A note on fanaticism

Amos Oz takes on zealots in his latest work, but expresses only generic, surface-level thoughts.

AMOS OZ worries that secular sensibilities are on the decline in the State of Israel (photo credit: MICHIEL HENDRYCKX)
AMOS OZ worries that secular sensibilities are on the decline in the State of Israel
(photo credit: MICHIEL HENDRYCKX)
Amos Oz – born in Jerusalem in 1939 – has produced an astoundingly wondrous body of work that has seduced Israelis and others for decades. Oz was born before Israel was declared a sovereign state. He has fought proudly in two of its wars and has a slight limp from a war injury that neighbors notice on his daily walks, a ritual he partakes in daily before writing.
His parents were brilliant people who spoke many languages, but they spoke to Oz, who was born Amos Klausner, only in Hebrew, a language Oz cherishes. At age 14 – two years after his mother’s suicide – Oz left his father’s home for Kibbutz Hulda, changed his name, and began three decades on the kibbutz.
Oz’s fictional stories have often been about unhappy families and the pain we cause one another. Critics have noticed that in many of his works the mother is missing, or present but emotionally absent, or cruel and unloving. Oz was able to undertake his own exploration of his parents’ marriage and his mother’s premature death only decades later, when he believed he was ready to confront his past. Oz’s mother was melancholy and soft in temperament; his father stern and exacting; and it seems Oz took from each parent their greatest strengths, allowing him to survive an experience that would have destroyed others.
But sadly it is only the constricted quality of his father’s voice we hear in his new short work – Dear Zealots: Letters from a Divided Land – which is composed of three essays, translated from Hebrew by Jessica Cohen. Instead of the questioning chaos and piercing uncertainty which has fueled his past works, we often feel as if we are listening to the grand proclamations of a secular prophet whose rhetoric might encourage tolerance and inquiry, but his narrative tone does not.
It is a jarring read. His wisdoms often seem generic and banal. There is the sense Oz is not challenging himself or considering seriously what he might not be able to see. We long for his personal voice and his provocative candor, and often feel he is telling us nothing more than we already know. We don’t hear the gentleness and uncertainty of his mother’s whispered confessions or feel the lavishness and depth of the stories she used to tell him as a little boy. Instead, we hear the distinct echoes of his father’s elitism and entitlement, his insistence that what he sees is what all those around him must see.
Oz himself has confessed that when he was a young child in Jerusalem, “I myself was a little Zionist-nationalist fanatic – self-righteous, enthusiastic and brainwashed. I was blind to any argument that deviated from the Jewish-Zionist story we were told by nearly all the adults around us.” We sense this same sort of narrow vision in this polemic, even though the politics are firmly rooted on the Left.
OZ’S FIRST essay attempts to describe what drives fanatics to do what they do. He notices a certain similarity in the personal traits they share. He points out their lack of compassion and imagination, their lack of humor, and their inability to create a meaningful personal life. Oz believes they do not fear death as most of us do, because they are consumed by changing you, and if they can’t accomplish that, they are intent upon destroying you. They are filled with murderous impulses toward those who will not bend to their vision of God.
“The fanatic does not argue,” Oz writes. “If something is wrong in his view, it is clear to him that something is wrong in God’s view, it is his duty to destroy the abomination, even if that means killing anyone who just happens to be around.”
He adds: “The fanatic almost always basks in some sort of bittersweet sentimentalism, composed of a mixture of fury and self-pity. He or she prefers to feel instead of think. Death – their own or someone else’s – enthralls fanatics and excites their imagination.”
Oz’s second essay focuses on his love of Jewish secularism. He describes the sensibility that pervades secular Jews with unembarrassed admiration. He adores their rebelliousness, their suspicion of authority, and their love of debate and irony. Their openness to criticism and self-doubt. Their disgust with injustice of any kind. He admires their love of wisecracking and irony and their skepticism, their pragmatism and their stubbornness.
Oz lists some of these Jews for us, Jews like Spinoza, Einstein, Marx, Arendt, Heine, Woody Allen, S. Yizhar, Yehuda Amichai, and even the Marx Brothers. He believes that most of the dynamic creative revelations in Jewish culture over the past few generations have not occurred in “seminaries or rabbinical courts, but in Hebrew poetry, prose, and philosophy.” He believes that secular Jews have a healthy dose of “melancholy cheerfulness” commingling with a “healthy pessimism.”
He worries that this secular sensibility is diminishing in Israel, as extreme forces gain more power. We hear some hints of sadness and despair, but Oz has trouble delving below the surface, and instead seems to seek a clarity that is resistant to the nuanced and often agonizing introspection we have come to expect from him.
He puts forth many persuasive assertions in this volume but leaves out something essential. It feels constrained, held back, whitewashed, even closeted. We don’t hear the Oz we all remember and long for, the man who wrote in his memoir with searing intensity about his own beginnings: “I understood where I had come from: from a dreary tangle of sadness and pretense, of longing, absurdity, inferiority and provincial pomposity, sentimental education and anachronistic ideals, repressed trauma, resignation and helplessness.”
By Amos Oz
Mifflin Harcourt
160 pages; $23