World Of Words Amos Oz on Fanaticism
“Fanaticism begins at home,” Amos Oz writes in his new book of essays on extremism that aims to get Israelis to rethink what fanaticism is — and why it is so dangerous. The book is dedicated to his grandchildren, but Oz makes it clear that he is writing for those who disagree with him. And he is openly desperate: He wants to save Israel from extremists who, he thinks, are running the risk of losing the only Jewish state of the past 2,000 years to delusional thinking.
“Dear Zealot: Three Pleas,” published by Keter Publishing House, can be found in some unexpected places in Israel; I bought my copy at a computer-accessories store. It was the only book for sale, looking a bit unusual amid the chargers, adapters and cables, and it had scored a prime spot by the cash register. As if this weren’t enough of an endorsement, I noticed that “Dear Zealot” was priced at 10 shekels below the sticker price, meaning the store was forfeiting profit.
The situation reminded me of the unusual decision by Astoria Bookshop, an independent bookstore in Queens, to sell “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates at cost, because owner Lexi Beach believed it was a necessary read. Oz’s slim paperback is priced at 39 shekels, or about $11, which is about half the price of a typical new book in Israel; I paid 29 shekels, or around $8, while noticing that it’s also far shorter than the average nonfiction book; its 131 pages might be half that if the book were a normal size.
What is exciting about “Dear Zealot” is not its overarching argument, which has certainly been made before — that if there isn’t a two-state solution, and fast, the
solution will not be a Jewish state — but how it works on a sentence level in its attempt to concisely describe what a fanatic is and why fanaticism has such appeal. It is as if Oz is drawing the character of a fanatic for us. Early on, Oz writes, “The loudness of your voice is not what defines you as a fanatic, rather mainly your patience or lack of patience toward the voices of those who oppose you.”
I found myself writing down individual sentences and wanting to talk about them, and I suspect the computer-accessories store owner had a similar experience.
Here are a few Oz sentences, in my translation, that are worth thinking about:
1) Fanatics have no private lives.
2) Maybe the time has come for each university to have a course on comparative fanaticism.
3) We are all becoming distant from Stalin and Hitler.
4) Whoever is willing to sacrifice himself won’t have a hard time sacrificing others.
The book includes an expansion of some previously published material that has been translated into English, but this version is not yet available in English. The Hebrew reading level required is moderate, and because Oz is building an argument, it becomes an easier read as the book progresses. And of course, it’s interesting to see Oz, a world-renowned fiction writer, turn to the long essay, of all forms, to communicate with Israelis.
It’s exciting to see a book of essays spark conversation about the uncomfortable subject of extremism and survival in Israel, especially when the Trump administration appears to be supporting the very views Oz sees as dangerous and lending those views legitimacy — just as it was moving to see “Between the World and Me,” a booklength essay in the tradition of James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time,” spark a painful and necessary conversation about race and survival in America.
It is also interesting to see Oz take the long view and try to encourage readers to view extremism as a story with a centuries-long narrative arc. He wants readers to stop thinking about Israelis and Arabs and start thinking about extremism throughout history. This aspect of the book also makes it relevant beyond Israel.
“Fanaticism is much more ancient than Islam,” Oz writes. “More ancient than Christianity and Judaism, more ancient than all the ideologies in the world.” As he often does, Oz goes back to his childhood to explain his interest in a subject. “Maybe my childhood in Jerusalem prepared me to be an expert of sorts in comparative fanaticism.”
The book’s personal plea to Israelis on their attitude toward America is also fasone-state cinating. “David Ben-Gurion taught us that the State of Israel cannot stand without support from at least one great power,” Oz writes. “Which great power? It changes: Sometimes Britain, once even Stalin’s Russia, and for a short time both Britain and France, and in recent decades — America. But the alliance with America is certainly not part of the laws of nature.”
As I read Oz’s essays, copying down and then translating individual sentences, I thought of how this is an unusual time to be a writer. The rise of authoritarianism and the worldwide resurgence of hatred of the other has also fueled a renaissance of political essays, and an exciting rekindling of the belief that a lone writer can change entrenched thought, sentence by sentence.
Oz’s latest is a book-length essay in the tradition of James Baldwin’s ‘The Fire Next Time.’