Leading Israeli writer who called for ethics and morality in politics
TO MANY he was the ultimate Israeli, the visionary pioneer who held the memory of Europe in his soul, yet whose Zionism looked out to a place of reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians. Amos Oz, who has died aged 79, bore the hallmarks of the charismatic Israeli intellectual; strong but subtle, a warrior-poet who fought internal battles of time and hope. He had the courage and conviction of all great writers who live in turbulent countries but who see beyond narrow horizons and demand political change. Others joined him – the novelists AB Yehoshua and David Grossman – and together they formed a literary trio who spoke out against the Israeli occupation, and called for ethics and morality in political leadership.
But in his lifetime Amos Oz saw his country move from its chalutzic, socialist past to a right-wing present. If a prophet is never recognised in his own country, Oz himself had to bear the brunt of Israel’s criticism, some of it even branding him a traitor for his liberal views.
These instincts of conciliation and sensitivity may have been honed in the crucible of early bereavement. His mother Fania née Mussman committed suicide when he was 12, a tragedy which, intensified by his parents’ failed marriage, permeated many of his novels.Born into a Jerusalem home lined with books and literary aspiration, Oz was torn between his family’s Ashkenazi intellectual secularism (they embraced the ideals of Vladimir Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin) and his own burgeoning vision of the tough, modern Jew,
At the age of 15 he moved from Jerusalem to Kibbutz Hulda, near the Hulda Forest in central Israel, where he spent the next 30 years. There, as well as writing, he adopted the utopian principles of the kibbutz, working as a tractor driver, security patrol and in the canteen. He also adopted the name Oz, which means strength in Hebrew. At 18 he served in a tough combat unit and wrote at night, later sharing all the proceeds from his books with the kibbutz. Writing was so endemic to him, that he once said of his ambitions that he wanted to be a book.
As a young soldier he was handsome with finely chiselled features, an embodiment of the virile sabra, which made him popular with girls and belied the true portrait of him as a man faced with internal challenges. In later years his face, increasingly sensitive, yet battle-scarred from the 1967 and 1971 wars, betrayed the graver imprints of the thinking man.
In 1978, Oz backed the founders of the Peace Now movement, followed a year later by an essay collection, Under This Blazing Light, in which he considers the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a dispute between Right and Right. After leaving the kibbutz in 1986, Oz became Professor of Hebrew literature at the Ben Gurion University of the Negev (1987-2005). As he developed the socialist instincts that guided him towards Peace Now, the Oslo accords and a two-state solution, statesmen like Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak began asking him for advice they either could not or would not take. His contemporary Reuven Rivlin, Israel’s President, recalled at Oz’s funeral how the two then 14 year olds would discuss the difference between political and mystical Zionism.
As the author of 19 novels, Oz looked deep into the hearts of his characters and found his own buried trauma there, expressed, in his poetic 1999 novel The Same Sea ,with surreal beauty, evoking death, loss and the tenuousness of the Jewish experience. In his 2004 autobiography, A Tale of Love and Darkness, Oz described the pain at his mother’s suicide and his embrace of the new Hebrew language. Other major works included The Hill of Evil Counsel (1976), A Perfect Peace (1982), To Know a Woman (1989), Don’t Call It Night (1995) and Black Box (1988).
His much-loved novel, My Michael (1968) was criticised by one newspaper because “no nice Jewish girl would dream of falling in love with an Arab.” He fought with every fibre of his intellectual being against the occupation and for the original twostate solution, fearing the occupation was sewing dark seeds in the heart of the occupiers.
In a remarkable short story, Unto Death (Crusade, 1992), he explores the mind of Guillaume of Touron who discovers that in killing every Jew he meets he only succeeds in destroying himself. It is clearly a parable for modern Israel, even if not recognised at the time. In his final novel, Judas, Oz returns metaphorically to his own personal history, the irreconcilable internal conflicts faced by the self-questioning Jew. And he asks the important question: who really was Judas?
I met Amos Oz once, many years ago, at a dinner party attended by Israeli politicians and British Zionists. The talk strangely moved to the Lavon affair, a botched Israeli covert operation against Egypt in 1954, in which David Ben-Gurion was in conflict with former Defence Minister Pinhas Lavon. The scandal, which resulted in the execution of two Israeli operatives, the suicide of another and the imprisonment of several others, eventually resulted in the resignations of both Ben Gurion and Lavon, and reverberated within Israeli society for years to come.
Ehud Barak, eulogising Oz in Ha’Aretz on his death, recalled how vehemently the young Oz supported Lavon while denouncing Ben-Gurion’s motives and character. At the time, he said, the soldier Oz was already urging Israel to retain the moral high ground, and fight for peace.
Oz condemned Israel’s much vaunted victory in the Six Day war of 1967 as a pyrrhic one, predicting the country would be haunted by occupation. He was no closet peacenik, but in interviews, talks and journalism, he became increasingly critical of the way Israel was losing its essential character. To many In the Land of Israel (1983), his conversations with Israelis and Palestinians, was valued even above his novels and considered a road map of future peaceful co-existence. A forceful critic of Netanyahu’s Israel, Oz himself faced sharp criticism from those with a more rightwing perspective.
Although often mentioned as a Nobel contender, this ultimate prize eluded him. In consolation, his many honours included the French prize, Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur (1997), the Bialik prize (1986), the Israel Prize for Literature (1998) and the Franz Kafka prize (2013).
In 1960 he married Nily Zuckerman, who survives him, along with their son Daniel and two daughters, Fania and Gallia.
Amos Oz, writer, born May 4, 1939; died December 28, 2018