Dreams and Despair in the World of Amos Oz
“I feel for the language,” he said, “everything that perhaps I don’t feel for the country.”
“Countries and nations are born out of geography, history, politics, and demography. Israel emerged from a dream, and like anything built on a dream, it is destined to feel like a slight disappointment. This is because the only way to keep a dream alive is to prevent it from becoming a reality. A fulfilled dream is a disappointing dream.”
These are part of the statements of “Amos Oz,” an Israeli writer. There’s no other Israeli author who’s as well known around the world as Amos Oz. He was born in 1939 in Jerusalem to a family of Zionists who emigrated in the early 1930s from Russia and Poland and which included several writers and scholars. Inside Israel, he was one of the country’s most respected cultural figures. He had lived a tumultuous life. When he was 10 years old, he witnessed the founding of the Jewish state. When he was 12 years old, his mother committed suicide. When he was 15, he joined a kibbutz and changed his last name to Oz, which is Hebrew for “strength.”
He wrote his books in Hebrew. Like many other Jews, he lived in the language and had a deep love for it:
“I love the Hebrew language and I’m very biased about it. I could speak about the Hebrew language for hours and hours. I think it’s a wonderful musical instrument.”
He had even invented Hebrew words that had made their way into everyday conversation. According to him, one day, he heard one of these words from a taxi driver, “That was the closest thing I felt to immortality.” He is someone who, as a child, had wished to grow up to be a book:
When I was little, my ambition was to grow up to be a book. People can be killed like ants. Writers are not hard to kill either. 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 of an out-of-the-way library somewhere in Reykjavik, Valladolid, or Vancouver.
Over the last 41 years, Amos Oz has published more than 30 Books, including novels, collections of stories and novellas, children’s books, and books of articles and essays.
Amos Oz has published more than 30 books, including novels, short story collections, children’s books, and various essays. His autobiographical work, “A Tale of Love and Darkness” has been translated into various languages, including Kurdish and Arabic. In this book, which takes place in the early years of the formation of the State of Israel, Amos Oz attempts to delve into the past and examine the events that led to his mother’s severe depression and ultimately her suicide. It explores the anti-Jewish sentiments in Europe, the hasty search for refuge among Palestinian Arabs, ideals and despair, the establishment of Israel, and the subsequent wars. Amos, an intelligent and highly imaginative child, paints the history of the new country with toy soldiers and elaborate maps spread out on the kitchen floor.
Amos Oz is like “Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn in history,” and in his words:” To me, it was like sailing alone on a raft on the Mississippi River, except it was a river made of books and words and stories and historical tales and secrets and separations.”
In 2015, Natalie Portman directed a film adaptation of this book, which was nominated for a Peace Prize for Cinema.
Amos Oz was not only a writer but also a political figure and activist. In the country he came from, like many Middle Eastern countries, people are sensitive to what a writer’s views are on issues such as occupied territories, the invasion of Lebanon, or the nature of Zionism. Amos Oz was a Zionist, but he was not sentimental about it. He was often criticized by Jews for his views on compromise, support for the Palestinian people, and a two-state solution. He often referred to the Israel and Palestine conflict as a clash between right and right. Towards the end of his life, he doubted it was rather the clash of wrong against wrong. He was always advocating for peace and Oz has been awarded the Israel Prize, Goethe Prize, Frankfurt Peace Prize, and many more honorable awards and recognitions.
But what he repeatedly talked about was the blind prejudice and ignorance that exists not only in Israel and among the Arabs but among all nations. In his view, the root of all these conflicts is fanaticism, and he talks about it in detail in his book “Dear Zealots: Letters from a Divided Land”:
Fanatics rigidly believe in their views and often seek to eliminate opposing voices. They thrive on conformity, obedience, and a unified collective identity. Fanaticism can spread easily and humor, curiosity, and imaginative power can serve as antidotes. He emphasizes that fanaticism starts at home and the importance of maintaining individuality and privacy in personal and social relationships, rather than complete assimilation into a collective identity. Amos Oz then, encourages influence and persuasion without erasing others’ uniqueness and individuality.
Every home, every family, every association, every society and state, every bond between people, including a couple, including parents, is perhaps at its best when it exists as an encounter between peninsulas: close, sometimes extremely close, but without being erased. Without being assimilated. Without revoking one’s selfhood. We all aspire to influence those close to us, to varying degrees, and sometimes we also want to influence those far from us. There is nothing wrong with that, as long as we always remember: influence, without melding. Persuasion, without kneading others into our own mold until they cease being others and become a copy or a satellite of ourselves.
He believes in the power of imagination. As he mentioned in his Geothe Prize speech: ” Imagining the other is a deep and subtle human pleasure.” To be able to imagine someone other than yourself and to be curious about their feelings and their thoughts is the key to understanding each other and being able to live with one another.
In an interview with VOX Tablet, Daniel Estrin asks him:
ESTRIN: Amos Oz, in your career you’ve come to be known not just for your fiction writing, but for political writing, too. You’ve been very critical of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. How optimistic are you about seeing peace in your lifetime?
OZ: I don’t know if I’m optimistic about my own life expectancy. I don’t know how much I still have to live. But I believe that peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians is unavoidable. How soon it will happen, I don’t know. It’s difficult to be a prophet in the land of the prophets. There’s too much competition in the prophecy business around here. But it’s unavoidable, and it will come.
ESTRIN: Speaking of prophets, you are among a small handful of writers in Israel who some people call prophets. I’ve heard that expression here and there. When you write an Op-Ed article, it’s on the front page of the newspaper. What does that role mean to you?
OZ: I never regarded myself as a prophet; I can’t read the future and I don’t have any particular wisdom which other people don’t have. I have imagination and I use it in my political thinking. I ask myself, from time to time, how would I feel if I were a Palestinian under Israeli occupation. I ask myself, from time to time, how would I feel if I were an Orthodox Jew. I ask myself, from time to time, how would I feel if I were an Oriental Sepharadi Jew in a developing town and I use my imagination in my political manifestations. But no, I never regarded myself as a prophet.
“I have called for a compromise, grounded neither in principles nor even perhaps in justice between the Israeli Jews and the Palestinian Arabs because I have seen that whoever seeks absolute and total justice is seeking death. My stories and my articles have often unleashed a storm of public fury against me in Israel. Some have asserted that I am harming Zionist ideological fervor, or providing “ammunition” for the enemy, or damaging the image of the kibbutz. Some claim that I am touching a raw nerve and inflicting unnecessary pain.”
But above all, he sees himself as a storyteller. Amos Oz creates deeply realistic stories by writing about people and his unrelenting curiosity about human nature. They say that one of the members of Kibbutz Hulda, whenever passing in front of Amos Oz’s room, would stop and meticulously comb his hair so that if he got into one of the stories, he would get there with his hair neatly combed.
Perhaps the best interpretation of Amos Oz’s writings can be found in a collection of articles published in 1975 under the title “Under This Blinding Light”:
But I wrote so as to capture in words where my family had come from and why, what we had been hoping to find here and what we actually found, and why different people in different times and places have hated us and wished us dead. I wrote so as to sort out what more could be done and what could not be done.
I write to exorcise evil spirits. And I write as Natan Zach puts it in one of his poems,
this is a song about people,
about what they think,
and what they want,
and what they think they want.
*The term zealot, the common translation of the Hebrew kanai ( קנאי, frequently used in plural form, קנאים, kana’im), means one who is zealous on behalf of God. The term derives from the Greek ζηλωτής (zelotes).