Amos Oz

Lead­ing Is­raeli writer who called for ethics and moral­ity in pol­i­tics

The Jewish Chronicle - - OBITS -

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


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