Amos Oz, likely the best-known contemporary Israeli novelist, has long been an outspoken proponent of the politics of liberal Zionism. Treading a middle path between right-wing Zionism and anti- or post-Zionism, the liberal Zionist believes that Israel has the right to exist as a homeland for the Jewish people, that this state should be a liberal democracy, and that Palestinians, too, have a claim to a national homeland. Central to this ideology is support for a two-state solution, which is exactly what Oz has advocated for since the end of the Six-Day War in 1967, long before many others took up the cause. Now, for many left-leaning Jews in Israel and around the world, liberal Zionism has been a common-sense belief system for decades.
But a crisis has arrived. Liberal Zionism’s proponents are out of power in both Israel and the United States, its chief supporter and ally. Under the rule of the Israeli right, the occupation of Palestinian territories has become further entrenched, while the government has cracked down on internal (and external) dissent. In December of last year, Trump fulfilled a campaign promise when he ordered the United States embassy in Israel to move to Jerusalem, which he formally recognized as Israel’s capital, an affirmation of Israeli sovereignty. The political conditions of the present have done more than displace liberal Zionism from the levers of power: they have forced a confrontation with the principles of the ideology. Liberal Zionism seeks a balance between Israel’s Jewishness and its democratic character. Unquestionably, the state in its current form has put the former before the latter; this was made explicit in the passing of the “Jewish nation-state law” in July. Still, liberal Zionists hope to restore the balance, even as it becomes clear that the two ideas—Israel as a democracy and Israel as a Jewish state—are so fundamentally opposed that any attempt to reconcile them is doomed from the start.
This is exactly the kind of thinking that Amos Oz’s Dear Zealots: Letters from a Divided Land aims to combat. Originally published in Hebrew in 2017 and appearing now in Jessica Cohen’s English translation, Dear Zealots is a rallying cry to liberal Zionists who are growing worried that their vision of Israel’s future has not come to pass. The book attempts its best impression of clarity, directness, and level-headed optimism. It’s a narcotic cocktail of reassurance and shallow philosophizing for those moderates waiting for the age of extremism to pass so they can reclaim control of Israel and bring matters to their reasonable conclusion.
Oz proves himself ill-equipped to understand political violence of any kind.
The three short essays that make up Dear Zealots are united by the idea that extremism—not of any particular stripe, but “zealotry itself”—is the enemy of reasonable people in Israel and the world over. Oz writes in the titular essay that “as the questions grow harder and more complicated, people yearn for simpler answers.” Well, he certainly does. Faced with a world rife with various forms of political violence, Oz makes it clear from the start that Dear Zealots will abjure all material analysis and considerations of power, history, and ideology in favor of ruminating on that great rhetorical catch-all: human nature. “Fanaticism,” he writes,
dates back much earlier than Islam. Earlier than Christianity and Judaism. Earlier than all the ideologies in the world. It is an elemental fixture of human nature, a “bad gene.” People who bomb abortion clinics, murder immigrants in Europe, murder Jewish women and children in Israel, burn down a house in the Israeli-occupied territories with an entire Palestinian family inside, desecrate synagogues and churches and mosques and cemeteries—they are all distinct from al-Qaeda and ISIS in the scope and severity of their acts, but not in their nature.
Oz seems unduly proud of his own magnanimity in admitting that acts such as these “are carried out almost daily, including against Muslims” (emphasis mine). To a certain conservative readership, perhaps one amenable to tolerating Oz as a reasonable, dissenting “left-wing” voice, this might come as a shock. To anyone with eyes unclouded by virulent Islamophobia, it’s obvious. Still, this doesn’t stop him from suggesting that contemporary fanaticism is primarily an Islamic phenomenon. He writes, “Religious fanatics and ideological fanatics of various strains commit horrific crimes of violence,” but in the next paragraph, the example he reaches for turns out to be “a fanatic Muslim.”
Oz proves himself ill-equipped to understand political violence of any kind. His analyses range from the banal to the simply bizarre, as when he remarks that “there are far less prominent and less visible forms of fanaticism around us,” such as “fanatic opponents of smoking who act as if anyone who dares light a cigarette near them should be burned alive” or “fanatic vegetarians and vegans who sometimes sound ready to devour people who eat meat.” Also in the bewildering category belongs his assertion that fanaticism is on the rise because we are too far removed from the times of Stalin and Hitler, who “seem to have invested the two or three generations that followed with a profound fear of any extremism and with a measure of restraint toward fanatical urges.” One wonders how he squares this ludicrous claim, belied by, well, the second half of the twentieth century, with his admission that the early Zionist settlers inherited a variety of European fanaticisms.
And then there’s the banal. “Curiosity and imaginative power,” Oz muses, “these two things may give us partial immunity to fanaticism.” His evidence? An anecdote about the Israeli writer Sami Michael, who, when a driver in a car in which he was riding explained that Jews should “kill all the Arabs,” listened politely and responded, “And who, in your opinion, should kill all the Arabs?” Michael pressed his racist driver to detail the specifics of what his suggestion entailed, until the driver, evidently stunned at the logical conclusion that his edict would involve the murdering of infants, said to Michael, “Sir, you are a very cruel man!” The lesson that Oz draws from this story is this: “perhaps activating one’s imagination, being forced to look at the suffering of one’s victims at close range, may have the power, here and there, to act as an antidote to the simplified cruelty of slogans such as ‘Death to Arabs!’ and ‘Death to Jews!’” Leaving aside the fact that the anecdote reveals neither imagination nor curiosity, the notion that these faculties might curb extremist violence, while a nice thought, is also an embarrassingly naive one. Just last month a man burst into Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue shouting, “All Jews must die!” before proceeding to murder eleven of them, apparently undeterred by observing the suffering of his victims at close range. To the curative potential of curiosity and imagination, Oz also adds “humor,” quipping, “I, for one, have never met a fanatic with a sense of humor.” I suppose he has never watched a video of IDF soldiers whooping and laughing after one of them guns down an unarmed Palestinian man.
When Oz describes Judaism as he values it, it is in opposition to fanatical forces. His vision of Judaism is neither religious nor nationalistic, but rather textual and ethical and, at its core, democratic and pluralistic. “Democracy and pluralism,” he writes,
are simply popular expressions of the sanctity of life and the equality of human worth. They are manifestations of the Talmudic verse “Whoever saves one life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.” These notions are not foreign, not “imported.” The sanctity of human life derives directly from the innermost core of the Jewish spirit at its finest. I believe that it is the very same place that gives rise to “Cause no pain” and to “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.”
Oz denounces right-wing talk of “Jewish blood,” “a monstrous concept” that “has become popular among many of the more extreme Israeli Jews” (so too in the United States, where Tablet initiated a campaign to scrutinize the genealogy of New York State Senator-elect Julia Salazar to dispute her claim to Jewishness). Oz rightly identifies the affinity of this way of thinking with Nazi biological racism: “this horrible phrase, ‘Jewish blood,’ does not appear anywhere in Jewish sources. Not once. We do not have ‘Jewish blood’ as a concept . . . Conversely, ‘Jewish blood’ was a central concept in the Nuremberg Laws legislated by Hitler’s Reich.” He even pushes back on less obviously nefarious forms of Jewish nationalism in favor of a more humane, humanistic, philosophical vision. “There certainly is a Jewish nation,” he writes, “but it is different from many other nations because its lifeblood is not necessarily passed down through genes, nor through victories on the battlefield, but rather through books.” He waxes poetic on this theme: “The Jews did not build pyramids or erect spectacular cathedrals . . .They created texts and read them together in the family, at holiday feasts and at everyday meals.”
These descriptions of a Jewishness beyond blood and soil are lovely. But they’re a farce. Despite his talk of Jewishness as a polyvocal, philosophical tradition, Oz is unwavering in his commitment to a Jewish nationalism as simple and brutal as any other. In the context of scaremongering about the possibility of a one-state solution, he admits that he “[insists] on the right of Israeli Jews, like any other people, to be a majority.” Here the dark side of Oz’s vision of Jewishness comes into focus. He believes in majority rule—for Jews among themselves, supposedly with the proviso that those who live among them as a minority would be granted equal rights and protections under the law. “Jews and Arabs,” he writes, “can and should live together, but I would find it absolutely unacceptable to be a part of a Jewish minority under Arab rule, because almost all the Arab regimes in the Middle East oppress and humiliate their minorities.” It is, of course, Israel that has oppressed and humiliated its minorities. This hypocrisy reveals the racist undercurrent to Oz’s argument, evident also in his collapsing of Palestinians and Israel’s other ethnically Arab neighbors and his suggestion that a true democracy with a non-Jewish majority would constitute “Arab rule.” Of course, a one-state solution would constitute no such thing, but rather democratic self-rule for the whole population.
Oz is unwavering in his commitment to a Jewish nationalism as simple and brutal as any other.
The fact is that Oz the humanist, Oz the liberal Zionist, Oz the democrat, is also Oz the ethnonationalist, because liberal Zionism—though to some it is anathema to say so—is ethnonationalism. He identifies himself as part of “the Zionist left, which opposes the occupation and refuses to rule over another nation, yet still believes that the Jewish people have a natural, historical, legal right to sovereign existence as a majority, if only in a very small democratic state.” But no state can control the demographics within it—that is, guarantee a Jewish majority—and still be “democratic” in any meaningful sense. Demographic control means restricting who can enter the state, who can procreate, and who can remain. It means policing the very notion of who is and is not Jewish. The humanistic, democratic Judaism Oz claims to espouse is fundamentally incompatible with the desire for a Jewish-majority state.
In the age of Trump and Netanyahu, the incoherence of this ideology has never been clearer. But there is a danger that—just as certain pundits have rushed to write off Trump as an aberration rather than an expression of the American idea in full, noxious bloom—liberal Zionists can write off Netanyahu as a departure from the redeemable values of Israel. This is the kind of thinking that Oz encourages, in which fanaticism is defined more by its form than its content. Fanaticism never presents itself as moderate and reasonable—say, as a “liberal” appeal for a “democratic” ethnostate.
One function of the rhetoric of reasonableness is to disguise the immoral and cruel as respectable, but another is to constrain the political imagination. Oz’s sole argument against the one-state solution in Dear Zealots is that it’s preposterous. “The idea of a binational state,” he writes, “which has garnered support on the extreme left as well as from some figures on the delusional right, I regard as a sad joke. We cannot expect Israelis and Palestinians, after a hundred years of blood, tears, and catastrophes, to jump into a double bed together and begin their honeymoon.” This pivot to the abstract and then to the bedroom metaphor demonstrates again Oz’s unwillingness to speak of power in material terms: the situation is neither an abstract “conflict” nor a marital dispute, but the subjection of one people by another. He makes it clear that he is not interested in making a moral case against the one-state solution, which would mean to take it seriously.
Despite Oz’s desire to hold the center, the Jewish left is growing as the contradictions of liberal Zionism become more visible by the day. The obvious injustice of the occupation and the travesty of continued mainstream American Jewish support for it have led many younger Jews, often motivated by Jewish values, to question not only Israel’s actions, but the state itself. The movement that’s needed to realize a truly democratic vision, in which Israelis and Palestinians alike are free and equal, may seem, to Oz and other moderate middle-path seekers, overzealous. It might even seem fanatical. In a broken world, movements seeking justice usually do.