The Israel Of Amos Oz

The Israeli writer Amos Oz, who died on December 28th, at the age of seventy-nine, was a cultural hero in the old sense, an acolyte who patiently made himself the gray eminence of a lost, or losing, cause: Labor Zionism, a vision that once qualified as a movement. The movement’s leaders—preëminently, David Ben-Gurion—incubated modern Hebrew, fought the state of Israel into being, ingathered the “exiles,” put Eichmann on trial, and dominated the small, largely socialist country that Israel was before it was overwhelmed by the forces of post-1967 messianism. Labor Zionism dared to return Jews not to synagogues but to history.

Today, less than a fifth of the Israeli population—albeit much of the educated élite, most of it descended from the pioneers from Eastern Europe—has traces of Labor Zionism in its bones. It is a population that is now overlaid by descendants of a larger contingent of North African and Middle Eastern refugees and immigrants, more recent migrants from the former Soviet Union, Arabs citizens mainly from the Galilee, ultra-Orthodox Jews from Jerusalem and the United States, and the young cosmopolitans running the Tel Aviv branches of Google and Ernst & Young. Oz’s death will inevitably seem like a metaphor for a moribund Israel, especially with an election coming in April and hard-rightists leading, as usual, in the polls. “Let’s say,” Benny Ziffer, the culture editor of Haaretz, wrote of Oz, that “the president of the so-called ‘white tribe’ died Friday.” Nobody left from its ranks, Ziffer added, will write “so enchantingly as to briefly seem to persuade us of the righteousness of his path.”

Some observers suggest that the Labor Zionist gestalt engendered liberal Israel. This is not quite right. Among the Labor Zionists of Oz’s youth, free thought could be tolerated—indeed, given the rabbinic cloisters that their Zionist parents had punched their way out of, it was encouraged—but liberal individualism was another matter. That was “enochiyut—” literally, “me-ism,” self-centeredness. You were expected to be a dissident, not an existentialist. You were expected to see the institutions that advanced abstract citizenship, such as a formal Bill of Rights, as taking a back seat to those that advanced Hebrew national renewal, such as the Law of Return. Indeed, the latter were assumed to have been necessitated by the former having failed in twentieth-century Europe, the precinct of anti-Semitic Christendom. Oz, who was born Amos Klausner, chose this world, reinventing himself at the age of fourteen, leaving Jerusalem (and his father’s rightist Revisionist family) two years after his mother committed suicide, to join the Kibbutz Hulda and to rename himself “Oz,” or “strength.” He was, he told David Remnick, in 2004, “the Huckleberry Finn of history,” except that his raft was on “a river made of books and words and stories and historical tales and secrets and separations.”

To imagine yourself navigating such a river required not only a grasp of war’s traumas but ideological fervor, the discipline that came from the Army and the collective, and a feeling of exceptionalism—a sense of being the “new Jew,” something that could tip over into utopian smugness. You would be alert to deviations. In 1961, the twenty-two-year-old Oz, by then a rising intellectual identified with movement leaders in Hulda who were skeptical of Ben-Gurion’s socialist constancy, met with the Prime Minister, along with a number of Oz’s comrades, to discuss writers of the younger generation. Oz joined in cautioning “the old man” that a new book of poetry by Yehuda Amichai was “dangerous,” because it presented a kind of nihilism. “You should read it,” he said, “not because it is important but because it expresses something.” Oz, who softened considerably over the years, no doubt cringed when Haaretz published the transcript of that conversation, in 2010. Yet a couple of years ago, at a ceremony in Jerusalem honoring the late literary critic Menachem Brinker, I heard Oz speak of Brinker’s birthplace and his own, in the vicinity of the Kerem Avraham neighborhood of Jerusalem—which is also the birthplace of such comrade-pillars of Israel’s left intelligentsia as the writers A. B. Yehoshua and Haim Be’er and the philosophers Avishai Margalit and Adi Zemach—as if the area were a world-historical incubator.

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