Amos Oz, Dear Zealots; Letters From a Divided Land (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018), 140pp.
When Amos Oz died on December 28, 2018 at the age of seventy-nine, he was widely honored as one of Israel's most prolific and respected public intellectuals. Indeed, his forty books of fiction and non-fiction have been translated into forty-five languages. This book was one of the very last that he published, and is comprised of three essays. He says that he wrote it "first and foremost" for his grandchildren, and that he "seeks the listening ear of those whose opinions differ" from his own.
The first essay explores the nature of fanaticism, which Oz observes is "an elemental fixture of human nature" and not the preserve of any one group like ISIS or the KKK. He urges us to move beyond binary, black and white thinking, and to embrace ambiguity and complexity. We can do this by cultivating a sense of curiosity, imagination, and even humor.
The second and longest essay tries to reclaim all that is good about secular, Jewish humanism, in contrast to Judaism's religious and political manifestations. There is a "simple imperative" in the deepest roots of Judaism, he says: "cause no pain." Honor the equal rights of all human beings to be different, and embrace doubt, disagreement, and debate as sources of creativity and the roots of a pluralistic democracy. The deepest heart of a robustly secular Judaism affirms what's written on a three-thousand-year-old, six-inch piece of pottery found by archaeologists—the demand for justice for the weak and the deprived: the slave, the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the infant, and the pauper.
The third essay considers Israel's place in the Middle East and in the larger world, and argues for a two-state solution (a position Oz has advocated since 1967). If there are not two states, says Oz, there will be one state. And whether that one state is ruled only by Arabs or only by Jews, in his view it would sooner or later be a catastrophe. A "binational" state, in his view, is "a sad joke." The struggle for both Jews and Palestinians is not one of binary good versus evil, but a much more complicated story of "justice against justice — and often, to my sorrow, injustice against injustice."
On the last page of his book Oz writes that he is fearful for the future, of his government's policies that he finds shameful, of the fanaticism and the violence. Nonetheless, he remained to the end a proud Israeli: "What I have seen here in my lifetime is far less, yet also far more, than what my parents and their parents ever dreamed of."
Dan Clendenin: email@example.com