Israel, Palestine and Peace

Israel, Palestine and Peace

by Amos Oz

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The haunting poetry of [Oz’s] prose and the stunning logic of his testimony make a potent mixture.” —Washington Post Book World

Amos Oz was one of the first voices of conscience to advocate for a two-state solution. As a founding member of the Peace Now movement, Oz has spent over thirty-five years speaking out on this issue, and these powerful essays and speeches span an important and formative period for understanding today’s tension and crises. Whether he is discoursing on the role of writers in society or recalling his grandmother’s death in the context of the language’s veracity; examining the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a tragicomedy or questioning the Zionist dream, Oz remains trenchant and unflinching in this moving portrait of a divided land.

“[Oz is] the modern prophet of Israel.” —Sunday Telegraph (UK)

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780156001922
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 08/04/2010
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 144
Product dimensions: 5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.34(d)

About the Author

AMOS OZ (1939 – 2018) was born in Jerusalem. He was the recipient of the Prix Femina, the Frankfurt Peace Prize, the Goethe Prize, the Primo Levi Prize, and the National Jewish Book Award, among other international honors. His work has been translated into forty-four languages. 

Date of Birth:

May 4, 1939

Date of Death:

December 28, 2018

Place of Birth:


Place of Death:

Tel Aviv, Israel

Read an Excerpt



There is no Hebrew word for integrity: perhaps we Jews lack this 'Roman' quality altogether. In my dictionary I found, among other synonyms for integrity, 'intactness, wholeness, being firm, in one piece'. We Jews are probably made of several pieces, not of one.

Can we really expect a poet or a storyteller to be 'whole' or 'intact' in any sense? Can the inventor of plots and characters, the creator of a substitute reality, be 'firm, in one piece'? Isn't he or she forever in the business of dismantling and reassembling? Isn't the poet or the writer dealing with mosaic rather than with a block of marble? Fascinated by the differential rather than the integral of things? Indeed, D. H. Lawrence carried this premiss one step further when he said that a storyteller must be capable of presenting several conflicting and contradictory points of view with an equal degree of conviction.

Poets and storytellers are sometimes regarded as witnesses. One tends to expect a certain integrity from a witness, at least integrity in the sense of honesty, sincerity and objectivity. Yet, while writers usually testify for the prosecution, they are also witnesses for the defence. Worse still, the writer or poet is a member of the jury. But isn't he also the interrogator who has exposed, unmasked the accused? And isn't he or she at the same time a relative of the accused? And the family of the victim, too? He or she may act as the judge as well. He may secretly plot an escape while arming the jailer. Can such a dubious character have any integrity at all?

But let's consider the role of the writer as a defender of the language, the one who can read the warning signs and sound the warning bells.

Tyranny, oppression, moral degeneration, persecution and mass killing have always and everywhere started with the pollution of the language, with making what is base and violent sound clean and decent ('the new order', 'final solution', 'temporary measures', 'limited restrictions'), or else with using coarse and bestial language where it should have been humane and delicate ('parasites', 'social insects', 'political cancer' etc.). The writer ought to recognize that wherever a human being is referred to as a parasite or a germ, there will follow, sooner or later, death squads and exterminations. Wherever war is called peace, where oppression and persecution are referred to as security, and assassination is called liberation, the defilement of the language precedes and prepares for the defilement of life and dignity. In the end, the state, the regime, the class or the idea remain intact where human life is shattered. Integrity prevails over the fields of scattered bodies.

My own excursions into political essays started with a 'linguistic reservation'. In 1967, immediately after the Six Day War (which I regarded as a justifiable battle for Israel's self-defence), I wrote an article deprecating the use of the term 'liberated territories'. I insisted that territories simply cannot be liberated, that the term 'liberation' can only refer to people, not to valleys and mountains. Fifteen years later, writing about the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 (to which I fiercely objected) I wrote an essay stating my bewilderment at the official Israeli title for that bloody war: 'Operation Peace for Galilee'. A war, I argued, even the most justifiable one, cannot be called peace.

Back to our dubious character whose integrity begins and ends within the domain of words: he can use his words for building castles, for playing brilliant games, for calling death a rose. But he is also capable, and therefore responsible, for calling a rose a rose, and a lie a lie, for calling villainy villainy, and torture torture. His way of sounding the alarm makes him the horror of tyrants. Isn't every censorship in the world an indirect manifestation of awe for the power of the writer's words? We are talking about tyrants who usually have their lunatic integrity but who are terrified of those wordy characters who lack integrity. They are afraid of the writer because he knows them intimately, he knows them through and through — he has journeyed through their minds. Nothing is alien to this dubious character. Every madness, savagery, obscenity and ruthlessness in the mind of the tyrant must have crossed the poet's mind as well.

I doubt if any writers and poets have integrity or even should have. I believe, though, that some of us are capable of defusing the deadly integrity of the fanatic, the monomaniac, the raging ideologist, the murderous crusader. I think fanaticism is their department, whereas comparative fanaticism is ours. Let them dwell in their marble mausoleums — we dwell in our patient and precise mosaics.

Speech, Budapest, October 1985

(Translated by Amos Oz and Maggie Goldberg-Bartura)


Has Israel Altered its Visions?

On the ninth day of Israel's invasion of Lebanon, the Israeli Peace Now (Shalom Achshav) movement placed the following advertisement in the newspapers:

'In this war, the Israeli Army is proving once again that Israel is powerful and self-confident. In this war, we are losing brothers, sons and friends. In this war, thousands are being uprooted from their homes, and towns are being destroyed. Thousands of civilians are getting killed.

'What are we getting killed for? What are we killing for? Has there been a national consensus for going into this war? Has there been an immediate threat to Israel's existence? Will it get us out of the cycle of violence, suffering and hatred?

'We call upon the Government of Israel: Stop! Now is the time to invite the Palestinian people to join in negotiations for peace. Now is the time for a comprehensive peace based on mutual recognition.'

It was a courageous plea to make in the middle of bitter fighting against a deadly enemy. Some Americans, remembering their anti-Vietnam War campaign, might consider the appeal too mild, for it stops short of calling for an unconditional Israeli withdrawal. But that only reflects the difference between the American anti-war phenomenon and the Peace Now movement, which was founded by a group of army reserve officers immediately after President Anwar el-Sadat's 1977 trip to Jerusalem and which quickly gained ground among the better-educated young.

The American doves had maintained that the United States was involved in the wrong war against the wrong enemy for the wrong reasons and should pull out of Vietnam immediately and at any cost. The Israeli doves are not pacifist by any means. Israel's enemy is real and uncompromising; essentially, until the war in Lebanon, the country has been fighting for survival and security. Few if any Israelis believe in unconditional, unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza. Not a single member of Peace Now disobeyed the mobilization orders that accompanied the drive into Lebanon. Many of the reserve officers who belong to the movement have been serving on the battlefield. Some of them have died in the fighting.

Nevertheless, there is an argument in Israel between, on the one hand, Peace Now and some elements of the Labour Party opposition and, on the other hand, the Begin Government and its supporters. The dispute has deep roots in the history of modern Zionism. Hawks and doves are divided over much more than boundaries and territories. They disagree about the very purpose and character of the Jewish state.

Moreover, they are divided over the philosophical significance of Jewish history. Whereas the hawks are convinced that the Jews are liable to some mysterious primeval curse, bound to remain forever isolated, hated and persecuted regardless of the way they act, the doves maintain that there is no such mystical verdict and that there is a correlation between Israel's actions and Arab and world response.

The hawkish conclusion is rough and simple: if the 'nice Jewish boy' is the eternal scapegoat, let us Israelis turn ourselves into a terrible Jewish roughneck who will evoke, at least fear, and maybe even some respect. The doveish position, on the other hand, is much more complex, ambivalent and difficult to explain. To understand it, we must go all the way back to the roots of the humanitarian socialist movement that fashioned the foundations of modern Israel out of the ancient dream of a return to our ancestral homeland.

Israeli socialism was born some 80 years ago of an uneasy marriage between two different traditions — the Jewish tradition of social justice and the Eastern European, and particularly Russian, social visions of the time.

Let me dwell first on the Jewish genes. Within Judaism, there has always been a powerful conviction that all men are created equal before God; a sudden touch of divine light can turn a peasant into a prophet, a shepherd into a king of Israel, a simpleton into a tsadik nistar (one of 36 unknown men of virtue who, by their presence in each generation, save mankind from divine wrath). Indeed, the prophecies of Amos and Micah have as much, if not more, socialist and even anarchist fire than any modern revolutionary manifesto.

Through centuries of scattered existence in several diasporas, Jewish communities everywhere developed highly advanced and sometimes highly sophisticated voluntary systems of social welfare, dealing not only with material needs but with communal activity designed to drive away loneliness, alienation and mental suffering. Despite extreme poverty, diaspora Jewish communities did not let an individual die of starvation or remain illiterate; a net of voluntary taxation was stretched out to support the poor, the aged and the crippled. Education was regarded on religious grounds as a basic human right and a prime social duty. I cannot think of any nation-states, except for a very few in the twentieth century, whose laws attained to the same degree of social progressiveness. Incidentally, one of the social duties assumed by traditional Jewish communities was never to leave a young woman without a bridegroom or a young man without a bride, which is more than any contemporary socialism can claim for itself.

So much for the Jewish genes in Israeli socialism. Turning now to the Russian ones, we should focus not on the social theorists, like Aleksandr Herzen and Mikhail Bakunin, but on the great nineteenth-century Russian writers. It is ironic, of course, that an observer of the decadent Russian aristocracy like Ivan Turgenev, or a populist mystic like Leo Tolstoy, or a reactionary Christian-Slavophile romantic like Fyodor Dostoevsky, should have stirred a socialist vision in the early Zionist pioneers, but that's how it was.

The small-town Jewish idealists who were influenced by these giants could hardly tell the difference between liberalism and radicalism; both were perceived as redeeming alternatives to the misery, puritanism and religious oppressiveness of traditional Jewish life. Jewish youths sick and tired of the stifling atmosphere of the Jewish petite-bourgeoisie of Eastern Europe embraced Tolstoy's prescription of going back to the land, mingling with the peasants, enlightening them and being healed by the pure simplicity of rural life. They adopted Dostoevsky's Christian ideal of self-dedication to the point of self-negation as an answer to the aimlessness of their own lives.

All this the early settlers brought with them to Palestine shortly after the turn of the century. Sadly enough, they couldn't wrap the Arab peasantry in Tolstoyan lovingkindness because of the language barrier and other reasons. So they assumed the double role of peasant and populist: while toiling on the land, in terrible suffering and hardship, they 'educated' themselves, 'enlightened' themselves and 'healed' themselves. Galilee must have been a very peculiar stage for many dramatic Dostoevskyan scenes of soul-searching far into the night. Those early Zionist Socialists were simultaneously drying the swamps and arguing about the social, political, ethical and theological significance of each of their actions. As a result, I believe nobody ever slept in Palestine during the first twenty years of this century.

It would take a trilogy to describe the mosaic of ideological, political and philosophical groups among those enthusiastic pioneers. There were anarchists and mystics, Plekhanovites and Kropotkinites, Narodniks and altruists, and, later on, Marxists, Trotskyists and even some Stalinists. In those early years, I dare say, there were probably more political groups than individuals, since each of these peasants-cum-theoreticians had a divided mind and soul.

But there was absolutely nothing to revolutionize in the Jewish sections of Palestine in those years, neither industry nor agriculture, neither big cities nor real villages. Consequently, these world reformers were reduced to attacking their own souls, attacking one another and attacking the harsh land itself. In this they were inventive. They established various forms of communes, 'work brigades', cultural committees, and so on. The slogan was, 'We came to this country to build it and to be rebuilt by it.' They put strong emphasis on the need to change human nature, to revolutionize the 'Jewish psyche', to heal their own tormented souls.

Strangely enough, one can say in retrospect that they were very practical. They experimented with various types of agricultural co-operation, quickly abandoning any scheme that didn't work. Poverty and harsh living conditions taught them how to farm and how to manufacture. Endless debates and arguments taught them how to strike an uneasy ideological consensus.

They were all sorts of things, but they were not lunatics. They were full of zeal, but removed from fanaticism. The world is full of dogmatic movements pretending to be pragmatic; observing these founders of kibbutzim in Israel, I tend to believe that they have been a pragmatic lot pretending, because of some emotional urge, to be dogmatic. They always had their principles, convictions, complicated theories, but these were moderated by an enormous respect for realities.

Let us now consider some of the major trends during the epic years of Zionist socialism — the years preceding the creation of the state of Israel — as personified by some outstanding characters.

Aharon David Gordon (1845–1922) was 48 when he left his small town in Russia to become a farmhand in Palestine in 1904. He was a Tolstoyan who believed in peoples but not in nations, and especially not in nation-states. His key notion was self-healing through hard physical labour. In sharp contrast to Karl Marx's concepts, Gordon believed that everything begins with the uniqueness of each individual, that society is a complex of differing individualists and that spontaneous religious experience is the answer to the ritualistic and oppressive — and hence 'inhuman'— character of all institutionalized religions. His vision was a Palestine turned into a loose federation of small, self-contained rural communities, wherein individuals were likely to achieve religious self- purification through constant contact with nature. His followers were later to comprise the most anti-chauvinist, anti-bureaucratic and anti-Marxist faction of the broad political and cultural coalition that formed the Israeli Labour movement.

Yosef Chaim Brenner (1881–1921) was one of the greatest figures of modern Hebrew literature. A former rabbinical student and a Russian world reformer, Brenner seemed to have stepped right out of a Dostoevsky novel. In his stories, novels and essays, he was an existentialist long before existentialism, a pessimist, a sceptical social thinker disillusioned by all social institutions of any sort or form, doubtful about the prospects of Zionism itself. He believed that it is only through struggle against the devil in one's own soul that the human condition can be slightly improved. He also believed in the healing powers of hard physical work and total silence (although he personally failed at both). It may be ironic to point out that Brenner is regarded as the spiritual father of both of the two conflicting attitudes towards the Arabs that contend within the contemporary Israeli Labour movement — the hard-line, essentially pessimistic approach of 'establishing facts by building more settlements and struggling against odds', and a realistic, moderate approach ready for compromise with the Palestinians.

Berl Katznelson (1887–1944), a self-educated intellectual from a small town in Russia, a teacher, worker, political organizer and theorist, rose gradually to the status of a secular 'rabbi' for most of the early pioneers. A man who seemed unable to hold onto any official position, regular job or even permanent home, he none the less became a great unifier who synthesized the various splinter groups and personally laid the foundations for half a dozen organizations, such as the Union of Agricultural Workers, the Union of Cooperatives and Kibbutzim, the national health-care system, the workers' central bank, the Labour movement's daily newspaper and its publishing house and, finally, the Histadrut — the shadow government of the shadow state that the Jewish community created in the days of the British mandate in Palestine.


Excerpted from "Israel, Palestine, and Peace"
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Copyright © 1978 Amos Oz.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents

Title Page,
Table of Contents,
Has Israel Altered its Visions?,
The Real Cause of My Grandmother's Death,
From Jerusalem to Cairo,
Between Europe and the Negev Desert,
Peace and Love and Compromise,
Whose Holy Land?,
Telling Stories under Siege,
The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Tragedy, Comedy and Cognitive Block,
At the Bridge,
Hizbollah in a Skullcap,
Clearing the Minefields of the Heart,
Read More from Amos Oz,
About the Author,

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