Amos Oz: ‘One pen I use to tell stories, the other to tell the government to go to hell’
The campaigning Israeli writer, who’ll be at Dalkey Book Festival next weekend, says that spending his early childhood under British administration in Jerusalem gives him an affinity with Ireland
Hostile world: Amos Oz in Israel. Photograph: Rina Castelnuovo/New York Times
Amos Oz is probably Israel’s best-known living writer. The 75-year-old relishes talking about his “Irish zeal” as a child in the British Mandate of Palestine when, influenced by his father’s support for the Irgun, the Zionist terrorist organisation that attacked Arabs and Britons, he and his playmates constructed “an awesome rocket” that they intended to launch at Buckingham Palace.
“It was built of a broken refrigerator and the relics of a motorcycle,” Oz says with a laugh over the telephone line from Tel Aviv. “I wanted to send the king of England an ultimatum: ‘Either get out of our country by our Day of Atonement or it will become England’s Day of Judgment.’ ”
Oz’s participation in Dalkey Book Festival next weekend will be the Israeli writer’s second visit to Ireland. He says that, having spent the first nine years of his life under British administration in Jerusalem, he has a special affinity with Ireland.
All these decades later, Oz and I are still talking about rockets and weapons. The rockets Hamas fires from Gaza. The nuclear weapons that Israel has and the ones it accuses Iran of trying to obtain.
Oz defines himself as a Zionist social democrat and peace activist. He’s a member of Peace Now and the left-wing Meretz party. “I feel shame and remorse about the lasting Israeli occupation of the West Bank,” he says.
When Oz sent an Arabic-language edition of his childhood memoir and best-known book, A Tale of Love and Darkness, to the imprisoned Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti, he wrote in the dedication: “I hope you read it and understand us as we understand you.”
Oz rejects the demand of the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, that Palestinians recognise Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people, saying, “I don’t think it’s up to the Palestinians to define the nature of the state of Israel.”
To punish the Palestinian Authority for adhering to 15 international conventions in April, the Israeli government blocked the monthly transfer of $100 million in taxes – two-thirds of the authority’s budget. Israel imposed the same punishment when Palestine obtained observer status at the UN and when it joined Unesco. Oz opposes such reprisals, saying, “I am absolutely in favour of Palestine joining the international family, as a full-scale member.”
As a novelist, Oz says, he puts himself in other people’s skin. He believes he understands how Palestinians feel, “without agreeing with every Palestinian position, or even being pro-Palestinian. I am pro-peace, not necessarily pro-Palestinian.”
Oz is nearly as hardline as Likud, Netanyahu’s party, about Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip – and which Israel and the US regard as a terrorist organisation – and the Iranian nuclear programme, both of which he views as existential threats to Israel. “Hamas still maintains that a total Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories is phase one,” he says. “Phase two would be the disappearance of the state of Israel.” He withholds judgment on the new Palestinian unity government, whose formation Ireland welcomed on June 3rd. “We have to wait for a fundamental change in Hamas’s attitude towards Israel’s right to exist.”
Israel is believed to have hundreds of nuclear warheads, but it is adamant that Iran must not get the bomb. Is this not a double standard? “Israel never threatened to wipe Iran off the face of the earth,” Oz says.
Over and over he weighs fear of what Muslims might do or want to do against Israel’s actions. Between July 2013 and April this year 56 Palestinians were killed by Israeli security forces and 146 Palestinian homes were destroyed. During the same period five Israelis were killed.
“The question of who is David and who is Goliath in this conflict is not very clear,” Oz says. “If you look at Israel occupying and oppressing the West Bank, it is clear that Israel is the cruel and ruthless Goliath and the Palestinians under the Israeli yoke are little David. But if you look at a billion Muslims devoted and dedicated to the destruction and annihilation of Israel, then the question of who is David and who is Goliath gets a different perspective.”
If Israelis had treated Palestinians better, I suggest, if they stopped colonising the West Bank, perhaps those billion Muslims might not be so anti-Israeli. “Maybe,” Oz replies. “This is my hope. I have been working to this end for the last 45 years.”
The tension that inevitably arises when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is discussed evaporates when Oz shifts into literary mode. His parents, emigrants from Lithuania and what is now Ukraine, spoke to each other in Russian and Polish but allowed him to speak only Hebrew.
“I have never been a chauvinist for my country, but I am hopelessly chauvinistic for my language,” Oz says. “It’s the best musical instrument in the world, and I am in love with it . . . The language is developing very rapidly, similar to an erupting volcano or an earthquake. This is a wonderful phase in the life of the Hebrew language, which was as dead as ancient Greek or Latin for 17 centuries.”
Oz is a journalist and essayist as well as a novelist. “Each time I agree with myself 100 per cent on anything at all, I don’t write a story: I write an angry article telling my government to go to hell,” he says. “But whenever I find I have inside me two or three or four different voices, that’s when I know I am pregnant with a story or a novel.”
He writes with a pen, not a computer. “I have two pens on my desk. One black and one blue. One I use to tell stories and the other to tell the government to go to hell – and I never mix them. I have never written a novel in order to tell the Israelis to get out of the occupied territories . . . I write novels for the same reasons I dream: I have to dream. I have no choice. And I have to write novels. I have no choice. Novels for me have never been a political vehicle. When I want to make a statement I write an article.”
Oz’s mother took her own life when he was 12. “No one of us ever recovers from the loss of parents or siblings or loved ones,” he says. “Once a person we love is dead we pick him or her up and we carry him inside ourselves till the end of our days, so we are all like Russian dolls, pregnant with the dead. We walk around carrying the dead inside us.”
Two years after his mother’s death Oz rebelled against his father. He changed his birth name – Klausner – to Oz, which means Strength or Courage in Hebrew, and moved to a kibbutz, where he lived for 33 years. It was “the best literary university I could ever attend”.
Oz determined “to become everything my father was not, and not to be anything he was. He was an intellectual. I decided to become a tractor driver. He was a right-winger. I became a social democrat . . . When I think about this rebellion today I smile. Because here I am, sitting in a room full of books, writing still more books, which is exactly what my father hoped for me and wished me to do . . . He died 44 years ago, and still I argue with him about politics every single day.”
When Oz was growing up in Jerusalem in the 1940s Israelis saw the “worldatlarge” as a hostile place. At the end of our conversation I ask him if the “worldatlarge” has changed much.
“It hasn’t,” Oz says sadly. “When my parents were kids, in eastern Europe, the walls all over Europe were covered with graffiti saying ‘Jews, go to Palestine.’ Now the same walls are covered with graffiti saying ‘Jews, get out of Palestine.’ I don’t find it funny.”
Heavyweight: Irish Times debates at Dalkey Book Festival
Dalkey Book Festival, in association with The Irish Times, this week presents a series of debates around key global and local themes.
On Thursday the focus is on local issues, with a debate on Dún Laoghaire: slow death or rapid recovery? Ann Marie Hourihane chairs a panel featuring the urban-regeneration expert Bruce Katz, the local actor Eamon Morrissey, the local historian Peter Pearson and the owner of Harry’s Cafe, Derek Bennett.
On Friday David McWilliams chairs a debate with the ad man Rory Sutherland, the historian and political thinker Mark Blythe, the novelist Aifric Campbell and Katz, looking at 10 global trends that will change your life.
Saturday’s debate is about freedom of speech. On the panel are Fintan O’Toole, the Booker prize winner Salman Rushdie and Sutherland. Olivia O’Leary will chair.
Details and tickets at dalkeybookfestival.org.
Amos Oz is at Dalkey Book Festival on Sunday, June 22nd