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The Unshakeable One

Reflections on Amos Oz's final lecture and his relationship with Germany.

1.

On July 22 2018 Amos Oz made his final public appearance, at the University of Tel Aviv. “The reckoning has not yet come,” Oz said in what was to be his last public speech, making a series of appeals familiar to readers of his essays and speeches made in the final years of his life. That a failure to bring about a two-state solution will result in the creation of one Arab state in which Jews will be a minority. That Zionism has always been a movement of many currents, unified by the realization that Jews have nowhere else to go bar the Land of Israel. And, that a prime minister capable of leading the Israeli people through the traumatic division of the land has yet to arrive—but one day will.

It is now two years since Oz died of cancer, at the age of 79. His longtime German publisher Suhrkamp has now put out a translation of that final address, Die letzte Lektion (The Last Lecture). On his passing, Oz was recalled in the German-speaking world as much for what he wrote as who he was—a “secular Jew, soldier in the Six-Day War, critic of the settlement project, and founder of the Israeli peace movement,” to quote the subheading of a tribute which ran in the Süddeutsche Zeitung written by Lothar Müller. For Müller, Oz was the Unerschütterliche, the unshakeable one—staunch and steadfast, unswerving and unwavering.

Oz’s obituaries tended to center on his magnum opus, 2002’s A Tale of Love and Darkness (published in German in 2004), which Müller described as an “unsentimental monument” to his family and especially his mother, as well as the themes of his most recent novel, Judas (2014; in German in 2015), for which Oz was awarded literary prizes in Germany and Switzerland. Oz’s novels, Gerrit Bartels wrote in Berlin’s Tagesspiegel, convey “an authentic picture of the Israeli reality,” multi-faceted, in a prose style rich with allusions and metaphors. In that reality, his character’s lives were defined by “existential threats and inner turmoil,” Stefana Sabin wrote in the Swiss Neue Zürcher Zeitung—perhaps the most perceptive of all the tributes to Oz published in the German-speaking world.

Though Oz’s final speech was delivered in Hebrew to an Israeli audience, it circles around themes that preoccupied him in a number of essays and pamphlets published over the last two decades, many of which began life as speeches delivered to a European and specifically German audience. The two essays in 2004’s How to Cure a Fanatic (Wie Man Fanatiker)—“Between Right and Right” and the title essay—both started out as speeches delivered at the Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen in 2002. The title essay in Dear Zealots (2017; as Liebe Fanatiker in 2018) in turn derives from How to Cure a Fanatic. In 2018, Suhrkamp published an updated edition of Deutschland und Israel, first printed in 2005, a pamphlet concerning Oz’s views on the German-Israeli relationship.

In these often pocket-sized books, Oz is concerned with what superficially appear to be diverse and diffuse topics. “How to Cure a Fanatic” and “Dear Zealots” deal with what Oz sees as the schism that defines and will define the twenty-first century, namely the struggle between fanaticism and pragmatism, and offers some modest suggestions for how fanaticism could be moderated. “Between Right and Right,” “Dreams Israel Should Let Go of Soon,” and Die letzte Lektion advocate for and warn of the dangers of not pursuing the two-state solution. “Many Lights, Not One Light,” Oz’s thoughts on secular Judaism and the struggle between secular and religious Jews, stems from his 2012 book Jews and Words, co-authored with his daughter, the historian Fania Oz-Salzberger.

Beneath the surface, however, a subterranean current connects these essays, leaflets, and pamphlets: an opposition to sentimentality. This tendency has been there in Oz’s politics for decades—provided one knows where to look. “I do not live here [in Israel] in order to renew the days of old or to restore the glory of the past. I live here because it is my wish to live as a free Jew,” Oz wrote in 1967’s “The Meaning of Homeland.” Drawing a distinction between the liberation of a people and a land, he added, “I was not born to blow rams’ horns.” His condemnation of Menachem Begin in the pages of Yediot in 1982, for his “weird urge to resurrect Hitler from the dead just so that you may kill him over and over again each day,” and for seeing Hitler in all manner of figures, from Austrian chancellor Bruno Kreisky to the PLO leadership, can be read in that same vein too.

But as a kind of summing up of Oz’s political life and work, it is as if his opposition to emotional idealism, to exaggeration, romanticism, and nostalgia crystallized in Deutschland und Israel, Dear Zealots, and his other recent essays. These works caution that reality ought not be distorted by sentimentality—including and especially by adopting simplistic if well-meaning approaches to Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In her obituary for the Austrian daily Die Presse, Anne-Catherine Simon recalled an appearance Oz made at a literary festival in the state of Lower Austria in 2006. Europeans think in terms of black-and-white, he told the audience. “You sign petitions for the good guys, demonstrate against the bad guys, and then go off contently to bed.” There is no right and wrong here, Oz warns. Only right and right.

2.

“People in Europe keep sending me wonderful invitations to spend a rosy weekend in a delightful resort with Palestinian partners, Palestinian colleagues, Palestinian counterparts, so that we can learn to know one another, to like one another, to drink a cup of coffee together, so that we will realize that no one has horns and tails—and the trouble will go away,” Oz writes in “Between Right and Right.” “This is based on a widespread sentimental European idea that every conflict is essentially no more than a misunderstanding.” But this is no misunderstanding, and “rivers of coffee drunk together cannot extinguish the tragedy of two peoples claiming…the same small country as their one and only national homeland in the whole world.”

Europeans can not only be naïve and sentimental, but also succumb to viewing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in terms of black and white, good and bad, beauty and the beast, Oz believed. “The word compromise has a terrible reputation in Europe. Especially among young idealists, who always regard compromise as opportunism, as something dishonest, as something sneaky and shady, as a mark of a lack of integrity.” For Oz, compromise was necessary as compromise meant life: “the opposite of compromise is fanaticism and death.”

The aforementioned was, for Oz, also key to understanding how the Germanic opinion of Israel has changed over the decades, a relationship he explores in Deutschland und Israel. It was in the 1960s and 1970s that the relationship and transnational exchange of people and ideas blossomed, when Israeli readers began to encounter the works of Günter Grass, Heinrich Boll, and Siegfried Lenz in translation, and Rolf Hochhuth’s theatrical work The Deputy “filled theaters night after night.”

It was also in the 1960s and 1970s that Israel’s kibbutzim welcomed a wave of young German volunteers who, “overflowing with enthusiasm, optimism, commitment, and good will” came to work the land in order to “avenge the crimes of their parents,” as Oz—who himself lived on Kibbutz Hulda in central Israel at the time—recalls in Deutschland und Israel. “The German volunteers as with others from the Western world were drawn to the kibbutz’ heartfelt, laid-back, half-anarchistic socialism—an exhilarating alternative to the stuffy, brutish and soured socialism then present behind the Iron Curtain.”

The 1960s and 1970s were a “honeymoon”; after this, the marriage began to sour. These kibbutz volunteers tended to “sentimentally idealize” Israel and the Kibbutz. As Oz has observed in his brilliant kibbutz novels and short stories like Between Friends and Where the Jackals Howl, begat its own challenges, difficulties, and injustices and was, too, already on the wane as an institution by the 1970s. “The Germans’ disappointment in Israel was tremendous, bitter, and often also radical, their enthusiasm sliding deeper and deeper into antagonism.” Israel took on the image not of David but Goliath in the popular imagination: an occupier, a state “corroded by religious and nationalistic fanaticism, rapacious, egotistical, boastful and hateful.”

This shift in German public opinion cannot, in Oz’s view, be attributed to antisemitism—or, at least, not exclusively. Oz does not discount it; rather, “Israel’s declining reputation among a large part of the German public is at least in part bound up with Germans’ own infatuation with Israel in the 1960s and 1970s,” he argues, “an infatuation which was born out of feelings of guilt, sentimentality, over-inflated expectations and a superhuman idealization of Jews and Israel.” Though the relationship between Germany and Israel can never be normal, when one considers the sheer weight of history, it could perhaps be closer—less idealized and more realistic.

“There is something in the nature of the fanatic which essentially is very sentimental,” he writes in “How To Cure a Fanatic.” Up until the end of his life, Oz worried about the relationship between sentimentality and fanaticism, as his final speech shows. What he calls “reconstructionitis”—the hope that what was once can again be; that the days of old can indeed be renewed—was the “salt of Zionism,” he argues in Die letzte Lektion, a component part of an ideology whose various strands united behind the idea that the Jewish people had nowhere else to go. But Oz worried that this reconstructionitis had become a threat to the State of Israel, that it was becoming a dominant tendency. “People can die of this disease. Or go insane. And that scares me very much.”

His concerns about fanaticism and sentimentality had, then, a humanistic motive. The battle between fanaticism and pragmatism was one that pitched those “who believe that the end, any end, justifies the means” against those “who believe that life is an end, not a meaning.” As evident from such turns of phrase, Oz’s anti-sentimentalism, his opposition to fanaticism and zealotry, his realism and support for hard and necessary compromises did not diminish his politics or render it flat. An opposition to sentimentality must not be confused with an opposition to emotion or beauty.

Die letzte Lektion is a kind of stock-taking. This speech, along with works like “Between Right and Right” and “Dreams Israel Should Let Go of Soon,” restate a number of truths and perceptions to which Oz held true until his death. That the Palestinians as Israel’s neighbors are a “permanent condition” who could not be wished away. That Israel “has no definitive national goals that can be achieved through military might.” That if there are not two states in the Land of Israel soon, there will be one. That to live as a Jewish minority in a single state is not an option. That save for the Swiss example, bi-nationalism is a failed political experiment. And that peace between Israel and the Palestinians is “inevitable,” as he phrased the matter while eulogizing Shimon Peres in 2016:

There are some who say that peace is not possible. But peace is not only possible, it is inevitable. Because we Israelis are simply not going anywhere: we have nowhere to go from here. And the Palestinians are not going anywhere either: they too have nowhere to go from here. …There is no choice but to divide this home into two apartments and turn it into a two-family house. In their heart of hearts, almost everyone, on all sides, knows this simple truth.

“Where are the leaders with the courage to come forward and bring it to pass?” Oz asked that September day. “Where are the heirs of Shimon Peres?” In Die letzte Lektion, he raises this question again, while also acknowledging that he cannot answer it. “But I can say with certainty that an individual or a group of people will come along and [withdraw from the West Bank], …someone who will turn to the Israeli people and say: “In your hearts, you already know. You haven’t been there in a long time. You know that this isn’t a part of our homeland. You know we can live very well without it. Let’s get it done. It will be difficult and complicated. It will hurt. But let’s finally get it done, and then, it will be done.”

When Oz spoke at Peres’ funeral, he said of his friend of some 42 years, “He had, it seemed, two contradictory qualities: on the one hand, a deep respect for reality and its constraints, and on the other, a fierce passion to change that reality and the emotional capacity to change himself.” Perhaps Peres was the more optimistic one, but Oz’s final essays one can observe the very same humanism, steadfastness, and clear-eyed far-sightedness—the ability to distinguish the eternal from the ephemeral. “The conversation between the State of Israel and Shimon Peres will continue as long as Israel exists, which means forever.” And so, too, shall it continue with Amos Oz.

*Amos Oz, Die letzte Lektion: Ein Leitfaden für die Zukunft, Suhrkamp, pp. 56

*Amos Oz, Deutschland und Israel, Suhrkamp, pp. 79


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