Photo by Kobi Kalmanovitz
A life in writing: Amos Oz
'If every last Palestinian refugee was settled in the West Bank and Gaza, it would still be less crowded than Belgium'
Interview by Aida Edemariam
Saturday 14 February 2009 00.01 GMT
mos Oz works in a study that has the subterranean feel of the basement flat in which he grew up in 1940s Jerusalem - except that up the stairs and outside there are no narrow streets full of refugees fleeing the pogroms of eastern Europe, but blue sky and rocky ochre desert and the clearest air, through which the sound of fighter jets resonates for miles. He was a bookish child, wanted to grow up to be a book; here in Arad, where the Judaean desert meets the Negev and drops towards the Dead Sea, he has created a burrow lined with books, most in Hebrew, a good number by him.
Oz has often protested that his novels - experiments in verse, in epistolary narrative; meditations on family, on, in the case of his novel Rhyming Love and Death, published this week in the UK, how the creative imagination works, the devious way it feeds on reality - are not crude allegory: or, as he has rather impatiently said, a father is not necessarily the government, the mother not necessarily the old values, the daughter not necessarily a symbol of the shattered economy. But when we meet, the Gaza offensive is only just over, Israeli elections are two weeks away (Oz is campaigning for Meretz, a Zionist-left, social democratic party), and it isn't long before politics obtrudes. "I am outraged with both Hamas and the Israelis in this war," he says. "I feel an anger I find difficult to express because it's an anger in both directions."
Do many people feel that way? "I'm not sure. Israelis were genuinely infuriated, as was I, about the harassment and bombardment and rocket attacks on Israeli towns and villages for years and years by Hamas from Gaza. And the public mood was 'Let's teach them a lesson'. Trouble is, this so-called lesson" - which Oz supported - "went completely out of proportion. There is no comparison between the suffering and devastation and death that Gaza inflicted on Israel for eight years, and the suffering, devastation and death Israel inflicted on Gaza in 20 days. No proportion at all." He is appalled by the numbers - "300 dead children. Hundreds of innocent civilians. Thousands of homes demolished" - and while he would like to think that bombing UN structures was accidental, he is also appalled by reports that white phosphorus may have been used, and Dime bombs: "There is no justification. No way this could be justified. If this is true, it's a war crime and it should be treated as a war crime."
Some have suggested that the two-state solution is now dead, but for all his anger, Oz refuses to go that far. "It is the only possible solution. There is no other possible solution. And I would say more than that. Down below, the majority of Israeli Jews and the majority of Palestinian Arabs know that at the end of the day there will be two states. Are they happy about it? No they are not. Will they be dancing in the streets in Israel and in Palestine when the two-state solution is implemented? No they will not. But they know it."
Oz, 70 in May and thus nine years older than his country, remembers when there was dancing in the streets of Jerusalem - on 29 November 1947, when the UN voted to create two states on the territory of the British mandate. Oz's memoir A Tale of Love and Darkness (2003), as well as being the story of a family disintegrating, is a vivid account of the birth of a state; of how necessary it felt to Jews at that time, the utter relief of it, just a couple of years after the extent of the Nazi genocide became known. It also offers a clear-eyed observation of the fault lines in the nascent state, often filtered through his parents: the beautiful mother whose romantic longing curdled into depression and finally suicide when Amos was 12; the revisionist Zionist father, overqualified for professorships yet denied them because Jerusalem contained so many more scholars than students; both pouring the weight of their disappointment and hope on to the shoulders of their one, precocious child.
"In those days," Oz writes, "I was not so much a child as a bundle of self-righteous arguments, a little chauvinist dressed up as a peace-lover, a sanctimonious, honey-tongued nationalist, a nine-year-old Zionist propagandist." When, half a century later, he came to write his memoir, that the Israeli novelist David Grossman calls "his masterpiece", he was a very different person: he tried to imagine how the Arabs felt at those shouts of joy, and he made much of the couple of encounters with Arabs he did have pre-1947. Yet those brief encounters are required to carry too much baggage, and are, as David Remnick later remarked in the New Yorker, the only false notes in a great book.
There were all sorts of internal divisions, too: as highly educated, first-generation immigrants, his parents spoke, between them, 16 languages, and read nine more, "but the only language they taught me was Hebrew" - even though Hebrew, for them, was still very far from a language in which to live an intimate life. "It was necessary," Oz says, "because nobody could talk to each other when they arrived. The only common language they had was prayerbook Hebrew. So if they had to ask directions to the Wailing Wall, or rent a business, or buy bread, or sell a pair of shoes, they had to resort to prayerbook language." The distance between ancient Hebrew and modern is not large: "It's easier for a six-year-old Israeli boy to read the Bible in the original," as Oz puts it, "than it is for a six-year-old English boy to read Chaucer." The Israeli connection to the biblical lands is likewise telescoped, and so Hebrew both grew with the state and consolidated it. No one is more aware of this than Oz, on the level of both the literature ("writing in modern Hebrew is a bit like playing chamber music inside a huge empty cathedral. If you are not very careful with the echoes, you may evoke some monstrosities") and the state: "Whenever war is called peace," he once wrote, "where oppression and persecution are referred to as security, and assassination is called liberation, the defilement of language precedes and prepares for the defilement of life and dignity."
At 14, he rebelled against everything by changing his surname - from Klausner, which claimed him for Jerusalem's intellectual aristocracy, to Oz, meaning "strength" - and going to live on a kibbutz. He stayed on Kibbutz Hulda for 31 years, marrying Nily, daughter of the kibbutz librarian, and raising three children. Initially he tried to erase his hyper-articulate self by trying not to talk much; he tried not to write, too, but soon found himself sitting on the toilet seat in their small house in the dead of night, smoking and writing fiction. The kibbutz gave up on him ever being a useful labourer, and sent him to study literature so that he could teach it; his first book, Where the Jackals Howl, was published in 1965, and he has since published 25 books, both fiction and non-fiction.
His novels can sell 70,000 in hardback, and he has been known to sell 10,000 copies of a new book in a single day; Grossman ascribes this to "the way he manages both to describe the most intimate aspects of our lives and to place them in the Israeli echo-box, with all the voices that are sounded here. Especially if you read his memoir, you see how Amos is the offspring of all the contradictory urges and pains within the Israeli psyche."
"He has also been brave," believes Jacqueline Rose, professor of English at Queen Mary, University of London, and co-founder of Independent Jewish Voices. "There's a very early short story called 'Nomad and Viper', in which Jews on a kibbutz decide to lynch a group of nomads who are, it is implied, unfairly accused of theft. It's a very strong exploration of the dehumanising of the Arab in the mind of the kibbutzim." She refers, too, to his first major novel, My Michael (1968), and argues that it is, "in some ways, his most revolutionary novel. The central character is a woman, Hannah, who goes mad, haunted by two boys who disappeared from Jerusalem after the establishment of the state of Israel. It was a way of writing about the devastating effect of Zionism on the minds of Israelis who can't acknowledge what Zionism did, and expresses the dilemma of what it means to be Israeli incredibly powerfully. The problem is that the dilemma of the Israeli seems to be the only thing that matters. The damage is done to the Israeli soul rather than to the Palestinians as a people."
Oz fought in the 1967 war, then in the Yom Kippur war in 1973, and both gave him a "gut hatred of war and fighting" - but not, he clarifies, any shame for having done it. "I am not a pacifist in terms of turning the other cheek. There is a difference between myself and some of the peace people in Europe: whereas they think that the ultimate evil in the world is war, I think the ultimate evil in the world is aggression, and aggression sometimes must be repelled by force. I will never forget the words of a relative of mine, who spent the years of the Holocaust in Theresienstadt concentration camp. Although she was a peace activist, she said to me, 'You know, we were liberated from the concentration camp not by peace demonstrators carrying placards, but by American soldiers carrying submachine guns.'"
Twenty years ago, Oz wrote an essay in which he asked: "What is one justified in dying for and what is it permissible to kill for?" "If I am not mistaken," he says, when I put it to him again, "my answer was life itself, and freedom. And nothing else. Not holy places, not national interests, not resources. But life and freedom." Never popular with the increasingly powerful Israeli right and disenchanted with Labour ("bankrupt ... it made itself available for any coalition at all, including potentially a Netanyahu coalition"), Oz is also not of what he calls the "radical left". He gave self-defence as his reason for supporting Israel's initial bombing of Lebanon in 2006 (although, when Israel expanded its operations, he held a press conference with Grossman and AB Yehoshua to demand a ceasefire). Self-defence is why he argued for the Gaza offensive, even though friends such as Grossman disagreed. Commentators further to the left than Oz argue that blaming Hamas for the war, as he has done, ignores the economic blockade and siege of Gaza, and underplays the sharp increase in Jewish settlement of the West Bank that accompanied the Gaza pullout of 2005.
This last is not entirely fair, because Oz considered that expansion "atrocious. I think all those settlements, or most of those settlements, will have to go", to fit his vision of an Israel within pre-1967 borders; and because he has never been silent on the matter of settlement and occupation. A couple of months after the 1967 war, he wrote a letter to the newspaper Davar calling for the government to begin immediate negotiations about the West Bank and Gaza, because "even unavoidable occupation is corrupting occupation". As a result of his views, often trenchantly expressed (in 1994, he described extremist Jewish settlers as "Hezbollah in a skullcap"), he has been called a traitor, been assaulted and received death threats.
Over the years, he has developed a formulation that he repeats like a refrain: the situation in the Middle East is "a clash between right and right - the Palestinians are in Palestine because they have no other place in the world. The Israeli Jews are in Israel for the same reason - they have no other place in the world. This provides for a perfect understanding and a terrible tragedy." Hence, for him, the requirement for a two-state solution, land for peace, advocated first through Peace Now, which he co-founded in 1978, and now through Meretz.
"My precondition for peace," he says, "is a comprehensive solution for the Palestinian refugee problem, on the soil of the future Palestine" - which he sees as being the West Bank and Gaza, linked by a corridor, or underground tunnel, and cleared of almost all Israeli settlements. "And I would insist that this is my primary requirement for selfish reasons - for Israeli security reasons. As long as those people are rotting in dehumanising conditions in refugee camps, Israel will have no security, peace contract or no peace contract."
Palestinians such as the novelist Samir el-Youssef, who grew up in a refugee camp, see things slightly differently. "Oz sees Palestinians as a problem which the Israelis ought to get rid of as soon as possible," he says. "His ridiculous suggestion that all Palestinians could be heaped up in the tiny space of the West Bank and Gaza shows that he sees Palestinians as nothing but old furniture which should be stored away." Oz's answer is short: "If every last Palestinian refugee was settled in the West Bank and Gaza, it would still be less crowded than Belgium."
Oz believes that Palestinian Israelis should "become full-scale Israeli citizens, which they are not right now" - but he would rule out any right of return, "because if they return, there will be two Palestinian states and no home for the Jewish people. They have to be resettled in Palestine. After all, they are Palestinians." He doesn't object to the security wall, in principle, except that "they are building the wall in the middle of Palestine" - if there has to be one, it should trace the pre-1967 border. He would talk to Hamas, though only if it recognises Israel.
This week's elections, and the rapid rise of the far-right leader Avigdor Lieberman, who now finds himself able to dictate terms, have proved that the Israeli public is in distinctly hawkish mood. Labour came in fourth with an unprecedentedly few 13 seats, Meretz only just survived, with 3. Oz sees this as a direct result of Ariel Sharon's Gaza pullout and the Hamas rockets that followed it. "They hardened Israelis and brought about both the military offensive in Gaza and the result of this election." On a technical level, "Meretz will have to think hard about how many leftwing voters wasted their votes on irrelevant parties that didn't even get a seat. Our system is outdated." As for the future, "it is hard to be a prophet in the land of the prophets," he says, "but we have seen the right make great concessions in the name of peace before" - Menachem Begin gave up Sinai, and Sharon gave up Gaza, he can only hope it happens again.
Because although Oz shares with many Israelis a primal fear for "the existence of Israel", he insists that "anything is possible here. Nobody ever predicted, a week before President Sadat came to Jerusalem in 1977, that his arrival would be the beginning of a peace process that would end up in an - unhappy - Israeli-Egyptian peace. We have seen peace with Egypt, we have seen peace with Jordan, we have seen the handshake between Rabin and Arafat - things are possible. And moreover, they can happen quite swiftly, and quite unexpectedly."
Oz on Oz
"Once in a while it is worth turning on the light to clarify what is going on ..."
(From the closing paragraph of Rhyming Life and Death, translated by Nicholas de Lange, published by Chatto & Windus)
If I had to describe in the simplest of words the purpose of my writing, these will be the words.