8 Ques­tions for Au­thor & Ac­tivist Amos Oz

Forward Magazine - - FOREGROUND - By Naomi Zevel­off ●

Amos Oz, ar­guably Is­rael’s most cel­e­brated au­thor, ded­i­cated his most re­cent book, “Dear Zealots: Let­ters From a Di­vided Land,” to his four grand­chil­dren, all 20-some­things liv­ing in Is­rael. A long­time two-state ac­tivist who turned 80 last year, Oz called the book — a trio of es­says on fa­nati­cism, Ju­daism and Is­rael, first pub­lished in He­brew in 2017 — “am­mu­ni­tion” for the younger gen­er­a­tion to ad­dress what he iden­ti­fies as the big­gest de­bates of our time. (As for the “zealot” ad­dressed in the ti­tle, Oz writes that he seeks the “lis­ten­ing ear of those whose opin­ions dif­fer from my own,” and as such he has helped make the book avail­able at deeply dis­counted prices in Arabic and Rus­sian, and also at West Bank set­tle­ment book­stores.)

The book of­fers a re­strained kind of “am­mu­ni­tion.” Oz’s stances sound de­cid­edly mod­er­ate in this highly po­lar­ized age. The three es­says are adapted from Oz’s pre­vi­ous work, a com­bi­na­tion of up­dated lec­tures, books and other writ­ings. In the first es­say, Oz ad­vo­cates cu­rios­ity, imag­i­na­tion and hu­mor as “an­ti­dotes” to fa­nati­cism of all kinds. The sec­ond es­say, an an­swer to re­stric­tive re­li­gious trends in Is­rael, is an ex­plo­ration of the hu­man­is­tic side of Ju­daism. The third es­say is an ar­gu­ment for the two-state so­lu­tion, a po­si­tion Oz has held for more than five decades, even as other high-pro­file Is­raelis, in­clud­ing, re­cently, his lit­er­ary con­tem­po­rary A.B. Ye­hoshua, have de­fected from that camp, in search of al­ter­na­tives.

Oz spoke with the For­ward’s Naomi Zevel­off from his home in North Tel Aviv about his brief stint as a child ide­o­logue, his re­sponse to Amer­i­can pro­gres­sives who see “ci­vil­ity” as a trap, how his morn­ing walks in­flu­ence his writ­ing and why he con­tin­ues to sup­port two states. The fol­low­ing in­ter­view has been edited for clar­ity and length.

NAOMI ZEVEL­OFF: You say you were a “lit­tle Zion­ist-na­tion­al­ist fa­natic” as a child. Your at­ti­tude changed be­cause of your friend­ship with a Bri­tish po­lice­man. What hap­pened?

AMOS OZ: He shared with me dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives. He taught me to ask ques­tions:

If I were a Pales­tinian Arab whose fam­ily lived here for many, many gen­er­a­tions, how would I feel about the in­flux of Jewish im­mi­grants armed with the Bi­ble and claim­ing ex­clu­sive rights to the land? How would I feel if I were Bri­tish, some­one who shed his blood in or­der to beat Hitler, and now is be­ing la­beled by mil­i­tant Is­raelis, mil­i­tant Zion­ists, as a con­tin­u­a­tion of the Nazis? Those con­ver­sa­tions were eye-open­ers for me, be­cause this was a kind of lan­guage I hadn’t heard spo­ken around me.

The first es­say in the book is based on a lec­ture se­ries you gave in 2002. How did you change your es­say all th­ese years later?

Six­teen years ago it was very com­mon in parts of the world, as a con­se­quence of 9/11, to as­sume that fa­nati­cism has to do with Is­lam or rad­i­cal Is­lam or the Arab world or the Mid­dle East. Even then, I thought it was a gross mis­un­der­stand­ing of the danger­ous syn­drome of the 21st cen­tury, which is very many dif­fer­ent forms of fa­nati­cism, not just Is­lamic fa­nati­cism, not just re­li­gious fa­nati­cism.

I de­vel­oped my lec­ture from 2002 into the es­say in which I tried to de­scribe a cer­tain fa­natic gene, which may ex­ist in al­most ev­ery hu­man be­ing. That does not mean that ev­ery one of us is a fa­natic, but we should be aware of a cer­tain fa­natic po­ten­tial in ev­ery one of us. Very of­ten, fa­nati­cism be­gins at home. It be­gins in­side the fam­ily. It be­gins with the urge to change our kin, to change our beloved ones for their own good be­cause we think we know bet­ter than them what is good and what is bad for them, what is right and what is wrong in their think­ing. The urge to change other peo­ple con­tains some­times a cer­tain fa­natic po­ten­tial.

Tol­er­ance and ci­vil­ity are not pop­u­lar terms in the Trump era. Some on the left say to be civil to the other side is to le­git­imize racist or an­tiSemitic or sex­ist views and that lines should be drawn. What do you say to this?

Well, you know, 30 or 40 years ago, when var­i­ous [move­ments] in­spired the whole world into be­liev­ing in mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism and the coex­is­tence of dif­fer­ent nar­ra­tives of his­tory, and dif­fer­ent nar­ra­tives of right and wrong and dif­fer­ent nar­ra­tives of hu­man be­hav­ior, I was very en­thu­si­as­tic about it. But in front of our own eyes, mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism, or a va­ri­ety of iden­ti­ties, very rapidly de­vel­oped into a kind of uni­ver­sal

loathing. Mil­lions and mil­lions of peo­ple in your coun­try, in my coun­try, in many places, wake up in the morn­ing and start loathing those who do not agree with them, or those who think dif­fer­ently, or those who look to them as an im­me­di­ate threat on their way of life.

So there is a uni­ver­sal kind of loathing, and

I think loathing begets fa­nati­cism, and in the end loathing begets ha­tred and vi­o­lence. I lis­ten to my po­lit­i­cal ri­vals some­times with fear and trem­bling, some­times with awe, some­times with near panic, but al­ways with a cu­rios­ity of nu­ances, cu­rios­ity for the lan­guage, for the story be­hind the “im­pos­si­ble” po­si­tion. So I think cu­rios­ity, a cer­tain ca­pac­ity of imag­in­ing the other, and, yes, sense of hu­mor, all are pow­er­ful an­ti­dotes to fa­nati­cism.

The sub­ti­tle of the book is “Let­ters From a Di­vided Land.” It’s a phrase that can also de­scribe Amer­ica right now. What is the mes­sage for Amer­i­cans in this book?

If I had to squeeze my wis­dom into one word, I would say: “Lis­ten, you don’t nec­es­sar­ily have to agree to what you lis­ten to, but lis­ten very care­fully. Lis­ten even to voices which you re­gard as danger­ous, ab­hor­rent, ter­ri­ble, mon­strous.” Even if your con­clu­sion is go­ing to be, “I have to re­buff those voices, I have to fight them, I re­gard them as a threat to the fu­ture of my peo­ple or the fu­ture of my fam­ily,” you still would be wise to lis­ten very care­fully to what those other peo­ple are say­ing be­fore you form your po­si­tion or even your tac­tic of com­bat­ing them or strug­gling against them. Lis­ten with cu­rios­ity; even try to ask your­self: What would it be that would have made me one of them? A dif­fer­ent back­ground? A dif­fer­ent fam­ily? Dif­fer­ent val­ues? A dif­fer­ent en­vi­ron­ment? Could I be one of those? This is a very sim­ple prac­tice, but it’s a help­ful one. Would you put Don­ald Trump in the cat­e­gory of the zealot or the fa­natic? I hap­pened to be in Amer­ica for a visit a few days af­ter Trump was elected pres­i­dent, and many of my lib­eral, left-wing New York friends were in a state of ut­ter shock and they were speak­ing in one way or an­other about how the new Hitler is upon us. I re­mem­ber that I re­sponded with a cer­tain reser­va­tion. I said [that], to me, Trump is more like [for­mer Ital­ian prime min­is­ter Sil­vio] Ber­lus­coni than like Hitler. Trump is many things. He is pam­pered, he is an im­ma­ture man, he is a teenager crav­ing un­con­di­tional, end­less love from ev­ery­body. I don’t think he is fa­natic. I’m not sure I would say about his vice pres­i­dent that he is not a fa­natic, he prob­a­bly is, but I don’t think Don­ald Trump strikes me as a fa­natic.

You walk each morn­ing be­fore sun­rise. What do th­ese walks do for your writ­ing process?

First and fore­most they help me knock ev­ery­thing back into pro­por­tion. When I walk to the Mediter­ranean beach 20 min­utes from my home, I watch the wind push­ing the clouds in the dark sky, all the move­ment, the sounds of the birds and the pea­cocks. I know the el­e­ments are laugh­ing at the words “eter­nity,” “never,” “for­ever” pro­nounced by politi­cians. I am old enough to tell you, here in the Mid­dle East, words such as “never,” “for­ever” or “eter­nity” mean some­thing like six months to 30 years. Let’s talk about your con­tin­ued sup­port of the twostate so­lu­tion. You write ad­mir­ingly about peo­ple who change, but is the two-state so­lu­tion your per­sonal or­tho­doxy?

I have changed my views many times on many is­sues, first and fore­most when I was a boy of 15 or less and re­belled against my fa­ther and re­belled against my very right-wing and mil­i­tant Zion­ist fam­ily and changed my name and moved alone to live on a kib­butz. I haven’t changed my mind in the last 50 years on the two-state so­lu­tion, sim­ply be­cause I have not come across a bet­ter al­ter­na­tive. If any­one shows me in the next 10 min­utes or 10 days or 10 months a bet­ter al­ter­na­tive to the twostate so­lu­tion, I won’t have any prob­lem chang­ing my mind.

You write that Is­rael is both more than and less than what your par­ents and their par­ents dreamed of. Why less than and why more than?

It is less be­cause no­body, not even in their wildest dreams, no­body 50 or 70 years ago, imag­ined that there will be Is­raeli fa­nat­ics who will burn alive an en­tire in­no­cent Pales­tinian fam­ily in their home in the West Bank. On the other hand, no­body dreamt when I was a boy of 5 that in my life­time there will be 6.5 mil­lion Jews in this coun­try, half of the Jewish peo­ple. Is­rael is a dream come true, and as a dream come true it is flawed, very flawed, and some­times dan­ger­ously flawed or painfully flawed. But this is in the na­ture of dreams, not nec­es­sar­ily in the na­ture of Is­rael.

COLIN MCPHER­SON

AP IM­AGES

KING­DOM OF OLIVES: Oz picks olives along­side lo­cal Pales­tini­ans in the vil­lage of Aqraba near the West Bank town of Nablus in 2002.

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