The Amos Oz Solution
How to Cure a Fanatic
Pierre Tristam/Candide’s Notebooks, July 16, 2006
The column was entitled “Arabs and Israelis—All Victims of Europe.” It was published in The New York Times on May 19, 1982. It was written by Amos Oz, the great Israeli writer who’d come to the attention of the world shortly after the six-day war when, as David Remnick wrote in his New Yorker profile of Oz two years ago, as “an obscure writer on a small kibbutz, […] he had the nerve to send an article called ‘Land of the Forefathers’ to the Labor newspaper, Davar, calling for the government to begin negotiations immediately with the Palestinians over the West Bank and Gaza. Like very few others at this moment of national exaltation, Oz gloomily forecast moral and political disaster should Israel retain the territories. ‘Even unavoidable occupation is a corrupting occupation,’” Oz wrote (my italics of words neither Israelis nor Americans have heeded very well since, from Vietnam to Lebanon to Iraq to Afghanistan to Lebanon again).
And this was Oz’s opening paragraph in that 1982 column: “The real calamity is that both sides are unable to look each other in the eyes, to look into each other’s souls.” Oz was referring to Egyptians and Israelis in this particular case, but only as an introduction to his larger point bout Arabs and Israelis: “Here, perhaps, is the key to the depth of the tragedy. What does the Israeli see when he looks at the Arab? Frequently he sees the shadow of his persecutors and oppressors in the grim past: Cossacks, dressed now in Arab clothes and headcloths, come to continue the work of the pogrom-m-makers in previous generations, to murder, rape and pillage. What does the Arab see when he looks at the Israelis? Frequently he sees in them the shadow of his former persecutors and oppressors. Not persecuted Jews trying to be a nation like all the rest, but a continuation of the wily, arrogant, European colonialist and imperialist, come to enslave the East and exploit its wealth by means of technological superiority. The shadow of the past hangs over the whole conflict. It is Europe, which shed the blood of the Jews, persecuted and annihilated them, Europe which oppressed and humiliated and exploited the Arabs, that is responsible for the situation where Israelis and Arabs are unable to look into each other’s eyes and souls without seeing the shadows of the past. The Arabs and Israelis are both peoples who have experienced humiliation, subjugation and suffering, […] It is tragic that each looks at the other and sees only the face of their common enemy. Fear and suspicion beget foolishness.”
A few weeks later Israel invaded Lebanon in what would turn out to be a three-month campaign and a long occupation, a killing field for 18,000 Lebanese and close to 800 Israelis, and finally a retreat by Israel, first to a “buffer” zone, then all the way back to Israel’s actual borders. Nothing gained, plenty lost, including (if you put that in the lost column, as it should be) the creation of Hezbollah to take the place of the PLO. What has changed since? Absolutely nothing. Same shadows, same fears, same suspicions, same foolishness. Only the actors are different. “And so,” Oz had written in 1982, “before our eyes, both sides are adding fuel to the flames of the suspicion, fear and nightmares of the past. If only it were possible to banish this horror to the place where it belongs: the stage. Tragedy. Comedy. Farce.”
Oz’s solution was a leap of imagination, a sort of conquest of the propagandists by richer, more humane, more human sensibilities that can read each other’s souls and convey the final truth that “the Israeli does not want to hear remarks about the protection of Islam or freedom of religion within the Arab world. And the Arabs do not wish Israel to come and modernize them and change their way of life and their values.” Or the United States, for that matter. “Sensitivity and creative imagination will help us find a way which does not endanger the existence of Israel and does not involve exploitation and humiliation for the Arabs,” Oz concluded. “Is such a way possible? I have no simple answer. But the real question is this: Is it possible that there is no such way—and in that case, where will it all end?”
We now have many answers to that last question, none of them honoring either Arabs or Israelis.
[Note: Curiously, the Times does not have the Oz column in its archives, only a letter to the editor referring to it.]