Amos Oz, the Israeli writer who died last December at 79, was a hero to liberal Zionists in America, and on March 31, J Street and other groups held a memorial to him at a Washington synagogue, Temple Sinai. The headline on the memorial was that Ruth Bader Ginsburg attended. The highlight of the memorial was a speech by Oz’s daughter Fania Oz-Salzberger.
Below is an excerpt of her eulogy in which Oz-Salzberger offered the “best possible justification of Zionism,” by way of her father’s diagnosis of a malady that bedevils Palestinians and Jews, the desire to reconstruct the past, “Reconstritis.” Oz-Salzberger quoted a lecture in Hebrew that her father gave last year. Jonathan Ofir translated that lecture back in January. I have appended some of Ofir’s rendering of the same remarks below.
“The other little idea that I wanted to share with you from that lecture… is a medical term my father invented… In English it sounds very medical, Reconstritis. The romantic, dangerous, damaging idea of reconstructing our past exactly as it was. Nothing can be more dangerous than that to an individual or to a nation, Amos said.
“And he went on to tell about a meeting with a Palestinian intellectual in Paris who said to him, ‘I hail from the village of Lifta. That is, not me but my grandfather, Lifta near Jerusalem, the beautiful Lifta with the spring of fresh water and the goats with the bells down the hill and the vineyards. All I want is to be able to come back to Lyfta to reinhabit my grandfather’s little house, not forever, just in the vacance coming from Paris, and listen to the bells on the necks on the goats.’
“And my father said to this young man, ‘Dear sir, I totally and deeply understand you, but you have quote dangerous case of Reconstritis. Because you see if all Palestinians come home to Lifta it will not be the village of 300 people that your grandfather knew. It would be a big town, a suburb of Jerusalem, with supermarkets, shopping malls and huge traffic jams, take it from me.
“The same thing goes for the settlers in Judea and Samaria wishing to bring back the biblical landscape of our patriarchs. This will never be. Because even if we [Hebrew] God forbid, pushed out the Palestinians from the Temple Mount and reconstructed the third temple of the Jews, can you imagine what the holy days would look like? [Laughter] Can you imagine the sheer traffic jam? Can you imagine the failure of the air conditioning? He goes on like that for a while…
“Reconstritis is a dangerous disease. You cannot– and here I am quoting a beautiful sentence from the lecture and the book– you cannot find in space what you have lost in time.
“What about Zionism? Isn’t that one big case of Reconstritis? ‘Well,’ says my father, ‘I thought about it for a little bit. But you know, We are in the danger of becoming a case of Reconstritis to our own damage. But it wasn’t to begin with. Of course there was the flavor of the biblical path, and the longing, the nostalgia, and the Jewish continuity… There was all that. But this was only the flavoring, not the gist of the Zionist project. The gist of the Zionist project was saving Jewish lives in real time in the 20th century.’
“The rest was a wonderful cultural additive. But the truth of the matter is that had it not been for Zionism, neither my father or my grandparents or me would have been able to live. Nor the Jews of Baghdad and Morocco who had to flee as soon as the British left Baghdad and the French left North Africa. Zionism was a lifesaver, deeply flavored with a cultural sense of belonging, but first and foremost a lifesaver. And strangely enough, this universal human notion of a nation-state for the stateless, the persecuted, and the refugee– this non-specifically Zionist need to save the lives of a million Jews from Europe in the last moment, and of a million Jews from the Middle East in the last moment– this non-specifically Zionist need that was served, is the best possible justification of Zionism that we have.
“And we should hope and pray, which I do in my secular way, that Reconstritis in the form of nationalist nostalgia will not take over the Israeli project. Because despite our deepest biblical roots, which are not biological or physiological or genetic, but deeply, beautifully textual. Despite these roots, it is not the whole house we need, it is a partition of the house. A lifesaver for one nation and a lifesaver for the next-door nation. Reconstritis versus realism.”
Now here is some of Jonathan Ofir’s rendition of Amos Oz’s lecture, which he translated after the writer’s death.
“Oz tells how, just over 20 years ago, he had met a ‘Palestinian intellectual’ in Paris. Oz doesn’t remember the name, but remembers he was a lecturer in some social science department in some university and that the man was about 30 at the time. Oz recalls that the first sentence this man said to him when meeting was “I’m from Lifta” (a village on the outskirts of Jerusalem, ethnically cleansed in 1948). ‘It seemed a bit odd for me,’ Oz says in his lecture. ‘A man of 30, how could he be from Lifta? I remember Lifta well – my parents’ house at Kerem Avraham was about 1.5 kilometers from Lifta.’….
“So the Palestinian man said to Oz, that he wants to return to Lifta. He says he doesn’t care who controls Palestine, he doesn’t want to expel the Jews, or seek revenge; he wants the house in Lifta. He says that his office and his home are plastered with photos of his home in Lifta.
“Oz interrupts the man: ‘Excuse me, were you ever there?’ The man says no, I have it in the photos. The man says that his family was expelled from there. Oz says, ‘Expelled, fled, doesn’t matter.’
“Then the man said, assertively: ‘Know, that you will not have peace or rest until I get the house that was my family’s house in Lifta’.
“Oz sighs, and says in a somewhat deriding tone, that this was ‘very impressive, because the man has never seen the house in Lifta.’ Oz says he thought about it a bit, and then said to the man: ‘You know, your house in Lifta – you will never get it [back], and not because of the Zionists. Even if tomorrow the Jewish nation will decide with an overwhelming majority that Zionism was a mistake and that we all pack and leave and give you back the keys – you will never get your house in Lifta back.’ The man wonders: ‘Why?’ Oz responds, ‘Tell me, do you want to live in that house in Lifta? Will you leave your position in Paris?’ The man says, ‘No way, I want to come every summer, to sit under the vine and the fig tree, to listen to the spring and the sound of the goat bells as they come down the mountain. That’s all I want.” Oz says the man can’t get the house even if there was an agreed right of return, because at the time, the village was about 1000 people and now if they returned, they would be a village of 15-20,000, and this would mean ‘high-rises, at least one pharmacy, two or three supermarkets, a few streetlights, very difficult parking problems…’ Thus, Oz tells the man that he would hear ‘neither the goats nor the spring.’ And he tells him: ‘You are ill.’
And I also diagnosed the illness. Those who have medical or paramedical education, take out the notebook and write: You are ill with Reconstritis. You are seeking in space, what you have lost in time.
“Oz does not condemn the man for longing or missing Lifta. His suggestion is simply to write a book:
‘If you miss Lifta so much, write a book. Make a film. Write a play. Write up a research. Seek what you have lost in time, not in space… You miss your childhood? That’s OK, but if you start behaving like a 5-year old child [Oz is literally shouting here] because of your childhood longings, you need to be hospitalized!'”
(For more of Ofir’s commentary, here is his original post.)