Journey to Other Sites

BY IRVING HOWE
IN THE LAND OF ISRAEL
by Amos Oz. Translated by Maurie Goldberg-Bartura.
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $12.95.
NATIONS WHOSE BIRTH dates can be cited exactly—1776, 1948—tend to be self-conscious. They feel a need to justify their existence, they try to locate their distinctive character. In the United States the early effort at self-definition came to a climax with the Civil War. In Israel that effort is proceeding tumultuously—in fact, has split the country into bitterly contending camps.
This Israeli split may seem, at first, mainly political: doves hoping for compromise with Arabs versus hawks trusting only the authority of guns. But crisscrossing this dispute are others, less sharply defined because they cut more deeply into cultural styles and values. The secularists confront the religious. Ashkenazic Jews (from Europe) are hard pressed by Sephardic (from Africa and the Middle East). Labor Zionists, whose secular outlook and social-democratic politics dominated the country in its formative years, are being steadily displaced by religious traditionalists and fervent nationalists. For some Israelis, this represents a retreat from European culture toward “Levantine” ways. But however defined, these battles for the future of the country—impassioned, confused, interlocking—trouble just about everyone who wants to see Israel survive as a country at once Jewish and democratic.
Some such jumble of problems must have been haunting Amos Oz, the talented Israeli novelist, when he set out last year to interview a variety of Israelis for the Labor newspaper Da car. Oz didn’t pay much attention to his own side—the doves, the kibbutzniks, the intellectuals. He sought out, instead, those Israelis who have in recent years rebelled against the Labor Zionist institutions and traditions out of which the state of Israel was formed.
Oz’s interviews, now published in a lively English translation, In the Laud of Israel, caused a sensation when they first came out in Davar. Here, unadorned and brutal, are the voices of messianic nationalists; here, rough but vivid, are the voices of the Oriental Jews, still smarting from humiliations they remember having suffered from the Ashkenazic Labor establishment.
Oz plunged right in. He went to the religious sects in Jerusalem; to the Moroccan Jews in the town of Bet Shemesh; to the West Bank settlers. He talked to a fire-eating Mr. Z., whose opinions graze fascism; he argued with an Arab Communist who, somehow, identifies himself as an Israeli; he listened to an old Jewish farmer who feels the country is going to the dogs because not many Jews are still eager to work the land.
In the Land of Israel is a vivid, tense, somewhat garish social portrait. The voices that come spiraling out of its pages . . . let’s listen for a minute or two.
Mr. Z., a brawny, prosperous farmer, believes in an “iron-clad law” that “throughout history, anyone who thought he was above killing got killed.” He talks calmly, in a ribbon of monologue. No, he doesn’t mind being compared to Qaddafi, or even being called a “Judeo-Nazi.” For he isn’t “looking to the gentiles for admiration,” nor, he jabs at Oz, to “your kind of Jew, either.” What he wants is that the world “fear me instead of feeling sorry for me.”
It’s power the Jews need, and Mr. Z. isn’t fastidious about its uses. He regrets that the “mini-massacre” in the Palestinian camps of Lebanon was done by Christian Phalangists rather than by “us, with our delicate little hands!” We have to give the goyim—Arabs, Europeans, whoever—so many blows that finally, once and for all, they let us live in peace. And if that means doing some ugly things for a while, “what’s so terrible about being a civilized people . . . with a slight criminal past? It happens in the best of families.”
Oz suggests to Mr. Z. that Hitler not only killed Jews but also infected some of them with his poison. Mr. Z. isn’t upset by this thought. Better, he implies, to inhale a bit of Hitler’s poison and survive than to go up in smoke at Auschwitz with the sainted rabbis. “I’ll wipe out the Arab villages,” he tells Oz, “and you can hold protest demonstrations. . . . You’ll be the family’s honor and I’ll be the stain on the family’s honor. ... Is it a deal?”
Oz journeys to the town of Bet Shemesh, where he talks with Moroccan Jews. They buy him drinks, insist that he write their words down accurately, and shower him with furious complaints: You Ashkenazic Jews, you “whites,” treated us like dirt when we first came here, in the 1950s. You thought you had to uproot our values, delouse us culturally, and remake us in your exalted image. Yes, the Labor government “gave us houses,” but it also “gave us the dirty work.” Yes, “they gave us education, and they took away our self-respect. . . . You brought our parents to be your Arabs,” says one of the Bet Shemesh people.
Irving Howe is the author of World of Our Fathers and other books.
But now I’m a supervisor. And he’s a contractor, self-employed. And that guy there has a transport business. Also self-employed. Smallscale . . . but so what? If they give back the territories, the Arabs will stop coming to work, and then and there you’ll put us back into the dead-end jobs, like before. If for no other reason, we won’t let you give back those territories. . . . Look at my daughter: she works in a bank now, and every evening an Arab comes to clean the building. All you want is to dump her from the bank into some textile factory, or have her wash the floors instead of the Arab. The way my mother used to clean for you. That’s why we hate you here. As long as Begin’s in power, my daughter’s secure at the bank. If you guys come back, you’ll pull her down first thing.
It’s remarkable: these people complain less about material hardship or social inequity than about the loss of dignity. Perhaps, somehow, they’ve been infected with the values held by the very portion of Israel they’re attacking? In any case, they tell Oz, Begin is their “father,” for he, Polish Jew though he may be, has given them an honored place in Israeli life—for the first time.
They keep shouting at Oz, pouring out their sense of humiliation yet also betraying a certain respect for him (“Write it in good Hebrew”). Passions spent, they ask him, almost good-naturedly, “Would you like a Coke? All this shouting hasn’t made you thirsty?”
Oz drives over to Tekoa, a West Bank settlement, where in dingy prefabs live followers of Gush Emunim, the increasingly powerful movement that blends nationalism and religion, with selected passages from the Bible, to justify permanent Israeli rule over the West Bank and its Arab population. He converses with Menachem, an Israeli, and Harriet, his American-born wife. They burn with righteousness. They are fighting “a holy war” on the West Bank “against all of Islam!” Harriet, like many of the American Jews who have settled on the West Bank, is even more fanatical than her husband: “Maybe we should let somebody like Arik Sharon wipe out as many of them as possible . . . until the Arabs realize that we did them a favor by letting them stay alive at all.”
Oz asks Harriet: “And [will the Arabs] do the dirty work for us?” Harriet doesn’t flinch: “Why not? . . . Isn’t that the way it is in the Bible? Weren’t there hewers of wood and carriers of water?”
A saving word of humaneness comes from Menachem’s assistant, Danny, a quiet boy, who says about the Arabs:
I know what not to do: not to kill them, not to throw them out, not to oppress them. But what should be done, I don’t know yet. But I keep thinking about it. A lot.
Shift the scene now to Geulah, an Orthodox quarter of Jerusalem. It’s another world, as if Zionism had never touched the place and the Jews were still back in some Polish shtetl. People speak Yiddish, wear Hasidic caftans, despise all Zionist governments, past and present. Oz engages with a yeshiva instructor, asking him whether his school observes Israeli Independence Day.
. . . what’s to celebrate? Nu, has the Messiah come? . . . the State you made for yourselves [his voice drops to a near whisper]—just between you and me—why, even you are already sick of it. . . . What’s to celebrate here? . . . That we’ve become like the goyim?
Geulah is obsessed by two eternal presences, Hitler and the Messiah, evil and righteousness, struggling for lordship of the world. “Only Hitler,” adds Oz, “is alive and well.” But the Messiah— “He doth tarry.” And until he comes “there is a short intermission ... to be used for gathering strength and power, even if it is only with Zionist subsidies.” That last clause is a neat thrust: after all, Oz is human, too.
IN THE LAND of Israel sets one’s mind reeling with speculations and anxieties. A fascistic type like Mr. Z. is exceptional, no doubt; but part of his thought, if little of his cleverness, can also be found in influential Israeli figures like Arik Sharon and the Israeli Army’s ex-chief of staff Raphael Eitan. The racist blather of Harriet is cruder than anything most Israeli settlers on the West Bank would permit themselves, but she is far from alone in her contempt for the Arabs or her persuasion that oppressing them is sanctioned by the Bible. In any case, Bible or no Bible, is it not in the nature of things that occupiers should regard as “inferior” the people whose lands they occupy? And that fanatics convinced their worldly goals bear a holy stamp should care little about those who stand in their way?
Israel is undergoing profound and alarming changes of mood and outlook. A good half of its population—only yesterday victimized in Arab countries of North Africa and the Middle East—has emerged from cultures that were never ventilated by the breezes of the liberal Enlightenment. These people did not experience directly the bracing spirit of early Zionism; they have known only the later years of bureaucratic rigidity and moral confusion. For this they are not, of course, to be blamed; nevertheless, the result is a severe break in the inner life of Israeli society and culture.
There has also occurred during the past fifteen or so years a hardening of spirit, a withdrawal into militarist chauvinism, among portions of the Israeli population, both Ashkenazic and Sephardic. In part, this is a quite understandable response to Arab assault and intransigence; in part, it is an overconfidence resulting from Israeli military victories.
But the most important cause of the changing Israeli atmosphere has been the gradual breakdown of Labor Zionism. Suffering the usual bruises of time and power, it has lost its sense of direction, its moral élan. As a result, ideologies and political outlooks that were previously marginal in Israel—religiousnationalist, brute-imperialist, ecstaticmessianic—have rushed in to fill the vacuum.
With some of the voices he has recorded, Oz barely argues. He seems to acknowledge, for example, that the outcries of the Sephardic Jews in Bet Shemesh, while overstated, have a fundamental validity. He finds himself bemused by the anti-Zionist religious people, as if wondering whether, in the very long run, they may not be the strand of Judaism that will survive most hardily.
But at some points Oz talks back. He reprints an eloquent speech he gave at a West Bank settlement, making once again the case that to annex the West Bank would not only make Israel an imperial oppressor but would also undermine either its Jewish or its democratic character. He tells the settlers that all the talk about power is morally appalling and a political fantasy. We Israelis are to become “the big bad wolves” of the Middle East? “Some wolf: with jaws made in the United States and claws donated by charity.”And he reminds his listeners that their notion of playing David to the world’s Goliath doesn’t at all correspond to the ways Israel was in fact saved by “the fateful support we had in '48 and again in ‘(17” from some countries of the goyi m.
What Oz finally leaves us with is less an argument than an image—the image of the small port city of Ashdod, which he visits at the end of his book. Quiet and pleasant, Ashdod is a city “planned by social democrats: without imperial boulevards, without monuments.” And he contrasts Ashdod, the modest peaceful site, with brute delusions of conquest.
Amos Oz’s vision of Ashdod is an attractive one; perhaps 40 percent of the Israelis still cling to it. Yet there remains a question that haunts one’s mind and to which there is no ready answer: After all the blood and murder of this century, what is the likelihood that a politics of liberal moderation can cope with the religious-nationalist furies that now grip a good many people in Israel?