An ardent peace activist’s’ latest novel

by | Apr 28, 2017 | Book Reviews

Amos Oz
Translated by Nicholas de Lange
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016
305 pages, $25

Amos Oz, Israel’s premier author, is the very embodiment of Eretz Yisrael Hayafa, that beautifully inspiring Israel—particularly in its early pioneering phase—a reborn nation increasingly tested in a challenging and chilling environment from without and within, while accomplishing so much in all fields of human endeavor.

Oz, whose books have been translated into 37 languages, is a member of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism. The group’s center/ left views are reminiscent of a less polarized Israeli society before the ascension into power of the political right; when the labor block dominated life in Israel and the Kibbutz, to whom Oz was exposed to as a teenager, was a leading social force.

His latest book, Judas, winner of the prestigious International Literature Prize, returns to that foundational socialist phase in Israel’s young history. Many look back at that time with nostalgia, often overlooking the inner tensions that have continued to impact the Israeli scene with unresolved issues of war and peace, acerbated by the acquisition of territories following the 1967 War.

The soaring book’s saga focuses on divided Jerusalem, of which Oz is a native, at the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s. The book’s protagonist, 25-year-old Shmuel Ash, who is originally from Haifa, studies for his master’s degree in history and the science of religions at Hebrew University. He struggles with his thesis on “Jewish views of Jesus.” Suddenly his girlfriend leaves him, his Socialist Renewal Group disbands due to an ideological rift, and his father unexpectedly can no longer support him.

Forced to abandon his education and get a job, Ash helps elderly Gershom Wald who resides in a house with heart-breaker 45-year-old Atalia, whose husband for a brief year and a half, Micha, Wald’s only child, was brutally murdered in the 1948 War of Independence. Thirty-seven-year old Micha, a math whiz, volunteered to fight despite his age, health issues, and the opposition to the war of both his wife and her father, Shealtiel Abravanel. Wald, though mourning his beloved son’s death, praises him and all who were willing to sacrifice their lives for the nascent Jewish state, while admiring David Ben- Gurion for his foresight and unwavering leadership.

The late Abravanel, a renowned lawyer, orientalist, and top Jewish leader, broke away from Ben-Gurion and the majority who sided with creating a Jewish state, arguing that it would only lead to endless wars with the Arabs and being far more numerous, they would win in time. He opposed both a Jewish or Arab state since Jews and Arabs, both victims of Christian Europe, should first learn to live together so that the Arabs would eventually cease fearing that the Jews plot to control the Arab world through their qualitative superiority. Ideally, Abravanel envisioned a world without borders, along with separate and separating national symbols contributing to incessant conflict and bloodshed.

Surely Oz, a great Israeli patriot and world class author, is aiming at those in the current religious and nationalistic camps in Israel who call him a traitor for his liberal perspective, just as Shealtiel was called one and was thought to have lost his mind, without bothering to discuss the issue with him.

Ash’s grandfather who worked for the British mandatory police, was murdered by Jewish extremists for being a traitor; though he was a double agent.

Ash is convinced that ironically and tragically, Judas, whose name is synonymous with betrayal in the Christian-Western mindset promoting Jew-hatred, was the one most faithful to Jesus from all of his disciples; and being a man of stature, was sent by Jerusalem’s priesthood establishment to spy on Jesus, yet became captivated by his unique personality. Thus, Ash regards Judas as the true founder of Christianity.

Though Ash appreciates Israel’s essential need and obligation to be militarily strong, he points out the limits of military power to bring peace with the Arabs, so ironically following centuries of physical powerlessness of a people so tragically discovering the limits of its coveted spiritual power which purported to substitute for the loss of its sovereignty—to protect Jewish life. He is also concerned of triumphant military hubris by a people finally gaining military prowess after a long hiatus.

I well remember the understandable allure and needed reassurance of the Yom Ha’atzmaut military parades in Israel of the 1950s, with my father, Yechiel, a Polish Holocaust survivor, rejoicing in “Jewish tanks” and “Jewish airplanes. “

Oz remains the ardent peace activist who advocates for a two state solution to the far too long and tragic Israeli- Palestinian conflict. A great humanist, he bares his tormented soul in the prophetic tradition of a lover’s quarrel who chastises, warns, and hopes against hope with an emerging pessimistic note that should concern us all.

—Dr. Israel Zoberman is the founding rabbi of Congregation Beth Chaverim.