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Amos Oz’s burden

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The death of Amos Oz on December 28 is an event of literary and political significance. The politics outweighed the books in the end, but first I need to honor Oz’s achievement as a storyteller.

I have four volumes of Oz’s major works, and all have provided great pleasure and insight. A writer’s words speak for themselves, and if you want to appreciate Oz’s gifts, just read two passages.

“My Michael” was his breakthrough novel at age 29; it is an achingly-well-told story of a young mother’s disintegration in Jerusalem during and after the ’56 war. In this excerpt, the narrator, Hannah Gonen, describes torturing an Orthodox neighbor boy of 17 who has developed a crush on her, and shared romantic poems with her.

I was unkind to him. I asked him why he seemed so dreamy and vacant today. Had he fallen in love with one of the girls in his class?

My question brought out large beads of perspiration on Yoram’s brow… I looked at him fixedly so as to increase his embarrassment. Humiliation and despair inspired a wave of nervous audacity in the youth.

He turned a gloomy, tormented face on me and muttered, “I’m not involved with any girl in my class, Mrs. Gonen, or with any girl at all. I’m sorry, I don’t want to be rude, but you really shouldn’t have asked me that question…”

I said, “I’m sorry, Yoram, I forgot for a moment that you go to an Orthodox school. I was curious. There’s no reason why you should share your secrets with me. You are seventeen and I am twenty-seven. Naturally I seem like an old hag to you.”

“Old–you? On the contrary, Mrs. Gonen, on the contrary… What I was trying to say was… You take an interest my problem and… with you I can sometimes… No. When I try to put it into words, it comes out all back to front…”

“Relax, Yoram. You don’t have to say it.”

He was mine. All mine. He was at my mercy. I could paint any expression I liked on his face. Like on a sheet of paper. It was years since I had last enjoyed this grim game…

And here is a passage from Oz’s bestselling 2005 memoir, “A Tale of Love and Darkness.” It is also about the psychological disintegration of a woman, his mother Fania Mussman Klausner:

Once, when I was seven or eight, my mother said to me, as we sat on the last seat but one on the bus to the clinic or the shoe shop, that while it was true that books could change with the years just as much as people could, the difference was that whereas people would always drop you when the time came that they could no longer get any advantage or pleasure or interest or at least a good feeling from you, a book would never abandon you… even if you betrayed them, would never turn their back on you: they would go on waiting for you silent and humbly on their shelf. They would wait for ten years… Until one night, when you suddenly needed a book, even at three in the morning, even if it was a book you had abandoned and erased from your heart for years and years, it would never disappoint you, it would come down from its shelf and keep you company in your moment of need. It would not try to get its own back or make excuses or ask itself if it was worth its while or you deserved it or if you still suited each other, it would come at once as soon as you asked. A book would never let you down.

What can you say– that is simply ravishing.

Oz’s grief over the suicide of his mother, in her sister’s apartment in Tel Aviv on January 6, 1952, when she was 39 and her only son was 12-1/2 years old and home with his father in their house in north Jerusalem, was Oz’s torment and the source of his greatest work. His mother or a brilliant sensitive woman like her is in all the fiction that I have read of his, and her presence makes it haunting and special. Born in Rovno in Poland/the Ukraine, Fania Mussman was a mystic and a storyteller and a depressive. She married a diligent rationalist librarian in Arieh Klausner, and the marriage was soon loveless. The tension between the intelligent, stamp-collecting, prescriptive father, and the fable-loving, world-disdaining, deeply-intuitive mother gives Oz’s work lasting power.

Fania Klausner had lost a privileged life in Poland when her family emigrated; and Zionism and Israel left her cold, in stark contrast to her husband, who was born to a Revisionist family. There are times in Oz’s work that the author seems to blame Jerusalem for his mother’s suicide. After she died, young Amos went at 14 to Kibbutz Hulda, a socialist enclave near Tel Aviv where he made the determination (per the New York Times’s obituary) to do everything the opposite of his father. He gave up the name Klausner for Oz — an act of defiance; his great uncle Joseph was one of the founders of Hebrew University and famously exonerated Spinoza from the excommunication in the 1920s — and though he was klutzy at the physical tasks the kibbutz demanded, Oz began publishing short stories and the movement seized on his literary talent. He was given time off to write, and soon became a professor of literature. Before long his books were published in the United States by top publishers.

This strikes me as Oz’s burden. His star rose just when the Jewish state needed it most. He was from Zionist royalty like it or not, and his life was intertwined with the idealistic myth of the young state. His mother had killed herself, he said repeatedly, in the same apartment where Yigael Yadin then deputy chief of staff helped plan the 1948 war– a war that young Oz had planned out himself with matchsticks on his bed. Every week as a boy, his parents walked with him across town to visit Joseph Klausner and the great novelist S.Y. Agnon in south Jerusalem (across from the new US embassy). Oz knew many in the Zionist pantheon, from Menachem Ussishkin to David Ben-Gurion.

There is a natural question, was Oz’s reputation deserved? On his death, he got star treatment in the New York Times, a whole page inside and a literary appreciation jumping off the front page that called “A Tale of Love and Darkness” his “masterpiece.” That claim is not true. “A Tale of Love and Darkness” is marred by long passages of self-indulgent wordplay and pointless remembrances and maddeningly circular storytelling. He dangles his mother’s suicide over the distended tale in a teasing and amateurish manner. The early novels of his that I have, including the kibbutz classic, “Elsewhere, Perhaps,” are far better as stories.

All literary fiction is subsidized, to one degree or another, and Oz was indulged by American publishers. He was useful to American Jews to demonstrate Israel’s greatness. My father was no Zionist but he got his books. I learned to pronounce Oz’s name from Robert Siegel on NPR (AH-muss O’s).

Oz took on that burden. His main character besides his beloved mother was Israel. The books teem with thrilling/ridiculous Jewish characters whose lives track the rise and victory of Zionism; and his great theme was that Europe had forced his parents to leave.

Here we get into the political aspect of Oz’s work. Even as he humanized Israeli culture, and made it real and noble and often comic, Oz’s work contains deep contempt for Europe. He said in Love and Darkness,

“The Europe that abused, humiliated and oppressed the Arabs by means of imperialism, colonialism, exploitation and repressions is the same Europe that oppressed and persecuted the Jews and eventually allowed or even helped the Germans to root them out of every corner of the continent and murder almost all of them.”

How shallow and tendentious. And what about Britain and Denmark and French resistance?

Oz believed in the new Jew and the Zionist miracle. In his kibbutz novel he wrote that when one of three European-born brothers returns to Berlin to make a fortune, he chose a “sterile” life, while the brother who is a truck driver on the kibbutz and quotes scripture to explain his romantic problems got the full and meaningful one.

In his memoir, he quoted his aunt as saying of a charismatic teacher in prewar Poland: “His thoughts were our thoughts… He believed that the Land of Israel was the only place where the Jews could be cured of their mental illnesses and prove to themselves and to the world that they had some good qualities too.”

Oz seems to have taken that teaching to heart. knew the names of many relatives who were killed in the Holocaust, including his studious and naive father’s brother David. He several times passed on the story that when his father Arieh left Vilna, in Poland/Lithunia, the walls were covered with graffiti, Jews out of Europe, and that when he returned on visits long after the war, the walls  bore the slogan, Jews out of Palestine. Oz made many cracks about Diaspora Jews.

He was an Israeli provincial in some ways, and seems more provincial by the moment. He was a Zionist formed by the European experience of his forbears and insisted on the primacy of that experience. Jews are unsafe in the west. We need a place. This is the reason Roger Cohen embraced him so in the New York Times; because Cohen believes the same thing.

Whether or not you think those attitudes are anachronistic, there is no doubt Oz was one of the last vibrant connections to the Shoah generation. He expressed their dreams and despair and fears as well as anyone, and on that basis his reputation is deserved.

The political burden will end up hurting his reputation, though. There are no full Palestinian characters in any of the works I’ve read, though Hannah Gonen is plagued by memories of two youths who were ethnically cleansed. He was insistent on shopworn Zionist themes. In his last little book, “Dear Zealots,” Oz railed against the “brainwashing of the left” and said that he still “believes that the Jewish people has a natural, historical, legal right to a sovereign existence as a majority, if only in a very small democratic state.” The right to be a majority. Peace Now and J Street avoid that language. He asserted in A Tale of Love and Darkness that Jews were ethnically cleansed from Palestine to a far greater degree than Palestinians were ethnically cleansed.

Oz exalted Jewish bookish culture and was dismissive of Palestinian culture. That indifference and worse produced his famous and insistent metaphor, that Jews and Palestinians are living in the same house but they need a divorce. And it produced his caricatures of Palestinian political attitudes. Some Palestinians are against the occupation, and they’re good Palestinians, he wrote in Dear Zealots, before flattening the rest:

“On the other hand, many Palestinians are waging a war of fanatical Islam, a war for their fervent aspiration to demolish Israel as the state of Jewish people and the state of all its citizens. (According to fanatical Islam, the Jews are too despicable to be considered a nation…) That is a criminal war that any decent person must resist.”

I understand what a nobleman Oz was for liberal Zionists. He helped found Peace Now and come up with the Geneva initiative. J Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami eulogized Oz as “an inspiration to all of us,” this “amazing man,” a “guiding light” who “blazed” a path. IfNotNow honored Oz as “of blessed memory.” Though his political views were actually not so progressive, Oz represented the very best of the nostalgic Israeli achievement, and now he is gone. Israel will never have his like again, and neither will Israel lovers.

Oz anticipated that. His last book contains this prediction:

I see days not far ahead when mechanics in Amsterdam, Dublin or Madrid refuse to service El Al planes. Consumers boycott Israeli products. Investors and tourists stay away from Israel. The Israeli economy collapses. We are already at least halfway there.

h/t James North

Note: The passages from Oz’s books were translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange.

Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is Founder and Co-Editor of Mondoweiss.net.

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25 Responses

  1. Liz on January 9, 2019, 10:58 am

    Phil, this is so beautiful. You so thoroughly discuss the complexities of Oz’s identity, explain why liberal Zionists loved him, and also why his opinions were ultimately limited and dangerous. Such gorgeous writing–thank you for this.

  2. Xpat on January 9, 2019, 12:19 pm

    Phil, Thank you as always for your wonderful writing.

    I am not a literary authority but my experience of a Tale of Love and Darkness is different to yours. The “maddeningly circular storytelling” is the charm of the book. Having lived in Jerusalem for many years, following the passages of his book brought back to me in vivid colors and emotions the experience of walking around Jerusalem.

    Gideon Levy, in his obit for Amos Oz tells of one Yom Kippur that he took the book in hand and retraced Oz’s path thru Ge’ulah and other older neighborhoods of West Jerusalem.

    “He believed that the Land of Israel was the only place where the Jews could be cured of their mental illnesses and prove to themselves and to the world that they had some good qualities too.””

    There you have the anti-Semitic root of Zionism. Zionism didn’t invent it but they amplified it. It’s built on the mental insecurity of 19th C. German Jews: there’s something fundamentally wrong with us.

  3. Citizen on January 9, 2019, 3:15 pm

    Re: ” there’s something fundamentally wrong with us.”

    When I think of Zionist Israel, I’m always reminded of that adage: “The Test Of Virtue Is Power.”

  4. Citizen on January 9, 2019, 3:20 pm

    Did Oz’s stories teach virtue?

  5. wondering jew on January 10, 2019, 12:14 am

    How shallow and tendentious! And then you raise the exemplars of the British, Danish and French resistance. Talk about shallow. on May 9, 1945 the Jews were feeling the pain of what had been done to them and I’m sure most of them said, “but don’t forget the british french and danish resistance.” Not.

    There is a question raised as to how to proceed in 2019 and how relevant can 1945 be to today. this is a question. but on may 9, 1945 there was no balancing act saying, well let us not be tendentious and shallow. Let us appreciate all that was done for us. Nope. Maybe in 2019 you have to say that in order to move on. But in 1945 only a shallow fool would say something like that.

    • Citizen on January 10, 2019, 5:09 am

      World War II fatality statistics vary, with estimates of total deaths ranging from 70 million to 85 million. Deaths directly caused by the war, military and civilians killed are estimated at 50-56 million people There were an additional estimated 19 to 28 million deaths from war-related disease and famine.

    • eljay on January 10, 2019, 8:07 am

      || wondering jew @ January 10, 2019, 12:14 am ||

      I get what you’re saying: As long as Palestinians continue to feel the pain of what Zionists have been doing to them for the past ~70 years (and counting), there’s no reason for them to appreciate all that is being done for them.

      • annie on January 10, 2019, 12:43 pm

        eljay, that reminds me of what caroline glick said, that israelis have done more for palestinians than anyone else.

      • eljay on January 10, 2019, 1:04 pm

        || annie: eljay, that reminds me of what caroline glick said, that israelis have done more for palestinians than anyone else. ||

        Sure, but y.f. is no “shallow fool”. He knows that [for the Palestinians] in January, 2019, there is no balancing act saying, well let us not be tendentious and shallow. Let us appreciate all that was done for us. Nope. Maybe in 2093 you have to say that in order to move on. But in 2019 only a shallow fool would say something like that.

        And y.f. is no “shallow fool”.

      • wondering jew on January 10, 2019, 7:05 pm

        mooser- always willing to speak up in defense of historical stupidity.

      • oldgeezer on January 10, 2019, 9:12 pm

        @eljay

        Something about the IHRA defining racism as, for example, holding citizens responsible for the actions of their government. Or holding all Europeans responsible for the actions of a few.

        Of course a zionist can’t be racist. It’s against the definition of being a zionist. Merely a play on the words of the interviewee who claimed Nutty can’t be racist as you can’t be racist and PM of Israel. Yes you can. It appears to be a prerequisite.

      • eljay on January 11, 2019, 9:13 am

        || oldgeezer: @eljay … Of course a zionist can’t be racist. It’s against the definition of being a zionist. … ||

        The thing with Zionists is that they take perfectly good words and make up their own definitions for them. Which is why a Zionist is not “racist”, the IDF is “moral”, colonialism and religion-based supremacism are “self-determination” and pretty much anything that offends a Zionist is “anti-Semitism”.

    • wondering jew on January 10, 2019, 6:57 pm

      There is little question that when we are dealing with the death of Amos Oz, we are dealing with the intertwining of the history of the Shoah and Zionism. As such any mention of the suffering of the Jews in the Shoah will occasion “parallels” to the oppression of the Palestinians. This is part of the natural give and take of the deaf yelling at the deaf that occurs in the comments section of mw and other places as well.

      Nonetheless an attempt should be made to try to separate the two subjects.

      Did Europe earn the deep contempt that Oz felt for it? Probably. Was Oz’s contempt emotional rather than logical? Possibly. The deep cultural animosity for Jews evinced by European Christianity and European post Christianity (of the Voltaire version and of pagan nationalisms of Eastern Europe) are quite clear for anyone who cares to delve into that lengthy and thick book of knowledge. (From the antisemitic origins of the phrase, Hip hip hooray, to the antisemitic composer, Wagner, of the tune to Here Comes the Bride.)

      I thank my fate for having been born in America, relatively untainted by that deep history. I “curse” my fate of having been born to religious Jews with close family members slaughtered in the Shoah, and thus tainted by that history.

      But to characterize Oz’s reaction to this history as shallow is just piffle and nonsense. And to prove Oz’s shallowness by the fact of British, Danish and French resistance is beyond or below even piffle and nonsense. It is proof of vanity and supreme shallowness.

      • Donald on January 10, 2019, 9:08 pm

        Staying out of this, but on a trivial point the antisemitic origin of “hip hip hooray” is disputed.

        https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hip_hip_hooray

        Not that I am claiming any superior knowledge here—I was unaware of the theory until three minutes ago.

      • Mooser on January 11, 2019, 11:25 am

        ” the antisemitic origin of “hip hip hooray” is disputed.”

        It is? Than how do you account for these lines from “HMS Pinafore”?

        (Enter Sir Joseph with Cousin Hebe l.p.e.)

        Captain: (from poop.) ‘Now give three cheers, I’ll lead the way.’
        All. Hurrah ‘ hurrah ! hurrah ! hurray !’

        “Hurray”? Anti-semitism, or intermarriage?

    • tony greenstein on January 10, 2019, 9:59 pm

      As you said Mr wondering Jew ‘How shallow and tendentious! ‘. Zionism triumphed on the ashes of those who it used to build its state. As the Holocaust was nearing its most intense period, in May 1942, the Zionist Organisation was focussed on one thing and one thing only – the future Jewish state. As Tom Segev and others have written, the Zionist movement had written off the bulk of European Jewry even whilst they were alive.

      Of one thing I am absolutely certain. If Europeans had behaved towards the Jews in the same way as Israeli Jews behave towards the Palestinians then it would have been 7 or 8 millions Jews who died.

      Not only the French resistance or Denmark but Bulgaria and Italy and above all Albania, Muslim Albania, where the number of Jews under Nazi occupation INCREASED by a factor of 10 from 200 to 2000.

      It was fascism that was responsible for the genocide of Jews and others in WW2, a fascism which murdered millions of others too. It is this same fascism we see in Brazil today and with Orban and Poland today which Israel’s Prime Minister rushes to embrace.

      The problem with you Zionists is that you drew all the wrong conclusions from the Holocaust and in the process created a state in the image of European fascism.

      Very beautiful piece of writing Phil!

      • wondering jew on January 10, 2019, 10:46 pm

        Tony Greenstein, tell me one more time about the kastner train.

      • Citizen on January 12, 2019, 3:49 am

        Worth repeating: “The problem with you Zionists is that you drew all the wrong conclusions from the Holocaust and in the process created a state in the image of European fascism.”

      • marc b. on January 13, 2019, 9:25 am

        “In the process created a state in the image of European fascism.”

        Not to quibble, but the fascism seems baked into the mix, pre-WWII.

  6. Misterioso on January 10, 2019, 9:53 am

    @eljay, et al

    For the record re Amos Oz:

    http://links.org.au/node/828

    Michael Warschawski on Gaza: “Blaming the `two sides,’ International intervention now!”

    December 30, 2008

    Excerpt:
    “Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, defence minister Ehud Barack, foreign minister Tzipi Livni and army chief Gabi Ashkenazi will one day have to answer to war crimes charges in an international court of justice, like other war criminals. Accordingly, our duty today is to document their acts and statements in order to be sure they will pay for the massacres they ordered and commit.

    “There is, however, a second category of criminals who may escape the tribunals. They do not dirty their hands with the blood of civilians, but instead provide the intellectual and pseudo-moral justifications for the murderers. They are the propaganda unit of the killers’ government and army. Israeli writers Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua are a typical example of such miserable intellectuals. And not for the first time! In every war they volunteer for the Israeli war effort, without even having been officially drafted. Their first function is to provide the justifications for the Israeli offensive, then, later on, they cry about their lost virginity while accusing the other side of having forced us to behave brutally.

    “The justification provided by Oz (in Corriera de la Serra) and Yehoshua (in La Stampa) is, of course, the need to react to the rockets fired on Sderot, as if everything started with these rockets. ‘I had to explain to the Italians,’ said Yehoshua to Haaretz (December 30, 2008) ‘why the Israeli action was necessary.’

    “Both Yehoshua and Oz have forgotten the nineteen months of Israel’s brutal siege imposed on one and a half million human beings, depriving them of even the most basic supplies. They have forgotten the Israeli and international boycott of the democratically elected Palestinian government. They have forgotten the forced separation of Gaza and the West Bank, a separation made in order to isolate and punish the Gaza population for its incorrect democratic choice.”

    “After having chosen to re-write the chronology of events, Oz and Yehoshua are using the symmetry argument: violence is used by both sides and there are innocent civilian victims in both Gaza and in Israel. Indeed, and every civilian killed is an innocent victim. Chronology and quantity, however, are not irrelevant: three Israeli civilians were killed in the south of Israel, but only after the Israeli Air Force committed its planned massacre in the center of Gaza city, killing over 300.”

  7. Kathleen on January 10, 2019, 11:11 am

    “a depressive” so hidden and so much shame that goes with that condition.

    You have made me want to read Oz’s writings. Thanks

    Amazing how msm host, analyst, etc keep referring to Israel’s wall. Wondering what Mexico would do if the U.S. started building an expanded barrier on land that is internationally recognized as belonging to them as Israel has done to the Palestinians. Confiscating homes too

  8. Ossinev on January 10, 2019, 3:58 pm

    “Oz anticipated that. His last book contains this prediction:

    I see days not far ahead when mechanics in Amsterdam, Dublin or Madrid refuse to service El Al planes. Consumers boycott Israeli products. Investors and tourists stay away from Israel. The Israeli economy collapses. We are already at least halfway there”

    I think he was a Wizard apologist for Zionism but in the end may have gone to his grave ashamed of the the ugly reality of his beloved Zioland and his own role in airbrushing that ugly reality .

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