Amos Oz a witness to Palestinian-Israeli ‘tale of love and darkness’

Oz condemned the policies of the Netanyahu government but “he tried to do so without condemning Israel itself, the land and its people.”
Sunday 06/01/2019
A 2015 file picture shows late Israeli writer Amos Oz at his house in Tel Aviv.  (AP)
A 2015 file picture shows late Israeli writer Amos Oz at his house in Tel Aviv. (AP)

LONDON - With the death of the writer Amos Oz, the Palestinians lost a rare Israeli voice who tried to understand their situation as an occupied people. Oz died as 2018 drew to a close. It was a year in which Palestinians seemed to face greater indifference by US and Israeli policymakers to their plight even as their goal of independent statehood faced great challenges.

Oz, who was one of Israel’s best-known writers and was lauded internationally, died of cancer on December 28 at the age of 79, prompting fresh assessments of his literary and political legacy. His books were translated into dozens of languages, including Arabic. His autobiography, “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” was made into a film directed by Natalie Portman.

He was a prominent advocate for peace with the Palestinians but he was no pacifist. Oz served in an elite paratrooper brigade and said force was sometimes necessary to fight aggression, as with recent military action in Lebanon and Gaza, defence against “the dark shadows of Iran, Syria and fanatic Islam.” Oz also helped found in the late 1970s Peace Now, which campaigns against Jewish settlements in the occupied territories.

He remained vocal in his criticism of successive Israeli governments. In July, Oz signed an open letter to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, attacking the Jewish “nation-state” law for “steadily eroding the foundations of our state.”

Netanyahu said after Oz’s death: “Even though we had differences of opinion in many fields, I greatly appreciate his contributions to the Hebrew language and the renewal of Hebrew literature.”

Oz, along with the shrinking numbers of Israeli leftists, had become increasingly marginalised in Israeli politics. His death came at a time the Palestinians have few influential international backers.

US President Donald Trump adopted many of the positions taken by the Israeli right-wing, which has resisted the creation of a Palestinian state. The Israeli right has dominated Israeli discourse since the 1967 Six-Day War.

Oz, who served as a speechwriter to generals fighting the 1967 war, started writing political essays and campaigning against Israel becoming “a nation of masters.” He argued for the withdrawal from the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem soon after the 1967 war and he was an early advocate for a two-state solution and the creation of a Palestinian state, a position he held until his death.

Oz was born Amos Klausner in Jerusalem in 1939, then part of British Mandate Palestine. His mother committed suicide when he was 12. He moved to Kibbutz Hulda, south of Tel Aviv when he was 15 and served as a reservist during the 1967 and 1973 Yom Kippur wars. When he started writing in his early 20s, he changed his surname to Oz, Hebrew for “courage.”

He wrote his many books, articles and essays by hand and not on a computer. “I have two pens on my desk. One black and one blue. One, I use to tell stories and the other to tell the government to go to hell — and I never mix them,” he told the Irish Times in a 2014 interview. “I have never written a novel in order to tell the Israelis to get out of the occupied territories… Novels for me have never been a political vehicle. When I want to make a statement, I write an article.”

Oz condemned the policies of the Netanyahu government but “he tried to do so without condemning Israel itself, the land and its people, which he had described so affectionately in his novels,” Israeli historian Tom Segev said in an article in Foreign Policy.

Even so, Oz had become increasingly “politically irrelevant” and the last decade of his life was particularly difficult for him, Segev said, because he was respected in Israel mainly for his international literary reputation and not his political views.

Oz aroused mixed feelings among Jews of different stripes. Israeli-Canadian author Ayelet Tsabari, a Mizrahi Jew, or one of Middle-Eastern origin, points to Oz’s status as a representative of European Ashkenazi Jewish culture, which did not include Jews such as herself.

Also writing in Foreign Policy, she recalled how Oz sent an Arabic-language copy of “A Tale of Love and Darkness” to Marwan Barghouti, the imprisoned former Palestinian leader. It led some Israelis to call for the recall of Oz’s Israel Prize, the country’s highest cultural honour.

“I thought the gesture itself, the attempt to create dialogue with a Palestinian leader, was an honourable one but the dedication irked me,” said Tsabari. Oz’s message to Barghouti read: “This story is our story. I hope you read it and understand us better, as we attempt to understand you.”

Tsabari pointed out that the book cannot be taken to be “our story” because it “is an account of Oz’s childhood in Jerusalem, growing up in a highly educated revisionist Zionist family of Eastern European descent that had ties with some of the most prominent figures in Israeli history and of his teenage years on Kibbutz Hulda. This wasn’t my story, I thought.”

Oz was a member of a trio of native Israeli writers that included A.B. Yehoshua and David Grossman who were viewed by many as the moral conscience of the country. However, Oz himself recognised that it might be time to pass the baton.

“It’s clear to me that the gospel does not have to come now from the mouth of an old privileged Ashkenazi male… I think the gospel should come from women and men who are younger, from a completely different background than my own. I’ve been talking for decades. It’s time for others to speak,” he told Israel’s KAN News in an interview last October.