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Dear Zealots: Letters from a Divided Land – Amos Oz

by Venky

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In his latest work representing a collection of three essays (two short and rousing pieces punctuated by a long and complicated socio-cultural-philosophical didactic), the prolific Israeli author Amos Oz regales us on the topics that have been close to his heart and in relation to which he nurses deep seated beliefs. Thought provoking, controversial and engaging, “Dear Zealots: Letters from a divided land” (“the book”) reinforces Mr. Oz’s perceptions revolving around the perpetual unrest that the nation state of Israel finds itself in, and in the process also reinstates him as one of the most relevant and important writers of our times.

The first essay bearing the same title as the book, deals with the insidious trait of fanaticism or zealotry that has brought wanton misery to mankind and the deep rooted ideologies of which have been extremely successful in keeping an entire civilization on tenterhooks. Posing the quintessential question, “how does one cure a fanatic?”, Mr. Oz expounds on the reasons underlying the birthing of the attribute of fanaticism and the attendant terrifying implications. Negating the prevalent sentiments undergirding fanaticism, Mr. Oz bemoans the distorted spin accorded by the world to the political scientist, Samuel Huntington’s famous remark, “a war of civilization”. This term has been abused beyond redemption to denote an existential battle between “savage terrorist” Easterners and “cultured Westerners”.  As Mr. Oz takes pains to elucidate, “fanaticism dates back much earlier than Islam. Earlier than Christianity and Judaism. Earlier than all the ideologies in the world”. Citing his own experience of having been brought up in Israel in the 1940s, the author confesses having nurtured a strong Zionist sentiment within himself prior to undergoing a transformation triggered by a chat with a British soldier. Bemoaning the rise of fanaticism in Israel, Mr. Oz dwells on what he terms, the “Jerusalem Syndrome”. In his own words, “no sooner do people breathe in the crisp mountain air (“clear as wine”, in the words of one famous Hebrew song) than they set off to burn a mosque or blow up a church or destroy a synagogue, to kill heretics or believers, to “eradicate evil from the world.””  Employing the novel term “comparative fanaticism”, Mr. Oz informs us that a fanatic invariably comes to learn that blind hatred often turns the hater on either side of the fence into almost identical personas. For, “it is not the volume of your voice that defines you as a fanatic, but rather primarily your tolerance – or – lack thereof – for your opponent’s voices.”  As effective antidotes to fanaticism, Mr. Oz prescribes a healthy dose of curiosity, imagination and humour. He contends that, “humour engenders a curvature that allows one to see, at least momentarily, old things in a new light.”  He concludes the essay with a persona take on John Donne’s immortal quote “no man is an island.” Mr. Oz extends this quote to read, “no man is an island but each of us is a peninsula.” And similar to such a geological terrain, he contends that each family, association, society and state is at its best when existing as an encounter between peninsulas: “close, sometimes extremely closed, but without being erased. Without being assimilated. Without revoking one’s selfhood.”

The second and the longest essay forming part of the book, and titled, “Many Lights, Not One Light” is a lengthy, challenging and discursive read on the author’s reminiscences on Judaism. Extensive in its sweep and lapidary in its scope, the essay attempts to pierce the narrow minded veils of perceptions and dogmas that are currently grappling with one another to gain ascendancy as the torch bearer of Judaism and the beacon of Jewish civilization. The essay has it its very edifice, an inscription on a small potsherd found several years ago at the Khirbet Qeiyafa archeological site. Decrypted by Professor Gershon Galil of Haifa University to read, “you shall not do it, but worship God. Judge the slave and the widow. Judge the orphan and the stranger. Plead for the infant, plead for the poor and the widow. Rehabilitate the poor at the hands of the king. Protect the poor and the slave. Support the stranger.”  Mr. Oz contends that the very quintessence edifying Jewish ethos, philosophy and culture can be found embedded in this inscription on the humble potsherd. Accordingly, there cannot be any contradiction whatsoever between Judaism and humanism. The very tenet and spine of Jewish culture has been the presence of a creative energy, courtesy strong tensions between beliefs and a rebellious streak to oppose and question. As elucidated by Mr. Oz, myriad examples of such conflicts exist between “Kohen and the prophet, Pharisees and Sadducees; the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai; Sephardic and Ashkenazi prayer services; Zionists and anti-Zionists; the Bialik school and the Berdyczewski school of poetry; religious and secular and hawks and doves.”  This seraphic feature of agreeing to disagree is what makes a culture redeeming and bestows upon its proponents, powers of acuity and acceptance. However, as Mr. Oz strives to explain, this wonderful albeit necessary and vital contrast is being put to the test by the obstinate and stifled practices of practices such as Halachic Judaism or Shulchan Aruch Judaism. Reiterating that agnosticism is also an integral part of Jewish culture, Mr. Oz, draws us to the observation of the writer Shlomo Zemach, who famously quoted, “a person does not curse God if there is no God in his heart.”  The essay concludes with a passionate plea to the Jewish populace to “pause and ponder” the question of “Who is a Jew?” For “it is not possible to renew without days of old, and days of old cannot exist without renewal.”

The final essay (also the most thought provoking and controversial one) bearing the title “Dreams Israel should let go of soon” advocates a fervent call for embracing a two state solution to the vexed problem plaguing Israel and Palestine. This topic, which is close to the author’s heart and for his ferocious views surrounding which he is so well renowned, is addressed here in a manner which is anticipated. Warning the reader that in the event there is just one state, such a state, “will be an Arab one that stretches from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River”, Mr. Oz makes an impassioned case for the quick implementation of a two state solution. Pooh poohing the various and intermittent “conflict management” strategies that intersperse intifadas, Mr. Oz opines that such futile measures might in the long run lead to a collapse of the Palestinian Authority and the rise of Hamas, or even a more radical and dangerous outfit. Berating the intransigence of the Israeli authorities and the insouciance of its citizens, Mr. Oz controversially (by his own admission) claims that since the six-day war in 1967, Israel, “has not won a single war, including the Yom Kippur War. War is not a basketball game in which whoever gets more points wins the trophy and a handshake.”  Warning that Israel’s security is inevitably based on securing the wholesome support of a superpower (alternating between Britain, France, Stalinist Russia and currently the USA), Mr. Oz suggests that underestimating the capability of Israel’s current and potential rivals might be a dire mistake. While Palestine might be too small a nation to hold up a stubborn fist to the rampant settlement measures being implemented by Israel, a nuclear enabled Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia might form a strong cohesive force that brooks no response. Moreover, the support proclaimed by the United States may turn out to be an exercise in transience, for even though, the demagogue (my own term), Donald Trump has espoused his fervent support towards Israel, a majority of the American population are those who did not in the first place, even vote for him! Hence Israel cannot bank on a person whose rise to power has been both characterized and marred by political chicanery and personal chaos. Mr. Oz also exhorts us to fathom the difference between a “demand” and a “right”. “A right is what others recognize as such. If others do not acknowledge my right, or if only some of them acknowledge it, or only partially acknowledge it, then what I have is not a right, but a demand.” Hence, “that is exactly the difference between Ramleh, and Ramallah, between Haifa and Nablus, between Be’ er Sheva and Hebron.” Mr. Oz finally concludes by asserting that nothing is “irreversible”, including the potential for a two state solution.

“Dear Zealots” is an invigorating exercise for the mind, heart and soul!

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