Israel’s Voice of Reason? An Exclusive Interview With Amos Oz
He is, all at once, its most distinguished novelist, its most passionate defender, and its most notorious “traitor”
The unlikely story of the state of Israel – 60, sullied, surviving – is intertwined with the unlikely story of Amos Oz. He is, all at once, its most distinguished novelist, its most passionate defender, and its most notorious “traitor” – a word he uses about himself. His friend David Grossman says “Amos is the offspring of all the contradictory urges and pains within the Israeli psyche.” To spend a day in his company – to follow his story from the birth of the state to the suicide of his mother, from Zionist idealism to a broken heart – is to tour the dizzying dissonances of the Jewish state as it staggers into the 21st century.
Oz is sitting in the coffee shop of Joseph’s bookstore in Golder’s Green, north London, looking older and more fragile than his vigorous black-and-white author’s picture. He is 70 now, his hair wispier and whiter. He greets me with a gravelly voice, and we order black coffees. It seems far away and long ago, but Oz once dreamed of bombing this city. He was once a child of what he calls “the Jewish intifada” – the stone-throwing, death-defying Jewish rebellion against British occupation. He believed the state that would emerge from the rubble would be a model of justice and idealism for all mankind. If you were a child in Gaza now, Mr Oz, would you be dreaming the same dreams against Israel? “I don’t even have to imagine the answer to this question – I know it,” he says. “Because I was a kid in Jerusalem in ’48 when the city was besieged, shelled, starved, [and] the water supply [was] cut off. And I know the horror, and I know the despair, and I know the hopelessness, and I know the anger, and I know the frustration.” He says he was “not so much a child as a bundle of self-righteous arguments, a brainwashed little fanatic, a stone-throwing chauvinist. The first words I ever learnt to say in English were ‘British, go home!'”
In his novel Panther in the Basement, he writes: “This is how I remember Jerusalem in that last summer of British rule. A stone city sprawling over hilly slopes. Not so much a city as isolated neighbourhoods separated by fields of thistles and rocks. British armoured cars stood at street corners with their slits almost closed, their machine guns sticking out in front like pointing fingers: You there!”
At the age of eight, he built “an awesome rocket” in the backyard of his house. His plan was “to aim it at Buckingham Palace. I typed out on my father’s typewriter a letter of ultimatum addressed to His Majesty King George VI of England… Torrents of blood, soil, fire and iron intoxicated me.” His favourite song – a Stern Gang anthem – proclaimed: “We must fight until we breathe our last breath!”
So how did this boy, from this place, end up co-founding Peace Now, and fighting for a free Palestinian state alongside Israel? What contortions did he travel along the way, and since? And how did Israel’s story come to this?
I. Jerusalem Dreams
Amos Oz was born in Jerusalem because his parents had nowhere else to go. They were running for their lives. “It was the only life raft they could find,” he says. “My parents, they tried to become American, they tried to become British, they tried to become Scandinavian – nobody wanted them, anywhere. So, it’s a very common error to assume that in the 1930s, my parents went to a travel agency and inquired about a holiday resort, and they made a mistake – they should have said, ‘the French Riviera,’ and by mistake they said, ‘Jerusalem.'”
It was a city of “dusty tin roofs, urban wasteland of scrap iron and thistles, [and] parched hillsides”. For his parents, it was a barren shock. They were “troubled refugees from Europe, who loved Europe and were kicked out by Europe, who were devoted Europeans at a time when no-one else was a European. Everyone [else] was a pan-Germanic, or pan-Slavonic, or just a Bulgarian or a British patriot. The Jews were the only European Europeans at that time – and Europe kicked them out. They were labelled cosmopolitans, they were labelled ruthless intellectuals, they were labelled parasites. And they came to Jerusalem hoping to create a tiny little Europe in the heart of the Middle East – a European enclave. Which they couldn’t, of course. Because there was no Europe. Because their idea of Europe was no more than an idea, not a reality. The Europe of their love, the Europe they loved, did not exist, except in their own imagination.”
Oz’s mother, Fania, was born to a wealthy Jewish family in Rovno, a city in western Ukraine. She dreamed of being an artist, and soaked herself in the works of Anton Chekhov. But by the time she went to university in Prague, the tide of anti-Semitism was rising fast. She got out just in time: the Nazis killed her brother, her sister-in-law and her nephew. They killed almost all her school friends. They killed the world she grew up in – and then Stalin swept away anything that remained.
So Fania was left beached in Jerusalem, a dry, dusty city that seemed wholly alien to her. Oz says her life consisted of “the introspective, melancholy menu of loneliness in a minor key… If you ever spoke about the past, something bitter and desperate would creep into her voice.”
His father, Arieh, was forced to leave Lithuania. He was “a cultivated, well-mannered librarian, severe but also rather shy,” Oz says, who believed his true destiny – to be a great scholar of Hebrew literature – was inexplicably thwarted. When he arrived in Jerusalem, he aligned with the Israeli right, who believed the Arabs in Palestine had to be ruthlessly fought and forced out. Fleeing the Nazi persecution of the Jews, he believed Jews had to show strength to the point of brutality, or die. He wrote propaganda for the Stern Gang, which bombed British targets and Arab civilians, and were labelled as terrorists.
Still, his parents felt a sense of inferiority, and exclusion, even within Israel. “We were out-of-the-way Israelis,” he says. “The drama took place in Galilee, in the valleys, not in Jerusalem. Jerusalem was out of the way. And my parents were cut off [from] the mainstream of the enthusiasm of the Zionist revolution. They were cut off because they were right-wingers at a time when everyone was a socialist, they were city dwellers when everybody was a toiler of the land, they were academics at a time when academics were regarded with a certain suspicion.”
On the night the United Nations voted to establish the State of Israel on part of British Mandate Palestine, Arieh crawled into bed with his eight-year-old son. He whispered: “From now on, from the moment we have our own state, you will never be bullied just because you are a Jew. Not that. Never again. From tonight that’s finished. For ever.” It was the only time Oz ever saw his father cry.
That is how he ended up – like a child in Gaza today – under siege. He remembers “the war, the shelling, the siege and starvation” in fragments. He lived in what felt like a “dank submarine”, crammed into his house with his parents and a host of other families. He slept on a mattress in the corner with his parents while the food was rationed, the windows were sandbagged, the medical supplies ran down to nothing, and the toilets overflowed with faeces because there was no water to flush them. “Every few minutes, when a shell landed, the whole hill shook, and the stone-built houses shuddered,” he says. There was “a massive bombardment whose aim was to cause losses among the civilian population, break their spirit and bring them to submission”.
His parents were great linguists: his father spoke 11 languages, and read 17. Yet even when they were locked up together like this with nothing to do, he says: “The only language they taught me was Hebrew. Maybe they feared that a knowledge of languages would expose me, too, to the blandishments of Europe, that wonderful, murderous continent.”
He was raised under bombardment to be a militant, scorning the British, the Arabs, and the entire Jew-hating world. His grandfather taught him: “We have to beat them up so they’ll come and beg us for peace.” Does he feel angry when he thinks about the child he was? “No – I feel amused. Bitterly amused. I was a product of a militant upbringing in a militant time, in a state of war, and I grew up in a world where everything was black and white. We were white and our enemies were black. And our enemies were not just the Arabs but the rest of the world. The entire world. The Germans, Europe, Russia – everybody was our enemy. We were alone in the world – we were the few and the just. There was something very sweet about such a simple world, which divides into goodies and baddies, something very attractive for a child in particular, of course, and everything fell neatly into place.”
There seems to have been an extraordinary pressure on this only child – to be everything his parents had failed to be. When his father finally had a slim work of scholarship published, he inscribed it to his 11-year-old son: “To my son Amos, in the hope he might carve out a place in our literature.”
Both his parents were “immensely inhibited”, and could express little emotion beyond this burning ambition. As the news of her family and friends’ deaths began to filter through to Israel, Oz’s mother became ill and withdrawn. She began to experience “headaches” that lasted for months, and required her to inhale mysterious medicines all the time.
And then, one night, once the state was born and Amos was 12-and-a-half, she walked through a Jerusalem rainstorm to her sister’s flat, went to bed, and took a massive overdose. Having run for her life, she now ran to her death. Was there an element of survivor’s guilt in her suicide? He looks away. “Possibly. I don’t know. I don’t know the reasons why she killed herself and I no longer make an attempt to know. I doubt it that… in most cases, when a person kills himself or herself, I doubt it that there is such a thing as one reason. There is an excuse, there is an immediate motive, but there is more than just one reason.” He knows his father had an affair; he knows his mother felt lost in Jerusalem.
“I was very angry with her,” he says. “I was very angry with my father, I was very angry with myself. I blamed every one of us for the calamity,” he says. He wasn’t allowed to go to the funeral. The rage lasted for decades. “There was not a drop of compassion in me. Nor did I miss her. I did not grieve at my mother’s death. I was too hurt and angry for any other emotion to remain.” It was only, he explains, “when I reached the age when I could be my parents’ parents [that] I could look at them with a combination of compassion, humour and curiosity.” He made them the subject of his masterpiece, his memoir A Tale of Love And Darkness.
He never once discussed his mother’s death with his father: “We continued as if she had never lived.” But now, through writing, he could express everything he wanted to say. “It was about inviting the dead to my home, offering them a cup of coffee, and saying – let’s sit and talk about that which we never discussed when you were still alive. This is a highly recommended practice: invite the dead to your home from time to time, offer them a coffee and a cake, engage yourself in a good conversation with the dead, and then tell them to go away – don’t let them stay in my house. Drop by from time to time. That’s the proper relationship between the living and the dead.” Was it having children himself that made him finally able to forgive his mother? “Yes, definitely,” he says with a firm nod. In what way? He is silent for a long time. “This is too personal. I will not discuss that, if you’ll forgive me.” Then he adds, to change the subject: “I just became old enough to imagine them as immature people. I lost interest in the question of whose fault it is.”
Two years after his mother committed suicide, Amos Oz left his father and his father’s world – and began his metamorphosis into a very different person.
At the age of 14, Oz has written: “I killed my father and the whole of Jerusalem, changed my name, and went on my own to Kibbutz Hulda to live there over the ruins.”
He ran away from Jerusalem to a kibbutz – and abandoned his father’s surname, Klausner, for one of his own invention.
“‘Oz’ means strength – and it also means courage,” he says now. “When I left home at 14 and a half, I decided to become everything [my father] was not, and not to be anything that he was. He was a right-wing intellectual; I decided to be a left-wing socialist. He was a city dweller; I decided to become a tractor driver. He was short; I decided to become very tall. It didn’t work out, but I tried – I tried. So, I assumed the name ‘Oz’, because this courage and strength are what I needed most.”
Back in Jerusalem, nobody had asked what happened to the Arabs who had lived in Palestine. They vanished during the war; that was all. In the kibbutz, Oz began to hear whispers – initially to his shock and indignation. This had been their land, and they had been driven from it, by force, by us. Could it be true?
Slowly, he began to imagine the Palestinians driven from their homes, scattered in rotting refugee camps somewhere beyond Israel’s borders – and to see their similarity to his own parents. He reached the conclusion “that the clash between Israeli Jew and a Palestinian Arab is a tragedy, not a wild west movie, with good guys and bad guys. It’s a tragedy, because it is a clash between right and right. The Israelis are in Israel because they have nowhere else to go. The Palestinians are in Palestine because they have nowhere else to go. This is a conflict between victims, and between people who both have a just claim to the land.”
In 1967, this became a crucial insight, changing the course of Oz’s life. He was conscripted and fought on the Egyptian front in the Sinai desert. “I have almost never written about my experience as a soldier on the battlefield, because I tried, and I found that it is beyond my capacity to describe the battlefield,” he says. “The battlefield consists mostly of smells, and it is very difficult to describe smells in words – very difficult indeed. There is a stench on the battlefield which doesn’t come across in war movies, and in television documentaries, and it doesn’t even come across in the reportage of death and devastation and destruction on the battlefields. And this particular stench, which I remember very vividly, very physically, I remember the stench – this I simply cannot describe in words, and without the stench the description will be false.”
How did he sustain himself? “When you’re on the battlefield, you switch off your soul, otherwise you would die of terror – you would die of fear. You switch off your soul and you act like an animal or a machine. People under fire change greatly. You know what my first response was? When I found myself under fire, and I could literally see the Egyptian soldiers – it was in ’67 – these Egyptian soldiers on the next hill, firing mortar shells at us, and the mortar shells exploding in armies. My immediate instinct was, ‘call the police. These people are insane. They can see that there are people here and they are shooting at us.’ Maybe that was the last sane response on the battlefield: ‘call the police’.”
He says, however, he did not do anything he regretted. “I don’t think so, no. I have done many things that I am sorry I had to do, but nothing that I am ashamed of. For me, fighting, both in 1967 and in 1973, was a last resort, because I knew very boldly that if I don’t fight, and if the others don’t fight… my family will be killed – we will be thrown into the ocean. It was not about territories, it was not about holy places. It was about life and death. And such a war… even though that I am an old man now, I would still fight such a war. If they put me with my back against the wall, and they would say, ‘Either you fight or your family gets killed,’ I’ll fight.” The wars to defend the settlers – or the invasion of Lebanon in the 1980s – are different, he says: “I would rather have gone to prison than fight for them. I would have refused to fight for occupied territories. For an extra bedroom to the nation. For holy places. For resources. I would refuse to fight for anything except for life and freedom.”
Amid the triumphalism and the first flood of settlers, Oz was one of the first Israelis to say the land other soldiers had conquered – Gaza and the West Bank – should be returned to the Palestinians for a state of their own. “I asked myself, ‘How would I feel if I were a Palestinian in the West Bank and in Gaza?’ And, unlike most Israelis – who assumed naively that the Palestinians will be happy about the Israeli occupation, because Israel will bring with it a higher standard of living, and perhaps a better legal system – I immediately could imagine the anger, the frustration, the hatred, the despair of the Palestinians. So I started advocating a two-state solution. And at that time, there were very few of us. In fact, we could conduct our national assembly inside a telephone box.”
He was immediately dubbed a “traitor”. He says with a smile: “I take this as a compliment. A traitor is he who changes in the eyes of those who cannot change and do not change and does not even conceive a change.” All the great Jewish heroes were traitors in their time, he notes: “Jonathan and Michal betrayed their father Saul; Joab and the other sons of Zeruiah, the fair Absalom, Ammon, Adonijah, son of Hagith – they were all traitors, and the worst traitor of all was King David himself, David about whom we still sing the song, ‘David King of Israel lives, lives, lives on still.'”
And Oz was indeed betraying his father’s vision. He told his son he was “crazy. Simple as that,” Oz says. “We had some fierce arguments about peace and about the Palestinians. My father never recognised the Palestinians as a separate national entity. He thought there is a pan-Arabic nation, and this pan-Arabic nation has a territory which is 150 times bigger than the territory of Israel. ‘They have enough space. What do they want of us?’ He was a great simplifier on this issue.” He retorted to his father: “The drowning man clinging to his plank is allowed, by all the rules of natural, objective, universal justice, to make room for himself on the plank, even if in doing so he must push the others aside a little. Even if the others, sitting on that plank, leave him no alternative to force. But he has no natural right to push the others on that plank into the sea.”
What would your father think if he could hear you now? “He would be very angry with me – no doubt.” Is this, in part, an Oedipal revolt? Oz frowns a little. “There is an element of Oedipal revolt in every father-son relationship, including the relationship between me and my father.”
But there was one conviction he inherited from his father and has always retained. They both saw religion as an “archaic dust”, a bizarre leftover from a more primitive, less rational age. So when the settlers began to seize the West Bank as part of a Messianic plan to reclaim the entire biblical land of Israel, Oz saw it with horror as an attempt “to push Judaism back through history, back to the Book of Joshua, to the days of the Judges, to the extreme of fanatical tribalism, brutal and closed.”
The tragedy is – he believes – that these people believe they are motivated by the best in human nature. He wrote in his novel Black Box: “It is neither the selfishness nor the baseness not the cruelty in our nature that turns us into a species that destroys itself. We annihilate ourselves (and shall soon wipe out our entire species) precisely because of our ‘higher’ longings, because of the theological disease.” The settlers believe they are saving us, even as they drag their tribe towards hell.
“The Jewish people has a great talent for self-destruction,” he sighs. “We may be the world champions in self-destruction… [caused by] our characteristic demand for perfection, for totality, for squeezing our ideal to its last dregs or to die trying. [Look at] the history of the ancient Hebrews – they were suicidal by being extremely extremist and fanatical, by not compromising with reality, by not being ready to tolerate a Roman yoke for a while in order to survive and stay in the country. We lost our country in 70AD because we were impatient and we couldn’t tolerate a lasting Roman yoke. That was a gross mistake.” Likewise, the settlers now seek to seize all of the historical land of Israel – and in so doing, they prevent a two-state solution and could condemn Israel to a slow death.
Then, suddenly, he leans forward. “But let me share with you some good news, because you normally get only the bad news from the Middle East on the press and the media. The good news is that the vast majority of the Israeli Jews and the vast majority of the Palestinian Arabs know, in their heart of hearts, that at the end of the day there will be a two-state solution. They know it. Are they happy with it? They are not happy with it. Will they be dancing in the streets when the two-state solution is implemented? They will not be dancing in the streets. But they know… There is lack of bold leadership on both sides. But the two-state solution remains the only way out.”
He has been offering this beautiful, rational vision for 40 years now, and I have happily repeated his lines. But aren’t there days when he despairs? Aren’t there days when he agrees with Boaz, one of the characters in Black Box, who says: “In the end the Jews will finish [the Palestinians] off or they’ll finish each other off and there’ll be nothing left in this country again except the Bible and the Koran and the foxes and burned ruins”?
He smiles. “I like Boaz a great deal – I think he’s quite a character. But I don’t share his pessimism. I think a two-state solution is inevitable. The Israeli Jews are not going anywhere. There are five and a half million of us, and we’re not going anywhere – we don’t have anywhere to go. The Palestinian Arabs are not going anywhere, either – they don’t have anywhere to go. We cannot become one happy family, because we are not one with the Palestinians and we are not family and we are not happy, either. We are two unhappy families. So, it’s about turning the house into a semi-detached house. A two-family unit. There is simply no alternative to this. Now, this make take long or may take short. But it will happen.”
And then our discussion of his passionate attempt to rescue his country returns, obliquely, to the question of the mother he could not rescue. He believes the answer to the conflict – the temperamental solution – lies in the author she loved, even as her headaches raged and her will to live waned. “At the end of a Shakespeare tragedy, the stage is strewn with dead bodies, and maybe there’s some justice hovering high above. A Chekhov tragedy, on the other hand, ends with everybody disillusioned, embittered, heartbroken, disappointed, absolutely shattered, but still alive. And I want a Chekhovian resolution, not a Shakespearian one, for the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy.”
III. operation cast lead
Today, Oz lives on the edge of the Negev desert, and it strikes me he has come to resemble it – his manner is dry and slow and vast, and he seems to look down on history from the perspective of thousands of years.
Why is Oz capable of understanding the dark ambiguities – and the need for compromise – when so many of his Netanyahu- and Lieberman-voting countrymen aren’t? “See, I get up every morning very early, I drink a cup of coffee, I sit myself by my desk, and I start imagining, ‘what if I was him? What if I was her?’ That’s how I make a living: by imagining the other. I imagine the other. That’s my professional life. And my hobby, as well: I sit myself in street cafés, and when I have nothing else to do, when I’m waiting for someone…” He looks out over the café we are sitting in now, and smiles. “I look at the other guests in the cafés and try to imagine their life, who they really are, what are they talking about at that faraway table?
“So that’s what I do. It’s easy for me. It’s much harder for ordinary people who are not writers, who are not novelists, to imagine the other in times of war, or even in times of a family feud. In this I belong in a minority. Most people don’t bother.” He repeats himself, with a shake of disdain: “Most people don’t bother.”
This, he adds quickly, isn’t unique to Israel. “It is caused by anger, my friend. Anger. War begets anger and hatred and resentment. Very few people in Britain could pay any attention at all to the ordeal of Dresden and Leipzig. Very few people at the end of World War Two in London would pay any attention to the suffering of the innocent civilians in those cities.”
And yet, and yet… it seems that Oz has failed, at last, to hold himself to the high standards he has set. He initially supported Operation Cast Lead – the bombardment of Gaza that killed more than 1,400 people, 40 per cent of whom were children – even though he says he knows, from his own experience, that it will make the children of Gaza dream lunatic dreams of revenge. I ask him why. “Hamas fired some 10,000 rockets on southern Israel, where I live. And I don’t think any country in the world would simply turn the other cheek to that. I don’t think England would restrain if anybody showered Yorkshire with 10,000 rockets. So, an Israeli response was understandable and acceptable, in my view. The dimensions of the response, the disproportion of the response, is something which I severely criticise.”
But use your own test – of seeing the other side; of empathising. Using the same logic, you can ask from the Palestinian perspective – what country could tolerate being violently occupied for 40 years, then having part of its territory blockaded and semi-starved, just to punish it for how it voted in a democratic election?
He uncharacteristically changes the subject, and tries to blame somebody else. “Well, I’ll tell you something about this blockade. Gaza borders with Egypt. There was no reason why the Egyptians would not provide Gaza with whatever it needs. And there is very little reason for Israel to provide Gaza with what it needs. After all, Gaza is firing on Israel… If Egypt and the rest of the Arab world wanted to invest in Gaza and to rebuild Gaza and to raise the standard of living in Gaza, they could have done it.” Yet Oz knows it is Israel that puts vast pressure on Egypt – especially through the US – not to do that. Israel’s own security services said Hamas would extend the ceasefire if Israel agreed to ease the blockade. Wouldn’t that have been better? Wouldn’t fewer children now be dreaming of shooting rockets at Tel Aviv?
Oz – for the first time in our interview – seems unsure. “I don’t know. I think we tried. If we tried hard enough, I don’t know. I really don’t know.” He looks down, then away.
Then he says more confidently: “I think in the last days before the Israeli attack on Gaza, the firing of rockets increased to about 80 rockets a day. And our casualties, and our homes destroyed, and there was the suffering of close to one million Israelis who have to live in underground shelters. No government could tolerate this. No government could simply turn the other cheek.”
But the Palestinian side was suffering even more horribly – using your logic, they, too, have a right to fight back and bomb. “I could understand and justify, and justified, a limited, proportionate, measured, cautiously targeted Israeli military response – not a full-scale war. You see… I said many times, and I’ll say it again – I’m a peacenik, not a pacifist. Yes, the pacifists believe that the ultimate evil in the world is war. I believe that the ultimate evil is not war but aggression, and aggression sometimes has to be blocked by force. Hence the difference between a peacenik and a pacifist.”
It is another wriggle. I’m not advocating pacifism – I’m saying this specific war was a bad idea. As if to soothe me, he says: “I think there should be a thorough judicial interrogation of the occurrences in the Gaza war. The Israeli judiciary is independent and bold and I think there should be a thorough, comprehensive interrogation.” He then says that “in principle”, Israel should negotiate with Hamas. “If Hamas is ready to talk to Israel, Israel should talk to Hamas right away. Absolutely. Absolutely. Of course, we need to. It’s difficult to compromise with Hamas because Hamas maintains that there should be no Israel at all. Not even I can propose as a compromise that Israel exists Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. But the moment Hamas shows the slightest inclination to recognise Israel, I would talk to it – of course I would.”
The he surprises me with a bold prediction. I ask: can you imagine Bibi Netanyahu shaking hands with the Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh on the White House lawn, with Obama smiling in-between? He beams. “Absolutely, yes. Absolutely, yes. Absolutely, yes.” He adds: “Don’t swear an oath about Netanyahu not delivering the two-state solution. So far, we have seen almost every right-wing Prime Minister making surprising concessions for peace. Begin over Sinai and the peace with Egypt; Sharon in evacuating the Gaza strip; Netanyahu himself over the Hebron concessions. So, I don’t know. I cannot read his mind; I am sure he does not know yet what he is going to do. But it may well be that reality will be stronger than him, that he will sense the mood of the majority of the Israeli people and surprise us.” He has met Netanyahu “a few times”, and says: “Deep down below, he strikes me as an opportunist, and that’s not necessarily a bad quality under the circumstances.”
Oz and Netanyahu come from similar backgrounds: right-wing revisionists in a socialist country, demanding tougher, harder, crueller policies. Can you imagine a world where you ended up like him? “Yes, yes,” he says. “Well, the question is – would he end up like me?”
What does this support for the attack on Gaza – and the initial bombing of Lebanon in 2007 – suggest about Oz? Is there a desire to be an easy, unconflicted part of the tribe – to belong – at last? Is his empathy running out as rockets rain close to his home? In his latest, tender book, Rhyming Life and Death, a middle-aged novelist wanders the streets of Tel Aviv, feeling disconnected from his country. The character admits to “a profound sadness that he is always an outsider”.
Do you feel this, Amos? There is a long pause. “I would say yes,” he says. But every follow-on question I ask to tease this out only prompts a subject-changing anecdote about something else. The loneliness of the exhausted, wavering peace campaigner is something he doesn’t want to discuss. And so the boy who ran away from his suicide-scarred home at 14 to become a left-wing icon might be allowing flickers of his father’s voice to break through – at last, after all this time.
Other interview excerpts:
What happened to the Israeli left?
I think the hundreds of thousands of left-wing voters decided more or less, at the very last moment, that they are going to vote for Livni’s centrist party in order to block Netanyahu. They are still leftists.
Three years ago, Israel evacuated Gaza and handed it over to the Palestinians, removing by force some 26 Israeli settlements from the Gaza strip. The general expectation was that now, some peace and quiet will follow. Instead, Israel was showered by a rain of rockets from Gaza on Israeli towns and villages, which lasted for years. No doubt there is disappointment, anger and an urge to respond. I’m not justifying it – I’m just explaining the phenomenon.
Has Israel ceased to be a European country?
Well, I’m not entirely sure what you mean by a ‘European country’. Do we mean the Balkans? Do we mean Russia? Do we mean England? What exactly is a European country? It is a common assumption, and a wrong assumption, that the founding of Israel came from enlightened Europe. They did not. Most of them never had any experience with liberal democracy or with the rule of law. The founding fathers and mothers of Israel came primarily from Tsarist Russia, partly from Poland, Hungary – such places. They did not come from very liberal, open-minded countries – they came from dark dictatorships. Very few among the founding fathers and mothers of Israel ever experienced democracy. If I compare Israel to the countries from which the Israelis came, by and large – Tsarist Russia, or Fascist Poland, or Fascist Hungary and Romania, or, for that matter, Morocco and Iraq, Israel is by far better than the countries where the founders came from.
My parents never lived for a single day in their lives in a democratic country before they came to Jerusalem.
How do you explain the rise of Avigdor Liberman?
Lieberman is a complex phenomenon. He stands for tightening the screw on the Israeli Arabs, but he also stands for liberal marriage and for more or less separating the church from state. He stands for a two-state solution. I’m not advocating him, for God’s sake, I’m not defending him, but he stands for a two-state solution and he also stands for two capitals in Jerusalem. So he’s not simply far-right. He’s far-right on the Israeli Arabs, but not on other issues.
This see this as a growing trend everywhere. I remind myself that in peaceful Norway, a far-right, semi-racist party carried more than 20% of the votes. In peaceful Switzerland…So, in peaceful Switzerland some 18% voted for a far-right, semi-racist party – not to mention France and Italy. So, there seems to be a universal phenomenon, and Israel is not immune.
You have said your views on David Ben-Gurion, israel’s founding Prime Minister, have changed. In what way?
Yes, I wonder if I was right, because the more I read about Ben Gurion, the more I realise that, behind his harsh rhetoric, he was a great compromiser. He was willing to accept the two-state solution at any phase of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – right from the 1930s on, he was willing to accept the idea of partition of the disputed Left. So, his rhetoric was very patriotic and very harsh and full of exclamation marks. But in fact he was a pragmatist.
So you’re not expressing sympathy for there is the driving-out of people or the refusal to let them return?
Look, in 1948, hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs were forcibly driven out by the Israelis. That is something we will have to account for. We cannot let them go back into Israel proper, into pre-1967 Israel, because if they do there will be two Palestinian states and no home for the Jews. But we have to assume moral responsibility, at least partial moral responsibility – perhaps not full moral responsibility.
Why not full moral responsibility?
Because let’s not forget that this happened in the context of an all-out attack of the Arab world on young Israel. An attempt, a vicious attempt, to throw the Jews into the ocean. And let us also not forget that there was a 100% ethnic cleansing of the other side at the same time. Not one Jew was allowed to leave, to remain in the West Bank and in Gaza occupied by Egypt and by Jordan in 1948. There was a Jewish community in the old city of Jerusalem who lived there for more than 1,000 years. In fact, they lived there longer for the Arabs. They were wiped out in 1948. So, the ethnic cleansing took part on both sides. That’s why I say “partial responsibility.”
How do you explain the stance of the European left towards Israel?
In the 20th century, most of the conflicts were Manichean. Colonialism and anti-colonialism was black-and-white. Apartheid was a black-and-white issue – literally. And Vietnam was black-and-white. So many do-gooders in the world are in the habit of waking up in the morning, signing a petition in favour of the good guys, launching a demonstration against the bad guys, and going to sleep feeling very well about themselves. They find it difficult to conceive a phenomenon such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is essentially not black-and-white. I think the syndrome of the 21st century – not just in the Middle East, everywhere – is not about Huntington’s War of Civilisations (not at all, not in the least), it’s about the fanatics against the rest of us. And fanatics exist in Islam, in Judaism, in Christianity, in the left wing, in the right wing – everywhere.
You have said that during your childhood, Holocaust survivors were viewed with discomfort, even disgust, within Israel.
There was a latent version of anti-Jewish feelings. The young Israeli Jews did not want to identify themselves with the eternal victims. They don’t want to be one with the eternal victims. They were throwing at the survivors the horrible accusation, “why didn’t you defend yourselves? Why didn’t you fight back? After all, we are fighting back – why couldn’t you fight back?” That is, of course, forgetting the totally different circumstances – Nazi Europe and in the Middle East. There was a certain deep inclination among the new Israelis to turn over a new leaf – to be born anew. To renounce themselves from those qualities which were allegedly ascribed to the Jews by their worst enemies, by the anti-Semites. So, in a sense, many Israelis accepted certain anti-Semitic clichés, and resented what they found in the Jews as the reason for those anti-Semitic clichés.
Do you believe the European criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, as many Israelis charge?
I’m very reluctant to be inflationary with the usage of the term “anti-Semitism.” I think much of the vehement criticism of Israel is well-deserved. I think, however, that some of the criticism of Israel originates from a certain double standard. And from great expectations. Not from anti-Semitism, but from great expectations. You see, many times I heard it from European friends. They say to me, “well, the Jews, they have been through the death camps and concentration camps. How can they be cruel after such an experience? The Palestinians, on the other hand – they have been humiliated and oppressed. No wonder they are violent – what else do you expect?” This is giving double standards a bad name.
It is actually very condescending to all the Palestinians. And, by and large, very condescending to all the entire Third World. There is a certain attitude, a certain mood, prevailing in this country and elsewhere, that, “right or wrong the Third World, we should stand by it.” I find this very insulting to the Third World. The Third World deserves help, compensation, support – but not a moral concession. No-one in this world deserves a moral concession. Not the Palestinians, not Israelis, not anyone.
The experience of World War Two is fading here. And because, on the British Left, there is a kind of irrational Third World sentiment: “right or wrong, if it’s the Third World then we have to stand by it.” And in every confrontation between what strikes the British as the First World on one hand and the Third World on the other, they automatically stand by the Third World, whether it deserves to be defended or not. That’s why they have very, very little interest – relatively little interest, or perhaps no interest at all – in conflicts within the Third World. And this inclination to Manicheanism is alien to me. And this entire attitude of dividing the world into good guys and bad guys – signing petitions in favour of the good guys, launching demonstrations against the bad guys, and going to sleep feeling very good about themselves – is very alien to me.
My attitude is really more Chekovian. When I see a car accident site, with people bleeding on the roads, asking who is to blame and launching an angry demonstration against the driver would be last on my mind. I will tend the injured people, I will think about healing the wounds, I will think about getting medical aids, I will think about… to stop the bleeding, and I will put off the question of who takes how much of the blame. It’s not urgent. You know, that’s… when I talk to Palestinians. In a sense, it’s easier for me to talk to Palestinians than to talk to some of the friends of Palestine here in Britain and in other European countries. Because when I talk to Palestinians it’s always about the question of what can be done and what should be done. Whereas here, it’s more often than not about the blame, and who takes the blame. So, I am Chekovian in the sense of regarding my role in the peace efforts as the role of a country doctor. “See what I can do; see what I can do.”
Do you think Israel should bomb Iran to stop it acquiring nuclear weapons?
Regrettably, within 15 years or so, every country that wants it will have means of mass destruction, whether nuclear or whatever. So there is no point for Israel in striking Iran, when Pakistan, which already has nuclear weapon, may turn tomorrow into a fundamentalist Islamic country. So, we will have to rely on good old deterrence, rather than launch a pre-emptive strike.
What does you say to those on the right, who say deterrence doesn’t work against people who don’t mind dying in a holy cause?
I don’t think heads of governments are ever the equivalents of suicide bombers. Not even Hitler. If he would have known that Germany is going to be annihilated, he would probably have been more careful. Assuming that both Israel and Iran are going to be nuclear, this may provide for peace and quiet, because it would provide a mutually assured destruction.
How does it feel to come to Britain, a country you dreamed of bombing as a child?
It felt fascinating. I was immensely and endlessly curious about everything British. Because I remember them from the days of the British mandate in Jerusalem in my childhood with a certain ambivalence. I didn’t really hate them; I wanted to hate them, I needed to hate them, I was supposed to hate them. But I couldn’t hate them, because in the end they were not the demons we pictured them to be. They have done their share of incitement between Jews and Arabs – separate and rule, you know. And they have committed their serious misdeeds in the Middle East. But they were not diabolical. And deep down in my heart of hearts, there was a warm niche for the British in my heart. When I first came here, I was glad to come here.
Do you think European repentance about anti-Semitism has been sincere? What do you think of ‘The Reader’?
I don’t know. I really don’t know. I’m not sure there has been a deep soul-searching in Europe about minorities altogether. And, to judge by the way other minorities are being treated by Europe now, I am not sure the soul-searching was really sufficient.
Well, German literature taught me a lesson. First, they wanted me to sympathise with simple German folks during World War Two, which I could do. Then, they wanted me to sympathise with German soldiers during World War Two, which I could do with some difficulties. Now, they want even, want me to sympathise not only with SS, but with war criminals, with SS war criminals. That’s a bit hard.
Do you have high hopes of Barack Obama?
We all have messianic hopes in Obama, and I’m worried about my own hopes, and I’m worried about other people’s hopes. I think we are hoping too much. He declared a week or so that he will deal aggressively with the peace in the Middle East. I never thought I would enjoy hearing an American president using the word “aggressively,” and I would think that this is a positive thing, but here we go! Yes.
Do you believe in sanctions against Israel?
That would be counter-productive, because this will harden the Israelis and corner them, and strengthen the widespread feeling, any widespread feeling, that “the whole world is against us anyway, so why try?”
What do you say to advocates of a one-state solution, accommodating both Israelis and Palestinians?
One-state solution would be a terrible solution, because trying to push into bed together, into a honeymoon bed together, two deadly enemies, after 100 years of bloodshed and suspicion and animosity, would provide for a tragedy. We have seen what happens in former Yugoslavia, we have seen what happens in Cyprus, we have seen what happens in the former Soviet Union. Even Belgium is dissolving now. So a bi-national state is a miserable solution.
What do you say to people who say Israel is a colonial implant in the Middle East?
I would say that colonialists went to overseas countries to get rich. The Jews didn’t come to Israel to get rich. In fact, they pumped a million times more resources into the country than they could have possibly hoped to take out of it. So, this in itself rules out the comparison to colonial enterprises. Moreover, the Jews had nowhere to go.
Is Israel now the country you imagined it would be?
Certainly not. Israel was born out of dreams – out of magnanimous dreams. It is destined, by definition, to be a disappointment. This is not about the nature of Israel; it’s about the nature of dreams. The only way to keep a dream whole and rosy and intact and perfect is never to try to live it out. The moment a dream is fulfilled, it’s flawed and disappointing by definition. This is true of planting a garden; this is true of writing a novel. This is true of living out a sexual fantasy. This is true of everything.
What are the main disappointments?
Many. Many, many. Too many to describe. The initial… one of the initial dreams was that Israel would become a castle of spirituality. In fact, it’s a very creative country – it’s exploding with creativeness. Maybe going through a cultural golden age. The theatre, the cinema, the literature, the music, the sciences are vivacious. But the kind of moral example unto the nations which the founding fathers and mothers hoped for Israel to be is not fulfilled and possibly couldn’t be fulfilled. That’s the unavoidable gap between the magnitude of initial dreams and the realities.
What should British people who are concerned for peace be doing?
They should be more curious. They should be more curious. Be aware of the position of a walking exclamation mark, which is the position of the fanatic. After all, the fanatic is a walking exclamation mark. Be more curious. God in the details, and the devil is also in the details. Study the details. Imagine the other. These are my simple imperatives.
In what way would that inform practical action?
Practical action right now is to help find homes and jobs for hundreds of thousands of homeless Palestinian refugees. This is urgent. Reconstruct Gaza. This is urgent. Help Gaza evacuate the settlers from the West Bank. This is urgent. These are urgent tasks. And everybody could do something in this direction. Everybody could do something – at least something.
You have defended the idea of compromise from its critics.
I’m a great believer in compromises. I know the word “compromise” has a very bad, very negative reputation, especially in radical circles in this country and among the young. Compromise is conceived as inconsistent, as opportunistic, as dishonest. For me, the word “compromise” is synonymous with the word “life”. And where there is life, there should be compromises. And the opposite of “compromise” is not “consistency”, and the opposite of “compromise” is not “idealism” – the opposite of “compromise” is “fanaticism” and “death”. And when I say “compromise”, I don’t mean “capitulation”, and I certainly don’t mean “turn the other cheek”. I mean, “try to meet the other somewhere halfway – somewhere halfway.” And that’s true in a marriage as much as it is true in international relations. It’s about compromises.
What do you say to those on the right who say – okay, what happens if we do what you want; we withdraw to the ’67 borders, we have a peace deal, and the next day, rockets are fired at Israel?
We will fight back. We will definitely fight back. But then, we will fight a just war of self-defence. Yes. This might happen, by the way. There is no guarantee that this will not happen; if Israel withdraws to the ’67 boundaries, there is no guarantee. But we will be fighting a just war of self-defence, and there is all the difference in the world.
I think the Palestinians will have less reasons to want to fight against Israel if they have a state of their own – if they have a homeland of their own. I hope so.