By now, Oz’s basement office at the house in Arad in the Negev desert is famous. “Basement” sounds dark, but you don’t get dark in the desert in the daytime, and this was a sunny room with windows up high, and metal bookcases stuffed full. There was a table in a corner for conversing with guests and for piling up more books, and there was a plain metal desk for the writer. There was, interestingly, a standing desk, really a podium, near one wall, where Oz would also write, and read aloud what he was writing—not for an audience, of course, but by himself, to see if it was working. If it sounded right. And he had knee problems, so standing was sometimes better than sitting, and then there were the knee replacements. He used to joke that he no longer hated airport security as much as he had, because the new knees set off the metal detector, and thus, he had to go through a body search, during which young women in uniform felt his legs. Oz had a happy marriage of long duration, so he could make such self-deprecating jokes.
So here was a writer with an easy smile, hosting guests in his bright office, cracking jokes with visitors. His eyes crinkled happily, and he chopped up Israeli salad and made coffee efficiently, like the kibbutz kitchen worker he once was. The word you might naturally use for him was “sunny.” The first time I saw him, almost 15 years before I ever exchanged a word with him, he was radiant, in a corner, signing books and joking with publishers at the 1981 Writers Congress in New York. He was known then as a brilliant fiction writer and a founder of Peace Now. From watching this ebullient phenomenon, a distant observer would never have known the darkness his novels so richly and profoundly explore.
To understand Oz, you have to acknowledge the timing of his birth: He was 9 when Israel became a state, to raucous celebration in his hometown of Jerusalem, and he and the state of Israel evolved together. Israel saved so many in his family and in his neighborhood in Jerusalem who fled there from desperate situations in Europe. Oz’s parents were right-wing, non-religious Jews from eastern Europe. His father was an intellectual, a historian, a librarian, and an author who could read 16 languages. As he grew older, Oz wanted an entirely Israeli identity, and two years after his mother, who suffered from depression, killed herself, Oz left his father, the house of books, and Jerusalem life for the farming socialism of Kibbutz Hulda. He was 15. On the kibbutz, he changed his last name from the European-sounding Klausner to the Hebrew Oz, meaning strength.
For Oz, there was no Oz without Israel.
The same might be said for Israel: Without Oz, what will it become, exactly?
For an idea of what the teenage Oz was like there is this story: At 14, Oz went over to pay a call on a neighborhood friend who was sick in bed. This was Reuven Rivlin, who is today the president of Israel, and a member of a vast and influential Jerusalem family; Rivlin told this story at Oz’s funeral service this week. On that long-ago day, young Oz came in and sat down at Rivlin’s bedside and for three hours explained to his feverish friend the difference between political and mystical Zionism. We were fourteen, Rivlin said, still amazed, at the funeral. When the lecture was over, the sick boy went back to sleep.
But who was really the feverish one in this story? In his autobiography, A Tale of Love and Darkness, Oz wrote that when he was young he didn’t really imagine becoming a leader or writer, although he grew up in a house where most walls were covered with books and where the men talked about politics continually. What he really wanted to be, he said, was a book. An actual book.
In an interview in 2004, he explained to David Remnick of The New Yorker that his elders, many of them refugees with families lost to the Nazis’ concentration camps, used to tell him to “enjoy every day, because not every child grows up to be a person. This was probably their way of telling me about the Holocaust or the frame of Jewish history. Not every child grows up. I know the Israelis become tiresome when they say that the whole world is against us, but back in the forties this was pretty much the case. I wanted to become a book, not a man. The house was full of books written by dead men, and I thought a book may survive.”
We’ve learned many lessons from the book that Oz became, from the feverish student of literature and Jewish history, to the prolific novelist, to the human heart of an only rarely humane Israel. Imagine a patriot, or if not exactly a patriot, someone loyal to the original idea of a Jewish homeland. Given Israel’s history, this is often hard for us to imagine, but Oz was loyal to this idea to the end, if often disgusted by Israel’s leaders and the nation’s actions. One lesson Oz taught, by living it, was that an Israeli leftist could also be—might naturally also be—a Zionist. He was a Zionist. He fought twice in battle for Israel’s right to exist. This was Oz’s true self.
As was the Oz who militated against the occupation and with Peace Now for the Palestinians’ right to their own state alongside Israel: the original two-state solution. Just after the end of the 1967 war, in which he fought, Oz wrote a piece advocating immediate talks with the Palestinians to end the postwar occupation of the West Bank. He was 28. “The shorter the occupation, the better for us,” he wrote presciently. “…Even an enlightened and humane and liberal occupation is an occupation. I fear for the quality of the seeds we sow in the near future in the hearts of the occupied. More than that, I fear for the seed that is being sown in the heart of the occupiers. And the first signs are already recognizable now…”
Because of his special moral sense, Oz knew right away the dark side of occupation. He was always farseeing, and in this, certainly deserves the name often given him: prophet. But he was also often called a traitor for this bracing, indefatigable, intransigent stance against nationalism and occupation, and their concomitant evils. How often power mistakes patriotism for betrayal. For more than half a century, Oz’s argument against occupation—continually repeated—has gone unheeded by one after another Israeli government. Morally, he was Benjamin Netanyahu’s opposite. Their vision for Israel was opposite: Oz believing in a just, honest Jewish state with limited ambitions and no occupied territories or settlements, Netanyahu in a militant, territory-hungry greater Israel that could violently suppress opposition in the territories and establish what it called “facts on the ground,” and dominate its neighbors militarily when it did not occupy them.
In the end, Oz lost all his political battles. Netanyahu and his ilk are in charge and have been for decades, since the collapse of the Oslo peace process. Israel still occupies the West Bank. The settlements are firmly in place. The two-state solution to the ongoing crisis is arguably dead or in its death throes. Today, Oz’s hopes for a kinder, gentler Israel can seem almost comic, like the sentimental imaginings of a cloud-headed innocent.
But that is not the case.
Oz had a full understanding of the Israel he grew up in, and the Israel that many of the high-minded yet sober thinkers in his generation hoped to create. But as usual, moderates (like Oz) could not control or convince the extremists, and the extremists prevailed, arguing bitachon, bitachon, bitachon: security, security, security. Whenever I think of the political fights Oz lost, I think of the death of then–Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. Rabin, a general who swaggered through Israel’s 1967 victory and became a defense minister nicknamed “bone-breaker” (so no liberal), was nonetheless attempting to cobble together a peace with the Palestinians when he was assassinated by a young right-wing Israeli religious extremist—precisely because he dared to try for peace. The Israel of secular European Jews, which had ethnically cleansed Palestine and which remained harsh enough toward the Palestinians, was replaced by the much more extreme religious right and by politicians like Netanyahu who claim they believe in Israel’s God-given destiny.
Yet Oz stubbornly continued to adhere to his vision. When I was writing a novel based mostly in Jerusalem, I used to walk around the city and—my head full of his words and stories and images—I would think, yes, there are his stray cats, there is his trash, there are his dark streets and alleys, his stony walls, the cruel winds, his half-torn posters, his drizzle and fog, his black skies, bright stars, his hills, his whole complete landscape of the place, and I would be put in my place: This was Oz’s land, this was the territory his imagination occupied; he owned it because he knew its soul. “I must say that I prefer the darkness,” his character says in My Michael, a beautiful early novel about Jerusalem and Israel that he said he wrote sitting on the toilet seat in the bathroom of his cramped family flat at Kibbutz Hulda, far from the city.
How will Israel imagine itself with this uncompromising truth speaker no longer on the scene? What is Israel without its Oz? I don’t mean without this specific man, although I do mean that. But can such a nation exist without its conscience? And was Oz, who never got what he wanted politically, really the nation’s conscience, or were the hard men of Israel simply using him as a masque of heart while they went about their brutal business? Here’s our Oz, they say, in other words. We let him speak. We present him to you.
Did Israel, which in the end disregarded this decent man, deserve him? With Oz gone—painful words to say—can its empty-hearted leaders find another such, who brings so much meaning and integrity to his cause, and never stops believing even in the face of their hypocrisy? Perhaps such a person rises up in every generation to defend the decency of his people. One can only hope so, and—although Oz’s failure is proof of his sincerity—one must wish his heirs greater success.