Jonathan Freedland is a columnist on the Guardian and the author of Jacob's Gift: A Journey into the Heart of Belonging. He first interviewed Amos Oz when he was 18 and has interviewed him again at irregular intervals in the 20 years since. Here Jonathan writes about Oz's In the Land of Israel.
Jonathan Freedland on In the Land of Israel by Amos Oz
For most journalists it's Orwell, but for me it's Oz. If I had to name a single book which shaped me, whose imprint I still detect on my own thoughts, it was In the Land of Israel by Amos Oz.
I read it the year it came out, in 1983. I was 16 years old, just back from what was then – and perhaps still is – a ritual experience for British Jewish teenagers: a summer tour of Israel. I had gone with Habonim-Dror, a youth movement that offered six weeks of desert hikes, camp fire singalongs and late night arguments about Zionism, kibbutz and the pursuit of utopia. It was the sweetest kind of indoctrination.
Once back, the smell of orange groves still fresh in my nostrils, Israeli folk music on my mono record player, I came across Oz's book. I pounced on it, assuming it would deliver more of the same homesick pleasures.
It did nothing of the sort. Oz's book is not propaganda, but records a journey through Israel by that country's greatest writer in 1982, just after the Lebanon war. Israel had seemed to rip itself apart that year; a reckless government led into a reckless adventure by a reckless defence minister, one Ariel Sharon. Some 400,000 Israelis - fully 10 per cent of the population - had demonstrated in Tel Aviv after the massacres at Sabra and Shatila for which Sharon was later found, by an Israeli inquiry, to be at least indirectly responsible.
Chapter by chapter, Oz recreates his encounters with the people that made up the fractured society of that day. He sips coffee with irate Sephardim in Bet Shemesh, a poor 'development town', listening and faithfully passing on their fury at the Ashkenazi elite who condescended to or ignored them for so long. He devotes 13 pages to a monologue by a man he names only as Z, a fanatical right-winger. He visits the East Jerusalem offices of a Palestinian newspaper.
As I read it, I realized that I had barely glimpsed the country that summer. Sure, I had spoken with veterans of the Lebanon war; I remember meeting a 20 year old whose face had all but burnt away. But, page by page, Oz was taking me into the heart of the society I had seen only as a tourist.
It should have been disillusioning, to read of the divisions and bitterness that marred the real Israel. But it did not have that effect on me. For this book is a romance, written by a man in love with his country. He can see all her flaws, but he cannot tear himself away. He wants to study his love's face, to gaze into each pore. He wants so badly for her to find happiness and comfort.
It's this which stayed with me, I think. Oz has an aching kind of patriotism, a love of his people which sometimes forces him into the most stinging criticism. He cannot help it: he loves Israel so much, he wants it to do better. As I read the book, I saw that there need be no contradiction. You could want the best for Israel - and still open your eyes wide to its flaws.
I was also persuaded by Oz's arguments. For In the Land of Israel is more than a travelogue. It is also a series of polemical essays: on Judaism, on the ethics of Zionism, on the place of Jews in the Christian imagination. One chapter, 'An Argument on Life and Death (B)', is a truly remarkable piece of writing, making cogent and linked cases for secular Jewish culture, Israel's right to exist and an end to the occupation. In less than thirty pages, Oz writes something close to a statement of Jewish destiny. It is a small masterpiece.
Two decades of travel across Israel-Palestine, and years of intense reporting and debate on the conflict, have not shaken my belief in the view set out by Oz in that chapter. He declares that the Jews are a nation; that theirs is a living culture not a museum piece; that they have, therefore, the right to self-determination; that the Palestinians have the same right and therefore the only just solution is to share the land, creating two states side by side. Since then I have read a thousand contrary opinions, from both sides - but none has ever succeeded in refuting Oz's fundamental logic.
But it was not just the content of this book that influenced me. Its form left a deep mark too. For it is quite magnificent journalism. I like much of Oz's fiction, but his true brilliance is surely as a journalist. This book consists of close-up reporting, deploying a novelist's eye for detail and ear for dialogue. (David Hare's Via Dolorosa is in the same vein but even that outstanding piece is not as good.) Each of his characters is instantly real and memorable: I can still hear Z, twenty years on.
Oz allows his subjects to speak in their own voice, lending even his political opponents great humanity. The heartache, the human sadness, behind every ideological stance is laid bare. He is a truly sympathetic witness.
And yet he is also a blistering polemicist, able to mint an apt metaphor which turns a complex question of international relations into a plain matter of common sense. One example is worth quoting in full:
[Zionism's] justification in terms of the Arabs who dwell in this land is the justness of the drowning man who clings to the only plank he can... And the drowning man clinging to this plank is allowed, by all the rules of natural, objective, universal justice, to make room for himself on the plank, even if in doing so he must push the others aside a little. Even if the others, sitting on that plank, leave him no alternative to force. But he has no natural right to push the others on that plank into the sea. And that is the moral difference between the "Judaization" of Jaffa and Ramla and the "Judaization" of the West Bank. And that is the moral justification for partition of this land between its two peoples...I have a friend who, when he read In the Land of Israel, gave up his ambition to be a writer. He realized the job he wanted to do had already been done. The book had the opposite effect on me. It made me want to get out into the world, notebook and pen in hand, and try to do what Oz had done: to see, to describe, to argue.
It also let me understand that you could defend Israel's right to exist passionately - even as you railed against its daily conduct. This book remains the closest thing I have to a political credo. Amos was the name of a biblical prophet, and in this work Oz does honour to that name.
[A list of the pieces that have appeared to date in this series, with the links to them, is here.]