Amos Oz is perhaps Israel’s most celebrated contemporary author, novelist and essayist. Annually considered a serious candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature, Oz is revered by many as Israel’s moral compass – a modern-day prophet of sorts.
Born and raised in pre-state British Mandate Jerusalem, Oz came from an Eastern European immigrant family of right-wing revisionist Zionists. Yet, since the end of the Six Day War in 1967, Oz has been a leading voice in the left-wing “Peace Camp,” repeatedly calling for a peaceful two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “Even unavoidable occupation is a corrupting occupation,” he wrote in the Labor Newspaper Davar following the war. Since then he has regularly published hundreds of articles on political and social matters, and is a frequent speaker at peace rallies. Painful compromises on both sides, he claims, are the only solution to the violent real-estate dispute between the two sides. It is interesting to contrast Oz’s categorization of the conflict primarily as a real-estate dispute, with the philosophy of Dudu Benshabat – who we encountered at Har Amasa – who believes that the emphasis on territory and maps fails to incorporate cultural differences and divergent religious beliefs, as well as the substantial inequalities in infrastructure and living standards.
Despite his dovish views, Oz is a proud Zionist, and advocates Israel’s right to exist. In April 2002, he summed up his stance by stating that, “two Palestinian-Israeli wars have erupted in this region. One is the Palestinian nation’s war for its freedom from occupation and for its right to independent statehood. Any decent person ought to support this cause. The second war is waged by fanatical Islam, from Iran to Gaza and from Lebanon to Ramallah, to destroy Israel and drive the Jews out of their land. Any decent person ought to abhor this cause.”
In 2002, Oz penned what many regard as his magnum opus – an autobiographically inspired account of his boyhood days in Jerusalem – titled A Tale of Love and Darkness. The coming of age memoir, which won the prestigious Goethe Prize and was translated into more than twenty languages including Arabic, describes life in Jerusalem during the final years of the British Mandate and the early years of statehood. It chronicles his private familial history against the backdrop of the national struggle for independence and the establishment of the State of Israel.
Following the suicide of his depressive mother, a teenaged Oz left his father’s home in Jerusalem and joined Kibbutz Hulda. This represented a break from his family tradition and upbringing, as the Kibbutz belonged to the socialist Labor Movement. Oz also changed his surname from Klausner to the more Hebrew-sounding “Oz” (which means strength or might), thereby symbolically rejecting his European roots, and embracing a local, Israeli identity. He idealized the Kibbutz pioneers, claiming that “they take out miserable human clay and mold it into a fighting nation. I secretly dreamed that one day they would take me with them and make me into a fighting nation too. That my life too would become a new song.” It was at Hulda that he met his wife, Nili, and that his children were born. He participated fully in the communal life of the Kibbutz, and even once he was a world-acclaimed writer, was still required to take his turn serving food at the Kibbutz dining hall. In 1986, the Oz family left the Kibbutz and moved to Arad, which you can see in the distance, since the desert climate was better for their son’s asthma.
In A Tale of Love and Darkness, Oz described the tense peacefulness of the scenery in front of which you now stand:
Every morning, a little before or a little after sunrise, I am in the habit of going out to discover what is new in the desert. The desert begins here in Arad at the end of our road. An easterly morning breeze comes from the direction of the Mountains of Edom, stirring little eddies of sand here and there that try unsuccessfully to rise up from the ground. Each of them struggles, loses its whirlwind shape, and dies down. The hills themselves are still hidden by the mist that comes up from the Dead Sea and covers the rising sun and the highlands with grey veil, as though it were autumn already instead of summer. But it is a false autumn: in another couple of hours it will be dry and hot again here. Like yesterday. Like the day before yesterday, like a week ago, like a month ago.
In the meantime the cool of the night is still holding its own. There is a pleasant smell of dust that has soaked up a lot of dew, blended with a faint smell of sulphur, goat droppings, thistles and dead campfires. This is the smell of the Land of Israel from time immemorial. I go down into the wadi and advance along a winding path to the edge of the cliff from which I have a view of the Dead Sea, nearly three thousand feet below, fifteen and a half miles away. The shadow of the hills to the east falls on the water and gives it a colour of old copper. Here and there a sharp needle of light manages to pierce the cloud for a moment and touch the sea. The sea responds with a dazzling shimmer, as though there is an electric storm raging under the surface.
From here to there stretch empty slopes of limestone dappled with black rocks. Among these rocks, exactly on the horizon at the top of the hill facing me, suddenly there are three black goats and among them a human figure standing motionless draped in black from head to foot. A Bedouin woman? And is that a dog next to her? And suddenly they’ve all disappeared beyond the line of the hills, the woman, the goats and the dog. The grey light casts doubt on every movement. Meanwhile other dogs give voice in the distance. A little further on, among the rocks by the side of the path, lies a rusty shell casing. How did it end up here? Maybe one night a camel caravan of smugglers passed here on their way from Sinai to the southern part of Mount Hebron, and one of the smugglers lost the shell casing, or threw it away after wondering what he would do with it.
Now you can hear the full depths of the desert silence. It isn’t the quiet before the storm, nor the silence of the end of the world, but a silence that only covers another, even deeper, silence. I stand there for three or four minutes inhaling silence like a smell. Then I turn back. I walk back up from the wadi to the end of my road, arguing with an angry chorus of dogs that start barking at me from every garden. Perhaps they imagine that I’m threatening to help the desert invade the town.
In the branches of the first tree in the garden of the first house a whole parliament of sparrows are deep in noise argument, all interrupting each other with deafening shrieks: they seem to be roaring rather than chirping. As though the departure of the night and the breaking of the day are unprecedented developments that justify an emergency meeting.
Along the road an old car is starting up with a hoarse coughing fit, like a heavy smoker. The newspaper boy vainly tries to make friends with an uncompromising dog. The thickset, tanned neighbor, with a thicket of grey hair on his bare chest, a retired colonel, whose foursquare body reminds me of a tin trunk, is standing half naked in blue running shorts, watering a bed of roses in front of his house.
‘Your roses are looking wonderful. Good morning Mr Shmuelevich.’
A few dozen pioneers, including loners who loved the desert or were searching for solitude and also a few young couples came and settled here in the early sixties: miners, quarry workers, regular army officers and industrial workers. Lova Eliav, with a handful of other town-planners seized by Zionist enthusiasm, planned, sketched out and immediately constructed this town, with its streets, squares, avenues and gardens, not far from the Dead Sea, in an out-of-the-way place that at that time, in the early nineteen sixties, was not served by any main road, water pipeline or power supply, where there were no trees, no paths, no buildings, no tents, no signs of life. Even the local Bedouin settlements mostly came into being after the town was built. The pioneers who founded Arad were passionate, impatient, talkative and busy. Without a second thought, they vowed ‘to conquer the wilderness and tame the desert.’
Amos Oz, A Tale of Love and Darkness, 293-299.
Mishy Harman / over 1 year ago