Jews Praying In The Synagogue on the Day of Atonement by Maurycy Gottlieb (Tel Aviv Museum of Art)
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Sunday, July 1, 2018
Dear Zealots: Letters from a Divided Land By Amos Oz Chatto & Windus/ Houghtom Mifflin Harcourt, 224pp, $29.99
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.