileged writing time, but up until the day he left Hulda he was still required to fulfill his kibbutz chores. Today, Oz's study is overpopulated by books, lending humorous irony to his youthful rejection of the literary life. One bookcase is crammed floor to ceiling with his novels, including translations into everything from Estonian to Catalan. Oz sits in this study as much as seven hours a day, sometimes writing, sometimes waiting for inspiration. It is a pursuit he likens to that of a humble shopkeeper who opens his store every day -- whether or not customers come, he has still done his job. It is a metaphor left over from Oz's days on the kibbutz, when he would feel guilty if he wasn't productive while the other residents labored in the fields. When Oz left Kibbutz Hulda with his wife, Nily, and their three children, he had never had a credit card or bank account. "In certain ways, I was like a refugee from Red China," he muses. (The proceeds from his books had also gone to the kibbutz, in keeping with socialist ideology.) Over the past decade, though, he has acclimated well to the desert, which serves as inspiration for his more recent novels. While his earlier works, including Elsewhere, Perhaps and A Perfect Peace, are set on kibbutzim, his most recent book, Don't Call It Night, takes place in the desert. It is a story of middle-age love, sexuality, and shifting priorities, a novel which he calls a piece of chamber music. (The book's original Hebrew edition was published in 1994; following the standard two-year lag, the English translation will be released in the United States this fall.) Over the past few years, Oz's literary reputation has taken a battering, with critics lamenting that his style has become less lyrical and more controlled, his focus microscopic. In 1994, when Oz was bypassed in favor of A.B. Yehoshua for the Israel Award, the country's most prestigious literary honor, it was interpreted as a symbolic demotion. David Grossman claims that Oz is suffering the fate of a thinker who has been idolized for so long that his own followers slaughter him like a holy cow. "It's unfair," he says. "Amos is fascinated with families, and he becomes more and more Chekhovian over time. He is a great storyteller." Ruth Wisse of Harvard criticizes Oz's novels as generally stilted, with the exception of those characters who display more right-leaning politics. She speculates that these characters come from Oz's own upbringing, his own soul, which he's afraid to fully confront. "Oz's writing has been limited by the hegemony of the left," she says. "He is touted as Israel's greatest writer, but it's tremendously disappointing that he's unable to deliver the real struggle of the state of Israel. He is not an adequate witness to his own history." Oz shrugs off his critics. He says that the book he's working on now has much more adrenaline than Don't Call It Night, but declines to talk about it in depth for fear of exposing the unborn child to x-rays. He does promise, though, that it has absolutely nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Oz insists that he has never written a book to convey a message. "It's fruitless to do that unless you live in a totalitarian country. Sometimes this is the only way to evade censorship -- to construct some sort of political allegory so you can read between the lines. If I want to tell my government to go to hell, why should I bother for four years to produce a 400-page novel when I can do that in a 1,000-word essay?" In Israel, however, it is impossible to separate art from politics, and even when no crossover is intended, it's easy to imagine one. "Ostensibly, he writes about the individual, but there is always an allegorical or symbolic level," says Rochelle Furstenberg, literary editor of the English-language Jerusalem Report. "Today, that's less developed because he's concentrating on the family, but even when he's not writing about politics he is writing about the state of Israel."In the United States, Oz is probably best known for his political commentaries on such confrontational subjects as Jewish fanaticism and the lack of a peace movement amongst the Palestinians. Essays like "Hezbollah in a Skullcap" -- an indictment of Israeli rabbis who didn't adequately denounce the 1994 massacre of Palestinians by Jewish settler Baruch Goldstein -- are both provocative and difficult to refute. He is something of the irreproachable sage, the political commentator who lies outside politics. Despite occasional pressure to join the fray, he says that he could never be a politician because a physical impediment prevents him from pronouncing the words "no comment." From the Palestinian side of the fence, Oz often comes across as patronizing. "I think he likes to behave as the 'standard bearer' for us Palestinians," says Izzat Ghazzawi, chairman of the Palestinian Writers' Union and an English professor at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank town of Ramallah. "He feels we should accept his boundaries -- what we should ask for and what we should not, what can be achieved and what cannot." Ghazzawi, who served time in Israeli prison for his role as a leader of the intifada, says that he's not interested in revenge and wants to see genuine progress toward peace. What constitutes progress, however, is in the eye of the beholder. Ghazzawi recently published a rebuttal to an essay by Oz, calling on him to condemn the closure of the West Bank and Gaza that followed the suicide bombings as counterproductive. "This kind of punishment makes us despise ourselves, and then we start questioning the meaning of peace," he wrote. Oz neither condones nor condemns the closures. He prefers to interpret them not as collective punishment, but as a way to control terrorist attacks. While he rejects the wisdom of barring Palestinians who need vital services like health care, he asserts that Israel is not obligated to provide jobs to the Palestinians. "Those people ought not starve. This is not good for peace and this is immoral. This does not mean they have to come to work in Israel. Israel alone does not owe them a living."Oz observes that over the past 50 years, the Arab world has pumped $150 billion into armaments to crush Israel. "The money would have been sufficient to provide every single Palestinian refugee with a villa and a swimming pool," he says, his composure giving way to genuine emotion for the first time during two hours of conversation. "That's a fact. I'm not just throwing this off the top of my head. They cannot or don't want to raise $150 million now. This is sick. It's infuriating. It's unforgivable." As we sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic, inching our way toward Tel Aviv, the car phone rings. It's Oz's wife, Nily, checking on our progress; his hosts are concerned because he has not yet arrived at the lecture hall. When he hangs up, Oz slides back seamlessly into our conversation. He touches on everything from redrawing the borders of the West Bank to the danger of equating every settler with fanaticism and every ultrareligious Jew with Rabin's assassin. Oz notes that not one violent incident occurred between Israelis after the assassination, demonstrating that despite increasing political polarization, there's still a common ground. "Fortunately, we are so verbal, we fight our internal wars by inflicting ulcers and heart attacks rather than by shooting at each other." If anything positive came out of Rabin's killing, says Oz, it was the humanization of Israelis in the eyes of the Arab world. Since the turn of the century, Arabs have perceived Zionism as a monolithic conspiracy to seize economic and territorial control. Rabin's violent end allowed Arabs to see Israel for what it is: a complex mix of ideologies and political agendas. In an odd way, he says, America also has to learn to humanize Israel and stop expecting it to perform macho feats. Many Americans, Jews and non-Jews alike, want Israel to be a Middle Eastern superman and provide a couple of miracles every week, comments Oz, as though he's tired of the whole business. "If not, they want their money back." While he recognizes the importance of financial and ideological support from diaspora Jews, Oz can't understand why most would never consider emigrating to Israel. Twisting the old JFK quote around, he says, "Ask not what you can do for Israel; ask what Israel can do for you." He pauses, then adds with a sparkle, "I have never been in the guilt-inflicting business, but I do belong to the seduction squad. Israel is a spectacular bargain. It's expensive but exciting." Asked what he means by expensive, he pauses for a moment and says, "You pay with your nerves. You pay with your peace of mind. And some of us pay with our lives." We are an hour late when we finally arrive in Rishon Letzion. The neon signs and bustling shops are a world apart from the northern Negev. Oz is noticeably energized by the pulse of the city. He apologizes for having to talk and run, then races out of the taxi and into the lecture hall, where his audience awaits him. He sits down at a desk in the front of the room and assumes the air of a didactic professor, his glasses picking up glints of light. With his notes held firmly in front of him, he takes a breath and then elides into the world of literature, leaving behind, at least for the moment, the larger-than-life epic of Israel itself.