4 February 2015
Amos Oz was born in Jerusalem in 1939 and is one of Israel’s most famous writers. Since 1967 he has been an ardent proponent of the “Two state solution” as the only way of resolving the Israel / Palestine conflict.
I bought this book in November 2012, shortly after it was published, as a result of reading about it in an article in the Jewish Chronicle which also discussed the fact that Amos Oz refuses to buy goods from Israel’s West Bank settlements.
This is a very small book, less than A5 size, only 102 pages and with relatively large print. Accordingly I found it very easy to read. It is remarkably compelling.
This book was originally published in 2004 with the title “Help us to Divorce” but has been updated with additional material in 2012. It consists of several relatively independent items:
Below I have included some more detail about the contents as well as some extracts to illustrate Amos Oz’s approach and style.
After reminding us that Oz does not offer a cure-all solution, Gordimer summarises his approach:
“But, he convinces irrefutably that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is ‘not a religious war, not a war of cultures, not a disagreement between two traditions, but simply a real-estate dispute over whose house this is.’ And he is not afraid to stake his vision and politico-moral integrity in the belief that the dispute can be resolved.”
Oz introduces this essay as follows:
“Who are the good guys? That’s what every well-meaning European, left-wing European, intellectual European, liberal European always wants to know, first and foremost. Who are the good guys in the film and who are the bad guys. In this respect Vietnam was easy: the Vietnamese people were the victims and the Americans were the bad guys. The same with apartheid: you could easily see that apartheid was a crime and that the struggle for equal, civil rights, for liberation and for equality and for human dignity was right.”
The author goes on to explain that with the Israeli-Arab conflict, and in particular the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, things are more complex.
“The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a Wild West movie. It is not a struggle between good and evil, rather it is a tragedy in the ancient and most precise sense of the word: a clash between right and right, a clash between one very powerful, deep and convincing claim and another very different but no less convincing, no less powerful, no less humane claim.
The Palestinians are in Palestine because Palestine is the homeland and the only homeland of the Palestinian people. In the same way in which Holland is the homeland of the Dutch, or Sweden the homeland of the Swedes. The Israeli Jews are Israel because there is no other country in the world which the Jews, as a people, as a nation, could ever call home. As individuals, yes, but not as a people, not as a nation.”
Oz goes on to point out that the Palestinians have tried living in other Arab countries but had been humiliated, persecuted and rejected. “They had to learn the hard way that they are Palestinians, and that’s the only country which they can hold onto.”
He goes on to draw a parallel between the experience of the Palestinian people and the experience of the Jews:
“The Jews were kicked out of Europe; my parents were virtually kicked out of Europe some 70 years ago. Just like the Palestinians were first kicked out of Palestine and then out of the Arab countries, or almost. When my father was a little boy in Poland, the streets of Europe were covered with graffiti, ‘Jews, go back to Palestine’, or sometimes worse: ‘Dirty yids, piss off to Palestine’. When my father revisited Europe fifty years later, the walls were covered with new graffiti, ‘Jews, get out of Palestine’.”
Oz mentions that Europeans regularly invite him to retreats where he could meet Palestinians to "learn to know one other" and mentions the European idea that every conflict is essentially no more than a misunderstanding. He reacts against this:
“Well, first I have bad news for you: some conflicts are very real, they are much worse than a mere misunderstanding. And then I have some sensational news for you: there is no essential misunderstanding between Palestinian Arab and Israeli Jew. The Palestinians want the land they call Palestine. They have very strong reasons to want it. The Israeli Jews want exactly the same land for exactly the same reasons, which provides for a perfect understanding between the parties, and for a terrible tragedy.”
Oz goes out of his way to stress that both claims to Palestine are justified and right. Accordingly he concludes “What we need is a painful compromise.”
After reminding us that the opposite of war is not love but peace, Oz explains one of the reasons why the conflict is so intractable:
“One of the things which makes this conflict particularly hard is the fact that the Israeli-Palestinian, the Israeli-Arab conflict, is essentially conflict between two victims. Two victims of the same oppressor. Europe, which colonised the Arab world, exploited it, humiliated it, trampled upon its culture, controlled it and used it as an imperialistic playground, is the same Europe which discriminated against Jews, persecuted them, harassed them, and finally, massacred them in an unprecedented crime of genocide. Now, you would have thought that two victims immediately develop between themselves a sense of solidarity – as, for instance, in the poetry of Bertolt Brecht. But in real life, some of the worst conflicts are precisely the conflicts between two victims of the same oppressor.
And this is precisely the case not just between Israeli and Palestinian but between Jew and Arab. Each one of the parties looks at the other and sees in the other the image of their past oppressors. In much contemporary Arabic literature,…, the Jew, especially the Israeli Jew, is often pictured as an extension of the white, sophisticated, tyrannising, colonising, cruel, heartless Europe of the past. These are the colonialists, who came to the Middle East once again, this time disguised as Zionists, but they came to tyrannise, to colonise and to exploit.
Very often Arabs, even some sensitive Arab writers, fail to see us as what we, Israeli Jews, really are – a bunch of half-hysterical refugees and survivors, haunted by dreadful nightmares, traumatised not only by Europe but also by the way we were treated in Arabic and Islamic countries. Half the population of Israel are people who were kicked out of Arabic and Islamic countries. Israel is indeed one large Jewish refugee camp. Half of us are actually Jewish refugees from Arab countries, but Arabs don’t see us this way; they see us as an extension of colonialism.
By the same token we, Israeli Jews, don’t see the Arabs, particularly the Palestinians, as what they are: victims of centuries of oppression, exploitation, colonialism and humiliation. No, we see them as pogrom-makers and Nazis, who just wrapped themselves in koffias and grew moustaches and got sun-tanned, but are in the same old game of cutting the throats of the Jews for fun. In short, they are our past oppressors all over again.
In this respect there is a deep ignorance on both sides: not political ignorance about the purposes and goals, but about the backgrounds, about the deep traumas of the two victims.”
I have picked a couple of questions and answers to illustrate the style and content:
“You addressed How to Cure a Fanatic to a European audience, asking in part for a more nuanced media treatment of the conflict. After Gaza and after Lebanon, it's hard not to feel that the European perception of Israel’s public policy has actually worsened since you wrote your essay. What are the images of Israel that you feel we’re missing in most of Europe?
I wish Europe would learn to see the ambiguity of the Israeli-Arab conflict rather than painted in black and white, always asking who are the good guys and who are the bad guys as if it were a Western movie. While Israel is occupying and oppressing the Palestinians on the West Bank, hundreds of millions of zealot Muslims are committed to the destruction of Israel. If you zoom in on Israel and Palestine, then Israel is the ruthless Goliath and Palestine is the heroic David, but if you increase the picture and watch one billion Muslims aiming at the destruction of little Israel, you get a different idea about who is David and who is Goliath.”
You suggest several partial remedies to the problems of fanaticism, ones that are very attractive to those of us who love literature: reading, imagination, humour and empathy. What books would you suggest everyone reads on this topic?
There are strong antidotes to fanaticism in Chekhov, in William Faulkner, in Lampedusa, in Thomas Mann and in many, many others.
I regularly talk and interact electronically with Jews and other supporters of Israel. I have similar interactions with Muslims generally, Arabs and other supporters of the Palestinians. Sadly amongst both groups of people I encounter a widespread unwillingness to accept that the other side to the conflict has any arguable case at all, and unwillingness to give any hearing to the other side’s historical narrative.
Reading this book provides a very light and short introduction to overcoming such deafness.
Even those who already have a balanced view of the conflict will, I believe, still benefit from reading it and everybody should enjoy it as Oz is an outstanding writer.