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What Amos Oz Couldn’t See

What Amos Oz Couldn’t See

What Amos OuncesCouldn’t See

The late author’s shows of ethical braveness will function a type of document for future historians, proof of the efforts of Israelis who didn’t stand idly by as their nation’s skies darkened—in addition to proof of their shortcomings.

Joshua Leifer ▪ Spring 2019
Amos Ouncesposes on the Basilica of Maxentius in the course of the 2005 Worldwide Pageant in Rome. (Marilla Sicilia/Archivio Marilla Sicilia/Mondadori Portfolio)

Amos Ounceswrote that as a toddler he would think about his personal funeral. It might be a state funeral, with eulogies by politicians, “marble statues and songs of reward in my reminiscence,” he recalled in his 2002 memoir, A Story of Love and Darkness. He was not far off the mark. Ouncesdied in late December 2018 on the age of seventy-nine as one among Israel’s most celebrated writers—maybe its final “nationwide” author, for no different modern Israeli writer has as insistently, or efficiently, grafted their very own biography onto the nation’s historical past. Ouncesdidn’t die younger as a hero on the battlefield as he had as soon as fantasized, however as a special type of warrior, arguing over Israel’s nationwide tradition and political future. To many, his demise signified that he, and his camp, had misplaced.

To these in his camp, Ouncesrepresented the romance of the kibbutz, the peace motion, Israel’s enlightened face overseas. To these outdoors of it, he embodied the Ashkenazi, secular elite and its monumental condescension towards spiritual and Mizrahi Jews (of North African and Center Japanese descent). To the proper, he represented the sort of Zionism that all the time apologized to the world for doing what was essential to survive. To the left, particularly the left outdoors of Israel, he exemplified the sort of Zionism that justified no matter it did as essential to survive and cried about this horrible necessity, as if tears have been sufficient to expiate its crimes.

Conscious of how he was seen, Ouncescultivated his roles as ambassador—first of 1 Israel to the others, then of Israel to the West. He assumed these roles with a mixture of agony and relish that may be felt throughout his work, however which is most perceptible in his nonfiction. In his assortment of reported essays, Within the Land of Israel (1983), for instance, he traveled to ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, the workplaces of a Palestinian newspaper in East Jerusalem, working-class Mizrahi districts in Beit Shemesh, and right-wing spiritual settlements within the West Financial institution, as a lot to argue as to pay attention. Meant as a set of snapshots of varied “different Israels,” it was additionally an try by Oz, appearing as emissary of a waning Labor Zionism, to elucidate the dovish place, notably to the ascendant settler proper, on the eve of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon.


Ouncesemerged on the Israeli literary scene as a part of the kibbutz motion’s vanguard. Within the early 1960s, he positioned himself as an ardent defender of “kibbutz values,” which appeared more and more threatened by the calls for of state-building, the rising energy of economic society, and cultural currents coming from overseas. As he proudly remembers in his memoir, he even challenged Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion within the pages of Davar, Labor Zionism’s official organ, for abandoning the core preferrred of elementary human equality. (This concept was preached excess of practiced by the kibbutznikim when it got here to Palestinians and Jews from North Africa and the Center East.)

Ouncess zealous protection of the kibbutz might have stemmed, partially, from his worry that he would by no means really belong there—that, as he wrote in his memoir, he would “all the time be only a beggar at their desk, an outsider, a stressed little runt from Jerusalem.” Ounceswas born Amos Klausner, not on a kibbutz however within the West Jerusalem neighborhood of Kerem Avraham, to an émigré household deeply dedicated to European excessive tradition. He grew up surrounded by books in over a dozen languages and heady debates over literature, Zionism, and the way forward for Jewish individuals. His nice uncle Joseph Klausner, a serious affect on Oz, was a outstanding linguist, scholar, and critic who stored busts of Ludwig van Beethoven and Vladimir Jabotinsky, the daddy of Revisionist Zionism, in his front room.

After his mom’s suicide, the teenaged Ouncesabandoned his household’s petit-bourgeois nationalism for the völkisch socialism of the Hebrew “pioneers”—the “blond-haired, muscular, suntanned” warrior-farmers, with “their rugged, pensive silhouettes, poised between tractor and plowed earth.” (Ouncess writing tends to deal with truthful hair, mild eyes, bronzed pores and skin, and brawn as marks of character, a symptom of the hatred for the stereotypical diaspora Jew at Zionism’s core.) He left Jerusalem—although the town would grow to be the setting of his most profitable books—for Kibbutz Hulda, a Labor Zionist stronghold in central Israel, and altered his final identify to Ouncesin Hebrew, “braveness” or “may.”

There was one thing premature about Ouncess adoption of the kibbutz motion. He sensed this, too; whilst he joined the motion, he frightened that its excessive idealism was turning into a factor of the previous. In 1967, with Israel’s victory within the Six-Day Struggle and subsequent occupation of the West Financial institution and Gaza Strip, it turned even clearer to Ouncesthat Labor Zionism had begun to falter.

Although he didn’t name for a direct withdrawal from the occupied territories, as others on the Israeli left did, Ounceswas among the many few Jewish Israelis on the time to warn that a protracted occupation would result in catastrophe. “Even unavoidable occupation is a corrupting occupation,” Ounceswrote in 1967, “an enlightened and humane and liberal occupation is occupation.” And whereas Ouncesrecognized what the occupation meant for Palestinians, who now discovered themselves underneath army rule, his main concern then and later was what the occupation was doing and would do to Israelis.

The reactions to Israel’s victory shocked Oz. What was purported to have been Zionism’s rationalist, secular left wing appeared overtaken by the euphoria and even messianism unleashed by the top of the Six-Day Struggle. Ounceswas repulsed, he wrote, by “the temper that had engulfed the nation instantly after the army victory, a temper of nationalistic intoxication, of infatuation with the instruments of statehood, with the rituals of militarism and the cult of generals, an orgy of victory.” Ounceswould by no means abandon Labor Zionism, however from 1967 on he would symbolize its dissenting tendency.


For Oz, as for a lot of Labor Zionists, 1967 was the yr Zionism’s rightful captains misplaced management of the ship. Although members of the Labor Celebration would stay at its helm for a decade extra, the winds had turned towards them. Spiritual Zionism surged, its religious leaders heralded the opening levels of the Messianic Age, and true believers moved—fairly a couple of from america—to settle the newly “liberated” territories. In 1974, following the Yom Kippur Conflict, this motion would achieve institutional type with the institution of Gush Emunim (the Bloc of the Trustworthy) and dramatically alter the course of Israeli historical past. Then, in 1977, the occasion nonetheless referred to in Israel as hamahapach, or the upset: Menachem Start—a person whom Ouncesrecalled mocking as a toddler for his unidiomatic Hebrew—was elected, partially by Mizrahi voters annoyed and marginalized by three many years of Labor Celebration rule.

Start’s victory—Israel’s first transition of energy from one celebration to a different—appeared to verify that Labor Zionism might not declare to characterize the core of Israeli society. The proper took over the pioneer mantle and pursued settlements within the occupied West Financial institution, Gaza, and Sinai. Start’s victory additionally marked the primary main crack in Ashkenazi hegemony. Jews from the Center East and North Africa, “the throngs of Sephardim, Bukharians, Yemenites, Kurds, and Aleppo Jews” Ounceshad encountered at Revisionist motion rallies in Jerusalem, might not be ignored.

Ounceswould typically insist that his political writings and fiction have been separate. “Novels for me have by no means been a political car,” he advised the Irish Occasions in 2014. And but his 1987 epistolary novel, Black Field, provides an expressly libidinal interpretation to this historic shift in energy. The ebook’s male protagonist, Alex Gideon, is a well-known professor, adorned common, and skilled on fanaticism—certainly one of Ouncess enduring pursuits—dwelling in america with terminal most cancers. The plot begins when his ex-wife, Ilana, sends him a letter from Israel seven years after their acrimonious divorce asking for cash to assist with their troubled son, Boaz. Ilana has remarried, to a French-Algerian Jew named Michel, whom Ouncescaricatures as a swarthy, scripture-quoting zealot with gold-rimmed glasses, a gold-chain watch, and dangerous cologne.

Alex, exemplar of the previous Ashkenazi elite, is dying. He has been changed—within the residence, in mattress, in politics—by Michel, the traditionalist North African Jew devoted to settling the occupied territories. However that isn’t all. After Alex first agrees to ship cash to his ex-wife, he turns into more and more concerned in her new household’s affairs. The checks he sends, meant to assist Boaz, turn out to be more and more giant: they finance Michel’s renovation of his and Ilana’s home, an replace to Michel’s wardrobe, and, ultimately, allow Michel to give up his job as a French instructor to give attention to organizing the settlement motion within the West Financial institution. The reader is left questioning whether or not Alex’s late-life generosity is the results of delicate extortion, or just a dying man’s want to set his affairs so as.

On the core of the novel is a fact that Ounceswas reluctant to confess. In his nonfiction, he incessantly wrote as if the spiritual Zionists have been totally accountable for the settlement enterprise—“their messianic intoxication” and “ethical autism,” as he put it in Within the Land of Israel, having “caused a collapse of Zionism’s legitimacy” after the 1967 struggle. However the fiction of Black Field was a lot nearer to actuality. The occupation wouldn’t have lasted so long as it has if Labor Zionist leaders had not helped perpetuate it. Oz, like many Labor Zionists, targeted his criticisms on Israel’s Michels and too occasionally acknowledged the extent to which Israel’s Alexes have been simply as deserving of blame.

Ouncess characterization of Michel most clearly exemplifies the mixture of condescension, jealousy, and contempt with which the deposed Labor Zionist elite seen their “Oriental”—the literal translation of Mizrahi—compatriots. The Mizrahim discovered themselves doubly stigmatized. Once they have been out of energy, confined to distant improvement cities within the desert or city slums, they have been written off as backward, primitive, inclined to petty crime; as soon as they’d gained a measure of political energy, they have been accountable for the “collapse of Zionism’s legitimacy,” for the corrupting violence of the occupation. However was it not the Ashkenazi pioneers, the Zionist settlers from the Pale of Settlement, who have been chargeable for the violence that drove a whole lot of hundreds of Palestinians from their houses? Who have been the kibbutznikim, who constructed their ethnic-exclusivist communes over the ruins of Arab villages, to speak about morality? What made 1967 totally different from 1948?


Ouncess reply to this final query was his biggest blind spot. Till his final days, he was vulnerable to facile, typically marital metaphors for options to the Israeli-Palestinian battle: the 2 sides wanted “a divorce”; coexistence wouldn’t be “a honeymoon”; the land was like a home that wanted to be divided “into two smaller next-door flats.” The concept such a neat separation might be potential is ludicrous to anybody who has been to the West Financial institution within the final decade, the place greater than half one million Jewish settlers now stay, many in militarized gated communities wedged between Palestinian villages. In 1967, and maybe even in 1995, issues appeared totally different. However the extra Israel modified, the extra Ouncesstayed the identical. A self-described opponent of fanaticism, Ouncesnever wavered in his devotion to the two-state answer, even when it started to appear just like the type of messianic imaginative and prescient he had spent his entire life opposing.

In the long run, Ouncesrefused to completely settle for the Palestinian perspective as authentic. He had no hassle recognizing the injustice of forcing Palestinians within the West Financial institution to stay beneath perpetual occupation; he even tried valiantly, although maybe unsuccessfully, to persuade Jewish Israelis of this. “In the event that they really feel themselves to be underneath occupation, then that is certainly occupation,” Ouncessaid of the Arabs earlier than an viewers within the West Financial institution settlement of Ofra. “One can declare that it’s a simply occupation, essential, very important, no matter you need, however you can’t inform an Arab, You don’t actually really feel what you are feeling and I shall outline your emotions for you.”

However whereas Ouncescould settle for the Palestinians’ emotions about 1967, it was totally different for 1948. For Oz, 1967 was the start of the corrupting, unjust, and unjustifiable occupation; it was the first impediment to peace, and its finish would mark, if not the top of the battle, then a minimum of the start of the top. However 1948—the violent displacement of roughly 700,000 Palestinians from their houses—was nonnegotiable and completely morally justifiable. The Jews in 1948, Ouncesclaimed, have been like a drowning man; the land was his plank. “And the drowning man clinging to his plank is allowed, by all the principles of pure, goal, common justice, to make room for himself on the plank, even when in doing so he should push the others apart slightly.” The cumulative results of speedy Jewish settlement and the conflict of 1948, nevertheless, did excess of “push the others apart a bit of.” They ended Palestinian society because it had existed for generations and turned a whole individuals into refugees.

Ouncesknew that for Palestinians, 1948 was the Nakba—the disaster—and 1967 the Naksa—the setback—and never the opposite means round. But he demanded the singular proper to outline the respectable option to assume and really feel about what had occurred. For a author who spoke a lot concerning the crucial of empathy—who captured so sensitively the struggling of refugees and “the darkness of exile”—Ouncescouldn’t settle for that for Palestinians, the occasions of 1948 would all the time be on the coronary heart of the battle. It’s a disgrace, too, that Ounceswas unwilling to make use of his powers of creativeness and sensitivity to ascertain what actual, egalitarian Arab-Jewish coexistence might have seemed like.


Was Amos Ouncesa fantastic author? He definitely thought so. He believed that Hebrew literature was a department, although maybe a small and brittle one, of the identical nice tree of European literature to which Chekhov and Tolstoy belonged. And he wrote to show this was true.

His fiction, nevertheless, was strongest when evoking the particulars of place: the winding streets and slender alleys, the smells and sounds of Jerusalem instantly earlier than and after Israel’s founding. In his prose, the town itself turned like a personality, its structure—limestone buildings and enclosed courtyards—enchanted, virtually sentient.

His fiction was weakest when trying to inhabit the subjectivities of individuals in contrast to himself, particularly ladies, whom Ouncesoften imagined as promiscuous, egocentric, and untrustworthy. My Michael (1968) is a haunting portrait of Jerusalem in wartime, however its protagonist, Hannah Greenbaum, is an unconvincing depiction of an unstable lady given to lusting after younger boys. Ilana, the primary feminine character in Black Field, is a compulsively adulterous intercourse addict who, in a considerably infamous passage, describes Michel, throughout intercourse, “like a humble restaurant violinist who has been permitted to the touch a Stradivarius.” Arabs, in the meantime, solely sometimes seem in Ouncess fiction and infrequently as full characters.

Principally free of those missteps, his nonfiction was uneven. He thought himself a person of peace, and but he typically appeared compelled to justify wars. He might be sanctimonious and unoriginal. No matter socialist commitments he had held in his youth had principally attenuated by center age, as he turned towards a sort of anti-political criticism of fanaticism—his last e-book was titled Pricey Zealots—and recognized one among his enemies as “the sentimental gauche,” Western defenders of nationwide liberation actions within the International South. However at his greatest, and A Story of Love and Darkness is certainly his greatest work, Ouncessucceeded in etching a picture of a misplaced world right down to its most granular element, and in so doing introduced it to life.

It’s no coincidence that A Story of Love and Darkness gained accolades internationally in addition to in Israel. Although the e-book is certainly a memoir, to view it solely as such is to overlook the size of its ambition. It’s an try at a complete historical past of Ouncess household and, by extension, of a specific however vital phase of European Jewry—the Jews from what the American-Jewish poet Philip Levine referred to as “Russia with one other identify.” With novelistic flourish and plentiful digressions, Ouncestraced his distant forbearers again to their cities in Lithuania and Ukraine and adopted their path to Obligatory Palestine within the shadow of the Second World Conflict. That the guide retrieved the widespread ancestry of a portion of Israeli and American Jews might partially account for its reputation in the USA, the place it was made into a movie, directed by Israeli-born American actress Natalie Portman, in 2015.

However A Story of Love and Darkness was additionally revealed within the midst of the Second Intifada. As an alternative of a Jerusalem of blown-up pizzerias and suicide bombings, the place violence and demise had turn out to be a part of the on a regular basis routine, Ouncesconjured a Jerusalem of émigré students, displaced rabbis, and resilient refugees, a metropolis bustling with exercise and life, full of incessant philosophical musing and political sparring, however the place the ghosts of Europe’s atrocities have been by no means absolutely out of sight.

Most of all, with out having to take action explicitly, A Story of Love and Darkness argued for Israel’s ethical legitimacy and necessity at a time when it appeared to be in jeopardy. The characters in Ouncess memoir are women and men who narrowly escaped drowning and located, simply in time, a plank—the land of Israel—that would save them. Studying the guide made all of it however unattainable to say they didn’t have a proper to be there.

Which is probably why Oz, in 2011, despatched a replica of the guide to Marwan Barghouti, the imprisoned former chief of Fatah’s paramilitary wing, with a dedication studying, “That is our story, and I hope you learn it and perceive us higher. Hoping you’ll quickly see peace and freedom.” Ouncess present, and notably the dedication, induced a public outrage in Israel. Speeches have been canceled. There was even speak of revoking his prizes.

It’s exhausting to think about one other act that higher encapsulates each the bravery and the insufficiency of Ouncess politics. On the one hand, right here was a small but highly effective act of resistance to the prevailing widespread sense, a gesture of reconciliation towards a person most Israelis think about a terrorist. However, it implied not solely a want for dialogue however a hope for a type of conversion—that Barghouti would learn the e-book and acknowledge its rightness.

How Ounceswill probably be remembered is, in fact, unimaginable to say. However public shows of ethical braveness comparable to his letter to Barghouti will doubtless function a sort of report for future historians, proof of the efforts of Israelis who didn’t stand idly by as their nation’s skies darkened—in addition to proof of their shortcomings.

Joshua Leifer is an affiliate editor at Dissent.

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