World Of Words Amos Oz on Fa­nati­cism

Forward Magazine - - Contents - WORLD OF WORDS BY AVIYA KUSH­NER

“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.’


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