Death of a prophet: A tribute to Amos Oz

His career’s great fault-lines would not be the universal ones that run between generations, but the social and political cleavages that are unique to the Jewish state.

December 29, 2018 23:36
3 minute read.
AMOS OZ worries that secular sensibilities are on the decline in the State of Israel

AMOS OZ worries that secular sensibilities are on the decline in the State of Israel. (photo credit: MICHIEL HENDRYCKX)


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Fair-eyed as David, rebellious as Absalom, eloquent as Solomon, preaching peace like Jeremiah, and braving tragedy like Job, Amos Oz embodied a biblical tale.

The most successful Israeli novelist beside S.Y. Agnon, Oz and his 33 books were a product of the tragedy that he only exposed at age 63, in his autobiography A Tale of Love and Darkness, which sold a million copies in 30 languages.

Oz denied this, but others couldn’t help concluding that his beloved and tormented mother’s suicide when he was 12 inspired the work that made him famous at 29, My Michael, whose heroine Hannah Greenbaum drifts away from her husband while fleeing to imaginary worlds.

Praised already then for his ability to freely roam the psyche of such a complex woman, Oz’s claim to fame soon proceeded from the psychic to the generational, and from there to the epochal.

GENERATIONALLY, Oz was a product of the kibbutz, once the wellspring and pride of Israel’s socialist elite, where he himself landed as a lonely teenager following his mother’s death, and where he lived into his forties and wrote his early novels.

Oz and his family left the kibbutz for Arad, whose desert air suited the asthma of Oz’s third child. Still, the kibbutz – in Oz’s case Hulda, outside Rehovot – was many of his works’ setting.

Beyond depicting life in that unique habitat, from children’s cruelty to adults’ infidelities, as he did in Between Friends (2012), Oz also demystified the kibbutz founders and voiced his own generation’s quest for normalcy, as in Elsewhere Perhaps (1966) and A Perfect Peace (1982).

Displaying unique literary agility Oz later smoothly proceeded to the following generation’s travails in Let Her (1999), a notebook of one-page snippets, impressions, and poems where a backpacker named Ricko reaches Tibet.

Still, his career’s great fault-lines would not be the universal ones that that run between generations, but the social and political cleavages that are unique to the Jewish state.

SOCIALLY, following Likud’s rise to power in 1977, Oz found himself in the unfamiliar company of what came to be seen here as nobility, namely, the Labor establishment in general, and the kibbutzniks in particular.

Raised by Yehuda Klausner, an ardent Revisionist and nephew of historian Yosef Klausner who was Menachem Begin’s candidate for Israel’s first president, Oz was a converted socialist who grew up as part of the anti-socialist opposition.

Echoing the sense of demise that would gradually grip many of his adopted faith’s followers, Oz wrote in Rhyming Life and Death (2007) of an imaginary Labor affiliated poet who might as well be dead because the labor unions declined and their “sense of mission and moral duty” to serve “the simple people and raise their cultural level” has been replaced by “cynical manpower companies and slave traders” who import cheap labor from countries near and far.

Baffled and fascinated by Israel’s political earthquake, Oz traveled through the country in 1982 and emerged with a masterpiece of reportage titled In the Land of Israel, transcribing the wrath – Middle Eastern immigrants’, messianic rebels’, and ultra-Orthodox reactionaries’ – that fed Labor’s defeat.

Still, this cleavage, too, dwarfed compared with the place Oz assumed vis-à-vis the Arab-Israeli conflict since the morning after the Six Days War.

With a battery of literati like S.Y. Agnon, Natan Alterman, and Haim Hazaz demanding that Israel retain its newly conquered territories, the 28-year-old Oz wrote in summer 1967:

“We should tell the inhabitants of the occupied territories … we do not desire your land … we will sit and rule here until the signing of a peace agreement. A year, a decade, or a generation, and when the day comes – the choice will be yours.”

Years, decades, and three generations have elapsed, and many who once were attentive to this message became disillusioned. Not prophet Amos. Like Jeremiah in the face of Jerusalem’s war party, and like sidelined politician Shealtiel Abarbanel in his Judas (2014), Amos Oz never gave up on peace.

A prophet to his last breath, Israelis and Hebrew lovers of all backgrounds will tomorrow “weep for him who is leaving,” as Jeremiah put it (22:10), but unlike the exile who “shall never come back to see the land of his birth” Oz will be buried in the land of his birth; in the kibbutz whose soil he tilled as a farmer; by the mountains he depicted as writer; between the cities, villages, and people whose agonies, plots, and dreams he cooked in rainclouds, tears, and ink.

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