Last words of prophetic Israeli writer are timely

“Dear Zealots: Letters from a Divided Land” by Amoz Oz, translation by Jessica Cohen, Houghton Muffin Harcourt, 140 pages, $23


The English edition of the late Amos Oz’s final book, “Dear Zealots: Letters from a Divided Land,” stands as a testament from one of modern Israel’s best-known prophets.

For politicians and citizens who just might be paying attention every so often, nothing can be more irritating than a prophet who keeps predicting bad times if present behavior continues. 

A prolific journalist, novelist and essayist, Oz died of cancer Dec. 28. The English translation of “Dear Zealots,” by Jessica Cohen, was released Nov. 13.

Oz’s best-known works include “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” about the founding of the Jewish State in 1948; “In the Land of Israel,” in which Oz interviews Israelis and Palestinians in the aftermath of the Six-Day War in 1967;  and “Judas,” in which he challenges the Judas-betrayed-Jesus story that has caused Jews immeasurable harm over 20 centuries in the Christian West.


So the voice of this great Israeli writer is silent. All that is left are his many writings over several decades. This short book, just three essays, develops themes Oz had visited repeatedly, and reinforces his prophetic voice.

For instance, in “Dreams Israel Should Let Go of Soon,” Oz argues that those Jewish zealots who want to hang on to the West Bank — regardless of the nearly 3 million Palestinians living there — should wake up, face facts and the demographics of Palestinian and Jewish birth rates and figure out a way to make the seemingly doomed two-state solution reality.

According to Haaretz, conservative Israelis who want Israel to annex the West Bank argue that the demographics do not favor the Palestinians. Estimates vary, but one is that 4.88 million Palestinians live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and in Gaza, which Israel does not control. Israel counts an additional  1.8 million Arabs as citizens of Israel inside the 1948 lines. Nearly 7 million Jews live between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River.

However, Oz argues that the numbers aren’t the issue. He predicts one state, eventually, in which Jews are the minority. 

“… I would find it absolutely unacceptable to be part of a Jewish minority under Arab rule, because almost all of the Arab regimes in the Middle East oppress and humiliate their minorities,” Oz writes. “And more importantly, because I insist on the right of Israeli Jews, like any other people, to be a majority, if only on a tiny strip of land.”

Later in this essay, Oz compares Israel to a patient whose injuries a surgeon must assess quickly and accurately to save him: “What might kill the patient? In the case of Israel, the primary danger is the continued conflict with the Arabs, which is destined to become a conflict with most of the world’s countries and endanger our very existence.”

He also laments those fanatics on various sides of religious-fueled conflicts. Oz makes the sane, sound argument that no faith — Muslim, Christian, Jewish — has a monopoly on violent irrationality as exhibited recently by ISIS, by Baruch Goldstein when he killed 29 Palestinian worshippers at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron in 1994, and by fundamentalist Christians who excuse extreme physical and rhetorical violence in the name of the one they call their savior.

“The fanatic does not want there to be any differences between people,” Oz says. “He wants us all to be one. He desires a world with no curtains drawn, no blinds shuttered, no doors locked, no shadow of a private life, for we must all be one body and one soul. … The fanatic strives to upgrade and improve you, to open your eyes so that you, too, can see the light.”

In his longest essay, “Many Lights, Not One Light,” Oz writes eloquently about Jewish culture and its present manifestation in the revival of Hebrew into a modern language, of the Israeli arts and of the many positive developments since the state’s independence in 1948. He also links these positive aspects to the long traditions of the Torah, the Talmud and the study of what makes a good person and a moral life.

“In much the same way that I sometimes reduce all the commandments into one — Cause no pain — I am sometimes willing to narrow down humanism and pluralism into one simple formula: Recognize the equal right of all human beings to be different.”

As I reread these and other words by Amos Oz, I recalled his words about Israel today that bite (from an interview with the Forward): “Israel is a dream come true, and as a dream come true it is flawed, very flawed, and sometimes dangerously flawed or painfully flawed. But this is in the nature of dreams, not necessarily in the nature of Israel.”

Or, as he told The Guardian in 2016: “I love Israel, but I don’t like it very much.”

Just glancing at the headlines this weekend, in which five Jewish teenagers were arrested in connection with the fatal stoning of a Palestinian woman in October, reminds me why Oz remains important. Sometimes, we turn to writers (and prophets) like Oz to try to make sense of such painful news. We shall miss him.