Remembering Amos Oz — the Dreamer
Amos Oz — writer-poet, prophet, and would-be politician — is dead. Israel and the Jewish world will probably never see his like again.
As an American Jew, I see Oz in terms of American comparisons.
He and Philip Roth, each in their own language, were the most successful Jewish writers of their time. Both also professed a hatred of political fanaticism. But I would also stress differences.
Roth, down deep, was always the Newark Jewish boy who made good in post-Holocaust America. In an early story, “Eli the Fanatic,” he satirized his fellow American Jews by telling the story of Eli, a successful lawyer, who moves up to a ritzy suburb that does not quite accept him as a Jew. When a Hassid opens a Yeshiva, Eli looks desperately for cover, but his defenses fall apart as he starts wearing the Hassid’s present of Hassidic garb — and is committed to an insane asylum!
Back then, Roth may have thought American Jewish status anxieties were funny and overblown, but in his best-selling The Plot Against America (2004) he came close to suggesting that American Jewish fears about their hard-won success might be well-grounded.
Amos Oz, on the other hand, never doubted his essential Israeliness. He knew he was not an immigrant new arrival, even as he empathically explored immigrant anxieties in Israel.
Politically, Oz personified what is now a declining sect of left-wing Zionists, defined by their elite Ashkenazi origins. More and more, Oz appeared as a Don Quixote in pursuit of the possibly impossible dream of the “two state solution.” He once adopted the slogan of a political coalition claiming “our politics are on the left, but our hearts are in the center.” But the truth is that he was perversely bedeviled by his political tin ear — notably giving imprisoned Palestinian terrorist Marwan Barghouti a copy of the Arabic translation of his book A Tale of Love and Darkness, dedicated in Hebrew, in 2011.
From the time of ancient Israel, our prophets have always played politics. But they also always knew enough to articulate their message while leaving government posts to politicians more knowledgeable about kingship. The same could be said for America’s Martin Luther King, Jr., who was wise enough never to run for office. Amos Oz should have studied up on Reverend King and avoided his over-immersion in party politics.
I wonder if Oz sometimes dreamed of himself as an Israeli Cincinnatus. Cincinnatus was the Roman patriot-soldier (Oz’s own military service was exemplary) who returned to his farm, only then to be recalled by his grateful people to lead them politically. President George Washington was sometimes called “the American Cincinnatus.” But if Oz ever believed that the Israel people would carry him on their shoulders from his kibbutz, Hulda, back to Jerusalem to lead them, history revealed him as a fantasist.
Yet whatever the vagaries of his politics, Oz’s heart was always in the right place: he was a true Israeli patriot who supported (at least up to a point) Israel’s necessary self-defense against Hamas rockets, and angrily answered leftists abroad who defamed Israel as a moral pariah.
The Book of Jonah tells us “your old men will dream dreams, and your young men will see visions.” Before he died, Amos Oz said: “Israel is a dream come true, and as a dream come true it is flawed, very flawed, and sometimes dangerously flawed or painfully flawed. But this is in the nature of dreams, not necessarily in the nature of Israel.” He also said: “I love Israel, but I don’t like it.”
Both as a young man and an old man, Oz saw dreams and visions about Israel, which he used the Hebrew language to evoke with pathos and humor to communicate his faith to Israelis, Jews, and ecumenical readers everywhere. Not a political visionary, Oz had a humanizing sense of humor that, let’s hope, did not die with him.
In 1970, during Israel’s War of Attrition with Nasser’s Egypt, Oz asked Prime Minister Golda Meir, “What do you dream about?” “I don’t have time to dream,” she replied with a scowl. “I can’t sleep, because the phone keeps ringing with reports about casualties.”
Oz was correct: political leaders do need to have inner lives. But Meir was also correct: they cannot luxuriate in dreams the same way that Oz did.
Historian Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Africans, African Americans, and Jews (Africa World Press, 2015).