The Washington Post Sunday
An Israeli literary giant’s startlingly unfair treatment of fanaticism
Amos Oz, the Israeli author, is the sort of writer a big, old country like ours hasn’t had since Mark Twain. Oz’s 30-book career has spanned more than 50 years of Israel’s 70-year existence, and he has played a role possible only for authors in young nations: a formative voice shaping his country’s culture, offering not merely prose but prophecy. One of the most outspoken advocates of a two-state solution since Israel’s Six-Day War and a founder of the 40-year-old advocacy group Peace Now, Oz writes fiction of a piece with his politics, illuminating the complex humanity of both Israeli and Palestinian characters damaged by war. Coming of age at a time when people like him were his country’s elite — native-born, kibbutz-influenced, adamantly secular, left-leaning Israelis of European descent — Oz has now
lived long enough to see that power structure shift, diffused by demographic changes favoring more religious as well as non-European Jews, and by ongoing attacks from the country’s enemies regardless of who is in power. It’s a rough time to be an aging Israeli lefty.
In his newest book, “Dear Zealots,” Oz takes on his country’s dilemmas by addressing what he sees as the basis of them all: fanaticism. It’s a subject that ought to find eager readers well beyond the Middle East, as civil discourse in the United States and elsewhere has become an oxymoron and moderation a near-impossibility. Immunity from fanaticism, Oz declares, involves a “willingness to exist inside openended situations that . . . cannot be unequivocally settled.” Oz is a world-class literary master of such situations.
But “Dear Zealots” is not at all open-ended. It is full of Oz’s unambiguous condemnations of other people’s zealotry, and perhaps inevitably, it descends into a single-mindedness of its own. This raises a fascinating question: Can moderation be effectively defended? Dear unzealous readers, that cannot be unequivocally settled.
Oz has largely responded to his country’s developments in the current century by looking backward, producing in recent years a series of works recalling his 1940s Jerusalem childhood and his youthful years on a kibbutz — including his autobiographical masterpiece, “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” in my opinion one of the greatest books in modern Hebrew literature. Oz remains popular on the interna- tional lecture circuit, and his public talks are the source of most material in this book, which seems intended as a vision from an old prophet. But as the Bible demonstrated long ago, the Hebrew prophetic genre doesn’t lend itself to moderation, nor to irony. It seems to have escaped Oz entirely that titling your book “Dear Zealots” is not a great way to make friends.
“Dear Zealots” opens with an analysis of fanaticism that attempts to reach down into each of our souls. “Fanaticism begins at home,” Oz tells us. “Its milder manifestations, which we all know, are expressed in the ubiquitous urge to change, just slightly, your beloveds, your children, your siblings, your partner, your neighbors — to change them for their own good.” This is extremely thought-provoking: Isn’t the desire to “change, just slightly, your beloveds” also what we might call education? Oz is careful to note that not all zealotry is equal, but it is hard to read this book without wondering, as he mentions fanatical vegans and antismoking advocates, whether you might unwittingly be a zealot yourself. If so, fear not, for fanaticism is treatable. The best antidote to zealotry, Oz argues, is “curiosity and imaginative power . . . to ask, once in a while: What if I were her? Or him? Or them?” These are questions worth asking, and they are rarely posed on Twitter.
Asking those questions is what literature does best, and Oz poses them magnificently in his fiction. But this book is no novel, and Oz does very little imagining here. What emerges instead is an eloquent description of Jewish culture’s “vibrant anarchist gene that engenders constant and vehement dispute,” and the tradition’s appetite for multiple perspectives and interpretations. Oz correctly points out that Judaism’s inherent openness to debate has disappeared among many religious Jews, but this discussion soon deteriorates into an angry and, dare I say, zealous rant. At one point, after quoting a religious interpretation of Israel’s secular pioneers, Oz declares, “Such an insult is intolerable.” Tolerance apparently has limits.
I happen to be disposed toward many of Oz’s ideas, especially his understanding of modern secular Hebrew culture as an authentic heir of the religious tradition. I love Oz’s novels and memoirs, which have often recalibrated my thinking. For these reasons I was disappointed to find this book lacking in imagination, especially regarding the evolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in our current century. Ultimately it leaves far too much from the past 20 years unsaid.
The problem here is that Oz’s beloved Israeli left suffered a crippling blow not from fanatics within Israel but from fanatics outside it — namely, the Second Intifada, the barrage of high-casualty attacks on civilians in the early 2000s sponsored by extremist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, whose stated goal is not a negotiated agreement but rather the destruction of Israel. These attacks came in the wake of an unprecedented, if deeply flawed, Israeli land-for-peace offer which then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat walked away from and, in a less-discussed correlation, in the wake of Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from a buffer zone in southern Lebanon that it had controlled for more than a decade. Something similar happened a few years later in Gaza, where Israel unilaterally withdrew the settlements that were said to be the obstacle to peace; the withdrawal resulted in Gaza’s transformation into a launchpad for thousands of missiles aimed at Israeli civilians. These attacks resulted in a security crackdown that ordinary people in the West Bank and Gaza continue to endure, while ordinary people in Israel run to bomb shelters every time missiles fly over Gaza’s border.
The Israeli left offered no satisfactory explanations for why precisely the conciliatory moves it had long promoted were followed by babies being blown up in pizzerias, and it was this reality that led many Israelis sympathetic to Oz’s ideas to reluctantly take their votes elsewhere. One would think that a 2018 Hebrew book about fanaticism would address the mental meat-grinder the Israeli public went through when exactly the choices Oz advocated correlated with a dramatic increase in fanatical attacks from the country’s most zealous enemies.
To his credit, Oz does not completely ignore this problem. Near the book’s last page, he mentions that “the Palestinians are essentially waging two different wars with us. On the one hand, many of them fight to end the occupation and for their just right to national independence . . . Every decent person must support such a struggle, albeit not all the means the Palestinians use. On the other hand, many Palestinians are waging a war of fanatical Islam, a war for their fervent aspiration to demolish Israel . . . That is a criminal war that any decent person must resist . . . [and] many Palestinians are waging both these wars at the same time.”
Oz makes a parallel point on the Israeli side, avowing the right to Jewish national independence and the lack of a right to appropriating West Bank land. This is an honest assessment of a profound problem, and perhaps it is too much to ask Oz for a solution. But Oz betrays his readers when he diagnoses this problem and then proudly offers the same two-state rhetoric he has been offering for 50 years — long before Israel’s religious factions had the influence they have now and long before “fanatical Islam,” to use Oz’s term, seized power in Gaza and southern Lebanon. Oz is strangely proud that his thinking has not evolved. “That is what I wrote fifty years ago and I still believe it today,” he writes of his assessment of the situation as a real estate dispute. This would make sense if the apparently pragmatic solutions that Oz wrote about 50 years ago hadn’t demonstrably failed in the intervening years. Oz offers some cheerful hopes about how nothing is “irreversible” and dramatic change is always possible. If we dare doubt that what failed in the past will succeed in the future, he implies, we must be unimaginative fanatics.
It feels like an even greater betrayal for Oz to wrap up his prophecies with a cute one-liner such as: “It’s hard to be a prophet in the land of prophets. There’s too much competition.” While reading this book, I thought of other Israeli writers who dive deep into their country’s conflicts and bring forth serious engagement with “fanatics.” One who comes to mind is the journalist Yossi Klein Halevi, a former Jewish extremist, who writes not only with compassion comparable to Oz’s and a similar desire for two states, but with deep reporting about real people unlike himself. Another is the philosopher Micah Goodman, whose bestseller “Catch-67” starts where Oz’s ideas end, offering both description of and prescription for the current situation in a way that doesn’t dismiss the “zealots” throughout the Israeli political spectrum and their genuine concerns.
These thinkers have their own biases and flaws, but they and others like them (including those far less famous) are doing the hard work of creating spaces in Israel for people to connect across profound divides, and even more important, they have demonstrated an ability to listen to others and moderate their perspectives as a result. The competition is winning, and it’s time for Oz’s imagination to come up with some new material.