Exile and the prophetic: Amos Oz leaves out Edward Said and Sara Roy

This post is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.

Is Hebrew Infected With Violence and Atrocity?

If we enter a guilty plea before we’re brought to The Hague – Jerusalem would be the place – then the special Jewish therapy can begin.  Once in The Hague, however, we’re in the international docket. 

International courts aren’t interested in Jewish history and Jewish ethics.  They won’t listen to rabbinic interpretations of the Torah or be swayed by Holocaust pleadings. 

Jewish uniqueness and Jewish destiny don’t play in international courts.  I doubt they’ll accept Elie Wiesel or Amos Oz for that matter, as expert witnesses. International courts aren’t interested in ‘Jewish.’ Maybe that’s the kind of Empire Shock Therapy we need now. 

I have argued that the Israel/Palestine clash is between two particularities.  Israel is quite Jewish in its claims and assertions.  Without Jewish before Israel there isn’t any reason for Israel as a state.  The Palestinian cause isn’t universal.  Palestinians aren’t Arabs in general.  The Palestinian quest for human and political rights is, rightfully, for themselves.

The universal is often a particular bias in disguise.  Nonetheless, the thoroughly (biased) universality that international courts represent is crucial in disciplining other particularities – when they can’t discipline themselves.

So we have come to this.  We need a biased and disguised universality to discipline – theoretically and practically – a mobilized and militarized Jewish particularity.  Only then will our Jewish particularity reclaim an ethical shape.

By the way, thinking about how out of touch Jewish particularity is, I return to Amos Oz. Have you seen his latest book Jews and Words?

For those who don’t know of Oz, he is the Israeli novelist and commentator instrumental in shaping progressive Jewish views on Israel over the last thirty plus years.  His influence has been most important in Europe and America.  Oz argues the basic two-state solution, now with ‘adjustments,’ as a needed ‘divorce’ between Jews and Palestinians. 

Besides the politics, there’s an undercurrent that characterizes Oz’s view of Arabs.  To put it bluntly, the undercurrent is one of disdain.  For Oz and Progressive Jews in general, this translates into a patronizing view of Arabs and the need for a strict separation between Jews and Palestinians.

Oz, with a few others, has set the parameters of thinkable thought on Israel in the West. Go the left of him politically and you are anti-Israel.  You are also anti-Semitic.  Though his influence wanes as the political situation continues to devolve, he hasn’t changed his politics or his disdain.

Last year he was invited to give a keynote address to J Street’s convention.  If you listen to his words, Oz hasn’t changed at bit.  As troubling is the J Street audience reaction to his unchanged words.  You can feel their disdain as well.

As I was writing about Israel’s coming date in The Hague, NPR was playing in the background.  On comes Oz and his daughter to discuss their latest book, a celebration of Jewish involvement with words and texts.  The description of the book is instructive, especially read against the Jewish future in The Hague.

Why are words so important to so many Jews? Novelist Amos Oz and historian Fania Oz-Salzberger roam the gamut of Jewish history to explain the integral relationship of Jews and words. Through a blend of storytelling and scholarship, conversation and argument, father and daughter tell the tales behind Judaism’s most enduring names, adages, disputes, texts, and quips. These words, they argue, compose the chain connecting Abraham with the Jews of every subsequent generation.

Framing the discussion within such topics as continuity, women, timelessness, and individualism, Oz and Oz-Salzberger deftly engage Jewish personalities across the ages, from the unnamed, possibly female author of the Song of Songs through obscure Talmudists to contemporary writers. They suggest that Jewish continuity, even Jewish uniqueness, depends not on central places, monuments, heroic personalities, or rituals but rather on written words and an ongoing debate between the generations. Full of learning, lyricism, and humor, Jews and Words offers an extraordinary tour of the words at the heart of Jewish culture and extends a hand to the reader, any reader, to join the conversation.

Does the book – so full of learning, lyricism and humor – extend a hand to the readers in the International Criminal Court?  The description advises readers that you don’t have to be Jewish to join the Jewish conversation.  Everyone is welcome.  Does that welcome include Jews of Conscience, Palestinians and eventhe International Criminal Court?

I can’t see the Court’s text fitting under ‘Continuity’ or ‘Timelessness.’   When the indictments are handed down, no doubt entirely new topicswill surface.  Perhaps the next edition of Oz’s book will include a postscript topic – ‘Jewish Power.’  After all, power is redefining the contemporary Jewish tradition.  Or ‘Jewish Civil War’ – that’s the ongoing debate between the generations and within our generation that the book description advertises but doesn’t address.

I do like Oz’s suggestion that Jewish continuity and uniqueness is less dependent on central places, monuments, heroic personalities and rituals than it is on words, texts and the ongoing debate between the generations.  But, then, anticipating the Court’s indictment and in the face of so much literature already written on the Israeli abuse of Palestinians, it’s hard not to notice that his book’s index doesn’t include the subjects:  Ethnic Cleansing, Occupation, Settlements or Military Invasions. 

If Palestinians are mentioned in the book, they aren’t front and center.  The index doesn’t list Edward Said as a contributor to the discussion of what it means to be Jewish.  Think of Jewish life today without Said’s challenging words. Nor is Sara Roy listed.  Her commentaries on Gaza, so crucial to the future of Jewish life, are part of the debate between generations.  Why isn’t she included?

Since Jewish continuity and uniqueness isn’t dependent on places, monuments, heroic personalities and rituals – the subtext of which is that other cultures and communities are dependent on them – does this mean that for Oz, Jews aren’t dependent on Israel as a Jewish state? That Jewish continuity and uniqueness is based on words and texts rather than land?

On the way to The Hague, Oz should think of this as well.  One of the arguments in Holocaust literature is that once a culture is militarized and commits crimes, the culture represented by words, language and texts, is infected by that violence and atrocity.  Once mobilized for violence and atrocity, then, there isn’t any going back to words, language and texts as they were.  Infected by violence and atrocity, other layers of meaning and possibility are permanently in place.

Thus in the Holocaust, the words, language and texts of German history are permanently altered.  The German language itself is infected by violence and atrocity.

That’s an easy one.  Now think of Hebrew – as the language of sacred texts – as the language of Star of David helicopter gunships.  Think of Hebrew as the language used in torture.

Since Jewish continuity and uniqueness is so infected, doesn’t this affect the way we ’roam the gamut of Jewish history to explain the integral relationship of Jews and words’? 

 

 

About Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is retired Director and Professor of Jewish Studies at Baylor University and author of Future of the Prophetic: Israel's Ancient Wisdom Re-Presented.
Posted in Israel/Palestine

{ 16 comments... read them below or add one }

  1. pabelmont says:

    Two things. [1] “a patronizing view of Arabs” — does Oz adopt this tone in order to make his writing acceptable within Israeli society? Or is this tone part and parcel of his world-view? The racist, “drugged cockroaches in a bottle” view of Palestinians? If the latter, then if he actually has the influence on American Jewish thought that Marc Ellis suggests, he is (with undue success) INFECTING Americans with Israeli racism.

    [2] I heard this broadcast, this rather self-satisfied aren’t-we-Jews-great (and anyone can be a Jew, you don’t have to be Jewish) (or maybe vice versa) broadcast, and I wondered — If all this is true, all this greatness, then I KNOW what it means to preserve the Jewish people (even if they aren’t Jewish, or whatever) and IT HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH ISRAEL. This spiel was doubtless conceived as a promotional for Israel (deemed by hasbara-central to be needed after Gaza/2012 and UN/2012) but it didn’t (or scarcely) mentioned Israel and was not about Israel and did not justify Israel’s unending militarism and unending terrirorial appetite and especially Israel’s unending cruelty and oppressiveness. So it amounted to cutsey-tootsey pro-Israelism by indirection.

    • A lot of infection of Americans (especially but not only Jewish Americans) with Israeli racism must take place through all the channels that connect the two countries. Oz probably doesn’t play a particularly significant role in the process.

  2. Since Jewish continuity and uniqueness isn’t dependent on places, monuments, heroic personalities and rituals – the subtext of which is that other cultures and communities are dependent on them

    speaking of subtext, when i read

    Why are words so important to so many Jews? Novelist Amos Oz and historian Fania Oz-Salzberger roam the gamut of Jewish history to explain the integral relationship of Jews and words.

    the subtext i heard was ‘the idea words are important may be foreign to most people, therefore we are explaining why and how words they are important… to jews. and jews, unlike others, have an integral relationship with words.’

    any reader, to join the conversation.

    the subtext here is, you too can have integral relationship with words. as if, of course, others don’t already.

    also, marc ellis..i really like this post of yours.

  3. seafoid says:

    “They suggest that Jewish continuity, even Jewish uniqueness, depends not on central places, monuments, heroic personalities, or rituals but rather on written words and an ongoing debate between the generations.”

    I would just love to hear the Baal Shem Tov riff on Avigdor Lieberman.

  4. seafoid says:

    Oz is as important to Israel as Gush Shalom. Look- we have a world class intellectual. There’s a scene in his ” a tale of love and darkness” when he goes to a Begin meeting in the 50s. All these Jewish barbarians ….”Yemenites, Georgians…all of them undoubtedly our brothers, but what could you do, they would need a huge amount of patience and effort”. And they won the election in 1977 and have been iterating away since then and now whatever Oz’s Ashkenazi bookreading community dreamt of is in bits.

    It is no coincidence that Israel hasn’t won a Nobel Literature Price since the 1960s.

    Towards the end of the book he says “I understood where I had come from- a dreary tangle of sadness and pretence, of longing, absurdity, inferiority and provincial pomposity, sentimental education and anachronistic ideals, repressed traumas, resignation and helplessness. Helplessness of the acerbic variety where small time liars pretended to be terrorists and heroic freedom fighters”

    And Israel is more or less back there today.

  5. Mooser says:

    “That’s an easy one. Now think of Hebrew – as the language of sacred texts – as the language of Star of David helicopter gunships. Think of Hebrew as the language used in torture.”

    Ah, no wonder as soon as I hear Israeli Hebrew, I fly into a rage, and want to punch the speaker in his dentition. And I’m a Jew. I can just imagine what that threatening drivel sounds like to the rest of the world.

  6. Mooser says:

    At the rate Prof. Ellis’s giant brain figures out the truth about Zionism, the Palestinians will be safely eliminated before he has to reach a conclusion.

  7. yourstruly says:

    some kind of empire shock therapy needed now?
    so that jewish particularity reclaim an ethical edge?
    jewish continuity & uniqueness based on words, texts & intergenerational conversations?
    but not based on any places, monuments, rituals & such
    as practiced by others
    but never by us & for sure not in israel
    & palestine?
    hardly ever mentioned
    except distainfully
    patronizing, at best
    diagnosis?
    corrupted by power
    specific shock therapy?
    equality
    the one equals one
    its guiding light?
    those eighteen magical days in tahrir square
    their very essence?
    love

    • yourstruly says:

      corr.

      ……..specific shock therapy?
      supporting justice for palestine
      based on?
      equality
      the one equals one
      guiding light?
      those eighteen magical days in tahrir square
      their divine essence?
      love

  8. seafoid says:

    “Think of Hebrew as the language used in torture.”

    There is nothing like the Star of David spray painted onto the door of a Palestinian home to show how Zionism has hijacked Judaism. And
    nobody ever shouted stop .

  9. seafoid says:

    Oz was Israel’s poster boy in the 80s but today the role is filled by Lieberman.

  10. Mayhem says:

    This spiteful diatribe by Ellis about one of Israel’s greatest novelists is patently absurd.
    Why should a book about Jews and words have any mention of the political topics that matter so much to Ellis?
    Ellis reeks of anti-semitism, summoning some kind of perverse animosity that he feels about Amos Oz to motivate him to write this disgusting, bigoted article.

    • marc b. says:

      spiteful diatribe

      that’s redundant.

      one of Israel’s greatest novelists is patently absurd

      i’m not certain what oz’s status as ‘one of israel’s greatest novelists’ has to do with ellis’s critique. artists, including ‘great artists’, which oz is not, routinely say and do stupid and indefensible things. it was oz that chose to delve into the realm of non-fiction here, and his work should stand on its own merits.

      Why should a book about Jews and words have any mention of the political topics that matter so much to Ellis?

      you don’t believe that oz’s definition of ‘jewishness’, particularly given his citizenship and support for zionism, has any political relevance? really, that’s just astounding, and not in a flattering way.

      Ellis reeks of anti-semitism, summoning some kind of perverse animosity that he feels about Amos Oz to motivate him to write this disgusting, bigoted article.

      so ellis has written a ‘spiteful diatribe’, and your objective, analytical response is to state that ellis “reeks”, is “perverse”, and that his work is “disgusting” and “bigoted”. strange, you don’t provide a single example from ellis’s post or the interview with the ozmunde family to support your position. but i suppose since you’re one of ‘mondoweiss’s greatest living commenters’, no further explanation is needed.

      • Mayhem says:

        @marc, your thoughtless defence of Ellis only goes to illustrate the mentality behind anti-semitism. When you say

        you don’t believe that oz’s definition of ‘jewishness’, particularly given his citizenship and support for zionism, has any political relevance?

        don’t you realize that you are saying that someone being Jewish is potentially enough of a reason to attack them for their views or attitudes about anything?

        • marc b. says:

          your thoughtless defence of Ellis only goes to illustrate the mentality behind anti-semitism. don’t you realize that you are saying that someone being Jewish is potentially enough of a reason to attack them for their views or attitudes about anything?

          that’s not what i said at all, anywhere, so you can save the bug-eyed, breathless, mealy-mouthed accusations of anti-semitism for someone else. cabron. and since you’re too dim to even notice, i’ll paint a picture for you in bright, flourescent colors; i’m not defending ellis, i’m pointing out what a buffoon you are.

  11. chinese box says:

    Edward Said called Oz out for hypocrisy in one of his essays years ago. This may be the reason for the omission.