The Israeli writer Amos Oz, who died on December 28th, at the age of seventy-nine, was a cultural hero in the old sense, an acolyte who patiently made himself the gray eminence of a lost, or losing, cause: Labor Zionism, a vision that once qualified as a movement. The movement’s leaders—preëminently, David Ben-Gurion—incubated modern Hebrew, fought the state of Israel into being, ingathered the “exiles,” put Eichmann on trial, and dominated the small, largely socialist country that Israel was before it was overwhelmed by the forces of post-1967 messianism. Labor Zionism dared to return Jews not to synagogues but to history.
Today, less than a fifth of the Israeli population—albeit much of the educated élite, most of it descended from the pioneers from Eastern Europe—has traces of Labor Zionism in its bones. It is a population that is now overlaid by descendants of a larger contingent of North African and Middle Eastern refugees and immigrants, more recent migrants from the former Soviet Union, Arabs citizens mainly from the Galilee, ultra-Orthodox Jews from Jerusalem and the United States, and the young cosmopolitans running the Tel Aviv branches of Google and Ernst & Young. Oz’s death will inevitably seem like a metaphor for a moribund Israel, especially with an election coming in April and hard-rightists leading, as usual, in the polls. “Let’s say,” Benny Ziffer, the culture editor of Haaretz, wrote of Oz, that “the president of the so-called ‘white tribe’ died Friday.” Nobody left from its ranks, Ziffer added, will write “so enchantingly as to briefly seem to persuade us of the righteousness of his path.”
Some observers suggest that the Labor Zionist gestalt engendered liberal Israel. This is not quite right. Among the Labor Zionists of Oz’s youth, free thought could be tolerated—indeed, given the rabbinic cloisters that their Zionist parents had punched their way out of, it was encouraged—but liberal individualism was another matter. That was “enochiyut—” literally, “me-ism,” self-centeredness. You were expected to be a dissident, not an existentialist. You were expected to see the institutions that advanced abstract citizenship, such as a formal Bill of Rights, as taking a back seat to those that advanced Hebrew national renewal, such as the Law of Return. Indeed, the latter were assumed to have been necessitated by the former having failed in twentieth-century Europe, the precinct of anti-Semitic Christendom. Oz, who was born Amos Klausner, chose this world, reinventing himself at the age of fourteen, leaving Jerusalem (and his father’s rightist Revisionist family) two years after his mother committed suicide, to join the Kibbutz Hulda and to rename himself “Oz,” or “strength.” He was, he told David Remnick, in 2004, “the Huckleberry Finn of history,” except that his raft was on “a river made of books and words and stories and historical tales and secrets and separations.”
To imagine yourself navigating such a river required not only a grasp of war’s traumas but ideological fervor, the discipline that came from the Army and the collective, and a feeling of exceptionalism—a sense of being the “new Jew,” something that could tip over into utopian smugness. You would be alert to deviations. In 1961, the twenty-two-year-old Oz, by then a rising intellectual identified with movement leaders in Hulda who were skeptical of Ben-Gurion’s socialist constancy, met with the Prime Minister, along with a number of Oz’s comrades, to discuss writers of the younger generation. Oz joined in cautioning “the old man” that a new book of poetry by Yehuda Amichai was “dangerous,” because it presented a kind of nihilism. “You should read it,” he said, “not because it is important but because it expresses something.” Oz, who softened considerably over the years, no doubt cringed when Haaretz published the transcript of that conversation, in 2010. Yet a couple of years ago, at a ceremony in Jerusalem honoring the late literary critic Menachem Brinker, I heard Oz speak of Brinker’s birthplace and his own, in the vicinity of the Kerem Avraham neighborhood of Jerusalem—which is also the birthplace of such comrade-pillars of Israel’s left intelligentsia as the writers A. B. Yehoshua and Haim Be’er and the philosophers Avishai Margalit and Adi Zemach—as if the area were a world-historical incubator.
It was with something like this sense of communitarian duty that Oz—along with a few others, including the writer Muki Tsur, who was also at the meeting with Ben-Gurion—committed his own first dissident act. By 1967, Oz had published his first stories, and a novel focussed on the committed, idiosyncratic, somewhat jaded characters whom he encountered on the kibbutz. In the days after the 1967 war, though, he rushed around with a tape recorder, chronicling the experiences of the Israeli soldiers who had fought in it, as he himself had. The book that he, Tsur, and other collaborators produced from these recordings, “Siach Lohamim,” or “Soldiers’ Conversation” (eventually published in English as “The Seventh Day”), rendered the awful battles as immediate memories, humanizing them and implicitly undermining the idealizations and the euphoria with which the war was increasingly being celebrated. (With a corresponding sense of tragic responsibility, Oz helped to make a 2015 documentary based on material that the authors had cut from the transcripts, including soldiers’ testimonies of summarily executing prisoners of war.) The book proved a kind of launch pad. The more Oz wrote, the more he seemed a symbol; the more symbolic he became, the bolder he was. He provided, Remnick recalled, one of the first warnings about post-1967 inertia. “Even unavoidable occupation is a corrupting occupation,” Oz wrote in the now-defunct Labor Zionist newspaper Davar.
Most Israelis first understood Oz as a political figure to be reckoned with in 1973, when, after having fought in the Golan Heights during the Yom Kippur War, he was interviewed on the nation’s only television station. Ever since the 1956 Sinai campaign, Moshe Dayan, then the defense minister, had held a moral prestige that bordered on a personality cult; after 1967, Dayan’s notion of “security borders”—borders so intimidating that surrounding Arab countries would not dare attack—had been taken for granted as the next best thing to peace. Dayan and government spokesmen were still trying to spin the 1973 war’s eventual victories as a tribute to their strategy. (“Syrians will learn that the road from Damascus to Tel Aviv is also the road from Tel Aviv to Damascus,” Dayan said.) In the interview, Oz filled the screen—cool, fierce, and articulate—and directly challenged Dayan’s bravado, pointing to lost opportunities and decrying the hubris in his strategy, though not without compassion. “He knew that even a fallen hero is still a hero,” the writer Yael Dayan, Moshe Dayan’s daughter, and Oz’s devoted friend, told me. I was not in the Army, but I was working the farm of a friend who was at the time; neighbors had lost sons, husbands, and brothers. Even my friend’s family, which had idolized Dayan, felt the shock of Oz’s truth. With his words, the country changed. In 1978, after the rightist Menachem Begin was elected Prime Minister—partly as a protest against the manifest failures in leadership that Oz had pointed to—Oz was among the founders of the activist organization Peace Now, which formed after a group of reserve officers addressed a letter to Begin protesting his policies. “A government that prefers the existence of settlements beyond the Green Line to the resolution of our historic conflict and creation of normal relationships in our region will make us question the justice of our cause,” the letter stated.
I met with Oz nine years later, in 1987. He was at Boston University for a residency, and I was covering Israel for American magazines, and we met periodically for lunch. We had both lost parents to suicide, but those subjects never came up. Instead, we spoke about Likud’s eclipse of Labor Zionism, or the chances of Shimon Peres—recently the Prime Minister in a rotation agreement with Likud’s Yitzhak Shamir—regaining power in the age of Ronald Reagan. Oz’s masterly reportorial book “In the Land of Israel,” which recorded conversations with people across Israel, from neglected immigrant towns to West Bank settlements, had recently come out. I had published a history of Labor Zionism’s decline, and he assumed, not incorrectly, that I might learn from him. Yet I don’t remember a moment of condescension. I do remember implying that I could hardly get through “My Michael,” his dark novel about a woman going mad, which seemed more atmospheric than intimate. He told me, in turn, that he found Philip Roth’s Zuckerman novels short of great literature, since the subject was only the author’s own psyche—what he called, speaking with Remnick, “indoors literature.”
Ironically, his 2002 memoir, “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” becomes a masterpiece precisely when he goes “indoors,” recalling with precision, and agony, his state of mind as his mother wilted and eventually took her life. The best indoors memoirs—by Arthur Koestler, say, or Dave Eggers—would continue the story, reflecting on how such childhood pain might warp grownup pleasures and ethical choices. But introspection of this kind is not what one looks for in Oz’s books. His characters, even his remembered loved ones, ride the river of history. “Among the immediate reasons for my mother’s decline,” he told Remnick, “was the weight of history, the personal insult, the traumas, and the fears for the future.”
The inclination to place the personal within the historical—so much that characters can seem to be personifications—might thwart some writers. Oz turned it into genius. There is a Hebrew word, tzalul, which means “clear” in the sense of transparent, pure, sane. It was hard to leave a column or a lecture or a story of Oz’s and not think that his fame grew from clarity of this kind. There were literary asides. “When I know what to think, I write an essay. When I don’t know what to think, I write a novel,” he told me. There were, similarly, aphorisms, such as “Political optimists are always walking around with a scowl, pessimists with a smile, because optimists are always disappointed and pessimists are always relieved.” Most of all, there were what might be called therapeutic interventions. Last summer, he told an audience at Tel Aviv University that it would be impossible for Palestinian refugees from pre-state Israel to get their homes back, or reconstruct their former pastoral lives, even if Israel simply opened its borders; they are, he said, “seeking in physical space what was lost to time.”
It is not enough to praise a writer’s style when it’s a style of this kind. You can’t write this clearly unless you can think in uncluttered ways and preach with poise—as if you’ve lived the answers. Which brings me back to what can only be called the Labor Zionist faith in the Hebrew republic that Israel was between 1948 and 1967. For all its defects and its ominous claustrophobia, this Israel seemed to Oz to have achieved a model of secular Jewish nationalism, whose socialist institutions will never be reproduced but whose values various literary characters (and their authors) could embody. You got the feeling that Oz wanted to preserve what my wife, Sidra Ezrahi, a professor of literature at Hebrew University, calls “the younger, slimmer Israel.” As with all prophets, there was something vaguely reactionary in his message—a call back to some vaguely sacred standard.
In recent years, Oz coined perhaps his most influential turn of phrase, which has been picked up by virtually all politicians in the peace camp and implies the solidarity of that “slimmer” Israel. Namely, he said that Israelis and Palestinians must “divorce,” that they must split “this small house into two little apartments.” Superficially, the claim is inarguable: most on each side want to exercise political sovereignty in separate entities. And many Palestinians revere Oz’s humanism; the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, wrote a letter paying tribute to Oz . But divorce is not a neutral metaphor, and Oz made clear that he meant something quite radical by it: that the two peoples should get more or less entirely out of each other’s lives. (He often quoted Robert Frost on the virtues of “good fences.”) In effect, he was saying that the two-state solution should finally solve what the 1948 war did not. In his view, the occupation was to be condemned because it was inviting, ultimately, a demographic nightmare, an “Arab state from the [Mediterranean] Sea to the Jordan River.” And he believed that, as he put it last summer, no form of liberal bi-nationalism can work “except in six places: Switzerland, Switzerland, Switzerland, Switzerland, Switzerland, and . . . Switzerland.”
For Oz, those principles were axiomatic, and, if one lived in 1961, they would have seemed expansive, even forward-looking. The problem now is that, however implausible a single state is for both the Israelis and Palestinians, the idea of radical separation is impossible. The populated parts of Israel and the Palestinian territories are together the size and area of greater Los Angeles—roughly fourteen million people live in five thousand square miles—and they share a single business ecosystem and urban infrastructure. The Israeli right is sensible to worry that lone-wolf terror attacks on Ben-Gurion Airport, four miles from the West Bank, would bring down the cybernetic Israeli economy for months. At the same time, Israeli and Palestinian entrepreneurs are right to see their future countries not as fortresses but as hubs. The million and a half Palestinian citizens of Israel—many of whom speak Hebrew as well as Arabic—are correct to argue that they should not be lumped in with “Arabs,” that they are a distinct minority seeking equal rights in a state that privileges, in anachronistic ways, legally designated Jews, and that Israel’s democratic left cannot regain power without them. I could go on.
Oz’s version of the two-state solution may gesture toward moral reciprocity, then, but as a practical matter it chases the past. It may be that no two-state solution ever comes into being, but if it does it is more likely to be a confederation, like the European Union or Canada, than it is to follow the partition plan of 1947, or even the Geneva Accord of 2003, which Oz helped to negotiate. Even Yossi Beilin, who midwifed the Geneva agreement, advances confederal ideas today, not the partition that Oz envisioned: “cohabitation, not divorce.”
“Oz’s voice will be missed, and the evidence pours in of what a decent and giving man he was,” Yehuda Melzer, Oz’s contemporary and the founder of the Books in the Attic publishing house, told me. “But the public Oz was also trapped by an image he carefully invented for himself at a very young age, when he went to the kibbutz. More than six people in the room, and he felt he must assume the podium. He chose all the right ideas and associations. His writing appealed to the right readers. But the world he desired was gone before he was.” It was something in space that was lost to time.