Amos Oz, iconic Israeli novelist and peace activist

by | Feb 4, 2019 | Obituaries, Other News

Amos Oz, one of Israel’s most widely read and best-known writers, died December 28, 2018. He was 79.

The cause was cancer, the Israeli media reported.

Barely older than the country he chronicled in dozens of novels, essays and nonfiction books, Oz represented a generation of writers who traced the country’s emotional arc from its adolescence to the present. He also was one of the country’s most vocal peace activists, calling on successive governments to resolve the Palestinian issue and embrace what he called “the logic of demography and the moral imperative to withdraw from governing a hostile population.”

In novels such as My Michael, Black Box, Where the Jackals Howl and his 2002 autobiographical novel A Tale of Love and Darkness—later made into a film by and starring Natalie Portman—he drew on his own experience as a first-generation Israeli raised in Jerusalem and later a kibbutznik to tell intimate stories that were inevitably read—despite his frequent protestations—as political allegories. A Tale of Love and Darkness tells the story of his mother’s family’s roots in Volyn (historic Volhynia), Poland, his father’s roots in Russia, and his own childhood in Mandatory Palestine where Oz—then Amos Klausner—was born in 1939.

His was a family of scholars: His great uncle Joseph Klausner was a Jewish historian and professor of Hebrew literature and chief editor of the Encyclopedia Hebraica.

His mother, Fania Mussman, died by suicide when he was 12. At 14 he left home to live at Kibbutz Hulda and took the Hebrew name Oz, meaning “strength.” He spent much of his young adulthood there before moving to the desert town of Arad. He studied philosophy and literature at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and fought as a reserve soldier in the 1967 Six-Day War in the Sinai Desert, and in the 1973 Yom Kippur War on the Golan Heights.

He later became a founder and spokesman for Peace Now, a movement formed in 1978 to promote reconciliation between Israelis, Palestinians, and regional antagonists. Americans for Peace Now, in a statement, said “Oz worked throughout his life to advance peace and to establish an exemplary society in Israel. He was one of our founding fathers and will always be remembered as having charted a way, with his sharp words, for a large peace camp yearning for a liberal Israel that pursues peace with its neighbors.”

He and his wife Nily, whom he met at the kibbutz when they were both 15, had two daughters and a son. For years Nily ran the International Artists’ Colony in Arad; his daughter Fania Oz-Salzberger is a professor of history at the University of Haifa School of Law and collaborated with her father on the 2013 book, Jews and Words. His wife and children survive him.

The kibbutz was the setting for his first short story collection, Where the Jackals Howl, in 1965. He would soon be recognized among the so-called New Wave of Israeli authors that included A.B. Yehoshua, Aharon Appelfeld and Yoram Kaniuk. The late Gershon Shaked, a professor of Hebrew literature at the Hebrew University, said the New Wave “produced antiestablishment allegories that to some degree veiled their intentions.”

Oz would often insist that he tried to keep his politics and fiction separate. “I’m not a political analyst or commentator,” he told the Paris Review in 1996. “I have never written a story or a novel to make people change their minds about anything—not once. When I need to do this, I write an essay, or an article. I even use two different pens, as a symbolic gesture: one to tell stories, the other to tell the government what to do with itself. Both, by the way, are very ordinary ballpoint pens, which I change every three weeks or so.”

His 1983 nonfiction work, In the Land of Israel, was a prescient dissection of the various political streams threatening to tear the country apart. It took the form of monologues by Jews and Arabs from various political standpoints, including a Jewish nationalist known only as “Z” whose ideology would come to dominate Israeli politics after the fall, decades later, of the Oslo peace process that Oz championed.

Oz served as a professor of Hebrew literature at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, in Beersheba.

He won countless awards, including the Israel Prize, and his books have been translated into dozens of languages, from Arabic to Chinese. For several years he had been mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Oz was buried at Kibbutz Hulda. (JTA)

By Andrew Silow-Carroll