‘Fa­nati­cism is the plague of the 21st cen­tury’: Is­raeli au­thor Amos Oz fears for the fu­ture

The Nation - - NEW CHAPTERS - RUTH EGLASH

AMOS OZ is one of Is­rael’s most pro­lific, cel­e­brated writ­ers, cap­tur­ing the past and ex­plor­ing the present in more than 30 nov­els, dozens of es­says and hun­dreds of ar­ti­cles. But his lat­est book, “Dear Zealots”, may con­tain his most ur­gent message yet.

The book, pub­lished last month in English, is a col­lec­tion of three short es­says that ex­am­ines the rise of zealotry in Is­rael – and around the world – not to men­tion the in­flex­i­ble ide­olo­gies and opin­ions that can lead to ha­tred and vi­o­lence. He also puts for­ward the case for defin­ing Is­rael by its Jewish cul­ture, not by re­li­gion or na­tion­al­ity, and high­lights the need for Is­raelis and Pales­tini­ans to reach peace with a twostate so­lu­tion.

Born in Jerusalem in 1939, Oz re­belled against his right-wing Zion­ist fam­ily by mov­ing to a so­cial­ist kib­butz in his teens. He pub­lished his first book, a col­lec­tion of short sto­ries, in his early 20s, and a con­tin­u­ous flow of lit­er­ary works has fol­lowed. His writ­ing has been trans­lated into 45 lan­guages and won nu­mer­ous in­ter­na­tional prizes.

In Is­rael, Oz has faced crit­i­cism for his political views from both the far left-wing peace camp and the far rightwing na­tion­al­ists, but he says be­ing called a traitor puts him “in the best of com­pa­nies in Jewish his­tory and world his­tory”.

“Very of­ten a traitor is pro­mot­ing change to the very peo­ple who de­spise change, fear change, can­not even un­der­stand the mean­ing or rea­son for change,” he said. “I’m not say­ing ev­ery­one who is called a traitor is ahead of his or her time, but very of­ten this is the case.”

The Washington Post met with Oz re­cently at his apart­ment in Tel Aviv.

YOU’VE WRIT­TEN ABOUT ZEALOTRY IN THE PAST. WHAT PROMPTED YOU TO RE­TURN TO THIS TOPIC NOW?

My pre­vi­ous book on the topic is based on a se­ries of lec­tures from 2002; 16 years later, it has be­come very clear to me that fa­nati­cism is the plague of the 21st cen­tury. Just like the pre­vi­ous cen­tury was dev­as­tated by world re­form­ers and re­deemers, by ide­o­log­i­cal movements with mag­i­cal for­mu­las, this one is dom­i­nated by var­i­ous types of fa­nat­ics.

WHY DO YOU THINK FA­NATI­CISM HAS BE­COME SO WIDE­SPREAD?

The more com­plex is­sues have be­come, the more peo­ple crave sim­ple so­lu­tions, not just in Is­rael but ev­ery­where. All peo­ple want to know is: Who are the bad guys? They want a blan­ket for­mula for all their trou­bles. So they blame ev­ery­thing on glob­al­i­sa­tion or neo­colo­nial­ism or mil­i­tant fem­i­nism or sex­ism or Zion­ism.

ARE THERE PEO­PLE WHO ARE EN­COUR­AG­ING THIS PHE­NOM­E­NON?

There are peo­ple who are rid­ing de­lib­er­ately on its wave. I think maybe this is just a prom­i­nent syn­drome of a deep cri­sis of democ­racy. Fa­nati­cism is much older than democ­racy; it’s older than Ju­daism, Chris­tian­ity, Is­lam, but democ­racy once had a mech­a­nism to ex­pose crazy fa­nat­ics. Now it seems this mech­a­nism is fail­ing.

YOU AR­GUE THAT JU­DAISM AS A CUL­TURE, RATHER THAN A RE­LI­GION OR NA­TION­AL­ITY, BUT IN LIGHT OF RE­CENT POLITICAL DE­BATES IN IS­RAEL, IS YOUR VOICE A LONELY ONE?

It is and it isn’t. If you turn your eyes away from Jerusalem to Is­rael’s coastal plain, where 70 to 75 per cent of Is­raeli Jews live, this is not a coun­try of mad ex­trem­ists. The pro­file of Is­raelis is noisy, he­do­nis­tic, im­pa­tient, rude, warm-hearted, ma­te­ri­al­is­tic, you name it, but the vast ma­jor­ity gave up the oc­cu­pied ter­ri­to­ries years ago. The only rea­son they ob­ject to a far-reach­ing com­pro­mise with Pales­tini­ans is that they don’t want to be suck­ers. The com­mon myth here is that we handed them Gaza on a sil­ver plate and got rock­ets in re­turn.

DO YOU BE­LIEVE THERE IS STILL HOPE FOR A TWO-STATE SO­LU­TION?

This the­ory that the oc­cu­pa­tion of the West Bank is ir­rev­o­ca­ble is in­ter­est­ing. I hear it from the rad­i­cal left and the rad­i­cal right. It is as if they have con­spired to­gether to de­clare the twostate so­lu­tion is dead. But I have lived a very long life and I have seen the ir­rev­o­ca­ble hap­pen again and again, not al­ways, but very of­ten.

“DEAR ZEALOTS” PAINTS A FAIRLY PESSIMISTIC OUT­LOOK FOR IS­RAEL AND THE WORLD. WHY DED­I­CATE IT TO YOUR GRAND­CHIL­DREN?

I don’t re­gard this book as pessimistic. It con­tains some very use­ful in­for­ma­tion, which I tried to present in an ac­ces­si­ble way. Po­lit­i­cally speak­ing, I have been en­gaged and in­volved in writ­ing ar­ti­cles, mak­ing speeches for 60 years. Now it is my time, not to re­tire but to pro­vide my am­mu­ni­tion, my ex­pe­ri­ence to the younger gen­er­a­tion and let them take it from here.

I have tried to give them ar­gu­ments on Ju­daism, on sec­u­lar Ju­daism, hu­man­is­tic Ju­daism, on the dan­gers of fa­nati­cism, in­clud­ing the in­ner fa­nati­cism in­side ev­ery one of us. Many peo­ple carry that fa­natic gene. It be­gins with the ide­al­is­tic urge to change your kin, your neigh­bours, ev­ery­one around you, be­cause they are blind and can­not see what is good for them.

Usu­ally fa­nati­cism is as­so­ci­ated with re­li­gion, though that is not nec­es­sar­ily so. I have seen my share of fa­nat­i­cal veg­e­tar­i­ans and peace ac­tivists. They are not equally dan­ger­ous, of course, but I can trace it left, right and cen­tre. I have de­vel­oped quite a nose for de­tect­ing it.

WHAT DO YOU PRE­DICT FOR THEM IN THE FU­TURE?

I don’t pre­dict be­cause the un­pre­dictable is the most pre­dictable, at least in this part of the world. The truth is I know what I would like to hap­pen, but I don’t know what will hap­pen. What I do know is that the present course is dan­ger­ous for Is­rael, dan­ger­ous for the re­gion and dan­ger­ous for the world.

Dear Zealots: Let­ters from a Di­vided Land By Amos Oz Pub­lished by Houghton Mif­flin Har­courtAvail­able at ma­jor book­shops, Bt447 Amos Oz

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