The Spirit Level
Amos Oz Writes the Story of Israel
David Remnick/The New Yorker, November 8, 2004
Amos Oz is the best-known novelist in Israel. For eighteen years, he has lived in the desert outpost of Arad, a town of twenty-eight thousand, between Be’er Sheva and the Dead Sea. In the late afternoon, after a day at his desk, he often takes a seat at a café in the town shopping mall. He doesn’t have to wait long before someone says hello or sits down to debate, perhaps even going so far as to denounce him for his public endorsement—first sounded in 1967, in the days after the Six-Day War—of a two-state settlement with the Palestinians. Oz is a liberal, and the Russians who increasingly dominate the population of Arad are not. But he is always happy to talk, a “word-child,” hyperarticulate. Fully formed paragraphs issue forth in conversation with a hypnotic, liquid ease. Sooner or later, his would-be debater is charmed and silenced.
Oz is in his mid-sixties, trim and, generously appraised, of medium height. He seems always to be squinting into a distant sun. When he first became famous, nearly forty years ago, reviewers and readers routinely commented on his rugged, emblematic looks: the light hair and light eyes, the deep tan, the spidery wrinkles near his eyes and the corners of his mouth. Dressed in rumpled chinos and a work shirt, Oz became part of the mid-century Zionist iconography: the novelist-kibbutznik, the Sabra of political conscience. His is still a handsome face but, depending on the angle or the expression, it now exists in a kind of temporal flux. A turn of the head this way and he is back in the vineyards and olive groves, a turn that way and he is a study-bound éminence grise. He wears bifocals on a string. Several years ago, he had his knees replaced. He walks as if on broken glass.
Oz is earnest, romantic, generous, sentimental, and pleasantly vain. He is well aware of his image, and is quick to make light of it. “European Zionist writing maintained that the moment the Jews set foot on Biblical soil they will be totally born again,” he told me one morning in his basement study. “They will be a new race. Even physically they will change. They will become blond, suntanned. Both of my parents were dark. In a genetic-ideological miracle, they succeeded in having a blond son. Which gave them infinite pride and joy. They were raving at my blondness! They thought it was the sun, the air. It’s Jerusalem! They used to call me shaygets. You know this Yiddish word and what’s behind it? It’s a little Ukrainian pig herder, who throws stones at Jews. I came from a long line of distinguished scholars and rabbis. Why would they be so happy to call their son a shaygets?”
Born in Jerusalem, Oz spent more than thirty years living on a kibbutz in central Israel, where he married and raised two daughters and a son. He moved to Arad in 1986. Until then, he had never owned anything more than some books and the clothes in his drawer. From the time he began earning serious royalties, with his 1968 novel “My Michael”—the story, told in a woman’s voice, of a disintegrating marriage, set against the Suez War of 1956—he plowed all his earnings back into the general account of the kibbutz. “It wasn’t until I was forty-six and moved to Arad that I had any private property, or even a checkbook,” he said. “You will not find someone with a more exotic background this side of North Korea.”
Oz is a man of nearly obsessive order: orderly sentences, orderly bookshelves, soldierly rituals. Every morning at around dawn and every evening at sunset, he leaves his modest house and makes his way to the desert. Arad is built on the flint, grit, and negligible scrub of the Negev. In the Book of Numbers, the Canaanite king of Arad battled Moses and his flock before the Israelites took the city. For three thousand years thereafter, the place made little impression. Set on a promontory with a view of Jordan, the Mountains of Edom, and the Dead Sea (a mercury gleam in the distance), modern Arad was founded in 1962 by the Israeli government, in the hope of shifting some of the growing population away from the cities of the coastal plain. The transformation came in an instant: the irrigation systems and the power grid, the housing—bungalows, concrete apartment blocks—the trees and the radar towers, the shopping mall. Arad was soon a frontier town as functional and as dull as the distant suburbs of Los Angeles.
One evening this summer, I went with Oz and his wife, Nily, on one of their desert rambles—first by car, then on foot. “The landscape here is no different than it was in the time of the prophets and Jesus,” Oz said along the way. The hills are bare, but there are wolves, desert hares, jackals. There are Bedouin camps, oases. Oz takes his walks here to clear his mind of the latest news from Jerusalem and Gaza, to “keep perspective on eternity.”
Nily, who has oil-black hair and a wit that is occasionally aimed at the household star, smiles patiently as Amos makes observations that she has undoubtedly heard a hundred times. Amos and Nily met as teen-agers on the kibbutz and have been married for forty-four years. Their children are grown and the distractions are few. On the drive, they showed me the oasis where their grandchildren go camping and ride camels when they visit from the suburbs of Tel Aviv and Haifa. We passed a few archeological signs, Biblical sites. As if on cue, we passed a Bedouin camp, a goat, a camel, the desert tourist’s equivalent of the Empire State Building.
“Amos,” Nily said, tiring of the tour, “let’s make sure we get back for a walk. The sun is getting low.”
Oz stopped the car and, without fear of oncoming traffic, animal or automotive, swung back toward town.
Last year, Oz published a memoir called “Sipour Al Ahava Vehoshekh”—“A Tale of Love and Darkness.” (It is one of the biggest-selling literary works in Israeli history; Nicholas de Lange’s English translation will be published this month by Harcourt.) For many years, Oz has drawn on the facts and landscapes of his life for his novels. What made “A Tale of Love and Darkness” an event is the power with which it entwines the intimate story of an immigrant family—a lonely, depressed mother, a distant father, and their son—with the larger historical story: Europe’s rejection, the frantic search for refuge among Arabs in Palestine, the idealism and the disappointments, the establishment of Israel and the war that followed. Amos is a precocious, secretive boy, a “ceaseless, tireless talker,” confused by overheard news of death camps abroad and civil war at home; he is a boy who plots the history of a new country with toy soldiers and maps spread across the kitchen floor. The book is a digressive, ingenious work that circles around the rise of a state, the tragic destiny of a mother, a boy’s creation of a new self. “I was, if you wish, the Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn of history,” Oz said. “To me it was like sailing alone on a raft on the Mississippi River, except it was a river made of books and words and stories and historical tales and secrets and separations.”
In a novel like Philip Roth’s “American Pastoral,” history seems to assault the characters, wreaking havoc on a desire for tranquillity; it arrives as a shock. That has never been possible in Oz’s part of the world, where war and ethnic tension have been constants. “I know that for people in the West history is something that comes across the television screen,” he said. “This whole book is saturated with history. It is not a piece of tragic chamber music played against a wide screen.”
Oz’s eldest child, his daughter Fania, teaches history at Haifa University. She told me that “A Tale of Love and Darkness” should be read, in part, as an argument about the history of Zionism. The book, she said, portrays Zionism and the creation of Israel as a historical necessity for a people faced with the threat of extinction. It acknowledges the original sin of Israel—the displacement and the suffering of the Palestinians—but, at the same time, defends Zionism against some on the European left and among the Israeli New Historians who challenge the state’s claim to legitimacy even now, almost six decades after its founding. As Amos, Nily, and I were driving from the desert valleys to an area closer to town where we could take a walk at sunset, I mentioned his daughter’s idea.
Oz quickly glanced back over his shoulder. “If there had been no Zionism, six and a half million would have been dead rather than six million, and who would have cared?” he said. “Israel was a life raft for a half-million Jews.”
I said that some American, European, and Israeli intellectuals were now saying that the Zionist project was lost, and that the only future was bi-national, a state of both Arabs and Jews from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River—a state that would, given the realities of borders and birth rates, become majority Arab quite fast. Had Zionism, as it was conceived by his parents’ generation, been a mistake?
“I don’t think there was any real practical choice,” Oz said. “When anti-Semitism in Europe became unbearable, Jews might have preferred to go to the United States, but they had no chance in hell in the thirties of being admitted to America.” One of his grandfathers, in Lithuania, applied for French, British, and Scandinavian visas—and he was rejected every time. “It was so desperate that he even applied for German citizenship, eighteen months before Hitler came to power,” Oz said. “Fortunately for me, he was turned down. The Jews had nowhere to go, and this is difficult to convey today. People now ask, Was it good to come here? Was it a mistake? Was Zionism a reasonable project? There was no place else. There was a conference in Evian”—in 1938—“where the problem of the Jewish refugees and the Nazi persecutions was discussed. It ended with practically just the Dominican Republic expressing its readiness to accept one or two thousand Jews, and a couple of other countries. The Prime Minister of Australia said, In Australia we have no problem of anti-Semitism, thank God. But we don’t want to encourage more Jews to come here. Otherwise, we might have anti-Semitism.” It was a time, as Chaim Weizmann, who became the first President of Israel, described it, when “the world seemed to be divided into two parts—those places where the Jews could not live and those where they could not enter.”
Oz parked the car at a curb that marked the end of Arad and the start of the desert. We got out and looked into a long drop. Amos and Nily walked hand in hand down a path that led to a huge, martial-seeming piece of sculpture.
“I don’t know what we did to deserve this lovely thing,” Nily said as we approached it. She rolled her eyes and smiled.
We did not hike far. Nily was wearing a long black cotton dress, and a sharp breeze had come up suddenly.
Amos wanted to catch sight of the sun setting, and it was now at our backs. We turned around and started toward the town. A few Ethiopian men were sitting on the curb and sharing a large bottle of beer.
“Do you know what ‘Addis Ababa’ means?”
Oz knows a great deal. Nily is patient with this.
“What does ‘Addis Ababa’ mean?” she said sweetly.
The men glanced over and smiled, catching the drift.
Nily held up her hand and stopped us.
“Look down, look here,” she said, pointing at a spot along the trail. “Ants.”
“A society of ants,” Amos said. “Let’s skip the metaphors. And watch.”
They bent over and watched with the rapt fascination of a couple on safari.
The sun was pulsing orange and just inches from the horizon.
Nily smiled as Amos stood behind her and held her close. “I am glad to be alive,” she said.
Amos waited awhile. It was darker, but it was not dark yet. He looked up. “I’m hungry,” he said and headed to the car.
A few minutes later, we pulled up to a clump of low-slung commercial enterprises on the edge of town.
“Welcome to Mr. Shay’s,” Nily said. “The best Chinese restaurant in the Negev.”
Mr. Shay, a Thai who had somehow come to Arad and married an Israeli, greeted us at our table. We were the only diners. I was concerned. But Mr. Shay turned out to be a fine cook and, though he is said to prepare a mean “kosher crab,” I ordered the chicken.
We talked for a while about “A Tale of Love and Darkness.” Much of it is clearly the result of memory and memory reconstructed from reading and conversations with older relatives. There are long excavations of Oz’s origins, the lives of his grandparents and parents in Europe, a lost world of high culture, Jewish learning, ferocious anti-Semitism. Using the evidence, but also the liberties of a novelist, Oz tries to portray things as hidden to him as his father’s love affairs and his mother’s tortured inner life.
“I don’t like to be described as an author of fiction,” he said. “Fiction is a lie. James Joyce took the trouble, if I am not mistaken, to measure the precise distance from Bloom’s basement entrance to the street above. In ‘Ulysses’ it is exact, and yet it is called fiction. But when a journalist writes, ‘A cloud of uncertainty hovers . . .’—this is called fact!”
“A Tale of Love and Darkness” ultimately amounts to the founding story of Israel as told through a child’s eyes—a kind of Zionist “What Maisie Knew.” At a time when Zionism is under question, the book provides a dramatic, yet liberal justification for Israel’s existence. Oz said that, while the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians is between “right and right”—between two legitimate claims demanding a decent and equitable divorce—what has been lost over time is the desperate conditions that preceded Israel’s founding. Oz can only tell it as a story:
“The mother of the man who married my elder daughter is an unusual Holocaust survivor. She was taken from Holland with her mother and sister to Ravensbrück, a concentration camp, where the mother died. The two girls were nineteen and eighteen. At Ravensbrück, the girls heard stories about Auschwitz from detainees who had been there but were not sent to their death because they came from mixed marriages. Then something happened that I think was unique in the history of the Holocaust. The foreign ministry in Berlin gave an order saying, Send those two girls to Theresienstadt. There they were introduced to Adolf Eichmann, and he and several S.S. commanders interrogated them. Eichmann asked what they knew about Auschwitz. He said, ‘If you ever say a word about your life in Ravensbrück or what you know about Auschwitz, you, too, will go up in those chimneys.’ At Theresienstadt, they were given work. Twice during the war, Eichmann saw those two girls.
“As it turned out, this woman grew up and was one of the witnesses at the Eichmann trial”—in Jerusalem in the early nineteen-sixties. “It was hard for her to testify. At the trial, Eichmann tried to say that he was just a cog in the wheel, that he hadn’t even the capacity to decide on one life. I am telling you this story because, despite Eichmann’s warning to the two sisters about being quiet, they did tell everyone they could in Theresienstadt. They talked about Auschwitz and the gas chambers, but not one person at Theresientadt believed them. They were called hysterical. So: how could people in Jerusalem or New York believe something that even the inmates of Theresienstadt refused to believe? Knowing is one thing. Believing another. Understanding another.”
A few years ago, I tried to arrange a meeting with Oz in Jerusalem. He demurred, seeming to prefer almost any other place: Arad, or the apartment in Tel Aviv that he and Nily bought in order to spend weekends near their grandchildren. Now he said, “I don’t often spend the night in Jerusalem. I’ll go professionally or to see friends. It is hyperactive. Everyone is expecting something, either the messiah or disaster or both. Tel Aviv is becoming more and more Mediterranean, like the South of France, whereas Jerusalem is moving in the direction of, I don’t know where, maybe like Qum, in Iran.”
Oz was born Amos Klausner in Jerusalem in 1939. His parents, Yehuda Arieh and Fania, came from Eastern Europe, in the nineteen-thirties, speaking Yiddish, Russian, Ukrainian, and German. In Jerusalem, they spoke Hebrew with their son, Russian when there were secrets to keep. In those days, Palestine was predominantly Arab. Jerusalem was not. Except in the era of the Crusades, in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, there had been a continuous Jewish presence in the city. When Amos was born, the population was small—around a hundred thousand—and each neighborhood was distinct. The Klausners would walk from their basement apartment, on Amos Street, in Kerem Avraham, to see their more distinguished relatives in the neighborhood of Talpiot, and, Oz said, “it was in the same spirit that shtetl Jews would take the train to Warsaw to see the five-story buildings.”
One morning, I met Oz at a hotel on the outskirts of the city, and we took a cab to Malchai Yisroel—Kings of Israel Street. Kerem Avraham, along with the neighboring enclaves of Geula and Mea Shearim, is almost completely Orthodox. Signs announced the opening of a new kosher butcher shop, the lecture schedules of prominent rabbis, a clothing store “for modest women.” Oz pointed out an enormous walled-off compound that had first been an orphanage and then, after the British conquered Palestine, in 1917, was converted into the Schneller Barracks. The Schneller Barracks are a presence, the embodiment of the British Mandate, in many of Oz’s stories and novels. When he was a boy, he and his friends used to take gum from the British soldiers and then turn around and shout “Nazi!” and throw stones.
“Imagine!” he said now. “This was one or two years after the British had been at war with the real thing.” When Oz was seven, the Stern Gang, a Jewish terror organization, exploded a car bomb outside the barracks. “How I admired them for that!” he said in the same tone of self-mockery.
The day was brutally hot. Though the blocks are well-planted with cypress and Jerusalem pine, today the trees seemed limp and singed.
In many neighborhoods of the city, Jews live in houses that were expropriated from Arab families during the war of 1948, what Jewish Israelis call the War of Independence and Palestinians call the nakba, the catastrophe. With some relief, Oz said that Kerem Avraham was built on land bought by an English missionary, James Finn, who had the novel idea of a place where Jews could start a farm.
The overwhelming emotion in “A Tale of Love and Darkness” is of loss. Even Zionism itself felt, at that time, like a form of loss—the loss of a European culture that had rejected, and was now murdering, Jews. “Everyone in Jerusalem—Jewish Jerusalem—of those days missed something,” Oz had said earlier. “Other places, other cultures, other languages, other people. It was, for most Jews, an exile, a refugee camp. But at the same time it was also a magnet for all sorts of lunatics, redeemers, world reformers, and self-fashioned messiahs. In this respect, it hasn’t changed much; perhaps it is even more so. Everyone who had a way to salvage the Jewish people in three easy moves came to Jerusalem. It was full of prophets, bookbinders who prophesied, cashiers who prophesied, scholars who prophesied. And this was very exciting for a child, because every fantasy that I could summon in my little mind I could find someone who would endorse my fantasy and say, ‘Yes, yes, this little boy has a vision, he knows even better than Ben-Gurion.’ ”
We came to No. 18 Amos Street, a modest apartment block with a tiny hardware store in the center of what had been the apartment of one small family: the Klausners.
“It’s more run-down than it used to be,” Oz said as we climbed a few steps and looked at a small back garden. There had been fig trees, radishes, green onions, eggplants. Now little other than some scrubby grass seemed to grow.
“If you look at this spot here,” Oz went on, smiling a bit strangely, “here is where my friends and I worked day after day, when we were all about seven, trying to build a rocket that we would aim and fire at Buckingham Palace. There was a problem with the fuel and the guidance system.” When he was not plotting the overthrow of King George VI, Oz wrote what he calls “Biblical poems about the restoration of the Davidic kingdom through blood and fire.” His father had studied literature and history in Vilna and Jerusalem and could read in sixteen languages, though he never found a teaching berth. He made his living as a librarian and, at night, wrote books and articles about comparative literature. On the Sabbath, Fania stayed inside alone, reading—Chekhov, Tolstoy, Kleist, Hamsun, Maupassant, Agnon, Flaubert—and the men would sit in the yard “discussing the problems of Bakunin and Nechayev and whether the German social democrats were too soft.” Politics was the constant conversation, and nearly all the adults in the Klausner circle were right-wing Revisionists, suspicious of the Labor Zionists and their socialist dreams.
“The remarkable thing is that those people were not fascists,” Oz said. “In their own view, they rejected any racist notion. They just happened to maintain that the Arab nation has a land mass three times as big as Europe, whereas the Jewish people have nothing, and that even if Greater Israel is given to the Jews and the Arabs are forced to migrate, that would mean for the Arabs a loss of zero point five per cent of the Arab homeland. I am only trying to explain their view. . . . So yes, this Klausner environment was very right-wing, very militaristic, intoxicated by the fact that Jews can fight, and fight well. Thrilled by it in a childish way. Remember, this is two years after the Holocaust. In those years, the Jews were never accused of being bullies or thugs; they were accused of being cowards who hide and will not fight back.”
Oz looked in a window of his old apartment. The shades were drawn. When he lived there, every room, kitchen and bathroom included, was lined with books, and, among the books, there were small landscapes of Europe cut from magazines: lakes, forests, snow-capped mountains. “For years, throughout my childhood, my father and others would say to me, ‘One day, Amos, not in our lifetime but in yours, this Jerusalem is going to evolve and become a real city,’ ” he said. “I didn’t know what they were talking about. To me, Jerusalem was the only real city in the world. Europe was a myth.
“And yet deep down there was this longing and yearning. You walked in Rehavia, a kind of German-Jewish, fairly wealthy neighborhood of Jerusalem, you walked there on Saturday at siesta time, when the streets were absolutely empty, and you would hear from many windows the sound of pianos. They were all craving Europe, whether it was Chopin or Mozart or Brahms.”
By the end of the Second World War, expectations about the founding of a Jewish state were intense: “We were in the corridor of the maternity ward, we were like the nervous parents waiting for what was happening beyond the door.” One Hanukkah, as Oz’s father lit the candles, he told his only child that, one day, “not in my lifetime but in yours,” as many as a million Jews would live in the country: “It sounded like science fiction, a futuristic, wild speculation.”
What came next, of course, is the diplomatic and military history of 1947-1948: the United Nations declarations of two-state partition on November 29, 1947, and then the war that followed—Egypt, Syria, Transjordan, Lebanon, and Iraq on one side, the newly declared state of Israel on the other.
In his journalism and essays, in books like “The Land of Israel” and “Under This Blazing Light,” Oz harbors no illusions about the nature of that war—least of all about the displacement of more than seven hundred thousand Palestinian Arabs from their villages and cities and about their lives of misery in refugee camps throughout the region. At the same time, he argues, the Arabs were “under no obligation” to start a war after the U.N. partition plan. But in “A Tale of Love and Darkness” the narrator is not a disinterested historian; the point of view is that of a young boy seeing what he could see, listening to the broadcasts and speeches and rumors all around him. He describes collecting empty bottles to make Molotov cocktails, the suspension of school for an entire year, the rumor around the neighborhood that some families had fled the country and that one had stashed cyanide tablets “just in case.”
“All of the Holocaust survivors had seen all this before, from the last weeks of August in 1939,” Oz said about the first days of war. “The big change came on May 14th, with the expiration of the British Mandate. That Friday morning, I saw with my eyes the British leaving the Schneller Barracks and then the Haganah”—the new Israeli Army—“rushing to take over. Then, on Friday afternoon, we were told that Israel is a nation now, it has a government, but one minute after midnight we were told that Israel is being invaded by five regular Arab armies, and that there was shelling and bombardment by artillery batteries. There was nowhere to send the kids, nowhere to go.” For years, in Europe, Oz’s father had seen graffiti in German and Russian and Ukrainian: “Jews Go Home to Palestine.” Years later, as a citizen of Israel, he saw new signs: “Jews Out of Palestine.”
At one point in the memoir, Oz writes that as a child he hoped to “grow up to be a book.” When I asked him about it, he smiled and said, “There was fear when I was a little boy. People would say, Enjoy every day, because not every child grows up to be a person.This was probably their way of telling me about the Holocaust or the frame of Jewish history. Not every child grows up. I know the Israelis become tiresome when they say that the whole world is against us, but back in the forties this was pretty much the case. I wanted to become a book, not a man. The house was full of books written by dead men, and I thought a book may survive.”
Fania’s father had owned a mill in Rovno, in western Ukraine, and came with his family to Haifa, in 1934, to work as a carter on the docks. In the book, Oz describes his mother’s knowledge, in the mid-forties, that, on the outskirts of Rovno, in the Sosenki Forest, “among boughs, birds, mushrooms, currants, and berries,” the Nazis had slaughtered more than twenty thousand Jews, with submachine guns, in two days.
Even as a young boy, as he makes clear in “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” Oz was keenly aware that his mother was adrift and that relations between his parents had eroded. Fania became increasingly depressed, withdrawn. “Among the immediate reasons for my mother’s decline was the weight of history, the personal insult, the traumas, and the fears for the future,” Oz said. “My mother had premonitions all the time, probably because of the trauma of the Holocaust. She might have sensed that what happened to the Jews in her home town would sooner or later happen here, that there would be a total massacre. This is not something she would share with a little boy, except perhaps obliquely, through some of the stories and fairy tales she told, the books she read, a hair-raising Schopenhauerian world view.”
By the end of 1951, Fania’s black periods had become worse and more frequent. Amos and his father were, he writes, “like a pair of stretcher bearers carrying an injured person up a steep slope.” In “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” the reader knows early on that Fania is doomed, and at the end of the book, as she wanders the streets of Tel Aviv in a downpour and, finally, takes her life with an overdose of sedatives, it is possible to get some sense of the son’s loss and fury.
Only now, after reaching an age when he is old enough to be the father of his lost mother, Oz told me, can he look at those days with a certain detachment.
Fania Klausner killed herself in January, 1952, Oz said, for countless reasons: “She died because, for her, Jerusalem was an exile. This climate and environment and reality was alien. And she died because her hopes, if she had any, that maybe a replica of her Europe could be built here, without the bad aspects of the Diaspora Jewish shtetl, were apparently refuted by the reality of the morning after.” Fania was just thirty-eight years old.
“After my mother died, my father and I never talked about her,” he said. “We never mentioned her name, not once. If we referred to her at all, it was as ‘she’ and ‘her.’ We had plenty of discussions, political discussions—he thought I was a Red—but never about her.”
We were soon on Ben Yehuda Street, a pedestrian arcade lined with cafés, restaurants, bookshops, and trinket stores for tourists. The area around Ben Yehuda, one of the most crowded spots in Jerusalem, has been a popular site for suicide bombers.
Oz had not been back to his old neighborhood for a few years, and he was uncharacteristically quiet as we walked. Suddenly, he ducked into an alley, headed up a small set of steps, and then went looking for a favorite café.
“It’s here somewhere,” he said. “It’s right . . . over . . . yes! . . . Here.”
The sign read “Tmol Shilshom”— “The Day Before Yesterday”—the title of a novel by S. Y. Agnon. In Oz’s youth, Agnon was the singular literary presence in Jerusalem, an immigrant from Galicia, who wrote in Hebrew and, in 1966, won the Nobel Prize.
Oz mopped his brow and ordered a cold drink. Our walk through Kerem Avraham had been a kind of exercise, a performance on request—the writer come home to the scene of the book, the scene of the crime. Oz seemed drained by it.
“We’ve just visited a place that no longer exists,” he said. At least, not as it was in the life and books of Amos Oz. “When I visited Oxford, Mississippi, I had to run back to Faulkner’s novels. The place was a fading reproduction of the real thing.” Nearly half of Oz’s books—among them “Where the Jackals Howl,” “My Michael,” “The Hill of Evil Counsel,” “The Same Sea,” and now “A Tale of Love and Darkness”—take place in one square mile of Kerem Avraham.
As a writer and as a teacher—he is a professor of literature at Ben-Gurion University, in Be’er Sheva—Oz says he is a committed “provincial.” He is hardly ignorant of other literatures, but he is obsessed primarily with the storytellers, essayists, and poets who wrote in modern Hebrew and gave shape to cultural Zionism.
“Both of my parents knew Hebrew before they arrived in Palestine,” he said. “They knew Yiddish, but Yiddish for them was shtetl talk, the talk of the previous generation, and so not to speak it was part of their rebellion against their own ancestors. For my mother, Yiddish was the language in which her parents quarrelled. The Hebrew of my childhood was a language making its first steps in the open, like a creature bred and created in a laboratory or in a zoo and set free.”
After seventeen centuries of near-dormancy, Hebrew was revived as a modern instrument by a small clutch of nationalists in Europe in the late nineteenth century. “There is a myth, according to which Hebrew was revived for ideological reasons by a genius of a madman, or a madman of a genius, called Eliezer Ben Yehuda, who reinvented Hebrew and invented thousands of words—and all of it is true,” Oz said. “This is at the turn of the century here in Jerusalem. But, of course, not even a genius could persuade Norwegians to speak Korean one fine morning or Greeks to speak Portuguese. So what actually happened? In the last decade of the nineteenth century, with the growing influx of European Jews coming into Jerusalem, most of them not Zionists but ultra-Orthodox, who came for religious reasons, to get buried on the Mount of Olives—when they confronted the local indigenous Jewish population, the Sephardic population, there was no common language. The only way to ask directions to the Wailing Wall or to rent an apartment in the Old City was to resort to prayer-book Hebrew. If, a hundred years ago, you put on a desert island one thousand churchgoing Catholic French people and one thousand churchgoing Lithuanians, Latin would have been revived for the same reasons.”
In addition, since the eighteenth century there had been writers who wrote in what most of the world considered a dead language: Chaim Nachman Bialik, Yosef Chaim Brenner, Micha Berdichevsky, and, later on, S. Y. Agnon. When Oz travels in Europe and the United States, giving readings and speeches, most audiences want to talk about current events, not literary influences, and, even for many Jewish audiences, Agnon and the rest of Oz’s literary reference points are unfamiliar. It’s as if Gabriel García Márquez’s readers had never heard of Cervantes. “Agnon is an imagination on the level of Robert Musil and Hermann Broch,” Oz said. “Why did he stick to Hebrew? Even if he had written in Yiddish there would have been a larger audience. Here is a writer who wrote realistic, mimetic novels in a language that no one really spoke. Part of it was probably ideology, neo-Zionism. Those writers were mesmerized by the beauty of Hebrew as a musical instrument, and there was also the nineteenth-century Romanticism—1848, the springtime of nations—and the interest in folklore, back to origins. This was going on all over Europe.”
The renaissance of Hebrew is the most unqualified success of cultural Zionism. Ten thousand people spoke it at the turn of the century, three hundred thousand in the nineteen-forties, seven or eight million today. “This is more than the speakers of Danish worldwide,” Oz said. “And more than the number of speakers of English in the days of William Shakespeare. So this is the big story of my life, more even than creating a state or drying the swamps or winning some victories on the battlefield.”
Curiously, Oz has relatively little affinity for the Jewish-American novelists of his generation. He has read Bellow, Malamud, and Roth, and he is fully aware that some of his relatives had intended to make New York, and not Jerusalem, their promised land, and yet he seems not merely indifferent to those writers but even haughtily dismissive of their work and their subjects.
“Tongue in cheek, I can imagine myself having ended up as one of the Jewish-American writers of Russian background writing mostly about the neuroses of immigrants and their offspring,” he said. “This probably would be my subject. I wouldn’t be writing about the desert or the starry nights of the country. To some extent, as a reader I have some problems—and this is not a professional category and I wouldn’t use it in my capacity as a professor of literature in the classroom—I have a certain problem with indoors literature. . . . So much of what I have to tell has to do with the open, the desert, the field, a kind of arid mountains around Jerusalem, the neighborhoods, the street, the garden, the kibbutz. I would feel claustrophobic.”
Kibbutz Hulda, which grew over time to cover twenty-four hundred acres, lies just south of the road between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Jewish pioneers bought the land in 1904 from an Arab landlord, and in 1931 a group of young Zionists, who were followers of A. D. Gordon, a Tolstoyan visionary from Ukraine, established the kibbutz. Amos left home for Hulda when he was fourteen. He changed his name from Klausner to Oz, a Hebrew word for “strength,” though when he arrived at Hulda he was hardly in possession of that. He was pale, weak, confused.
“The funny thing is, my new life was not far below the grain of my father’s expectations, for the idea was always transmitted to me that you will have to be completely different,” Oz said. “You will have to be simple, uncomplicated tractor drivers and soldiers.”
I asked Oz why he didn’t just run away to Tel Aviv, to the secular night life, to hedonism or books—anywhere but a place where the workday began at four in the morning.
“Tel Aviv was not radical enough—only the kibbutz was radical enough,” he said. “The joke of it is that what I found at the kibbutz was the same Jewish shtetl, milking cows and talking about Kropotkin at the same time and disagreeing about Trotsky in a Talmudic way, picking apples and having a fierce disagreement about Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. It was a bit of a nightmare. Every morning you would wake up and you were in the same place! I was a disaster as a laborer. I became the joke of the kibbutz.”
The other young people were already accustomed to the kibbutz life: the way children lived apart from their parents in a kind of barracks-dorm, the free and easy sexual life of the teen-agers. “It was an old story: I was an Eastern European Jewish boy trying to assimilate into a society that had its accepted codes, even a particular set of accents and body language,” Oz said. “It was a teen-age ‘Lord of the Flies,’ with better weather and a sensual permissiveness.”
We pulled off the highway and headed down a road toward Hulda. In the nineteen-fifties and sixties, Israel’s communal farms were a khaki-colored banner of the Zionist project, its hardiness, its soft semi-socialism—though even then the kibbutzniks made up only four per cent of the Israeli population. (Now it’s less than two per cent.) By the nineteen-eighties, young people were moving away from the kibbutz, rebelling against their earnest, idealist parents. The life was too hard, too plain. They grew tired of the lack of privacy, they wanted their share of the new proto-American consumerism in the cities.
Our first stop was a small graveyard shrouded by pines.
“Two-thirds of all my characters are here in this graveyard,” Oz said.
As we walked, he pointed out one familiar grave after another: Pinchas Lavon, a minister of defense. The Zuckermans, Nily’s parents. A pair of friends. An intellectual dandy known as “the Count” who argued philosophy and made his own wine. Then a row of twenty identical graves, all young men killed in battle on a single day in 1948. In the origins of those men, Oz said, was the story of the early state, and he read them as he walked along the row of flat stone markers: “Born in Poland. Born in Tripoli. Born in Russia. In Tel Aviv. Gaza. Czechoslovakia.” After reading them all, he lingered awhile, and then he said, “Many here died in Israel without ever having lived in it, really. They came to Israel, and, within three weeks of independence, they died in battle.”
We stopped at the grave of a young man who had been a student of his when he taught literature in the kibbutz school: “Died in the 1967 war.” Then a four-year-old child, dead of drowning.
“I knew all these people, who hated whom, who loved whom, who was cheating with whom,” Oz said. “It’s an extended-family cemetery. We’ll be buried here, too.”
It was late morning, and most of the adults were working in the fields and the vineyards. The sun hammered down hard and the air was full of dust and everywhere was the smell of cow shit and hay. There are more than fifty buildings on the grounds. As the population has thinned, some of the buildings have been abandoned. We stopped by the low-slung concrete bungalow where Amos and Nily lived when they were first married. Kibbutz socialism was infinitely gentler than its East German cousin, but the architecture was just as brutal. The apartment was smaller than a freshman-dorm room. Oz smiled as he knocked on the door. In contrast with seeing the house on Amos Street, revisiting this place seemed to bring him pleasure. Oz wrote “My Michael” in the tiny bathroom. “I sat up smoking all night, sitting there with the toilet seat down, and a pad of paper and a book on my knees, writing,” he said. “I wanted to become a simple, dumb tractor driver. But I began to write secretly. I couldn’t resist it.”
A rangy young man, shirtless, sipping a bottle of beer, let us in. He recognized the face.
“Amos Oz?” he said.
“The same,” Oz said.
The young man smiled and showed us around—all four corners of the room. Oz inspected the corners carefully, joyfully, as if he were going to find his younger self under the mattress, behind the dust balls. Finally, he thanked his inheritor-tenant, stepped outside, and pointed to a large pecan tree.
“I planted it when my older daughter was born,” he said.
We walked around the farm: to an abandoned arms depot; to the “children’s republic,” with a jungle gym, a school, and the long barracks where the children slept; and on to the dining hall, where Oz worked Saturdays as a waiter (“the fastest on the kibbutz”). The buildings have slouched, peeled, gone to seed. Across Israel it is widely speculated that, in a generation or so, there will be no more kibbutzim; the land will be turned into private farms or suburban developments.
“In a sense, the kibbutz left some of its genes in the entire Israeli civilization, even people who never lived on a kibbutz and rejected the kibbutz idea,” Oz said. “You look at the West Bank settlers—not my favorite people, as you can imagine. You will see kibbutz genes in their conduct and even their outward appearance. If you see the directness of Israelis, the almost latent anarchism, the skepticism, the lack of an in-built class hierarchy between the taxi-driver and the passenger—all of those are very much the kibbutz legacy, and it’s a good legacy. So, in a strange way, the kibbutz, like some bygone stars, still provides us with light long after it’s been extinguished.”
When Oz began publishing his first stories and asked for time off from his farming work to write, there was an intense debate among the elders: “Who is he, at twenty-four, to declare himself a writer? What if everyone calls himself an artist? Who will milk the cows and plow the land?”
Finally, after long discussion, Oz was given one day a week to write. (He taught for two days and spent three days in the fields.) With each book or so, he got an extra day to write. When “My Michael” became a best-seller, Oz continued the socialist practices of the kibbutz. “I became a branch of the farm, yet they still said I could have just three days a week to write,” he recalled. “It was only in the eighties when I got four days for my writing, two days for teaching, and Saturday turns as a waiter in the dining hall.”
Although their children never liked the kibbutz, Amos and Nily stayed on long past the peak years. But in the mid-eighties doctors told them that their third child, Daniel, was suffering from acute asthma and needed a change of climate. Arad has probably the cleanest, driest air in the country—“an asthmatic’s mecca,” Oz calls it—and the family moved there in 1986. “What kept me in the kibbutz was personal friendships, loyalty, also a certain sense that I didn’t want to defect from a sinking boat,” he said.
In “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” in his novels, and in conversation, there is little about his years on the kibbutz that Oz does not confront: the initial loneliness, the cramped atmosphere of labor and gossip and sex and dreams, the sense of living out a set of ideals and then seeing those ideals run down, fade. And yet there is almost no mention of his participation in the true Israeli universal: the Army. In the late fifties, in the regular Army, he was part of a kibbutz-oriented unit called Nahal, and he was involved in skirmishes along the Syrian border. During the 1967 war, he served with a tank unit in Sinai; during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Israel nearly lost to the combined forces of Syria and Egypt, he was with a unit in the Golan Heights, on the Syrian border.
“It is difficult for me, either in an interview or in a book, to talk about the experience of fighting,” he said. “I have never written about the battlefield, because I don’t think I could convey the experience of fighting to people who have not been on the battlefield. Battle consists first and foremost of a horrible stench. The battlefield stinks to high heaven. It’s hard to imagine the stench. This doesn’t come across even in Tolstoy or Hemingway or Remarque. This stifling mixture of burning rubber and burning metal and burning human flesh and feces, everything burning. A description of the battlefield that does not contain the stench and the fear is not sufficient. It is where everyone around you has shit their pants.” At one point, he talked about how he and his fellow-soldiers thought for two or three days during the 1973 war that they would not live through the fighting and that Israel would be destroyed. “But I don’t think I can describe that without resorting to clichés,” he said. “I tried writing about it a couple of times a long time ago. I destroyed the drafts when I realized that language, at least mine, could not contain this experience. I could write about sex, I could write about the kibbutz, about envy, about sunsets, about howling jackals. Not this.”
In the nineties, when Shimon Peres was thinking about retiring from the leadership of the Labor Party, he said that he could imagine three inheritors: Ehud Barak (who eventually became Prime Minister), Shlomo Ben-Ami (who became Barak’s foreign minister), and Amos Oz.
“Ever since I was a little boy, I’ve been running this country in my head, and I do this today,” Oz said. “I know what to do better than the Prime Ministers.” Then he smiled and became appropriately modest. “If I look at history, I know what to do, but this doesn’t mean I can be Prime Minister. I know one or two things that Shimon doesn’t, but I have a physical disability: I cannot pronounce the words ‘No comment.’ How can I be a politician?”
Oz is an ardent admirer of Václav Havel. He may even envy the way Havel, a political artist, was suddenly thrust into the role of statesman-visionary, becoming the first democratically elected President to govern in Prague since the rise of Communism. Oz emerged as a political actor just two months after the end of the 1967 war. He was twenty-eight, an obscure writer on a small kibbutz, but he had the nerve to send an article called “Land of the Forefathers” to the Labor newspaper, Davar, calling for the government to begin negotiations immediately with the Palestinians over the West Bank and Gaza. Like very few others at this moment of national exaltation, Oz gloomily forecast moral and political disaster should Israel retain the territories. “Even unavoidable occupation is a corrupting occupation,” he wrote.
Support for a two-state solution—for an end to occupation and for a secure division of Israel and Palestine—is now a near-consensus position in Israel. Even Ariel Sharon, who is now acting to dismantle the Gaza settlements, concedes as much. But in 1967, as people around the world celebrated “tiny Israel’s” triumph, as tourists from abroad began to flock to the liberated Western Wall, that position was considered off-the-board radical. At the kibbutz, Oz had clearly abandoned his right-wing Revisionist upbringing for a far more liberal politics, but even at Hulda he did not encounter unanimous agreement. Some demanded that he be fired from his teaching. His children were mocked in school. There were nasty letters in the right-wing press: “betrayal,” “collaborator with the deadly enemies of Israel,” candidate for the local Judenrat. I asked him how he came to take such a bold public position at such an early moment.
“It was my imagination,” he said. “I couldn’t help thinking of my own childhood under the British in Jerusalem. As a child, I had nightmares—genetic, family nightmares—of uniformed aliens coming to our little street to kill us: the British, the Arabs, the Romans, tsarist soldiers, anyone from the long Jewish martyrology. My father bowed to the uniformed British, the same reaction he had in Lithuania. In 1967, suddenly I was the uniformed alien. I was in the West Bank in uniform with a submachine gun released for reserve service, and those Palestinian kids were willing to kiss my hand for chewing gum.”
After the Yom Kippur War, advocates of the two-state solution were no longer considered members of the Flat Earth Society, and, in 1978, Oz, along with many other liberal activists and former Army officers and reservists, created the grassroots movement called Shalom Achshav—Peace Now. Most of his activism has taken the form of editorial writing. He has written countless columns, first for Davar, and then, when Davar folded, a decade ago, for the tabloid daily Yediot Achronot. Although his positions are invariably left-wing, he seldom writes for the most élite left-wing paper, Ha’aretz. “In my political articles, I think of my audience as Edith Bunker,” he said. “I can never convince Archie Bunker. He is beyond me.”
Oz believes (as the pollsters do) that both the Israeli and the Palestinian publics support a two-state solution—a realistic, “clenched-teeth compromise”—but that neither Sharon nor the ailing Palestinian leader, Yasir Arafat, has the courage to carry the process to its conclusion. (“The patients are ready for the operation, but the surgeons are cowards,” he says.) That is now fairly conventional wisdom, at least in moderate and liberal circles. What Oz adds to the political debate is an emotional, imaginative dimension. Dreamily (but aware of it), Oz tries to envisage a series of improbable gestures that would break the deadlock: “Suppose Sharon gave a Sadat-style speech to the Palestinian National Assembly expressing empathy, saying we’ll do anything to heal the Palestinian wounds short of committing suicide, saying it will be hard but you will have an independent state with a share of Jerusalem. Suppose he said it on the anniversary of the massacre of Palestinians at Deir Yassin. Can you imagine the earthquake? And suppose Arafat went on Palestinian television and said that after a hundred years of bloody wars I finally realize that this is the Jewish national home, too. We need a two-state solution. Can you imagine? I realize this is not a likely scenario, but this is what was missing in the nineties. Imagine the reverberations in every Palestinian refugee camp and the entire Muslim world. But no one is ready to do it.”
The four leading novelists in Israel—Oz, Aharon Appelfeld, A. B. Yehoshua, and David Grossman—are all on the political left, supporters of a Palestinian state, but they are distinguished by different emphases in their writing: Appelfeld by his memories of genocidal anti-Semitism in Europe; Grossman by his empathy with the Palestinians in journalistic accounts such as “The Yellow Wind”; Yehoshua by his connection to the non-European Jews, the Sephardim of North Africa and the Arab countries; and Oz by his liberal Zionism. Of the four, Oz is the best-known abroad, not only as a teller of tales but as a political artist. There is something about him—the lofty eloquence, the liberal opinions, the kibbutz-poster-boy good looks—that continues to draw crowds to his readings. Oz does not mind the attention, but he invariably finds himself out of step with his audiences. (When he is asked about Israel’s new Security Wall, Oz has stunned more than a few on the left by saying, “The Wall, unfortunately, is a necessary thing. The only problem is that it’s in the wrong place. It should run roughly along the 1967 borders.”) In Europe especially, he is well to the left of the synagogue groups and to the right of more secular audiences. Over lunch one day, Oz described how in Europe he often gets the question “How long have you spent in Israeli prisons?”—the idea being that, somehow, the Israeli government does not permit contrary opinion. Among some younger writers and historians in Israel, too, Oz is rebuked because he continues to criticize both the Israeli and the Palestinian leaderships rather than seeing the situation as a version of the French disaster in Algeria.
“They’re angry at me because I refuse the colonial analogy,” Oz said. “Zionism may be a monster, but it is not a colonial monster. There was a strong element of self-righteousness and short-sightedness in the early Zionists, and they overlooked the presence of the Arab population and its significance. They had the self-righteousness of victims preoccupied with their own victimization to the degree that they could not even imagine that they could commit any kind of injustice to another. But then there is the problem of the left: in its struggle for the rights of the Palestinians, it overlooks the rights of the Jewish people.”
I asked Oz why he had an especially hard time conveying his view in Europe.
“Many Americans and Europeans are sentimental about conflict resolution,” he said. “They think the first thing to do is solve the hatreds, make friends out of enemies, and only then make peace. But, historically, deadly enemies, swearing inwardly to cheat and betray, sign peace treaties. This would be a divorce that results not in a honeymoon but in an emotional de-escalation that will take generations. Look at the Europeans. It took them a thousand years to make peace. Even as they wag their finger at us like a Victorian governess, they have a history of rivers of blood. I will risk a prophecy: It will not take the Middle East as long to make peace as it did Europe. And we’ll shed less blood.”
In the political imaginations of Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs, “Europe” continues to play an overwhelming role. “The Jews and the Arabs had the same oppressors,” Oz said. “The Europeans were guilty of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, and the Europeans were guilty of colonialism in the Middle East and of the exploitation of the Arabs. In Brecht’s poems, the oppressed join hands and march together. But the two children of the same oppressive parent can often be the worst of enemies. The Palestinians look at me, the Israeli, as an extension of white, sophisticated, colonizing Europe, which returned to the Middle East to do the same old thing: dominate, humiliate, like European crusaders. The other side, the Israelis, see the Palestinians not as fellow-victims but as pogrom-makers, Cossacks, Nazis, oppressors in kaffiyehs and mustaches playing the same ancient game of cutting Jewish throats for the fun of it. You will hear this in many synagogues: They are pharaohs, the goyim, and we are lambs surrounded by seventy wolves. Neither party will ever give up this sense of victimhood and will forever dispute who was David and who was Goliath.”
Oz is on the Israeli left, but he is not to be mistaken for a supporter of a bi-national state. In his novels, the Arab is the Other: the figure of fantasy, of authenticity, and, nearly always, seen from a distance. Oz grew up surrounded by but not among Palestinians, and he has not travelled much to Arab countries. An episode in “A Tale of Love and Darkness” that rings false is one in which young Amos and his family visit the home of a wealthy Arab family and Amos inadvertently causes a young Arab boy to suffer a severe accident.
Although in Israel most criticism of Oz comes from the right, he has been attacked from the left more and more in recent years as a younger generation enacts a kind of Oedipal battle against the founding generations. There is an Israeli version of “liberal parents, radical children” going on when scholars like Ilan Pappe, or the poet Yitzhak Laor, rebuke their elders for holding fast to the versions and iconographies of even liberal Zionism.
“They would ask, How can he be disengaged at such a time?” Oz said. “Why isn’t he writing anti-Zionist pamphlets at this moment of colonial oppression? Then they criticize the subject matter— Jerusalem of the fifties, the kibbutz—as irrelevant, like a Wild West story for the younger generation.”
Oz has no sympathy for Arafat—“He imagines himself as a combination of Che Guevara and Saladin”—but he does for the broader Palestinian claim. “The Arabs were deeply injured by the creation of Israel, by its relative prosperity, by what they regard as an endorsement of Israel by most of the West,” he said. “The Palestinians were injured by the fact that they lost a significant part of their homeland. But this is not war of civilizations. Just the term—‘The Clash of Civilizations’—is a hopelessly Hollywood thing, kind of like ‘Star Wars.’ This is a conflict about hundreds of thousands of people who lost their homes, Palestinians and Jews from Europe and the Arab countries. There was one-hundred-per-cent ethnic cleansing of the Jews in the West Bank and Gaza in 1948. It is about one very small country inflicting a terrible, humiliating defeat on a people who have not had a military victory since the days of Saladin.”
One afternoon, I met Oz in downtown West Jerusalem at a restaurant called Cavalier. It wasn’t an ordinary lunch. The other guests were Israel Kantor, a lawyer and an old friend of Oz’s, and Mo’en Khoury, a Palestinian Christian and a lawyer, who lives in Nazareth and has business in the Occupied Territories, Jerusalem, and elsewhere in the Middle East. A few months before, in March, Khoury’s nephew George Khoury, a twenty-year-old student at Hebrew University, was jogging in the French Hill area of Jerusalem at around seven-thirty in the evening when he was shot in the head, the neck, and the stomach by a group of men passing by in a car. He was pronounced dead at the Hadassah University Medical Center. Initially, the news of the shooting was announced in the Palestinian press as a victory, and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, which is linked to Arafat’s Fatah organization, claimed responsibility for the killing. But when it became known that Khoury was Palestinian, and that his father, Elias, was a prominent lawyer who had contested land cases against Israeli settlements, Arafat’s office called the Khoury home twice to apologize, and the Brigades declared George a shaheed—a martyr—and said the killing was a case of “mistaken identity.” The Khoury family disdained the overture.
“This is a barbaric act that will not change my world view, which includes deep faith in Palestinian rights,” Elias Khoury said. He called on the Palestinian movement to stop encouraging terror and on religious leaders to denounce terror “in a loud and clear voice.” He told Israeli radio, “Terrorism is blind. It does not discriminate between Jews and Arabs, or between the good and the bad.”
Police caught three suspects who said they had been cruising the French Hill area looking for a Jew to shoot, and when they spotted a young jogger one assailant got out of the car and opened fire. One of the suspects had only recently been released from jail.
“I’m glad we could meet today,” Mo’en Khoury was saying now. “Elias is going abroad today.”
For a while, Khoury, Kantor, and Oz talked about George, and how he was planning to study law and go into the family business. Khoury recalled how his brother had led a fight against settlers in the nineteen-seventies in Sebastia and Elon Moreh. His father, Daoud, and twelve other people were killed in 1975 when a refrigerator packed with explosives detonated on Zion Square, close to where we were eating. Fatah claimed responsibility.
The violence of the past three years, Mo’en said, has been a catastrophe “all around.” In Nazareth, a popular place especially among Christian tourists, “one hotel after another has closed,” and one, which opened in 2000, has been converted into a prison. “The Pope’s visit in March, 2000, was supposed to be the beginning of a new era,” he said. “It turned out to coincide with disaster”—the start of the second intifada.
They talked about the settlements for a while, agreeing that they had been ruinous for both the Palestinians and the Israelis. “The original sin of the Israeli Jews is that they thought too much about land and not enough about people,” Kantor said.
The extended Khoury family, which is as close as it is prosperous, was interested in making public gestures that would demonstrate their feelings about the killing of George beyond their private grief. Kantor, who knew both Elias and Mo’en well, suggested that they read “A Tale of Love and Darkness” and consider the relatively rare and even expensive venture of underwriting a translation into Arabic. Oz has published twenty-five books, and they have appeared in dozens of languages; only two, “My Michael” and “Soumchi,” a novel for children, have been published in Arabic. Neither Oz nor Khoury thought that Arab readers would somehow be converted by “A Tale of Love and Darkness.”
“It’s just a matter of knowing the other,” Khoury said.
“It’s a peek though the window,” Oz said in agreement. “A chance to see the private lives of other people.”
Finally, over coffee, Khoury agreed to underwrite the translation. The dedication of the Arabic edition would be an extended tribute to George, written by Amos Oz.
“Please see if that is acceptable to your family,” Oz said.
“I certainly will,” Khoury replied.
We left the restaurant. Khoury headed to his office in Nazareth, and Oz walked along the streets of Jerusalem, moving quickly, uneasy in the city of his birth, eager to get back to his home in the desert.