Amos Oz and the end of liberal Zionism

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

Though for some the passing of Amos Oz is a time for mourning an international literary figure, on the political scene, regarding Israel’s place in the world, another question is in the air: Has the liberal Zionism, Oz represented, come to an end?

Broadly defined, liberal Zionism is the pairing of Jewish suffering in the Holocaust and the empowerment of displaced European Jews in Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Though some have always questioned whether a Jewish state can be a democracy for all its citizens, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, the seeming permanence of Israel’s occupation and settlement of Jerusalem and the West Bank during last decades, along with its stranglehold on Gaza, has increased the scrutiny of such a possibility. So more is at stake than Oz’s liberal Zionism.

Though Oz’s political life can be parsed in various ways, his passing should be seen in this broader historical perspective. One way of broadening this view is to see Oz’s death as a bookend to the death of Elie Wiesel in 2016. With Wiesel’s death some believed that the era of Holocaust consciousness, as a powerful force on the Jewish and international scene, closed.

The passing of Wiesel and Oz provides a window into the insurgent Jewish past and the stalemate Jews find themselves in today. What Wiesel and Oz’s legacy says about the future is troubling. Without Wiesel and Oz representing the Holocaust and liberal Zionism, could the Jewish future, previously defined by the Holocaust and Israel and now besieged by internal and external critics, unravel?

Wiesel’s early writings on the Holocaust subverted the Jewish self-understanding of progress and enlightenment. In the new age, the Holocaust became the defining event in Jewish history. For Wiesel, Israel was the defining response to the Holocaust. To be Jewish after the Holocaust is to remember Jewish suffering and embrace Jewish empowerment in Israel.

As the Holocaust-Israel axis took hold among Jews around the world, Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories and wars in Lebanon and Gaza took on new dimensions. In Israel, Oz, already known for his literary efforts, emerged on Israel’s political scene as an Israeli patriot and a critic of Israel’s excesses. In his political commentaries, Oz attempted to hold together the Israel that Wiesel and many other Jews envisioned, as a response to the Holocaust and as a liberal bastion of collective Jewish life.

Though initially provocative, over the decades both Wiesel and Oz became increasingly disappointing as thinkers and moral witnesses in Jewish life. Initially, their writings about Jewish history and ethics was subversive in many quarters of the Jewish and Israeli community and their vision of Israel spoke to other communities in different parts of the world as well. Over the past decades both grew defensive and stale. Wiesel and Oz increasingly used their liberal ideas as a defensive shield over against their critics within and outside the Jewish community. Their witness became belligerent.

Like Wiesel, Oz, with many of his liberal Zionist contemporaries, and with a critical edge, wrapped himself in the flag of an imperfect but viable Jewish history and ethical tradition. In Oz’s commentaries, Israel is decidedly flawed, its occupation of the Palestinian territories is politically wrong-headed, but Israel, as essential to Jews, is fundamentally sound. What Jews need and deserve is a state of their own. Palestinian rights are secondary to those of Jewish Israelis; Palestinian politics and culture are questioned in their honesty and depth. To Oz and his liberal Zionist contemporaries, Palestinians are less deserving than Jews and sometimes their descriptions of Palestinians are worse. Critics of Israeli policies toward Palestinians are viewed in the same light. Those to the Left of Oz and liberal Zionists in general are seen as either on the side of Israel’s destruction or perilously close.

Has the world been diminished by Oz’s death? There is little doubt about his literary endeavors. But over the decades, Oz’s political side, while having its moments of clarity, became stuck in a narrative of Jewish history and statehood that seems fated. Without the narrative of Jews being innocent in suffering and empowerment and, if flawed, at least liberal and democratic, what does it mean to be Jewish? And why should Jews and, as importantly, Christians in the West, European governments and the international community, support Israel as it systematically violates Palestinian human rights? If the veneer of liberal Zionism is worn thin, and the memory of the Holocaust becomes increasingly seen as an enabler of injustice against Palestinians, do Jews and others simply accept Israel as what some increasingly identify as a colonial settler state?

Like Wiesel, Amos Oz was a witness to the destruction and reemergence of Jewish life in the formative events of the Holocaust and the birth of the state of Israel. What they also experienced but couldn’t fathom was the formative event of Palestinian freedom as a demand on Jewish history. In missing the next question of Jewish life, while trying to deflect and demean those who did, Oz’s liberal Zionist witness became tarnished and, like Wiesel’s Holocaust consciousness, fated.

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