Five thoughts on the passing of Amos Oz


if I think back to the days of my aliyah and the year or two that preceded it -the period 1989-91, Amos Oz was one of the writers who was most present and influential in my mind. His prose, along with the poetry of Yehuda Amichai and the music of Shlomo Artzi and Yehuda Poliker, underlay the mental climate in which I chose to make my home in Israel. It was a much more male, Ashkenazi and Europe-oriented Israel-of-the-imagination than would be approved of today, by either leftists or rightists. It had the twin totems of the Holocaust and the IDF as the two unmoving pillars around which everything else revolved, with the city of Jerusalem and the pre-state military undergrounds in there somewhere too.

I was never a great fan of Oz’s novels and have never revised my early middling to negative verdict. After a couple of years in Israel, once I had learned Hebrew properly and found my feet politically, I was also no longer an admirer of his political essays. In my view, at least, his literary reputation will rest on the magnificent autobiography ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness,’ which is an utterly luminous invocation of Jerusalem in the period immediately prior to the establiishment of the State of Israel, during the 1948 war and in the years immeiatley following it. Oz was very clearly waiting all his life to write this book, and novels such as ‘My Michael’ are a kind of uneasy circling around the themes that would dominate it.

The other, less well known pillar on which his reputation should in my view rest is that of his early short stories, which I think are masterpieces of that less respected or hallowed form. In this regard ‘The Hill of Evil Counsel’ is particularly notable, similarly set in the period of pre-1948 Jerusalem which seems to have remained the richest imaginative landscape for Oz throughout his career. ‘Where the Jackals Howl’ is I think Oz’s first collection of short stories. Once again there are there mysterious portraits of a figure that in retrospect is clearly his mother, Fanya Klausner, in many of the stories (who committed suicide when he was 12). There is also what I think is the only example in Oz’s oeuvre of a piece of military literature, namely a portrait of a member of an IDF airborne unit during the reprisal raids of the mid-50s. I think the story was called ‘Itche.’ Given that Oz was a combat veteran of the 1967 and 1973 wars, this absence of the military experience in his writing is I think noteworthy.

Oz was a person who was influential in the building of the ‘grande illusion’ that led to the Oslo process of the 1990s, and then the four years of insurgency and counter insurgency that followed it. This illusion was the notion that the Arab Muslim nationalism that had arisen in opposition to the Jewish project west of the Jordan River had reached a point where it was ready for a ‘historic compromise’ with the latter. There was never much convincing evidence for this conviction in either the statements or the actions of the proponents of this nationalism.. For this reason, the very great confidence with which the proponents of this view asserted it tended to exist in inverse proportion to the amount of knowledge, or indeed the amount of curiosity they possessed regarding the actual state of affairs on the other side, in terms of thought and in terms of action.

Only Yehuda Poliker now remains of the trumvirate of artists and visionaries that I named at the top. I am going to see him perform ‘Ashes and Dust’ in Tel Aviv next month. After I read ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness’ I wandered round the Kerem Avraham neighborhood in Jerusalem where Amos Oz grew up, and found the little house where many of the events in the book take place, and where he grew up. What is that line from Ehud Banai? ’20 years afterwards, you won’t see me in the city.’

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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3 Responses to Five thoughts on the passing of Amos Oz

  1. Rachel Levy says:

    I pray for the day when Amos Oz’s
    “Grand Illusion” becomes a reality
    De dreamt dreams we should see his dreams fulfilled

  2. Jonathan Karmi says:

    The short story you’re referring to is “Minzar Hashatkanim” (“The Trappist Monastery”). I have read almost all of Amos Oz’s books, some in Hebrew, others in English. To my mind he was an amazing author who captured the feel of pre-State Jerusalem and the kibbutzim in their earlier years in the most extraordinary way. Not only that, he wrote with great sensitivity and perspicacity about people and relationships that gave his books universal appeal.

    You’re right that Oz and thinkers on the left were too self-centred and didn’t sufficiently analyse what was going on in Palestinian minds. But what’s the alternative? Indefinite rule over four million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza? Soldiers still getting shot and blown up at Netzarim Junction? Instead we have settlements established in the dumbest, most provocative places on the assumption that the Palestinians will one day accept Israeli sovereignty or will magically ‘go away’. I thought the Jewish people were supposed to be smart.

    Israel now has a Prime Minister who’s up to his neck in corruption, its name has been besmirched by the binary options scandal and half of the mayors of Israel’s towns and cities seem to be in and out of court on corruption charges. This is the other Israel that came to prominence in 1977. I prefer the original Israel, which has mostly disappeared. Amos Oz’s passing feels like the last nail in its coffin.

  3. Fair enough. I also have read the greater part of his work, in both Hebrew and English. As I said, I regard him as a mediocre novelist, a very good short story writer, a masterful memoirist, and a very poor political analyst. The alternative to Oslo in my view would have been not marching the Palestine Liberation Army across the Jordan in 1994, so that we could have a war with them six years later, and then lose 1000 until they were neutralized. This was the ‘Peace Camp’s’ doing, and its the reason I think why the left will not be returning to government any time soon.

    we are engaged in a very long process of seeking to consolidate our sovereignty in the face of the opposition of the local Arab Muslim population (at the root of which in my view lies a civilizational and religious fury at being usurped by what they regard as an inferior caste or group). there are neither panaceas or shortcuts. The Oslo process and its disastrous end are a warning against looking for shortcuts and imagining solutions that arent there.

    Corruption in Israel is a problem (though without being complacent, Israel scores cleaner than a good number of European countries, according to Transparency International). The old, Ashkenazi-dominated Labour Israel has indeed gone. it was rather a corrupt place itself, in its final years, also much more repressive, anti-pluralist and casually racist, I think, than the country currently is. I salute its achievements, and am happy we have moved beyond it. like most elites, it had become decadent by the time it was finally replaced.

    I wouldnt so uncomplicatedly associate Amos Oz with this elite, tho. He wasnt flesh of its flesh, and in its mainstream and its heyday it didnt have much time for sensitive and bookish, Chekhovian types like him. From this point of view, perhaps ironically, he remained very much the son of the pre-Begin Odessan Revisionists who never really found a political home in post-1948 Israel.

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