“Amoz Oz and his Jewish problem”
by Rabbi Dr Jeffrey M Cohen
Shabbat 27th August 2005

There can be no more pathetic sight than that of a Jew embarrassed by his fellow coreligionists and their historic aspirations. Even worse, that of a Jewish novelist courting the acclaim, adulation and royalties of a left wing, anti-Israel gentile world, and seeking an international platform to revile his own people, to dissipate sympathy for his homeland and to foment antipathy toward pious torchbearers of Jewish tradition and fervent and idealistic Zionists.

Such a Jew is the Israeli writer, Amoz Oz, whose views were eagerly publicised last week, not only in The Times (“A bloodless victory over fanaticism,” August 24th), but also, that same day, when he was invited to read his article at prime listening time on Radio 4.

I felt a surge of sadness as I listened to his one-sided display of passion for the Palestinian cause, notwithstanding its undisguised agenda of the ultimate destruction of the Jewish State, and his total indifference to the plight of some of his own countrymen.

His opening phrase exposes his personal Jewish identity crisis:

The Jewish settlers of Gaza and the West Bank [Note: ‘The “Jewish” settlers, not the “Israeli” settlers!] have a dream for the future of Israel. I also have a dream for the future of Israel. But their sweet dream is my nightmare, whereas my dreams look to them as poison.

Unmistakable is the opprobrium with which Oz invests the word “Jewish” in this context. For him, Jewishness is clearly an embarrassment, a value system that has no place in a modern, secular Israel. And it is precisely that Jewishness that he perceives as being at the root of the Israel-Arab conflict. He lambasts ‘the rabbis’ – not the suicide bombers, not Hamas or Islamic Jihad - for making his dream a nightmare:

But we too have a dream for Israel, totally different from the settlers’ religious fantasy. We want to live in peace and in freedom, not under the rule of the rabbis, not even under the rule of the messiah, but under our own elected government.

I am not so naďve as to deny that there are major tensions in Israel between the religious and the secular, or that much of the tension is created by the antics and politicisation of the religious. These issues will have to be seriously addressed when normality is restored. We should not overlook the fact, however, that there are some wonderful organisations working strenuously toward that end, removing the mystique of the religious way-of-life, breaking down the barriers of suspicion and extending the hand of friendship.

But is this the right time - just this week when the settlers have peacefully acceded to the will of the government, and when they are at their most vulnerable - for an Israeli writer to intimate that the blame for the entire Israel-Palestinian struggle ought to be placed at the door of those idealist, albeit naďve, settlers? Is this the week to suggest that the real battle that Israel has to face is not with Palestinian terror but with its religious citizens, the very same who are responsible for Mr Oz’s ‘nightmares’?

Listen to what preoccupies him at this time when terrorist incursions are still penetrating Israel’s defence wall, and when Palestinian dreams of further Israeli withdrawals to the pre-48 borders have now been vocally revived:

The struggle in Gaza was not essentially a struggle between the army and the settlers, not even between hawks and doves. No. It was a struggle between Church and State (to be more accurate, between Synagogue and State).

Amos Oz talks about dreams and nightmares. He should be more concerned with obsessions, misplaced values, and a rejection of his own 2000 year religious heritage and collective “Jewish” identity. What was it that preserved, nurtured and inspired that great Zionist dream, if not our religious heritage and the prayers of pious Jews throughout the ages? Had it been left to secularists of Mr Oz’s ilk there would have been no dream of an Israel, let alone of the “Greater Israel,” his walking nightmare!

If I wanted to gain an insight into secular values on the basis of Mr Oz’s diatribe, I would conclude that it is a thought system totally devoid of sensitivity toward fellow man. What sort of an individual denounces the religious views of a group at the very moment at which they are being displaced from their homes and accommodated in tents and temporary dwellings? Whatever ‘fanaticism’ Oz credits them with, one thing is certain: their depth of sympathy for fellow man, their neighbourliness, kindness and helpfulness, their reliability when a friend or acquaintance is ill or has fallen on hard times, their hospitality to strangers, their spirituality and lack of obsession with materialism, makes theirs a society infinitely more constructive and peaceful than that of secular Israel, a society that is the very embodiment of the Zionist ideal, the personification of “Jewishness.”

To clarify my own position: I do share Oz’s belief that Israel and the Palestinians [He actually employs the term ‘Palestine,’ though I am unaware that a state by such a name has been recognised by the United Nations.] are like a jailer and a prisoner, handcuffed to each other.’

I also believe that he has chosen a most apt simile. For, when the prisoner has served his time and has been rehabilitated, the handcuffs are unlocked, and the prisoner goes free. I long for the time when this will happen, and the Palestinians can re-enter Middle Eastern society as a peaceful, integrated neighbour that recognises Israel’s existence and integrity, as Israel will recognise hers. But when the prisoner shows no remorse, and continues to vow and display eternal hostility, then the safest thing is for the handcuffs to remain and for parole to be denied.

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Very briefly let us test the truth of Oz’s assertion that rabbinic Judaism, as espoused by those settlers, is responsible for an extremist form of Zionism that cannot be fulfilled without realisation of the dream of a “Greater Israel.”

Those familiar with rabbinic sources will know that the very basic issue, of whether or not there is a mitzvah, a positive duty, to dwell in Israel in our day, remains unresolved. A famous passage in the Talmud states that at the time of the destruction of the Temple God demanded three oaths: Of Israel - Shelo ya’alu bachomah, v’shelo yimredu b’umot ha’olam - ‘that they will not attempt to conquer the land by force of arms, and that they will not rebel against the other nations’. And a third oath imposed upon the nations - Shelo yishtabdu beYisrael yoteir middai. - ‘that they will not impose an unduly harsh domination upon Israel’ (Tal. Ketubot 111a).

This, albeit Midrashic, source was employed by the opponents of the early Zionist movement to support the argument that, as long as the state of exile remains, there is a requirement for Jews to accept their subject status. Others pointing to the third oath, retorted that such a passive situation was predicated upon kindly treatment being dispensed by the gentile nations, and that the history of anti-Semitism, and especially since the Holocaust, more than justified a more aggressive mode of Jewish national self-assertion.

In 1901, the illustrious Sefat Emet, the Rabbi of Gur, quoting the verse, To Babylon they shall be brought, and there they shall remain (Jer. 27:22), stated categorically that this indicates a prohibition of mass entry from all countries to Israel before the Almighty performs a clear act of redemption. He was fully supported by the Rabbi of Lubavitch in an article in the Hashiloach journal that appeared two years later.

Most surprisingly, some 50 years earlier the great Chatam Sofer, who, in most other areas of Jewish law was an arch-conservative, declared that the mitzvah of building up the land of Israel was so great and all-embracing that those who were practically engaged in it may well be exempt from the competing mitzvot of putting on tefillin and reciting the Shema!

Against this backcloth, of halakhic uncertainty regarding the mitzvah of dwelling in Israel at this time, Amos Oz is hardly justified in viewing the settlers as representative of “the Synagogue” in their struggle for a “Greater Israel.” Similarly, whether or not he is correct in his assertion that the settlers’ dream is to create Jewish settlements ‘where only Jews can reside,’ there is certainly no biblical or rabbinic precedence for that situation. ‘The Synagogue’ is essentially a democratic institution. It is also a very broad and tolerant concept, allowing for many different approaches, expressions and life-styles.

If Oz is right, and Synagogue is indeed on a collision course with State, then it is the fault of secular Israel that has not adequately familiarised itself with the history, nature, content and adaptability of its own tradition. Were this situation to change, the State would be immeasurably enriched, its horizons broadened, and its citizens’ sense of identity and brotherhood much enhanced.