Dear Zealots – letters from a divided land

Winston Churchill defined the fanatic as one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject. Celebrated Israel author Amos Oz argues against religious fundamentalism, political cynicism and wishful thinking, reflecting on the rise of fundamentalism, and how, in an increasingly complex world, we take cover in xenophobia, religious fanatic­ism, and isolationism. He argues against fanaticism and for the acceptance of differences of opinion, celebrating the Jewish tradition of disputation, interpretation and persuasion and discovering an “anarchist gene” that thrives on disagreement as the perfect antidote to dogma.

Some people argue that Israeli commentators like Amos Oz, David Grossman, Gideon Levi, Uri Avnery, Ari Shavit, and Sarah Tuttle-Singer are cliche-bound idealists who love the Israel they wish to see, and not the one of a real, mutable and dangerous world. Fanatics and zealots themselves, indeed.  It is a valid if over-the-top criticism, but does not detract from what they are telling us. They, like their critics love their country with all their hearts. But they and ourselves all have our idealized homeland, a Dreamtime of our memories and imaginations, and it is, in a way, a kind of “magical thinking”. The irony is that the outside, “western” world often appears to share the same, romanticized, idealized and unrealistic concept of what Israel was, is and ought to be, and harshly holds it to that lofty standard regardless of the fact that no nation , however heroic and  glamourous its creation story, is pure and innocent.

Nevertheless, Australian publisher Louse Adler distills perfectly the message of this timely, perceptive book:


Dear Zealots: Letters from a Divided Land, by Amos Oz
Louse Adler, The Australian May 26, 2018

Writing about the Middle East may be considered timely, given the latest battles between the Israeli military and the citizens of Gaza. Yet this impasse has been in urgent need of resolution for 70 years.

Whether you celebrate the establishment of the state of Israel or mourn it as the Nakba, what remains a tragedy is the lack of a just solution that brings peace to the region and recognises the equally rights of competing claims.

Dear Zealots: Letters From a Divided Land, the 40th book from Israeli writer Amos Oz, ­offers the slimmest hope that peace may be possible, and a dire warning about the unholy coalition of anti-democratic forces that may thwart progress. Criticism of Zionism and contemporary Israeli politics is de rigueur in ­Israel, often cited as a testimony to this democratic island isolated in the midst of a fundamentalist Middle East. It is a truism that debate in Israel is robust and that critics of the state are afforded the right to dissent.

Despite treason accusations and the issuing of death threats, writers and journalists such as Oz, David Grossman, Etgar Keret and Gideon Levy continue to identify the moral malaise infecting Israeli society while the occupation of Palestine continues and settlements increase.

But these longstanding and courageous oppo­nents of the government’s attitudes to its neighbours have had little impact, ­despite their oratorical skills, international visib­ility and credibility. Great writers continue to write, speak out, sign petitions and ­demon­strate to no avail. Paradoxically, beyond Israel it is almost impossible to speak about governme­nt policies without inciting the wrath of its loyal defenders.

Into this seemingly intractable quagmire Oz has lobbed his latest literary missile. He argues against religious fundamentalism, political cynicism and wishful thinking. In three powerful essays he reflects on the rise of fundamentalism and why, in an increasingly complex world, we take cover in xenophobia, religious fanatic­ism, isolationism.

Winston Churchill defined the fanatic as one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject. Dear Zealots is an argument against fanaticism and for the acceptance of differences of opinion. Only Oz could include Israel’s “hilltop thugs”, Islamophobes, the Ku Klux Klan and Islamic State in one sentence; adding veganism, smoking and breastfeeding to this catalogue of zealotry. Against the rise of the zealot Oz celebrates the Jewish tradition of disputation, interpretation and persuasion. His discovery of an “anarchist gene” that thrives on disagreement is the perfect antidote to dogma.

Oz loves Israel. He tends to romanticise the place, pointing to the country’s eight million prime ministers, eight million prophets and eight million messiahs. However, a cacophony of voices­ and opinions doesn’t ensure­ a genuinely democratic state. A state that does not offer full rights to all citizens, a state in­extricably bound by religious authority, where there is no separation of church and state, imperils democracy.

The conflation of Israeli political practice and Jewish heritage makes it difficult to prise apart the state, the residual impact of its eastern European founders, religious influences and the challenging ethnic demographics of the polity.

Oz rages against Halachic Judaism, a form of religious piety demanding blind faith, investing God with supreme authority and believing the Torah protects Jews from assimilation. In Halachic Judaism, the history of the Jewish people is an unchanging story of sin, suffering and ­repent­ance. According to this logic, the innocent victims of the Holocaust, like those killed in Israeli military service, are martyrs sanctifying God’s name. Where else do we hear this today?

Who is a Jew remains a fundamental question. The answer delivers remarkable consensus. Everyone seems to agree that the most Jewish Jews are the “black hats”. Next are the settlers, then the trad­itional Jews who drive to synagogue but don’t eat prawns, then the Jews who are lost. The worst are the Jewish anti-Zionists, lefties who go on about human rights and peace.

Oz argues Jewish identity does not derive from holding fast to religious orthodoxy but is

amassed over generations, customs absorbed from outside which become part of the family, perhaps a certain type of humour, an inclination to be critical and sceptical, to be ironic, self-pitying and sometimes self-righteous, pragmatism tinged with fantasy, ecstasy diluted with scepticism, euphoria blended with pessimism, melancholy cheerfulness, a healthy suspicion of authority and a stubborn resistance to injustice.

The summation by Oz, often described as the secularists’ rabbi, of the commandments is the exhortation “to cause no pain”. That humanist ethos insists on the right of all to equal rights and a dignified life. That principle is disappearing from the fabric of Israel and the moral lacuna­ is being filled by pieties and pessimism.

Fundamentalism in Israel has brought ­together an unholy alliance between the ultra-Orthodox Haredim (anti-Zionist) and the (pro-Zionist) Messianic Jews of the settlements. Neither recognise the authority of the state of Israel. Fortress Israel is also the binding idea for Israel’s religious fundamentalists and political right; they perpetuate the myth of Is­rael being forever in conflict with the rest of the world.

The Israeli left’s attempts to resolve the conflict imply the terrifying prospect that Israel’s exceptionalism will evaporate, its identity will be lost, with assimilation an inevitability. Oz proposes instead that the focus should be on the future, forgetting the border fetishes of both the left and right along with the flags and holy sites.

In the final essay, Dreams Israel Should Let Go of Soon, Oz argues that Israel hasn’t won a war since 1967 and that, after 100 years of ­struggle, the Palestinian aspiration to self-determinat­ion has not been vanquished. There is justice and injustice on both sides in equal measure, and a two-state solution is the only way to ensure the continuation of a Jewish state and justice for the Palestinians. This will require compromise from both, and compromise is the antithesis­ of zealotry.

Dear Zealots is a passionate polemic against dogmatism and defeatism. Viscerally angered by the idea of irreversibility, Oz rejects as ­irrevocable the settlements and occupation. Religiou­s fanatics demand a theocratic state; the right continues to ignore international ­pressure; the left argues that the status quo is apartheid and the only solution is one state. Oz, a left-wing Zionist, opposes occupation but defends­ the historical right of Jews to statehood. He refuses to give up on democracy, on Israel or on justice for Palestinians.

Jews and Arabs are Semites, sharing more than they have chosen to remember, including a sensibility tinged with pessimism. Perhaps we should keep in mind the story of the Jewish optimist­ and the Jewish pessimist. The Jewish pessimist turns to the Jewish optimist and says: “Oy, things can’t get any worse for our people!” The Jewish optimist turns to the Jewish pessim­ist, smiles, and says: “Sure it can!”

It is the oblig­ation of all of us with a social conscience to wish Oz all power to his pen.

Louise Adler is chief executive of Melbourne University Publishing.

Dear Zealots: Letters from a Divided Land, By Amos Oz (Chatto & Windus, 224pp, $29.99)

See also, in In That Howling Infinite:  A Middle East Miscellany

 

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2 thoughts on “Dear Zealots – letters from a divided land

  1. Amos OZ, just like Gideon Levy, loved the Israel he wanted to see, not the Israel that constructed itself in the hostile ME environment. In his own way, he too was a fanatic: he wanted Israel to be a nation of saints, Jesuses, and Gandhis,a nation willing to sacrifice its right to survive on the altar of self-sacrifice to a “greater” humanitarian cause, and he made many disciples (Sarah Tuttle-Singer and Noam Chomsky for example), but that’s not reality: Israel’s is not an experiment in collective sainthood. It’s a country and it must, sometimes, kill to survive, just like all the other nations. When the allies defended Europe against the Nazi regime, they carpet bombed Dresden and killed millions of people, yet all is forgotten and forgiven 72 years later. The reason the world can’t forgive Israel even its very minimalist approach of war (kill the violent leaders, spare the civilian population as much as possible) is because people like Amos OZ, Israeli-Jews themselves, have set up an impossible and fanatical standard by which they allow the world to judge Israel and Israel alone.

    • Well said. Many thanks for your thoughts. Oz, Levi, Avnery, Grossman, Shalit, Sarah et al love their country with all their hearts, but they like us all have our ideal homeland and this is never the idealized Dreamtime of our memories and imaginations. It could even be viewed as a kind of “magical thinking”. As the Irish poet Brendan Behan wrote in his song, The Patriot Game, “the love of one’s country is a terrible thing”. The irony is that the outside, “western” world appears to have the same, romantic, idealized and unrealistic concept of what Israel ought to be and holds it harshly to that standard regardless of the fact that no nation whatever its creation story is pure and innocent.

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