Amos Oz's nocturnal Israel
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 16 October 2004)

The world expects Israel to be the only Christian nation. Those 10 rueful, piercing words carry more irony than any paradox I've heard in years, but it was still surprising to hear them spoken on Thursday morning in Toronto by Amos Oz, the most admired living Israeli novelist.

In 1978 he helped found Peace Now to campaign for generosity toward Palestinians. But today he finds it annoying that Israel is expected to "set world records in high-jump morality." No other country has ever followed consistently the advice of Jesus to love your enemies and "If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also." Yet somehow the world believes that Israel should be more Christian than the Christians and should refrain from defending itself against terrorism.

Oz's old Peace Now ideals have been modified. Ask him about the security fence and he says it's a good idea but that it unfairly impinges on Palestinian land. He thinks the peace movement changed fundamentally when Yasser Arafat did not make counter-proposals to the Israeli plans at Camp David in 2000 but instead launched the Intifada.

"They tried to shatter Israel, but they failed," he said. This may lead to peace -- a two-state peace that will be difficult for both sides, "not a honeymoon but a liveable compromise." It will come slowly. Oz favours words such as gradual, evolution, patience, generations. His program could no longer be called Peace Now. A better name might be Peace Eventually.

He's a wry but enthusiastic patriot: "I happen to love Israel even when I don't like it." He especially loves the Israeli propensity for argument. He imagines that argument lovers from all over the world should go to Israel as art lovers go to Italy. Disputation is the national speciality. Reaching back to Abraham's argument with God, it sustains itself through habitually contentious Talmudic scholars. (Oz says that if you check into a Tel Aviv hotel and call any number at random you're sure to get an argument about almost anything.)

He was born in Jerusalem in 1939, to parents who had come from eastern Europe six years earlier. In those days, he argues persuasively, Jews were the real Europeans. "Today everyone wants to be a European. They are all lining up to become Europeans, even the Turks, maybe next the Iraqis." But 70 years ago everybody in Europe was loyal to just one state, whether it was Bulgaria or Belgium. Only the Jews believed in Europe, the place and the idea. "My parents loved Europe, but they were not loved back." Nazis and communists considered Jews rootless cosmopolitans.

Oz's parents carried the scars of this unrequited love. They read books in German or English, spoke Russian or Polish when they didn't want Amos to understand them, but taught him nothing except Hebrew -- as if knowledge of European languages might draw him there in time for the next Holocaust.

Oz has already put his Jerusalem childhood and adolescence to fictional use but he's described it directly in a remarkable 538-page memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness (Harcourt), just now appearing in Canada. He once remarked that there are two Israels, daytime and nighttime. Daytime Israel impresses you as determined, tough and courageous. But "Nocturnal Israel is a refugee camp with more nightmares per square mile than any other place in the world. Almost everyone has seen the devil."

It's night-time Israel that dominates A Tale of Love and Darkness.

At the core of the book stands a devastating, life-distorting event. When Amos was 12 years old, his 38-year-old mother killed herself with an overdose of the pills intended to treat her depression. She was beautiful, romantic, introspective and melancholy, a born storyteller who stocked her boy's mind with enchanting narratives. An unwilling exile from Europe, she was never happy in the basement flat she and her librarian husband shared with their one child in a downtrodden corner of Jerusalem. Two years after her death Amos moved to a kibbutz and changed his last name from Klausner to Oz ("strength" in Hebrew).

Deeply personal as it is, A Tale of Love and Darkness nevertheless embodies essential elements of national history. I've spent just a few hours with it since I borrowed a copy on Thursday, but even this cursory first reading suggests that it will become a touchstone book. Most people who care about Israel will read it eventually, and many others will find it leads them into the conflicted heart of that most astonishing state.

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