WeeklyWorker

08.02.2019
Amos Oz: a leftwinger, but a Zionist too

Zionism’s inherent contradictions

Review of 'Judas' by Amos Oz (Vintage, 2017, pp274, £8.99)

Unlike some of his fictional characters, Israeli writer Amos Oz, who died a few weeks ago, was a Zionist with a conscience - but he remained a Zionist.

His original name was Amos Klausner, but he changed it to Oz, which means ‘courage’ in Hebrew. His parents were rightwing Zionists, who were émigrés from eastern Europe. Aged 14, a rebellious young Oz decided to become a labour Zionist. He joined a kibbutz and served in the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), before going to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where he studied philosophy and Hebrew literature. He fought as a reservist in the Six-Day War of 1967 and the Yum Kippur war in 1973. Between 1987 and 2014, he was professor of Hebrew literature at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

He wrote more than 40 books, including many novels. His basic argument is that the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a war of religion or cultures or traditions, but rather a real-estate dispute - one which will be resolved not by greater understanding, but by painful compromise” (this sounds like a two-state solution to me). “Even unavoidable occupation is a corrupting occupation,” says Oz.

He was a founder of the Israeli ‘Peace Now’ campaign in 1991, but did not oppose the building of Israel’s West Bank barrier - except that it should have followed the green line of the 1949 armistice between Israel and Jordan. As for Jerusalem, this should be divided into zones, not just for Jews, Arabs and Christians, but also for the Eastern Orthodox church and Hasidic Jews.

He has opposed Israel’s settlement policy, but always from a left Zionist position. So he was critical of the non-Zionist left. He became a member of the Israeli Labor Party, and was close to Shimon Peres. But in the 1990s, he joined the “more leftwing” Meretz party. Yet he supported the second Lebanon war of 2006, saying: “This time the battle is not over Israeli expansion and colonisation. This is a war of self-defence.” The Israeli peace movement should support it, as long as the IDF targets Hezbollah bases and tries to protect the lives of Lebanese civilians (!) He changed his mind after the Israeli cabinet decided to expand its operations in Lebanon. A day before the 2008-09 Israeli invasion of the Gaza strip, Oz supported military action against Hamas. Two weeks later he called for a ceasefire and referred to the harsh conditions in Gaza. If civilians have been killed, this should be treated as a war crime, he argued - although he doubted that the bombing of UN buildings was intentional.

In 2010, he wrote in the New York Times:

Hamas is not just a terrorist organisation ... [it is] an idea, a desperate and fanatical idea that grew out of the desolation and frustration of many Palestinians. No idea has ever been defeated by force … To defeat an idea you have to have a better idea, which is a more attractive and acceptable one. Therefore Israel has to sign a peace agreement with … Fatah and [the] government of the West Bank.1

But there is no mention here of the fact that Israel encouraged the rise of Hamas, as an Islamic movement, as a foil to Fatah, which has always been secular. There is no mention either of the fate of the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by Israel and Egypt. It is like the Warsaw Ghetto, although it is somewhat bigger; only not big enough to sustain a viable state.

Oz also supported the Israeli invasion of Gaza in 2014 (the third since 2000). He criticised Hamas’s alleged use of ‘human shields’, despite the fact that many civilians were killed in their homes - even children playing on the beach.2

Judas (2014 publication) was described by the Financial Times as “one of the boldest of all his works”.3 As a Zionist with a conscience, Oz closely resembles Gershom Wald, the old man in Judas, who is a scholar like himself. On the other hand, young Schmuel Ash resembles a youthful, unformed Oz. Thus the author frees himself to speculate about Zionism, past and present, through his fiction, whilst he defends Zionism in the real world, despite its oppressive and expansionist nature.

The story takes us back to the foundation of Israel as an independent state in 1948, and all the violence and suffering which followed, especially for the Palestinians. I expected him to look at both sides of the argument before coming down firmly on the side of Zionism; but, as the Times Literary Supplement says, Judas is a “heartbreaking meditation on roads not taken, and collisions yet to come”.4

There was another road other than the Zionist one, which was the struggle for a unitary Palestinian state - albeit as part of a socialist revolution against colonialism and imperialism - which would also aim to unite Jewish settlers along with the Arab workers and peasants throughout the Middle East.

Literary worth

Judas was long-listed for the Mann Booker prize in 2017. Set in a cold wintry Jerusalem in the late 1950s, this reinforces the melancholic and elegiac tone of the novel. Human suffering is always to the fore, be it personal or as a matter of historical record. At the same time, this is a very sensuous and sensual story, wherein the reader can clearly see the places Oz describes, be they bright colours and textures or darkness; not just what someone looks like, but also the touch of another’s skin; how they smell, along with the smells of the kitchen. Then we have myriad sounds of the household and the city outside, including sirens and sniper fire.

Apart from the story line, which its absolutely fascinating, wherein the personal and the political are seamlessly interwoven, Oz is able to create flesh-and-blood characters. They are believable because they are specific types - dissident even, but not willing to break the mould. (For example, it is all right to rebel against one’s parent’s generation, given their mistakes, but there is no need to become a revolutionary Marxist!)

Young Schmuel Ash is a bumbling bear of a man - an asthmatic, who talcs his bushy beard and always smells sweet. He is easily moved to tears, even by a stray, hungry cat; whereas Atalia Abravanel, the female object of his desire, is aloof, as well as strong and dominant; hardened by grief, she has become completely self-contained. She only needs intimacy on rare occasions, which is sad not just for her, but for others too - in particular, several hapless young men!

The style of Judas is deliberately repetitious, in order to establish Schmuel’s growing attachment to the house and its occupants. Now Gershom is the only male occupant. He is old and crippled, but fully alert - a man who brims with knowledge and ideas (when he is not taking a nap). The house used to belong to his friend, Schealtiel Abravanel, who died a couple of years after the foundation of the Jewish state. The only female occupant is Atalia. She is an attractive woman of about 40. Micha, her husband (who was also Gershom’s son), was killed by Palestinians in the 1948 war; which is even more tragic, since he was a reluctant volunteer.

Who is the ‘Judas’ of the title? It takes a while before the reader realises that this is a term which applies to Jews as well as Christians. This idea is cleverly developed via the character of Schmuel, who starts out studying religion at university. He has a long discussion with Gershom about the events leading up to the crucifixion of the historical Jesus: Judas Iscariot is seen from both a Christian and Jewish perspective. At the same time, Schmuel challenges conventional wisdom. Judas Iscariot was not the betrayer of Jesus: rather he was the first Christian, because he really believed that his master was the son of God, whilst Jesus himself was doubtful right up to the end! Jesus really was the messiah - not just for the Jews, but for all mankind. Therefore, in order for the prophecy to be fulfilled, Judas had to persuade the Pharisees that Jesus was a blasphemer, a false messiah, who must be put to death. But, when Jesus died on the cross, Judas was horrified and suffered a sudden loss of faith. That is why he hanged himself. But what about the 30 pieces of silver? That is a lie told by Christians, because they hate the Jews, whom they called ‘Christ killers’. As for today’s Jews, Zionists in particular, anyone who betrays the cause of Israel is a Judas (a variation on the self-hating Jew).

The fact that Gershom is living in Atalia’s house is amazing, considering the back story. His friend, Shealtiel, had been a member of the Council of the Jewish Agency and the Zionist Executive Committee. But then he came to the conclusion that the decision to fight for an independent Jewish state in Palestine was the wrong road to take. After the holocaust, he concluded: “... the Jews might be right to aspire to establish a homeland here, but he [now believed] that the home should be shared between Jews and Arabs ... In 1947 … he suddenly [opposed] the UN partition plan against an independent Israel” (p258).

At the start of 1948, Abravanel “requested permission to give evidence before the UN Special Commission … examining the question of the future of Palestine” - he hoped to give his own “individual” view concerning the “conflict between the Jews and the Arabs” (p118). He argued that the David Ben-Gurion line would lead to “a bloody war between the two peoples … endangering the lives of 600,000 Jews in Palestine. This conflict is based on a misunderstanding, which can be resolved through dialogue” (p122). But after he had opposed the plan for an independent Israel, “some people began to call him a traitor” (p258). From a Zionist perspective, he was a modern-day Judas. Gershom was also inclined to this view. As a result Abravanel was forced to resign all his positions: “After his resignation, he shut up completely. He decided not to say a single word in public” (pp258-59).

For Oz, Abravanel stands for the road not taken. Whilst this is a good idea, it is still a flawed one, because he sees this in terms of the Zionist movement and its direction of travel. Whereas the next step for Abravanel would have to involve a complete break with Zionism, because the latter ultimately bases itself on a religious idea: that Palestine is the ‘promised land’, part of the (broken) covenant between God and the Jews. But this would have to come via the expulsion of Arab inhabitants who happened to be in the way, despite the fact that they have lived in this land continuously for at least 1,000 years. So, if Abravanel were to achieve his dream that “the land should be shared between the Jews and the Arabs”, he would have to move towards a classical Marxist solution: ie, he and his supporters (people like Schmuel and his “Socialist Renewal Group”) would have to appeal to the workers and peasants throughout the region to fight for a united socialist states of the Middle East; because there is no other way for people to live in peace and harmony, with equal rights for all. There is no national solution. But the only alternative was Stalinism: in 1948 the USSR voted for the UN partition of Palestine.

Schmuel

In his character, the personal and the political come together: Schmuel arrives at the house of Abravanel in answer to Atalia’s advertisement for a young man who is well-read, but also willing to look after the invalid, Gershom. Schmuel is instantly smitten by her: “It had been a long time since a woman had touched him … or any human being had touched him.” It did not matter if she was old enough to be his mother, who rarely touched him (p75). In between the ritual of warming the old man’s porridge and feeding him, as well as his own face, old Gershom warns Schmuel not to fall in love with Atalia, because she will cast him aside as soon as she is satisfied - such was the fate of his two previous helpmates: “Be careful she doesn’t singe your beard” (p104). But he knows that Schmuel cannot help himself. His soul is “like a watch with the glass removed” (p83).

But what about Schmuel’s background? It roughly follows that of the real-life Amos Oz: Schmuel was a member of the Socialist Renewal Group, but it was so small, it could fit around one table in a cafe. It had split over Khrushchev’s revelations of Stalin’s crimes at the 20th Party Congress in 1956. But Schmuel asks: “Should we put an end to a grand idea … because the party in the Soviet Union became corrupted and lost its way?” (p61). So he is a dyed-in-the wool Stalinist, warts and all.

But there was also a gulf between Schmuel’s socialist group and the working class, symbolised by their meetings in the cafe. The group never spoke to the workers and vice versa. On the other hand, Schmuel was a student of religious studies at the university. He was particularly interested in the story of the crucifixion and the role which Judas Iscariot played in it: “What nonsense is this!” exclaims his professor. “What has come over us suddenly? Jewish views of Jesus indeed. Obviously a fruitless field without parallel opens up before us” (p9 - surely there is more scope for a dramatic breakthrough in the Talmud):

Once he met Stalin in a dream ... he showed Stalin, from the roof of the Formation Abbey on Mount Zion, a distant view of the wailing wall. [But] He failed to explain to Stalin, who was smiling under his moustache, why the Jews rejected Jesus and why they still stubbornly continued to turn their backs on him. Stalin called Schmuel Judas (p7).

Gershom is also prone to the occasional idealist lapse. In one conversation with Schmuel, he refers to the crusades: A group of crusaders were on their way to the Holy Land, where they are going to liberate Jerusalem from the infidel. But en route, some of them gave up their dream and founded a new Jerusalem for themselves; since they were willing to share the abundant land of Slovenia with the locals. This became a new “promised land ... without shedding any more blood and without fighting endlessly against hostile infidels” (p67). Perhaps the Zionist movement should have done the same? But later he tells the love-sick Schmuel that Shealtiel was a hopeless dreamer: “If two men love the same woman, or two peoples love the same land, they can drink rivers of coffee together, and these rivers will not quench their hatred; neither can the floods drown it” (p122). Irrational Zionist nationalism, inflamed by the horrors of the holocaust, must override rational socialist ideas.

Atalia also has political views, which are more in line with her father’s: she is an anti-Zionist: “You wanted a [Jewish] state … [The side you support] shed rivers of blood … you drove hundreds of thousands of Arabs out of their homes …” Schmuel disagrees strongly, so Atalia adds, “You call yourself a socialist, but you’re really a Zionist like all the others.” Schmuel tries to convince her that “we had our backs to the wall and the whole of the progressive world supported a Jewish state, including the communist bloc”. Atalia comes back at him: “That was a lie, based on a false dream, which led to the unnecessary slaughter and violent expulsion of the Palestinians” (p166).

Gershom believed that David Ben-Gurion was a new King David for the Jewish people. He does not understand that nationalism is a dead end, especially in Palestine. He asks why the Jewish people should be singled out to be denied a nation of their own. The fact that they did not have one led to the holocaust. All the more reason why they should have their own historic land now. There is enough land for the Jews and the Arabs. Maybe one day the two could be united as one nation.

But how can this come about if it involves the violent expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Arabs from their land from the moment a Jewish state is declared? Since he is writing in the present, Oz also ignores the true nature of Israel as a colonial-settler state, which seeks to expand its occupation, forcing hundreds of thousands more Arabs to become a landless, exploited under class or go into exile: ie, join two million of their brothers and sisters who had been driven out generations ago.

But, back in 1948, Abravanel said that Arabs feared exactly that: a Jewish conquest - like a second crusade - which would establish “a Jewish empire from the Nile to the Euphrates”. The Deir Yassim massacre - and other Jewish acts of terrorism - was intended to spread panic among the Arab masses: they feared that the Jews would massacre them all, so they fled into exile. Instead, the Jews “should have opened up the Histadrut, their schools and universities, as well as their settlements to them” (pp200-01). In a rare moment of reflection, Gershom asks why the Jews and Arabs could not cooperate together, since they had both been victims of Christian colonialism. He knew in his heart of hearts that ‘Judaising’ the land would lead to endless bloody conflict; that Abravanel was right.

Gershom recalls: “… the slim chance which opened up in the mid-30s of setting up a state of Jews here, albeit in a tiny section of the country, dazzled most of us. Including myself.” That is as close as we get to any acknowledgement on Gershom’s - or Oz’s - part that some of the Zionist leaders made a Faustian pact with the Nazis: ie, in those countries which were now under Nazi occupation, the latter would allow a limited number of Jews to migrate to Palestine, in exchange for bipartisan trade and investment, despite the fact that there was a worldwide trade boycott against Nazi Germany at the time. Before long hundreds of thousands of Jews were being rounded up and sent to the death camps. Abranavel, for his part, did not believe in any state. Not even a binational one … (p201).

To sum up the argument: Abravanel condemned his fellow Zionists in the council of the Jewish Agency, because they had become a “Frankenstein monster”, who “deliberately exploited the age-old religious and messianic energies of the Jewish masses and enlisted these in the service of a political movement which was … secular, pragmatic and modern” (p183). Ultimately for Abravanel, he could not remain friends with Gershom, because the latter was “firm in his view that Zionism could [only] be achieved through confrontation with the Arabs, whereas I had understood by the end of the 40s that it could not be achieved without confrontation”. For Gershom, confrontation was inevitable, especially in the wake of the Jewish exodus from Europe in the aftermath of the Holocaust. By contrast, Abravanel called for a negotiated settlement, Atalia’s views were even more extreme than her father’s: “The presence of the Jews in the land of Israel is based on injustice” (p185).

Armageddon

Gershom is a cynic, as well as a conscience-stricken Zionist. He tells Schmuel: “All great revolutions end in blood, slaughter, … crusades or jihad or Gulag, or the wars of Gog and Demagogue” (p62). It is a pity Oz does not come back to this last reference, because of the way in which events have unfolded - not just in Palestine, but in the world at large:

So today there are dark and irrational forces at work, not just in the Middle East, but also within the global hegemon, which holds the fate of the world in its hands: it could start World War III tomorrow if it so desired. Arguably this bizarre state of affairs is a symptom of capitalist decline: when the system is in terminal crisis, as it now is, pathological signs of disorder begin to manifest themselves. Surely Armageddon is top of the list!

Conclusion

Gershom Wald is the pivotal character in Judas. He plays an instrumental role in young Schmuel Ash’s political - along with his personal - “rights of passage”. He learns that Gershom is plagued by the memory of his dead friend, the Arabist, Shealtiel Abravanel. His daughter, Atalia, is also a strong opponent of Zionism. Schmuel learns that just before the 1948 war Avavanel was forced to resign from his Zionist posts, because he had come to the conclusion that to fight for an independent Israel was wrong. Six million Jews, who had tried to assimilate themselves into European society, were murdered by the Nazi regime. Despite this he rejected nationalism as a solution. For this, Abravanel was condemned as a Judas by his fellow Jews. In the end Schmuel has to decide whether to remain a Zionist or not. Could his love for Atalia make a difference? Read the book and find out.

Abravanel made his stand for humanist, not Marxist, reasons. Amos Oz also tries to reconcile his own Zionist views with humanism too. But it cannot be done. That is his limitation. In a recent interview with Alan Yentob for the BBC’s Imagine programme, Oz took him to one of the new towns in the Negev. He points out that the people in the street are “working class Israelis”, with whom he has an affinity. He must have been aware that most of them support the Zionist state, because it offers them privileges at the Palestinians’ expense. Oz tries to salve his conscience by pointing to the empty desert, saying that “there is plenty of room for everyone”.

But an unequal two-state solution is clearly not enough to end the decades-long cycle of violent oppression, expulsion and occupation, followed by violent resistance. Hence the only viable solution is revolutionary socialist struggle, which seeks to unite both Jews and Arabs within Palestine. But a united socialist Palestine can only come about as part of a wider revolution for a socialist Middle East. Therefore one has to go beyond the humanist/reformist ideas and embrace the ideas of classical Marxism.

On the other hand, to paraphrase the actor in Klaus Mann’s Mephisto, Oz had every right to say, “But I’m only a writer!” Yet Abravanel - Gershom’s conscience in the story - was Oz’s conscience as well. Abravanel pointed to the road not taken - the right one, whereas Oz is unable to act upon this in the real world.

Apart from its literary qualities, this is another reason why Judas is a remarkable novel. Given the rise of Trump and Christian Zionism, not forgetting the Netanyahu government itself, this book assumes even greater significance. It deserves to be widely read.

Rex Dunn

Notes

1. www.nytimes.com/2010/06/02/opinion/02oz.html.

2. Amos Oz, Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amos_Oz.

3. Financial Times September 30 2016.

4. www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/public/books-of-the-year-2016.

5. Revelation 20:8.

6. Mike Pompeo, Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mike_Pompeo.

7. Robert Jeffress, Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Jeffress.

8. T Greenstein, ‘Siding with Labour right’ Weekly Worker January 24 2019.

9. Ha’aretz October 22 2010.