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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That was the year that was

As I contemplate my annual review of In That Howling Infinite, I am reminded, with clichéd predictability, of that well-worn Chinese curse: “may you live in interesting times”.

A torturous and seemingly endless US election campaign defied all the pundits by producing an colourful and unpredictable POTUS. In the UK, the unthinkable Brexit came to pass, dividing the polity and discombobulating the establishment. Next year is certainly going to be worth watching.

The slow and tragic death of Syria continued unabated with Russian and Turkey wading into the quagmire alongside Americans, British, French, Australians, Iran, Lebanon, Gulf tyrants, and Uncle Tom Cobley and all. Da’esh might be on the the ropes in Iraq, but the long term survival of the unitary state is doubtful. And the proxy wars of the Ottoman Succession have spread to Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle Eas as Gulf tyrants face off against Shia Iran’s alleged puppets, and, armed and abetted by British and American weaponry, South American mercenaries, and Australian officers, bomb the shit out of the place.

Whilst the grim reaper scythed through the world from Baghdad to Berlin, from Aleppo to Ankara, the Year saw the passing of a record number of icons of the seventies and eighties, two of whom who have provided a continuing soundtrack for my life, Leonard Cohen and David Bowie. We shall not see the like of them again.

In our little corner of the cosmos, we endured the longest and most boring election campaign in living memory, resulting in an outcome that only accentuates Australians’ disenchantment with a lacklustre Tory government, a depressingly dysfunctional political system, and politicians of all stripes who, blinkered by short-termism, and devoid of vision, insist on fiddling whilst the antipodean Roman burns.

Meanwhile, in our own rustic backyard, we find that we too are “going up against chaos”, to quote that wonderful Canadian songster Bruce Cockburn. For much of the year, we have been engaged in combat with the Forestry Corporation of New South Wales as it proceeds to lay waste to the state forest that surrounds us. As the year draws to a close, our adversary has withdrawn with only half of its proposed harvest completed. But it will return in 2017, and the struggle will continue – as it will throughout the state and indeed the nation as timber, coal and gas corporations, empowered by legislation, trash the common treasury with the assent of our many governments.

And yet, life on the farm remains pleasant and delightful, though dams are low and rain would be most welcome. The bird and reptilian life continues to amaze us, and an ironic corollary to the clear felling of the Tarkeeth Forest is that “refugees” are seeking shelter here. Wallabies rarely seen on our land are now quite common, whilst echidnas, and, we suspect, endangered spotted quolls have been sighted hereabouts

We took time out mid-year to revisit Israel and Palestine, and road-trip through the two countries was much an education as a holiday. We certainly got our history and archeology fix, and in travelling through the Golan and the Negev, we found respite in a stunning natural environment. But the answers to our many political questions merely threw up more questions. We have unfinished business in this divine but divided land, and will return.

In That Howling Infinite addressed all these concerns during 2016, and matters more eclectic and exotic.

And so, to the year in review:

The new year commenced with a reprise of our memorable journey to Hadrians Wall, and of the Victorian lawyer who helped preserve it for posterity, the saga of the viking Harald Hardraga and also, my subjective overview of world history. In a more lighthearted vein, I indulged in an unscholarly discussion of how film and fiction have portrayed or distorted history, and in a review of Mary Beard’s superlative history of Rome, I asked the immortal question “what have the Romans done for us?”

The Life of Brian

In April, in response to a discussion with a Facebook friend in Oklahoma, I wrote a trilogy of exotically-titled posts examining the nature of rebellion, revolution, and repression: Thermidorian ThinkingSolitudinem Faciunt Pacem Appellant, and Sic Semper TyrannisThe origin of these Latin aphorisms is explained, by the way, in the aforementioned Roman review.

Nightwatch

Our travels through Israel and Palestine inspired numerous real-time posts, and a several retrospectives as we contemplated what we had experienced during what was as much an educational tour as a holiday. Historical vignettes included a tribute to bad-boy and builder King Herod the Great, a brief history of the famous Damascus Gate, and its place in Palestinian national consciousness, and a contemplation on the story of King David’s Citadel which overlooked our home-away-from home, the New Imperial Hotel. Thorny contemporary issues were covered with an optimistic piece on the Jerusalem Light Rail, a brief if controversial post about  Jewish settlers in the Old City, the story of Israel’s ‘Eastern’ Jews, the Mizrahim, and what appears to be a potentially problematic Palestinian property boom. Th e-magazine Muftah published an article I wrote about the conflicting claims to the city of Hebron. And finally, there is a poem recalling our visit to the Shrine of Remembrance at Yad Vashem and honouring the Righteous Gentiles who saved thousand of Jewish lives during the Shoah.

Carnivale

Wintertime passed with our minds on the Tarkeeth Forest. I had the pleasure discovering the history of our locality, and connecting via Facebook with the relatives of the Fells family of Twin Pines. But the latter half of the year was very much taken up with enduring and bearing witness to the clear- felling of the forest to our east. “If you go down to the woods today, you’re in for a big surprise.  If you go down to the woods today, you’ll never believe your eyes”. And you’d ask “what would JRR Tolkien have thought?”

Nothing quite prepares you for the devastation of clear felling. Joby, a Gumbaynggirr elder, surveys the Tarkeeth

The UK And US paroxysms fascinated and exasperated the mainstream and social media in equal measure, whilst the outcome of the Brexit referendum and the presidential election has initiated an a veritable orgy of punditry. Never have so many column inches and kilobytes been spent on loud sounding nothings as the sifting through the entrails of such events as Brexit, the US election, and the Australian senate! With half a dozen elections coming up in Europe, Trump’s inauguration and the triggering of Article 50 to take Britain out the European Union, we’re gonna have to endure a lot more. I confined my posts to two insightful pieces by respected right-wing Australian commentators, Paul Kelly’s Living in Interesting Times, and Greg Sheridan’s The Loss of American Virtue, and my own reflection on the right-wing media’s strange fascination with “insiders” and “outsiders”.

Finally, in comparison to last year, this year was very light on music and poetry. But American satirist Tom Lehrer got a retrospective, and murdered Pakistani qawwali singer Madhaf Sabri, an obituary, whilst an abridged and vernacular version of John Milton’s Paradise Lost told the tale of Lilith, the first and greatest femme fatale. In the words of the gloriously-named jockey Rueben Bedford Walker III says in EC Morgan’s magnificent The Sport of Kings, the subject of my first post for 2017, “Malt does more than Milton can to justify God’s ways to man”.

On that wise note,  I wish the world a Happy New Year – and may it be less interesting than this one.

In That Howling Infinite  is now on FaceBook. Check it out.  And just for the fun of it, here’s my review of 2015.

The Sabri Brothers

Dore Luciifer

Righteous Among the Nations

During the Shoah, the biblical word for ‘the destruction”, and today, the standard Hebrew word for The Holocaust, the Nazi’s progress towards the Final Solution was aided and abetted by governments, armies, auxiliaries, officials, and individuals in the many countries that fell under the Axis thrall between 1939 and 1945. But there were also many, many people of goodwill and extraordinary courage from all walks of life who risked their lives and often, those of their families and friends, to protect Jews from persecution, and to save them from capture, deportation and extermination. untold numbers perished along with their charges. Many survived, as did thousands of Jews.

As of January 1, 2016, the 26,120 people from over fifty countries have been honoured by the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Centre. These are The Righteous Among the Nations. 

For Oscar Schindler, Raoul Wallenberg, and the ‘Righteous Gentiles’.
In the words of the Talmud, “he who saves a life, saves the world entire”

We said “the worst is over”,
When the laws began to bite,
And our people crouched in silent fear
That fiery crystal night.
When they burned down the synagogues
And made Jews wear the star.
“this madness will not last”, we said,
“Nor reach us where we are”.

And we said “the worst is over”,
Bought the optimistic line.
We shared the hopes of millions,
Prayed for peace in our own time.
And we listened to our elders,
And we kept our fears controlled.
And we thought the worst was over.
Until the panzers rolled.

Then we thought the worst was over
When our army laid down arms.
And we went back to our daily lives,
Dismissed as false alarms
The rumours that these conquerors
Would wipe us from this earth.
It didn’t take us long to learn
What such false hope was worth.

Still, we thought the worst was over
When they made us wear the star,
And gathered all our people
From their townships near and far.
And they forced into ghettos
And set guards upon the gates.
We had seen worse persecution
In the history of our faith.

But we knew the worst still to come
As we watched the trucks appear.
And whispered talk of death camps
Gave dark substance to our fear.
When they sent in dogs and soldiers
To cull those trapped inside,
The ghetto was a station
On the road to genocide.

In the world beyond the wire
None could hear our people crying
As silence like a curtain fell
And cloaked a nation’s dying.
The ears of men were stricken deaf,
The eyes of men were blind
As the free world’s incredulity
Built the wall we died behind.

But we believed that at the hour of death,
When all our hopes had gone,
From the ranks of Gentiles
A just man would soon come.
He would part engulfing waters
With bold deeds and sleight of hand.
He would lead a tortured people
To a safe and promised land.

And, we believe
That when all doors are bared against us,
He will come.
When all hands are raised against us,
He will come.
When no man will defend us,
He will come
Into our darkest day.
He will walk up to our sepulcher
And roll the stone away.

Yes we believe
That in the hour of our worst torment,
He will come.
Like an angel in the darkness,
He will come.
When all our hope is dying,
He will come.
And in our blackest day,
He will walk up to our sepulcher
And roll the stone away.

Featured Image, from Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre

Oscar Schindler's grave, Mount Zion, Jerusalem

Oscar Schindler’s grave, Mount Zion, Jerusalem