Last week Israel lost one of its greatest and well-regarded novelists, Amos Oz, the voice of a generation who came of age after the creation of the Jewish state. Oz chronicled the contradictions of a country built on the foundation of a rich tradition but eager to fashion something new and modern. The space between these two poles was where he found his inspiration.
Like many voices of a generation, Oz had to grapple with the problem that time moves on and eventually one must yield to the next iteration. He was a passionate defender of the Labor Zionist ethos: strong on defense but open to compromise for the sake of peace, secular in outlook, egalitarian and socialist on economic matters. His vision for Israel was shared by the left-leaning Ashkenazic elite who ruled the country for its first 30 years.
The Israel that Amos Oz began to write about in the 1960’s, however, no longer exists. The Labor party, which dominated Israeli politics in its first decades, may not even receive 10 votes in the next election scheduled for April 9th. Benjamin Netanyahu, whose government Oz despised, is poised to win his 4th consecutive term and 5th overall.
Oz himself wrote about the changes happening to Israel in his 1983 work of non-fiction, In the Land of Israel. He traveled the country and spoke to all kinds of people, including settlers and Palestinians in the West Bank, to show the diversity of voices that he heard. For many, me included, the book deconstructed stereotypes that had been built by the walls that keep groups separate.
In rabbinical school, I took a class on Modern Hebrew literature where we read works in the original. Despite his spare style, Oz was a challenge because while he sometimes alluded to Jewish themes, he was a thoroughly secular writer, and I was used to reading religious texts. We were assigned a story, “The Way of the Wind”, from his first collection of stories, Where the Jackals Howl, about kibbutz life.
The story deals with the conflict between the founding generation, the heroic Zionist leaders, and their children, like Oz, who struggled to live in their giant shadow. As my teacher, the late Alan Mintz described it, the story examined the seam between the utopian vision of the state and the reality.
Israel is still grappling with the contradictions of a Jewish state. How can the nation remain Jewish and democratic? Oz’s answer was the two-state solution, something he advocated long before it was fashionable, and something he continued to believe in even as it was assailed on both the right and left.
Perhaps Oz represents an increasingly marginalized vision of Israel, one that has had to give way to other voices, but his work is still relevant because the questions he highlighted have not been answered. We can only hope that some future generation, inspired by his work, will one day be able to crack the code and find the way to peace.