An Israeli Writer Looks Back on His Life and Nation

Article excerpt


In spite of himself. As I read this magnificent memoir by the Israeli novelist Amos Oz, that phrase kept running through my head. There is such conviction in Mr. Oz's writing and such integrity: he manages the impossible by being somehow passionate and dispassionate all at once.

And to anyone who knows Mr. Oz as writer or as public figure - the author astride his country and operating in the perilous sphere of politics and society, the soldier/ peace activist, the man who left his family to live for more than three decades on a kibbutz, or collective settlement - the real surprise of this memoir is the reverence it shows for everything Mr. Oz's enemies (and perhaps even some of his friends) believe he has rejected as an artist and as a human being. For Amos Oz grew up in the heart of that brand of intellectual and political Zionism known as Revisionism, which followed the teachings of Vladimir Jabotinsky. Indeed, Mr. Oz might fancifully be styled Revisionist royalty, since he was the great-nephew of Joseph Klausner, perhaps the brightest star in Revisionism after Jabotinsky's death.

Revisionism championed a vigorous implementation of the Zionist claim to Palestine on both sides of the Jordan River and rejected the Socialism which dominated Israel's society and economy for its first three decades. To understand the symbolic importance of Amos Klausner's changing his name to Oz and at the tender age of 15 embracing the socialist collective life, imagine a teenage Kennedy becoming a Republican. Or to stay on Israeli ground, Benjamin Netanyahu (whose parents were part of Klausner's circle) becoming a teenage Kibbutznik and a Labor politician.

And yet how tender is Mr. Oz's portrait of the Revisionists in this memoir. How he can empathize with them, understand them, feel with them. His parents, he writes, were naturally inclined towards the liberal attitudes he was later to display towards the displaced Palestinian Arabs, "but the pacifist ideals of Martin Buber's Brit Shalom - sentimental kinship between Jews and Arabs, total abandonment of the dream of a Hebrew state so that the Arabs could take pity on us and kindly allow us to live here at their feet- such ideals appeared to my parents as spineless appeasement, craven defeatism of the type that had characterized the centuries of Jewish Diaspora life."

Mr. Oz is of course characterizing his parents' attitudes, not his own. But am I the only reader who sees in his language - the tone he adopts in talking about them and his actual choice of words - more than a touch of sympathy? Certainly, they are not the words you'd expect from a celebrated peacenik. Indeed, he is more understanding about his parents than he is about himself. When he discusses his own prelapsarian patriotic fervor, he is unsparing of his youthful self: harsh, even cruel, about the child he once was.

But in evoking the atmosphere which nurtured him and made him the kind of person he is, he seems very much to be binding himself into his heritage. Now that he is in his 60s, there is a palpable sense in this book of wanting to connect himself and his own children to their forebears, who are vividly and beautifully evoked as far back as the 18th century. Indeed, there is a poignancy about Mr. Oz's personal quest to understand his parents' marriage and in particular his mother's suicide when he was 12. Just as there is about his desire to imagine as fully as possible, to understand truly, the Zionist enterprise. And underlying this last quest is the quintessentially Wordsworthian question:

"Whither is fled the visionary gleam?

Where is it now, the glory and the dream?"

Today's right-wing in Israel, which is in some ways the descendent of the Revisionism embraced by the Klausners, is something to which Mr. Oz remains implacably opposed. Like many Israelis on the left, he feels that the Likud governments have hijacked his country. …