From Amos Oz’s final book: It’s never boring in Israel

by | Feb 4, 2019 | Book Reviews

Dear Zealots(Letters from a Divided Land)

Amos Oz
Translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018
140 pages

The late (What a loss!) Amos Oz’s last literary gem, Dear Zealots (Letters from a Divided Land), relies on his previously English-published book, How to Cure a Fanatic, which was translated into some 20 languages—a testament that this top Israeli author enjoyed global attention. The present book is the translation of the original Hebrew, Shalom Lakanaim, 2017, which was the first Hebrew edition since published in 2002, with a format both updated and enlarged.

Oz allows readers spectacular entry into his heroic wrestling and wounded soul. After all, this distinguished member of Israel’s Reform movement no longer represents a once prevailing Israeli ideology that the liberal Labor wing was, and which has given way in recent decades to Orthodox and nationalistic settlers in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) as the new authentic Chalutzim. Oz, who was a generally admired iconic figure, was painfully exposed to ugly and dangerous charges of being no less than a Boged (Traitor) by some in Israel’s political Right. Oz recalled also being called a traitor in his Jerusalem childhood toward the end of the British Mandate because he befriended an English policeman who was a Christian Zionist.

All that radical change placed undeterred Oz in an even more pivotal prophetic position, representing those values and ideals that had once endeared Israel to the world. However, he and we could not ignore the emerging new realities which vulnerable Israel and its tumultuous region contend with.

The nation’s focus has significantly shifted from a young, altruistic, and agriculturally-based socialist state perceived as David vs. Arab Goliath, to one erroneously regarded as Goliath vs. Arab David, despite being a technologically advanced capitalistic start-up nation with Labor Zionism in spiritual crisis.

Though unofficially a nuclear state and given its limited geography and the double-standard applied to her, Israel faces tough choices of response to aggression. Increased dangers as well as opportunities exist that are linked to the Iranian Shiite potential nuclear threat that confront Israel, along with the Arab Sunni world. But Oz insisted that the Palestinian challenge urgently calls for an overdue two state solution which is vital to Israel’s best interests politically as well as ethically, no less than “…a question of life or death for the State of Israel.”

The Arab demographic superiority may likely turn the entire region from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River into a de-facto Arab state with a Jewish minority that Oz emphatically declared he would not want to live in. He was worried that attempting to prevent such a scenario, a dictatorship might arise in Israel. “If we don’t have two states, it is likely that in order to thwart the establishment of an Arab state from the Mediterranean to the Jordan, a temporary dictatorship will be instituted by fanatic Jews, a racist regime that uses an iron fist to oppress both Arab residents and its Jewish opponents.”

Admitting that Israel’s fanatic wing finds a counterpart in the Palestinian camp, Oz seemingly dwelled on what he regarded as the injustice, humiliation, and pain the Israeli occupation causes the Palestinians far more than on the rockets raining from Gaza and brutal Palestinian terrorism against Israeli civilians. He did admonish, though, his Left partners to take seriously the general fear of Arabs by the Israeli public that whether justified or not, is an impediment and an important factor to reckon with. Oz’s sharp arrows are tellingly aimed not only at the Right’s fanaticism, but also at Israel’s socialist founders who failed to acknowledge the full tapestry of the Jewish heritage, a reference to the patronizing treatment of the Mizrachi and Sephardic Jews who had a moderate approach toward religion and diversity. He bemoans the global resurgence of fanaticism.

While Donald Trump’s presidential victory has buoyed the settlers’ movement, Oz argued that President Trump won without the popular vote, and that he, the great majority of the American people, and the world at large oppose Israel annexing the “occupied territories.”

Oz might have underestimated the impact of the large block of evangelical Christians and its influence on Trump’s White House, along with that of Orthodox Jews and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The author could not foresee the historic recognition of Jerusalem by President Trump as Israel’s capital, the relocation of the U.S. embassy from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem, and America walking away from the Iran nuclear deal. He warned that the American alliance with Israel is not forever guaranteed, just as Israel enjoyed passing support from other great powers. He was equally alarmed about the negative impact on world Jewry and particularly its youth, of a Jewish State perceived to contradict their most cherished Jewish and Democratic values.

Also of grave concern to him was the growing conflict between those pressing for an Israel ruled by strict Halacha and those choosing to preserve democracy. He lauded the multiple accomplishments of a secular Israel reflecting a great and relevant Jewish spirit, as opposed to the “Shulchan Aruch” that no longer serves its original purpose. He blamed Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion who gave in to the Orthodox, “Perhaps in a moment of intellectual weakness,” accepting the argument of Rabbi Yeshayahu Kerlitz that Zionism was an “empty cart” by comparison to Orthodox Judaism’s “full cart.”

Throughout the book, Oz hammered in his overriding message that Judaism’s genius is characterized by its humanistic ideals and moral sensitivity sanctified by Israel’s prophets, towards society’s weak and disenfranchised, and consequently the obligation to curb and limit the establishment’s raw power “to hurt.” It is thus perplexing that though Oz questionably included Syria in the Arab block being challenged by Iran’s common threat to make peace with Israel, he glaringly omitted any reference to the vast Syrian tragedy of genocide so close to Israel’s borders.

The book’s title, Dear Zealots, was the author’s friendly invitation for dialogue with fanatics as he states in the preface, “Rather, it seeks the listening ear of those whose opinions differ from my own.”

Amos Oz, the prophet of pain and promise, doom and deliverance, concluded on a stirring note of both searing pessimism and consoling optimism. “I am extremely fearful for the future. I fear the government’s policies, and I am ashamed of them. I am afraid of the fanaticism and the violence, which are becoming increasingly prevalent in Israel, and I am also ashamed of them. But I like being Israeli. I like being a citizen of a country where there are eight and a half million prime ministers, eight and half million prophets, eight and a half million messiahs. Each of us has our own personal formula for redemption, or at least for a solution. Everyone shouts, and few listen. It’s never boring here. It is vexing, galling, disappointing, sometimes frustrating and infuriating, but almost always fascinating and exciting. What I have seen here in my lifetime is far less, yet also far more, than what my parents and their parents ever dreamed of.”

Rabbi Dr. Israel Zoberman is the founding rabbi of Congregation Beth Chaverim. He is Honorary Senior Rabbi Scholar at Eastern Shore Chapel Episcopal Church in Virginia Beach. He grew up in Haifa, Israel.