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Op-eds

Icon of lefty Zionism is gone

  • GavinRome
Israel’s celebrated author, Amos Oz, was an icon for how one can be both an unapologetic Zionist and a fierce critic of Israel’s nationalistic, right-wing drift.
by GAVIN ROME | Jan 17, 2019

This Israeli treasure passed away at the age of 79 on 29 December 2018. In numerous obituaries published in the days after his death, Oz was, for good reason, described as Israel’s greatest novelist.

He was the recipient of numerous literary awards including the Israel Prize for Literature (1998), the highest honour of the State of Israel; the Kafka Prize (2013); the Prix Méditerranée Étranger (2010); the Primo Levi Prize (2008); the Heinrich Heine Prize (2008); and the Goethe Prize of the City of Frankfurt (2005).

Oz, originally called Amos Klausner, was born in Jerusalem in 1939 to Lithuanian parents of a secular, intellectual lineage. A few years after his mother’s tragic suicide and at the age of 15, he Hebraised his surname to Oz and left Jerusalem and his father to become a member of Kibbutz Hulda. He lived there for 35 years, before moving to the town of Arad, and finally, in his latter years, to Tel Aviv.

Oz proudly fought as a soldier in Israel’s wars of 1967 and 1973, yet fervently opposed militarism. Shortly after the Six-Day War and in an article in the Davar newspaper, with some prescience, he predicted that that “even unavoidable occupation is a corrupting occupation”. Oz was a founding member of the Peace Now organisation established in 1978. He was a consistently fierce critic of the settlement and continued occupation of the West Bank.

Oz was a prodigious writer, the author of 40 books, including novels, short story collections, children’s books, and essays. His most famous and perhaps best work is A Tale of Love and Darkness, a memoir which has been described as a universal human story but also a very Jewish story. It is the elegiac tale of Oz’s youth, deeply steeped in the joys and sorrow of the birth and early years of the State of Israel. The book was translated into about 28 languages including Kurdish (much to Oz’s reported delight) and has been referred to as the biggest selling literary work in Israeli history.

To a generation of South African Jews who, like me, came of age in Habonim in the 1970s and 1980s, Oz was the pre-eminent sage of the Zionist, socialist, kibbutz movement. Whilst we were still imbued with the enthusiastic naivety of utopian dreamers, in his writings on the kibbutz, Oz gently reminded us that real life always had a method of altering, softening, and even distorting ideological dreams. For Oz, the kibbutz was not a socialist utopia, but rather, as he famously put it, “the least bad place to live”.

Despite his departure from kibbutz life at the age of 50, it remained the home of his imagination. His burial in the graveyard of Kibbutz Hulda is thus an apt homecoming.

In an interview with Tablet Magazine, he said, “I have lived in a kibbutz for more than 30 years, and although I left the kibbutz 27 years ago, I still go back there in my dreams at least once a week. Good dreams, bad dreams, trivial dreams.” In the same interview, Oz, with manifest pride, referred to the characteristics of Israeli society – blunt directness, a lack of hierarchies, and a latent social anarchism – as “the good heritage of the kibbutz”.

Perhaps his most penetrating insight into the prejudiced and one-eyed criticism of Israel is contained in the opening pages of the Tale of Love and Darkness, where he writes, “The rest of the world was generally known as ‘the worldatlarge’, but it had other epithets too: enlightened, outside, free, hypocritical. … Out there, in the world, all the walls were covered with graffiti: ‘Yids, go back to Palestine’, so we came back to Palestine, and now the worldatlarge shouts at us, ‘Yids, get out of Palestine’.”

While his voice on contemporary matters is now stilled, it will endure in our imagination and in our better and more reflective moments. Oz will remain with us because he wrote so much, so elegantly, and so well.

In his memoir, Oz described his very youthful hopes as follows, “When I was little, my ambition was to grow up to be a book. Not a writer. People can be killed… but not books. However systematically you try to destroy them, there is always a chance that a copy will survive and continue to enjoy a shelf-life in some corner on an out-of-the-way library somewhere in Reykjavik, Valladolid, or Vancouver.” Be assured that it is not only in those places that Oz will live on.

  • Gavin Rome is a senior counsel at the Johannesburg Bar. He has acted as a Judge of the High Court on several occasions. His Habonim moniker, for those wondering, was Gadi. Pictured.

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