Conflicting dreams and realities: Amos Oz in Rochester

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I read Amos Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness back in 2009. The book was a special gift for me, from a little boy I went to school with in Brussels many years ago. I remember he lent me a copy of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (a French translation of course) over a lazy summer in third or fourth grade. I never forgot that book and ended up discovering a hefty portion of Twain’s work later, in the original English, after my family moved back to Pakistan. We were both diligent students, we both loved books.

In his thirties my friend moved to Israel as a kind of lifelong commitment to the Zionist dream, something bigger than himself that provided a sense of purpose and clarity. I immigrated to the U.S. in my twenties, after I got married, and put down roots in the country’s Northeast. My friend and I had recently reconnected on social media, after some 20 odd years, and Oz’s book was what he chose to send me. Considered a magnum opus by one of Israel’s most beloved intellectuals, perhaps the book was a way for him to summate his own feelings for Israel.

The Zionist dream was very much on my mind when I went to listen to a lecture by Amos Oz in April, nine years later, in Rochester, New York, where he had been invited as the inaugural Farash Fellow for the Advancement of Jewish Humanities and Culture.

In fact, Oz’s lecture had to do with Zionism’s “conflicting dreams,” and although I had a fairly accurate idea of his politics, I was interested in how he would frame his presentation in the context of the weekly Israeli attacks on defenseless protestors in Gaza — Palestinians demanding to leave a densely populated ghetto of almost two million refugees, half of them children, in order to return home.

Oz started with Israel’s unique genesis, the only country in the world to emerge from a dream. I am skeptical of singular narratives generally, as human endeavor tends to multiply and flourish in infinite permutations, filling out all possible social molds and historical gaps, but this proclamation triggered a specific response in me. I was born in Pakistan, a country created in 1947 (not too long before the division of Palestine) to secure a separate homeland for the Muslims of the subcontinent. An ambitious dream, if ever there was one.

Oz spoke enthusiastically about the vast spectrum of Zionist dreams that included visions of reviving the good old days by creating an Eastern European shtetl in the Middle East; an Austro-Hungarian haven with red tiled roofs and good manners à la Theodor Herzl; a Marxist paradise where Stalin would be invited for a grand tour of the kibbutzim and die of happiness; a North European democracy modeled after Scandinavian countries; a semi-religious, social anarchist, loose federation of small communities; and finally some form of European colonialism.

Although many of these ideas were incongruous and contradictory, there was a common denominator, that “here in the land of our forefathers, our hopes would be fulfilled.”

I began to think of the dreams for Pakistan. There was, foremost, the poet and philosopher Muhammad Iqbal’s hope for an Islamic reconstructionism that would galvanize Muslim intellectual life; Jinnah’s vision of a modern democracy grounded in Islamic socialism with equal rights for all, Choudhary Rahmat Ali’s creative imagining of South Asian geography as a continent similar to Europe with a multitude of autonomous nations, post-partition labor movements that saw Pakistan’s future in a communist light; literary debates about Urdu which examined Indo-Muslim selfhood and what that meant for the state’s four linguistically disparate provinces; and then there was the reality of how British colonialism birthed two postcolonial states imprinted with their own peculiar nationalist synthesis.

Oz speculated about whether Israel’s founders would be disappointed by its final manifestation, but he attributed such dissonance to the nature of dreams — reality is always flawed. I am a little harder on Pakistan and colonial partitions in general. The surveying and compartmentalization of natives into religio-ethnic silos, the deliberate creation of power imbalances within those administrative categories, and the carving up of nation-states based on colonial rather than indigenous logic, injected ethnonationalism into the DNA of these newly formed postcolonial polities, irrespective of their richly storied dreams.

Oz went on to describe Israel as a typical Mediterranean country, full of argumentative, passionate people who belong in a Fellini movie, rather than a Bergman philosophical drama. Israel is like Greece or Barcelona, perhaps it could be compared to North African countries but, he threw up his arms, “I’ve never been there.” It struck me that he didn’t mention Lebanon, the most vibrant Mediterranean country right next door, with intractable historical ties to Israel. It’s in line with how Israel locates itself in Europe, both intellectually and emotionally, while remaining physically enmeshed in the East.

Returning to dreams and ideological discrepancies, Oz extolled Israel’s lack of civil war. Although it was a divided family, he said, they all had the same last name — Zionism. Could nationalist purity be articulated any better, I thought. He chided other countries for infighting, naming the American civil war as an example of such a catastrophic national failure, and took pride in that no more than 80 Jews had been killed by other Jews (the exact context wasn’t clear to me).

Once again my mind began to race. The American civil war was bloody no doubt but hardly a misguided spat between family members. It ensured the end of slavery, one of the vilest crimes in human history, described by Frederick Douglass in these powerful words:

“I have shown that slavery is wicked—wicked, in that it violates the great law of liberty, written on every human heart—wicked, in that it violates the first command of the decalogue—wicked, in that it fosters the most disgusting licentiousness—wicked, in that it mars and defaces the image of God by cruel and barbarous inflictions—wicked, in that it contravenes the laws of eternal justice, and tramples in the dust all the humane and heavenly precepts of the New Testament.”

I am also wary of ranking human families (or nations) based on the number of persons they kill within their own community (or borders) versus those they murder outside of those racial or civil frontiers. All human life is equally sacrosanct if we are to believe our own religious and/or democratic ideals and, therefore, the true test of our greatness is simply how many we don’t massacre anywhere in the world.

Against Oz’s point that the Israeli civil war continued to be verbal and “civilized,” I wanted to juxtapose the barbaric treatment of indigenous Palestinians whose dehumanization and daily regulation have reached untenable limits. Could an escalation in violence be a fair price to pay in order to end 70 years of usurpation and human rights abuses, for almost half of the people who live between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River? Or should we concern ourselves exclusively with the Jewish population in that area? What would be more civilized?

Although Amos Oz hinted at his liberal politics, he never cared to delve into any details, urging the audience to check his views online. He decided to focus on a non-controversial Israeli dream instead, the revival of the Hebrew language.

After listing the standard tropes related to Israeli ingenuity and chutzpah (high tech nation, impressive military, Nobel prizes, desert in bloom), Oz homed in on Hebrew as Israel’s greatest achievement. He spoke about the long history of Hebrew literature, how it thrived under Islamic rule (those were better times, he emphasized repeatedly), and marveled at the language’s inner flexibility as well as the linguistic twists supplied by Jewish immigrants. Although he saw Palestinians as having some fluency in Hebrew, adding to its worldwide community of speakers, he failed to mention any worthwhile absorption of Arabic words into the language.

Diversity is fertile grounds for creativity, he concluded, but he seemed to drink in Jewish diversity only – all those German, Yiddish, Persian, Arabic, Russian, and Polish-speaking immigrants who used their prayer book to communicate with one another. He failed to draw a picture of Jews, Muslims, Christians, and people of other faiths and bloodlines, mixing together in a land used to multiplicities.

He held up Jews as consummate rebels, whose anarchist gene forces them to doubt, argue, and perpetually reexamine the truth. Yet when I looked around the room, that’s hardly what I saw. Oz’s lecture was a stunning success. The space was packed to the brim. There were fans standing against the back wall, students sitting on the floor, at Oz’s feet. The youth looked up at him with admiration, mesmerized by his warmth and wisdom. Older folks held his gaze with a sort of affection, as if they all knew he was speaking the truth, and were pleased with this intimate knowledge.

There was no Q&A, making it impossible to engage those difficult questions that Amos Oz had gracefully evaded. He ended with how the “clash” between Israelis and Palestinians was not an American Western, with good guys and bad guys. It’s not violence that’s evil per se, he claimed, but rather aggression. I wasn’t sure what that meant. No one challenged or rebelled. He walked out a hero.

I was left to reflect on the bonhomie of the event – a tacit accord between the hundreds who attended and organized that we were going to fete certain unilateral achievements whilst ignoring the foundation on which they were built. Of course, the same could be said of any settler colony, the U.S. being no exception. Whenever we convene to talk about American accomplishments, it would behoove us to preface those discussions with the land theft, genocide, and slavery that underpin the meaning of Americanness. It would shift the tenor of the conversation quite a bit.

The spectacle being enacted in Israel, in real time, can be unbearably grotesque. On May 12, an Israeli wins the Eurovision Song Contest (how does that geography even compute?) and Tel Aviv explodes in riotous public festivities, which are still ongoing on May 14, when at least 60 unarmed Palestinian protestors are killed in Gaza, a narrow strip of land where they’ve been held captive since 2007. The two cities are 50 miles apart. The U.S. Embassy is moved to Jerusalem that same Monday, Israel’s day of independence, which also signifies the beginning of the Palestinian Nakba — what made the Jewish settlement of Palestine possible. Such is the intransigent twinning of opposites that binds Israel to Palestine.

What is convivial and proper, and what is not? Feel-good lectures clearly are (with their comforting cadence, smooth consistency, and easy wash down), while blood and gore are not. It’s not just the dead, it’s also those whose bodies’ sanctity has been breached. How attached we become to our eyes, our arms, our legs. What must it feel like, what adjustments must be made, to have them torn from our bodies? These are not questions for polite company.

In Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s film “Kandahar,” there is a haunting scene in which young Afghan men and boys with amputated legs, struggling with their crutches, rush to catch prosthetic limbs dropped by parachute, an ironic gift from the purveyors of war. A sky full of prosthetic limbs, a sky full of leaflets warning imprisoned Gazans to remain within their cage, the width of holes made in children’s bodies by butterfly bullets, what tear gas canisters do when they come into contact with the human face. Is it enough to tell ourselves the lie that “they brought this upon themselves and deserve everything they get”? In the end, how will we extricate ourselves from this surreal world we’ve organized? It might have become impossible already.

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Thanks for bearing witness and informing all of us here of his presentation (sans Q&A!!!), Mara. I very much appreciate your analysis and your obvious understanding of history and present- day events. Thank goodness that you are willing to share. One has to wonder why there was no Q&A… then… Read more »

… There was no Q&A, making it impossible to engage those difficult questions that Amos Oz had gracefully evaded. He ended with how the “clash” between Israelis and Palestinians was not an American Western, with good guys and bad guys. It’s not violence that’s evil per se, he claimed, but… Read more »

beautiful jarring writing. thank you Mara Ahmed.

“defenseless protestors in Gaza” really?
Hamas admits that most killed were its operatives armed with AK47s or explosives.
Do you think the readers here are stupid?
You are not the only source of information and it seems Hamas terrorists tell the truth.
Shame on you.

I thought a few of the authors points were well argued and valid. Her mentioning of oz not explaining his idea of the violence as “different”. The inability for q&a leaving many unexplained ideas dangling. The unity of adulation described while author was describing how rebellious Israeli Jews naturally were.… Read more »