Book Review | Dear Zealots: Letters from a Divided Land by Amos Oz

A patriot with a conscience
By | Dec 16, 2018

Dear Zealots: Letters from a Divided Land
by Amos Oz
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
2018, 138 pp, $15.31

Amos Oz’s modest new book of nonfiction is a container for some somber thoughts and for scraps left over from earlier lectures and books—refined and re-sorted, though ultimately not completely resolved. The book is written with intimacy in the Israeli style, where much is left unsaid and there’s little need for formal transitions or explanations. The title, of course, suggests a letter, with emphasis on the word “dear.” And the epigraph, a poem by Yehuda Amichai, warns about the futility of winning a familial argument: “The place where we are right/is hard and trampled/like a yard.”

Dear Zealots is actually composed of three essays pivoting around the subject of extremism. It includes observations about radical Islam, Europe and America, but mostly it concentrates on what is happening among factions inside Israel: secular Jews, Zionists, messianic settlers, haredim, Palestinians and an increasingly uncompromising and fractious left. Oz speaks to these factions directly, though the majority of his approving readers will be from the generation of secular Zionists who share his worldview. The writing moves freely through a succession of personal considerations, as letters do, and includes some shadow-boxing, counterpunching against predictable adversaries and their arguments. The starting point for Oz is moderation. You can’t eradicate fanaticism, he says, but perhaps you can “curtail” it.

The first essay, originally a series of lectures given in Germany in 2002, emerged amid the ferocities of that time: the second intifada, 9/11, the bombings and beheadings inspired by Al-Qaeda and other groups. There is some prestidigitation as Oz attempts to tamp down anxiety and reflexive countermeasures in the West, stoked by polarizing commentary about a clash of civilizations. He argues that fanaticism is as old as human nature, with characteristics that can be contagious: righteousness, Manichaeism, a loathing of others encased in “resolute emptiness,” a desire to change others, a loss of self and the closing down of curiosity, imagination and humor.

Oz reminds his readers that zealotry doesn’t just belong to others; there has always been Jewish fanaticism as well as the newer Israeli kind. Going back to the 1940s Jerusalem of his childhood where, he estimates, a third of the city’s dwellers were “self-appointed prophets, saviors and messiahs,” he recounts how he himself was “a Zionist-nationalist fanatic” before a chance friendship with a British policeman—implausibly a Zionist—taught him something about the complexities and problems of extremism as well as its potential remission and metamorphosis, which can come about through the grace of relationship. These early experiences also taught him about the pain of being accused of betrayal, a theme that has circulated through several of his other books; Panther in the Basement is based on an autobiographical story of such an accusation, and his most recent novel, Judas, is a full-blown examination of the complexities of betrayal. That early background gave Oz an ability to speak with authority about the nature and life cycle of a certain resolute and blinded local extremism; he offers the hope that it can be mitigated and contended with.

“Influence without melding. Persuasion without kneading others into our own mold.” This is Oz’s advice, and it guides the last two essays, which are essentially an appeal for pluralistic and pragmatic democracy within an Israel currently beset by religious extremism, defiant nationalism and a desperate “dovish left.” “Many Lights, Not One Light” is a meditation on what Oz calls “Judaism as a culture.” What, he asks, is the essence of Judaism? He proposes that the answer might be contained on a scrap of inscribed pottery discovered at Khirbet Qeiyafa near Beit Shemesh in 2008 and dated by some to the 10th century BCE, earlier than any other Hebrew writing. One scholar has offered the following rendition:

You shall not do it, but worship God. Judge the slave and the widow. Judge the orphan and the stranger. Plead for the infant, plead for the poor and the widow. Rehabilitate the poor at the hands of the king. Protect the poor and the slave. Support the stranger.

Oz marvels at the powerful simplicity of an edict that predates the rabbis and, to his mind, renders a succinct definition of what has continually been at the core of Jewish values: To do no harm, to protect those who are powerless. As he ponders this beautifully minimalistic code of ethics, he draws connections from the potsherd to humanism and pluralism, to the right, “even the blessing,” to be different or independent, to disagree, disobey or rebel. His thoughts radiate in many directions, essentially defending secular Judaism against the increasingly powerful advocates of halachic law who are threatening Israel’s democratic foundations.

The final essay, “Dreams Israel Should Let Go of Soon,” is based on two lectures Oz presented in 2015, laying out once again a pragmatic argument for a two-state solution in opposition to the increasingly popular but unattainable dreams of a single state, a binational state or continual “conflict management.” With a gently humorous nudge, he writes, “We are not alone in this land…There is no escape from dividing up this little house into two even smaller apartments.” With virtuosity, he counters arguments coming from all directions. He cautions those who boast about Israel’s military superiority, their right to the land or their currently privileged position with the Trump administration; he sympathizes with but prods those who are understandably afraid of the disasters that land-for-peace might bring. He disputes those who talk about the irreversibility of history and those who want to walk out, leaving the country and its problems behind. Oz, a patriot with a conscience, has scrutinized all of the pros and cons before. None of this is new except that the pressure is building.

One of the loveliest passages comes at the conclusion of this little book, when Oz asks his readers to turn their consideration from “existential fear” and think for a moment about Israeli achievements in the arts, technology, philosophy and sciences, the creation of the many Hebrew cities and even the kibbutzim. He calls these a collective effort that has produced a golden age, really a triumph of pluralism. This is probably as good a place as any to reflect on the miracle of Oz and his generation of writers, who reinvented a vibrantly rich language and a literature that thrives in these fragile times and in a fragile place.

Frances Brent writes often about art and literature. She is the author of The Lost Cellos of Lev Aronson.

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