Promised Lands

Cynthia Kee

‘If the ’67 and the ’72 wars were fought all over again I would go, with anger and determination as if into a fist-fight with someone who tried to kill my child, and I’d fight like the devil. But if I had been called up to fight the Lebanon war of ’82 I’d not go. I’d go to jail,’ said Amos Oz, his voice gathering strength as he spoke. At a different point in our conversation he said: ‘If I thought Israel went wrong to the point of no return, I’d leave, but I’d still be Israeli. It would be those bastards back there that weren’t.’

His is a sane voice in the morass of projections and primitive emotions that has engulfed the State of Israel. And he makes his voice heard. A leading novelist in his own land, a charismatic speaker and very handsome – though short – he is extremely effective at this. A Jewish angel (malach), he told me, is a divine messenger. His grandfather as a boy in Odessa, the centre of Jewish nationalism at that time, was messenger for the Sons of Moses. I see Amos Oz (né Klausner) as taking on this traditional function. Words are his wings: vanity and a certain pettiness, according to him, the mundane characteristics he strives to overcome. And fear. ‘I am frightened, literally,’ he writes.[*] ‘Of what?’ I asked him as we sat side by side, rolling through the English countryside in a bus. ‘Of blind hatred,’ he replied.

Fear, blind hatred, and a certain intoxication with physical strength for those accustomed for centuries to ‘flatten themselves under the wheels of history’, led to the ‘Lebanese Deception’ as well as the Israeli attempt to ‘extinguish the intifada by force’. Such use of force Amos Oz considers immoral and in some measure insane. A war of self-defence when life, family and home are under immediate threat is neither. But the line between the two, the ‘degree of evil’ to be tolerated, is one that each individual must distinguish for himself. From the new book come some guidelines: ‘This time’ – Lebanese invasion, 1982 – ‘it is not the whole nation that is at war; it is just the army, the government and the newspapers ... It’s something like a timely investment in the stockmarket.’ Such ‘wars of choice’ (Mr Begin’s phrase) tend to leave people dangerously suspended ‘between an increasing loss of feeling and a growing nationalist emotionalism’. ‘Nationalism itself is, in my eyes, the curse of mankind,’ he writes. Partition, ‘a fair and decent divorce between Israelis and Palestinians’, would be dangerous but less so than the present situation. ‘To put it in a picturesque way, even a cruel way, it would always be easier for Israel to break the backbone of a Palestine the size of Bermuda than it would be to go on breaking the bones of eight-year-old kids that throw stones at us,’ he said on the bus.

We ourselves were in a state of comfortable suspension between cities: Oxford, where he had been visiting his daughter (he has two, and one son), and Cambridge, where he was going to work with his translator. Opposite us in the bus sat a girl who changed and re-changed the tapes in her Walkman the entire three-hour length of the journey. Outside, colour drained from the sky as it has done for Amos Oz from the Hebrew melodies he loved before they were used by Israeli State Radio when the war was being launched on Lebanon. An only child, he would sit alone in the corner of the room as his parents poured tea, ‘the Russian kind of hospitality’, for neighbours and friends in Jerusalem – poor but scholarly. ‘Since I was a very little kid I have been putting myself under other people’s skins,’ he said, ‘asking myself which one reads books, which one was rich, which one was poor, which ones were lonely; toying with the idea of what they would do in bed together. I was a great oral storyteller in school.’ His father strove all his life to become a professor of comparative literature – he spoke 12 languages – but remained an ill-paid librarian. His mother came from the Western Ukraine and her life in this alien land of Jewish dreams was one of ‘detachment and humiliation and longing’. She killed herself when her son was 12. ‘All it takes is one dark night,’ he said.

For his parents, a Real City was ineluctably European, surrounded by forests with a river running through the middle and bridges across it. For his grandfather, ‘a businessman by day and a poet by night’, and ‘a devoted European’ for whom Israel was the last place he chose to go, Jerusalem was studded with emeralds and peopled by angels. ‘What the hell do you know about the real Jerusalem,’ he said angrily to his grandson one day when tackled on the discrepancy between myth and reality. ‘The real Jersualem is the Jerusalem of my poetry.’

‘Zionism is a surname,’ said Amos Oz. ‘For me, it means the right of self-determination and nationhood for those that want it. For, say, Ethiopian Jews it means the one country in the world that really wants them. The Law of Return entitles all Jews to Israeli citizenship. Even if Israel turned into a bloody monster, that alone would justify its existence to me.’ At 14 he ran away to his own notion of a promised land, as far from his father’s and grandfather’s as could be found within the same country. He went to a kibbutz to become a tough blond tractor-driving agricultural worker, though he compromised with his father insofar as he left the original kibbutz and went to one at Hulda, the only one at that time with a secondary school. There he stayed, marrying a fellow kibbutznik, until 1986, when he moved to Arad above the Dead Sea, for the sake of his youngest child’s asthma.

‘We have every right to change some of the Zionist master-plans,’ he said smiling his neat smile. He has been a leader of the Peace Now movement since its inception in 1977 and as far back as 1967 – two months after the Six-Day War – he wrote: ‘For a month, for a year, for a whole generation we will have to sit as occupiers in places that touch our hearts with their history. And we must remember: as occupiers.’ ‘I would never go to the West Bank for a picnic,’ he said. ‘I’ll go there one day with pleasure when I have a Palestinian visa stamped in my Israeli passport, but not when my visit, or my picnic, is supported by Israeli bayonets. And remember, I have lived most of my life with the menace of Arabs, my deadly enemies, wanting to wipe me off the face of the earth altogether. Now this is not funny. This is not the Falkland Islands.’

Since 1982, he has spent more and more of his time thinking, speaking and writing politics. Two books have appeared: The Land of Israel, in which he tasted opinion among Israelis all over the country, and now The Slopes of Lebanon. He does not feel that this kind of engagement with the real world leeches away any of his creativity as a novelist: ‘It’s a different kind of energy, he said. ‘When I hear one voice in me, I write an article. When I hear more than one voice and when I disagree with myself, this sometimes turns out to be the embryo of a story. Writing fiction I am almost sexless, almost ageless, metapolitical.’

It is a secular feeling that he is describing. He fears God, subscribes to the notion of a designer of some sort, but thinks religion is a bore, something God would never believe in anyway. ‘If there is anything at all in the notion of being a Chosen People, which I think there isn’t, then let him choose another people at long last. We have had our share. To me, a Jew is a human being as capable of absolutely everything as the next human being, including inhuman behaviour.’ But Christ-killing he takes more gravely: ‘The rift between Jew and Arab is a passing phase,’ he said, ‘a passing episode of perhaps fifty years or so, and already I discern signs of fatigue – blessed fatigue. To Muslims we are pariahs, we are a treacherous race. All that is in the Koran. But we are not God-killers, thank God. This deep dark thing between Christian and Jew is going to last as long as the Crucifixion is celebrated. It corresponds to one of the oldest drives in the human psyche: to make someone outside the bad guy.’ Oz believes that this has left the Jews of Israel with two colossal burdens, one of which can be worked through and discarded and one of which must be borne for ever. The first is the ‘moral carte-blanche’ to which they feel their sufferings have entitled them, and an obsession with exorcising their experiences. The other is the wound left by Jewish experience of the gas-chambers: ‘There is not and never will be any healing for that open wound. Tens of thousands of dead Arabs will not heal that wound,’ he said. ‘It’s just there – sometimes open, sometimes covered, sometimes disguised in shame, sometimes exposed for commercial reasons, sometimes used to attract tourists, sometimes repressed, but it’s always there. It’s not just the fact of how one half of Europe butchered us as the other half turned a blind eye – in the best cases. It is also the wound of our own folly.’

We were nearing Cambridge: lights, shops, cars, people – all the paraphernalia of day-today consumer life. ‘The middle-class dream has become universal now,’ he said. ‘First governments make peace with clenched teeth and then, if things develop the way things developed in Europe over the last forty or fifty years, this may beget a gradual emotional defusion. First of all, there will be the joy, the tremendous joy I saw on my grandfather’s face when Israel became a state. Then there will be the problem of the morning after and they will discover that their economy is impossible. The only way to keep a dream intact is not to live it. Israel is home to me, a bad home right now, but home it is – though I’m somewhat nostalgic for what might have been. That kind of promised land which never happened.’

[*] The Slopes of Lebanon by Amos Oz (Chatto, 246 pp., £13.95, 29 January, 0 7011 3444 5).