Life & Culture

Book review: Amos Oz: The Legacy of a Writer in Israel and Beyond

The wizardry of Oz comes through in a book of essays about the writer who ‘led where rabbis fear to tread'


Arad, ISRAEL: (FILES)-Israeli writer and peace activist Amos Oz posses 26 February 2007 at his home in Arad in southern Israel. Israeli writer Amos Oz has been awarded Spain's high-prestige Prince of Asturias award for literature, organisers said 27 June 2007. Oz was born in 1939 in Jerusalem. AFP PHOTO/RELI AVRAHAMI-ISRAEL OUT (Photo credit should read RELI AVRAHAMI/AFP via Getty Images)

Amos Oz: The Legacy of a Writer in Israel and Beyond
edited by Ranen Omer-Sherman
State University of New York Press $95

Amos Oz once said that he had two pens on his desk — one to write stories, the other “to tell the government to go to hell”. Today his voice communicates to millions in Israel from beyond the grave. It is not by accident that the academic Ranen Omer-Sherman, has dedicated this compendium of essays to “dissidents everywhere”.

He was called “the Dostoevsky of the Jewish people” by former president Reuven Rivlin. This book is replete with literary analyses of his many books such as A Tale of Love and Darkness and A Perfect Peace.

His books influenced many journeys in life. Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi writes how she identified with Hannah Gonen in My Michael, while Nurith Gertz met Oz at Jerusalem’s Café Peter to discuss her master’s thesis — and the conversation continued for the next half century.

Oz, who died in 2018, was one of “the statehood generation” along with Yaakov Shabtai, Yoram Kaniuk and others.

His parents’ house was associated with the Hebrew renaissance and Oz himself was an admirer of the early pioneer AD Gordon and his “back to the land” philosophy. During his early years on Kibbutz Hulda, the kibbutz authorities had the foresight to take away any financial worries and allow him to write.

Yet as the narrator comments in the beginning of Panther in the Basement: “I have been called a traitor many times in my life.”

In some of his books, Oz constructs an alter-ego whose words echo past troublesome seers such as Martin Buber and Judah Magnes. In Under This Blazing Light, Oz’s character scathingly condemns “the current of nationalistic romanticism and mythological delusions of greatness and renewal, the blowing of shofars and conquering Canaan by storm, the national superiority complex based on military enthusiasm in the guise of crude biblical nostalgia” — clearly a precision of words that would have jarred the sensitivity of many a diaspora Jew.

Oz was fascinated by political extremism. In a marvellous afterword, Fania Oz-Salzberger comments that her father imbibed his political morality at the feet of Sir Isaiah Berlin during a sabbatical at Oxford at the end of the 1960s.

The early Oz opposed literary giants such as Shai Agnon, Uri Zvi Greenberg and Natan Alterman who enthusiastically joined the maximalist Land of Israel movement after the Six Day War. In one of his last writings, Dear Zealots, he upbraided the West Bank settlers for their “messianic intoxication”. Oz led where rabbis feared to tread.

Oz always worked for a two-state solution when others during the 1970s asked “Who are the Palestinians?”

When Palestinians in Ketziot prison requested a copy of Oz’s In the Land of Israel, they were told that the book was banned under the category of “incitement material”.

Oz was a member of “the three tenors” together with A. B. Yehoshua and David Grossman — they did not fear public criticism of their views, now only Grossman remains to carry the banner.

Oz was always an inspiring presence for Jews in Britain during dark times. His words and phraseology carried ethical as well as literary weight for his readers.

A lover of Chekhov and Tolstoy, an opponent of anti-Zionism and post-Zionism, his disciples today stand outside Netanyahu’s residences to condemn his self-serving policies and unethical conduct in public office.

This wide-ranging and important book of essays is a profound reminder of the figure we have lost and the issues that are at stake in the Israel of 2023.

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