An Outpost of Ashdod

Nicholas Spice

  • A Perfect Peace by Amos Oz, translated by Hillel Halkin
    Chatto, 374 pp, £9.95, July 1985, ISBN 0 7011 2959 X

Of all the raw deals meted out in the Bible – not excluding Job’s or that blighted fig tree’s – Moses surely suffered the meanest. After all he had gone through for Yaweh and the Chosen People, his exclusion from the Promised Land within sight of it was cruelly unfair. Or so it seemed to my child’s mind, as repeatedly in Scripture classes and Sunday school we rehearsed the story of the Exodus, the 40 years wandering in the wilderness and the entry of the Children of Israel into the Land of Canaan. My sense of solidarity with the patriarch, in which I am sure I was not alone, was mixed with awe that this sort of thing could happen to grown-ups too, and behind that a dim perception that perhaps it was in the nature of promised lands and the bid to reach them that they should entail a high vulnerability to disappointment and dashed hopes. Clearly, growing up was no solution, unless growing up meant putting by such longings altogether.

The problem of promised lands, Utopian dreams, human cravings for a place of rest, a home – whether for the body or the spirit – is one that Amos Oz returns to time and again in the two books of his most recently to be translated into English, A Perfect Peace and In the Land of Israel. In both he suggests that coming to terms with such yearning is a precondition of maturity. A Perfect Peace is a novel set in the eighteen months leading up to the Six-Day War; In the Land of Israel, a collection of polemical essays, in which through a series of interviews Oz animates a wide range of opinions on the state of Israel after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the massacres, in September 1982, at the Arab refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla. In the Land of Israel was published in English in 1983, although it was written shortly after A Perfect Peace. I suggest the two books be read together. Certainly, the volume of essays enormously enhanced and enlightened my reading of the novel. On the subject of modern Israel and its complex sectarian struggles it teaches with an unusual economy and vividness, helping to place the novel in a political and historical context.

Given the power of the Exodus story as a paradigm for all narratives of personal and political striving, as well as for interpreting the course of later Jewish history, it is hardly surprising that in two books preoccupied with human aspirations (whether or not specifically Jewish) it should never be far from Oz’s mind. Thus in his intense debate with the extremist settlers of the Gush Emunim movement in Ofra on the West Bank, Oz naturally invokes the analogy with Moses as a way of making his case:

These ancient Biblical charms are like the Promised Land unto Moses: For thou shalt see the land afar off, but thou shalt not go thither. Because you, with your bulldozers, will spread your factory-built houses with their asbestos roofs and solar water heaters and symmetrical rows of white houses and security fences and antennas across hills and vales ... Where shall we turn our ancient Biblical longings if Samaria is filled with prefab villas?

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