Obituaries and remembrances of Amos Oz, who died in December, have rightly focused on his enormous contributions to Israeli and world literature. But Oz was also a founding member of the group Peace Now, which advocates a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis and a withdrawal of Israeli forces to the 1967 border. A veteran of the 1967 and 1973 wars, Oz’s views on the conflict brought a much-needed level of complexity and depth to a problem all too often reduced to black and white.
Using a novelist’s vivid imagery, Oz said that it was far too late for Arabs and Israelis to share a matrimonial bed. What they need is not a second honeymoon but an amicable divorce, complete with a division of the common property, a joint custody agreement for what cannot be split, and a habit of dropping by each other’s house for a cup of coffee from time to time.
Oz frequently described himself as a peacenik, not a pacifist. He recognized that Israel had a right, even a duty, to defend itself. He supported the Second Lebanon War of 2006, Israeli military strikes into Gaza against Hamas, and the construction of the security wall (provided that it followed the so-called Green Line of 1949).
His understanding of Israel and its place in the world came largely out of his own family’s experiences. His parents, living in Vilnius in the 1920s and 1930s, were urban (and urbane) people, well-educated, and fluent in several European languages. Seeing the rising anti-Semitism in the Baltic States after the First World War, they tried to emigrate to the United States, United Kingdom, France, even Germany. Only when all of those states refused them entry did the Oz family reluctantly resettle in Palestine, a place with none of the cultural refinements of the Europe they were leaving behind. His family did not choose Palestine; rather, it was the only place on earth open to them.
Oz recognized that for as much as his parents yearned for Europe’s civilization, they knew that they had been right to leave. Had they stayed, they would certainly have ended up victims of Nazi genocide. Even after the war, they refused to teach young Amos, born in Jerusalem in 1939, any European language for fear that he might one day be tempted to try to live in Europe. For the rest of his life, Oz wrote mainly in Hebrew, both for its literary quality and as a political statement about the importance of the language to Israeli identity.
That identity was crucial to his understanding of the Jewish state’s relationship with the Arabs. Like many secular Jews, the Oz family had not journeyed to Palestine as part of a Zionist dream, but because all other options had slammed shut. His parents never liked Jerusalem, always comparing it unfavorably to the great cities of Eastern Europe that they had known in their youth. Oz’s mother committed suicide at age 38; he believed that her sense of alienation in such a faraway and unfamiliar place contributed to her death.
Oz was nine years old in 1948. He recalled the euphoria in the Jewish parts of Jerusalem on Independence Day as well as the silence and foreboding in the nearby Muslim districts. The Israel of 1948 was a dream to those who had forged it out of the fire of pogroms and the Shoah. A people that had suffered as the Jews had suffered would surely build a Utopian community of civil rights for all – Jewish, Muslim, and Christian alike.
But like all dreamers, Israelis must, in Oz’s view, awaken and face the reality of the dawn. Israel’s success and growth came at the expense of its neighbors, who soon became its enemies. Alongside that process came what Oz called a pessimistic view of the state, one that had to keep itself on a nearly permanent wartime footing and had to make choices inconsistent with its own self-image.
If Oz believed in Israel’s right to defend itself, he believed just as passionately that Israel had no right to use force to expand its borders, acquire resources, or satisfy the desires of religious Israelis for an expansion of the state on Biblical grounds. Peace Now, the group he co-founded in 1978, was one of the first to argue for a return of most or all of the land seized by Israel in 1967. It now advocates the division of Jerusalem into two cities, one a capital for Israel and the other a capital for a future Palestinian state.
Like the world-class novelist he was, Oz saw the tragedy that underlay the triumph of Israel. Its steps forward had come with steps backward, even if many of his fellow Israelis tried not to see the latter. He advocated a two-state solution for the good of the Palestinians, to be sure, but mainly for the good of Israelis. A Palestinian state, he argued, would take away much of the ideological energy that underpinned radical movements like Hamas and Hezbollah. Splitting the marital assets would also help each side to move forward after the divorce.
His ability to find ambivalence in the often Manichean environment of war set Oz’s visions of the Arab-Israeli conflict apart from most of his contemporaries. He understood that the crisis offers no easy answers and that any solution will require each side to recognize the underlying traumas that motivate the other.
Oz’s views on Palestine are reminiscent of Albert Camus’s views on the conflict in his own native Algeria. Like Oz, Camus saw ambivalence and tragedy where others mostly saw clear solutions and, depending on one’s politics, either heroism or villainy. Also like Oz, Camus saw the complexity of all points of view and could draw on a deep understanding of the past to cut through self-serving political ideology on all sides. Such views may win international acclaim in Paris, London, or New York, but, like Cassandra in the ancient Greek world, they often meant that their countrymen ignored or vilified them for the crime of uttering prophecies that no one wants to hear.
We should, of course, remember Amos Oz the literary giant. But we should also remember Oz the peace advocate. Agree with him or not, the story of Amos Oz is very much the story of Israel, with all of its tensions, its hopes, and its shortcomings. With him passes one of the keenest observers of how Israel finds itself today still in search of the dream of 1948.