Syria and freedom from death

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek/Delo

Where once Syrians struggled for the ideals of freedom, equality and dignity, the liberty that most counts in Syria today is the freedom from the fear of death.

A Syrian refugee performs 'Ode to Joy' Photo: © Jure Eržen

A Syrian refugee performs ‘Ode to Joy’ Photo: © Jure Eržen

Friday 16 September 2016

Make peace, not love,” the great Jewish writer and humanist Amos Oz wrote a few years back, in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Addressing both sides of the conflict in the holy land, his aim was to smash all the nationalistic, ideological, religious and historical myths that had been driving the existing political structures and their voters into a state of perpetual war of them against us.

I believe what Oz was trying to stress was that at the critical moments in history – during the shifting of the geostrategic fault-lines, when thousands of human lives get sucked into the breach – we need to do our utmost to help hit the brakes and prevent the escalation of tragedy.

We would do well to apply Oz’s sentiment, which mostly fell on deaf ears at the time, to Syria. Tuesday, 13 September 2016 marked the first day in the past five years when this broken and ravaged land saw no direct casualties of war. After a small eternity, it was the first time Death ran out of breath in this part of the world – albeit probably only temporarily. It was the day that proved that peace, the mother of all compromises, is still possible, even in Syria.

Have the masters of war grown tired? Has the international community got fed up with its impotent calls for accountability and, after five years of war and at least 300,000 fallen, decided to intervene? Does the strange deal struck by the Russians and the Americans conceal some as yet unguessed snag, which could smother the last embers of the Syrian rebellion? Will sanity prevail, or has the harsh Syrian soil already grown too blood-soaked for it to be washed off the rearview mirror, where things may notoriously seem closer than they actually are?

Is ideology finally to be replaced by realpolitik?

It is, of course, hard not to have one’s doubts about the deal that led first to a 48-hour ceasefire and then, hopefully, to the first short and laborious steps towards a semblance of a peace process. But in this eyeblink of a moment, when at least a glimmer of hope is still possible, we need to work hard to suspend these doubts for at least as long as the weapons on the Syrian battlegrounds remain silent.

“Let this war be over,” rings the appeal of a Syrian activist from Douma, the Damascene quarter that has seen 3.5 years of constant siege. He had spent the first year of war protesting in the streets. Then, hoping to survive the tenth circle of Hell, he withdrew behind his fragile four walls and continued his war against war from there. The man’s succinct message is a reflection of how his struggle for idealism has turned into a pure fight for survival.

The message, calling to mind the macabre images from Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, is free of both ideology and what one may call the vanity of dignity – a rather deluded and very self-destructive state of mind, usually propelled more by ego than by any reasonable ethics. The only real freedom in these parts has long become the freedom from the fear of death.

Let this war be over!

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Intimate enemies, future friends

 
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By Khaled Diab

As I cycle amid the growing cycle of violence, I believe peaceful coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians is plausible and possible. 

Friday 21 November 2014

I prefer to do the school run by bicycle. While this is unremarkable in any bike-friendly European city, here in Jerusalem it is a different matter, and not just because of the manic traffic and steep inclines.

As the situation in the Holy City speeds along the fast lane downhill, taking the slippery slope towards the abyss, when my son is with me, I too am slowly beginning to succumb to the mass fear gripping both Arabs and Jews. What will happen if Israeli extremists overhear us speaking Arabic to each other? What if Palestinian extremists mistake us, a darkish man with a blond son, for Jews?

This week’s deadly and reprehensible attack against defenceless worshippers at a Jerusalem synagogue, alongside the ongoing attacks against Palestinians by settlers and ultra-nationalists has further reduced the sense of safety and any residual mutual trust in this bitterly divided city. Incitements by extremist elements in the Israeli government and Hamas are stoking the fire further.

Since the summer of hate erupted, many Palestinian Jerusalemites I know no longer venture into West Jerusalem and some who worked for Israeli companies have quit their jobs or are considering it. Similarly, even many of the Israeli Jerusalemites who used to go to the Arab neighbouhoods of East Jerusalem have stopped doing so.

As the situation continues on its collision course, it is hard to imagine that people in this fractured city once lived differently – at a time when there were no walls and fewer psychological barriers.

But older people recall a time – before Oslo and the first intifada – when Jews and Arabs visited each other’s neighbourhoods unselfconsciously and even the West Bank and Gaza were open, with two-way traffic. Difficult as it is to conceive today, both Palestinians and Israelis used to head to Gaza to enjoy its cuisine, beaches and cheap shopping.

Go even further back, and the very oldest Jerusalemites recall a time when Arabs and Jews lived side by side, when the different religious communities shared in one another’s festivities, and all enjoyed the magic of the Egyptian silver screen during its reputed golden age at the local cinema, as my 92-year-old Palestinian neighbour is fond of reminiscing.

And that is not all. Despite their bitter political differences, Israelis and Palestinians are, I have found after living among them for some three years, more alike than they like to admit or are aware.

Two Jerusalemites embody this symmetry in a symbolic, even poetic fashion. The late Palestinian-American academic, musician and activist Edward Said and Israeli novelist and activist Amos Oz shared, unbeknownst to each other, the peculiar fantasy of metamorphosing into a book “whose fate I took to be happily free of unwelcome changes”, imagined Said, and who “would have a better chance of survival”, in Oz’s words.

But the similarities and parallels aren’t confined to the imaginary sphere, they also occupy the real world.

Palestinians and Israelis share a similar Mediterranean outlook, characterised, among other things, by the central importance of family, child-friendliness and the casual attitude to regulations, from smoking to driving. In culinary terms, this is reflected in the Israeli love of hummus and the Palestinian infatuation with schnitzels.

Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land.  Order here

Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land.
Order here 

Collectively, both societies are highly traumatised. Israelis live with the memory of the Holocaust and the almost wholesale disappearance of Jewish communities in much of Europe and the Middle East, while Palestinians live under the shadow of the Nakba, the loss of Palestine and the ongoing occupation.

Politically too, the two societies have seen an almost symmetrical swing from leftist, secular nationalism towards right-wing, religiously flavoured populism.

All these commonalities, and the fact that the differences within each society is greater than the divergence between them, is why I call Israelis and Palestinians “intimate enemies” in my new book of the same title.

The book digs beyond the politics to unearth the people, the human reality obscured by the fog of war. In it, I also explore creative ways out of the quagmire, namely a civil rights struggle, what I call the non-state solution and the launching of a people’s peace process.

Impossible as it seems today, peace and coexistence are possible but getting there requires a radical rethinking of each side’s priorities, aspirations and narratives.

 

This article first appeared in Italian in Corriere della Sera on 20 November 2014. 

____

Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land

By Khaled Diab

Published by Guardian Shorts, October 2014, http://guardianshorts.co.uk/intimate-enemies/

More info on Intimate Enemies: news, views and reviews

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Lost in confrontation in the Holy Land

 
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By Khaled Diab

As tensions mount, it’s hard to believe that Israelis and Palestinians share a lot in common – even the dreams of their great writers.

Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land.  Order here

Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land.
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Monday 10 November 2014

You could tell by the chaos and confusion in the aisles that it was a flight heading back to the Middle East. Passengers milled about noisily in search of space for their excess hand baggage or chatted animatedly by their seats, causing a significant delay as the perplexed cabin crew tried to gain order.

During take-off, an argument broke out between two passengers because one of them was using his mobile phone. Pretty soon, in classic Middle Eastern fashion, others were drawn into the altercation, each contributing their penny’s worth on whether or not phones should be switched off.

Despite the familiarity of the scene, this flight was not heading to my hometown of Cairo or any other Arab capital but was destined for Tel Aviv.

What this incident highlights is that the differences between Israelis and Arabs are more about politically coloured perceptions than they are about social or cultural realities, especially when it comes to Israel’s Palestinian and Levantine neighbours.

With so little contact between Arabs and Israelis, this will undoubtedly come as a surprise to people on both sides of the political and ideological chasm separating the two sides. But having lived in the Holy Land on and off since 2011, I would hazard to say that, in many crucial respects, Palestinians and Israelis have more in common with each other than they do with their kin further afield, say Gulf Arabs or Diaspora Jews.

That is one reason why I describe the protagonists in this decades-old conflict as “intimate enemies” in my new book: partly because of their close geographical and physical proximity but also because of their surprising social and cultural symmetry.

Confronted with a reality on the ground which conflicts with the simplistic prevalent political narratives, I wrote the book as a modest corrective to all the distrust, misapprehension and miscomprehensions in the air. I am also of the conviction that seeing the human faces behind the conflict is a vital prerequisite to the long process of organic, grassroots peace-building.

The manuscript was well-received by reviewers. One of my favourite responses I received was from the prominent Israeli historian and dissident Ilan Pappè. “I was deeply moved and impressed by the chapters,” he told me. “You are doing justice to their experience, complexities… and impossible reality.”

Palestinians and Israelis share a similar Mediterranean outlook, characterised, among other things, by the central importance of family, child-friendliness and the casual attitude to regulations, from smoking to driving, as if they are recommendations and not actual legislation, not to mention their almost innate distrust of authority. In culinary terms, this is reflected in the Israeli love of hummus and the Palestinian infatuation with schnitzels.

Even Palestinian and Israeli intellectuals share some surprising traits, such as when it comes to their daydreams. One intriguing example is the fantasy entertained by both the late Palestinian-American academic, musician and activist Edward Said and Israeli novelist and activist Amos Oz. “One of my recurrent fantasies… was to be a book, whose fate I took to be happily free of unwelcome changes,” Said wrote in his memoir, Out of Place.

Echoing this sentiment, Oz confessed to me in his study that, as a child, he wanted to “grow up and become a book… because, as a book, I would have a better chance of survival”.

This conflicts with the common Arab perception of Israel as being a slice of Europe transplanted into the region, not to mention the Israeli self-image of being a supposed stronghold of Western enlightenment in the Middle East.

When viewed dispassionately, these similarities, symmetries and parallels are hardly surprising. After all, Palestinians and Israelis have lived side by side for decades and so, even if they regard each other as enemies, they are bound to influence one another.

Add to this the fact that around half of Israel’s Jewish population is Mizrahi (Eastern), then Israel’s Middle Eastern flavour becomes more comprehensible.

Mizrahi, or “Arab Jews” as many were once known, like the Palestinians, also fell victim to the conflict between Zionist and Arab nationalism – so much so that few Arabs alive today realise that they once shared their societies with a dynamic and integrated Jewish minority.

“When you walked down Baghdad’s main street, Al Rashid, half the names on the shops and offices were Jewish,” Sasson Somekh, the accomplished Iraqi-Israeli poet and academic, who helped put the late Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz on the map of world literature, told me.

“We felt even more Arab than Arabs … We did not feel we belonged to a place but that the place belonged to us,” believes Baghdad-born Israeli author Sami Michael.

But in the unforgiving reality of the conflict having the words Arab and Jew in such overlapping and interwoven proximity was too close for comfort for enemies who sought to take the Arab out of the Jew and the Jew out of the Arab.

But it is not just Mizrahi Jews who find themselves trapped unenviably in the no-man’s-land of the conflict, the Palestinian citizens of Israel are also caught in the middle, with one foot on either side of the widening Israeli-Palestinian abyss.

Probably the most famous Palestinian with Israeli citizenship was the late Mahmoud Darwish, whose powerful verse earned him the title of Palestine’s national poet. One under-appreciated aspect is the enormous impact growing up in Israel had on Darwish’s identity, both negatively and positively.

This was reflected in his love of the Hebrew language, not to mention the passionate love affair he once had with an Israeli woman. And it is this ambiguity in a situation that does not generally tolerate it that makes Palestinians in Israel not just “fifth columnists” in the eyes of their Jewish compatriots but also distrusted among some of their Palestinian brethren.

Only last week, the Mufti of Nablus, Ahmed Shobashi, stirred up anger and calls for his resignation when he demanded that Palestinians in Israel be barred from entering the West Bank because of their “negative moral impact”.

This incident illustrates how the differences within Palestinian and Israeli societies are often greater than the disparities between them. This is reflected in the sharp and polarised secular-religious and right-left divides. In fact, with attention focused on the headline conflict, most overlook the brewing civil strife in both societies which manifests itself, for instance, in the increasing “price tag” attacks by settlers against peace activists and leftists or the bitter Hamas-Fatah schism. That is not to mention the conflicts between the haves and have-nots and those in favour of justice and equality, and those opposed to them.

Despite the significant amount of common social and cultural ground, politically Israelis and Palestinians have perhaps never seemed further apart. This summer turned into a heated season of hate and open warfare.

Even now with hostilities over in Gaza, the situation in the besieged enclave has not changed – except for the massive amounts of wanton destruction there. Meanwhile East Jerusalem and the West Bank witness daily protests and clashes, with al-Aqsa acting as a symbolic centre for the rising tensions.

With the worsening reality on the ground, people may be excused for believing that this conflict will just grind on forever. Although the situation is likely to get a lot worse before it gets better, I believe the status quo is untenable.

The most promising way out of the quagmire, in my view, is what I call the “non-state solution” in which talks of states and statehood are abandoned for the time being in favour of a civil rights struggle for full equality, emancipation and enfranchisement. Once this has been achieved, ordinary Palestinians and Israelis, long sidelined and ignored in efforts to resolve the conflict, can begin a people’s peace process in which everyone is involved in the quest for coexistence.

Although it may take generations, I am convinced that a new dawn of peace and justice will come, but this dawn will arrive in gradual glimmers and not in a blaze of blinding sunshine, as many hope or dream.

____

Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land

By Khaled Diab

Published by Guardian Shorts, October 2014, http://guardianshorts.co.uk/intimate-enemies/

On Amazon: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Intimate-Enemies-Israelis-Palestinians-Guardian-ebook/dp/B00OXQJYUE/?tag=smarturl-gb-21

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The National on 8 November 2014.

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Israel’s missed opportunities for peace

 
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By Khaled Diab

Israel has squandered so many opportunities for peace that its very identity as a ‘Jewish state’ is in jeopardy.

Monday 29 October 2012

It is 39 years since the 6th October/Yom Kippur war of 1973. After the peace talks in Geneva following the war, Israel’s then foreign minister, Abba Eban, the ever-articulate founding father of Israeli diplomacy, quipped that, “The Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”

While there is indeed truth in Eban’s famous assertion (which I will explore in my next article), the Israeli fixation on this hypothesis, with its implication that there is no Arab “partner for peace”, and that the situation today is somehow inevitable, clearly overlooks the long annals of opportunities missed by…Israel.

Eban seems to have wilfully turned a blind eye to one glaring example of this lack of engagement which occurred on his watch: Israel’s failure to avert that same all-out war in 1973, shattering the prospects for forging a lasting peace that its victory six years earlier had opened up.

Although that 1967 war ‘officially’ lasted just six days, it in reality continued in various forms for a further six years – until the next war of 1973. This period could have been an important window of opportunity, but the Israeli government, drunk on victory and convinced that it could have its cake and eat it, rejected peace plan after peace plan. Had Israel taken action back then to return the Arab territories conquered in 1967 in accordance with UN Resolution 242 and the Rogers Plan, it could have avoided the drift to the current impasse in which hundreds of thousands of settlers live in occupied territory and millions of Palestinians live unhappily and in segregation under Israeli military rule.

Back to 1967. Those who subscribe to the received Israeli narrative will argue that Israel was dragged quivering into a fight for its very survival in June 1967, the state had no territorial designs at the time, and would have ceded the conquered territories had there been a true partner for peace.

There is no doubt that the Israeli public, exposed to a continuous barrage of bombastic radio broadcasts from Cairo promising to “put an end to the entire Zionist existence”, was terrified in the run up to the war – as those on the ground, including the Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish, observed. However, the Israeli military establishment, which had been meticulously preparing for just such a confrontation since at least 1956, was confident it could defeat the bellicose Arab paper tiger, whose roar was definitely worse than its bite.

Indeed, I disagree with those who believe that Israel was acting in self-defence. Evidence of this can, for example, be found in how Israel cold-shouldered an Egyptian invitation in 1965 for then Mossad chief Meir Amit to go to Cairo for a clandestine meeting with none other than Abdel-Hakim Amer, Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s vice-president and confidante who unbeknownst to himself stood on the threshold of infamy with his subsequent mishandling of the 1967 war.

Israeli, pointing to the famous “Three No’s” of the Khartoum Summit of 1967, allege that there was no Arab partner for peace at the time. But this reveals a severe misunderstanding of the changes defeat had brought to Arab politics. For instance, Nasser tried to contain Syrian rejectionism in Khartoum, agreed to the principles of Resolution 242 and signed Egypt up to the Rogers Plan shortly before his death. “Go and speak of… a comprehensive solution to the [Palestinian] problem and a comprehensive peace,” Nasser reportedly told King Hussein of Jordan in Khartoum.

Regardless of whether Israel’s conquest was premeditated or accidental, the fact remains that the appetite to hold on to conquered land has been stronger than the urge to exchange it for peace ever since, despite early warnings of the dire consequences of this for the Zionist enterprise from the likes of Uri Avnery and Amos Oz.

The ultimate irony implicit in such warnings against Israeli intransigence, or perhaps inertia, is the possibility, with the direction things are heading, that Israel may ‘succeed’ where the Arabs have failed: destroying the Zionist dream of a Jewish-majority state by its own hand, especially with the recent revelation that there are now more Arabs living under Israeli control than Jews.

Moreover, it was not just the sting of comprehensive defeat that was prodding Nasser to pursue a revisionist course.

Although it was Israel which initiated peace overtures with Egypt soon after the 1952 Free Officers coup, it was Gamal Abdel-Nasser, who was then prime minister, who sustained and nurtured, along with then Israeli Prime Minister Moshe Sharett, the secret channels which eventually led to a blueprint for a peaceful resolution. Nasser had early on showed remarkable restraint in his public pronouncements and admitted in private that eventual peace with Israel was inevitable – but this early willingness to seek out an accommodation fell prey to the pincer movement of Israel’s predatory hawks and Nasser’s disastrous ambition to lead the Arab world by following the loudest and most radical voices on the “Arab street”. Nasser’s clandestine partner for peace, Sharett, was ousted by David Ben-Gurion, also in 1955, who believed this Israeli dove – who, far more than any other Israeli leader, understood his Arab adversaries – was “raising a generation of cowards”.

Ben-Gurion’s fears provide significant insight into a major psychological barrier on the Israeli side. The long history of persecution endured by Jews had not only created a deep and painful trauma, it also helped fuel Israel’s obsession with might and courage as ends in their own right.

But it is not just a question of psychology. Israel’s failure to reach a resolution with the Arabs, particularly the Palestinians, has deep ideological roots. The elephant in the room which classical Zionism has ignored or dealt with myopically is the Palestinian people.

Theodor Herzl himself seemed to expect the local Arabs would embrace the Zionist newcomers with open arms, because they would bring the gifts of science and progress with them. In the egalitarian, multicultural Utopia Herzl imagined in his novel Altneuland (The Old New Land), an Arab character, Reshid Bey, expresses his gratitude that Jewish immigrants have helped modernise Arab villages and boost the value of Arab property.

Despite his early talk of Jewish-Arab class solidarity, Ben-Gurion was more realistic. “A people which fights against the usurpation of its land will not tire so easily,” he admitted to colleagues in the Mapai Political Committee in 1938. This could only be addressed, he believed, through a show of strength that would persuade Arabs to submit to Zionist hegemony.

Like Zionist leaders before and after him, including Herzl, Ben-Gurion was also convinced that the support of the great powers, or a great power, was more important than reaching any kind of agreement or accommodation with the local Palestinian population.

That can help explain Israel’s long refusal to recognise or deal with the PLO, despite Egyptian attempts dating back to the 1970s to persuade Israel to enter into talks and despite the Palestinian National Council (PNC) shifting the focus of its national charter away from armed struggle and towards a phased political solution. In fact, Yitzhak Rabin, who was prime minister at the time, expressed his desire to keep the Palestinian question in “the refrigerator” – and by the time he took it out of the fridge, it was perhaps already too late to thaw it as Israel did not possess the willpower to reverse the too many facts on the ground it had established in the meantime.

Even after having reached peace with Egypt and despite the Camp David accords stipulating that “Egypt, Israel, Jordan and the representatives of the Palestinian people should participate in negotiations on the resolution of the Palestinian problem in all its aspects”, Israel still refused to countenance dealing with Arafat and his comrades.

Even after Yasser Arafat had, during the first intifada, persuaded the PNC to recognise Israel’s legitimacy, at least implicitly, and to accept all relevant UN resolutions dating back to the 1947 UN partition plan, Israel still refused to play ball. “The PNC declaration is an additional attempt at disinformation, a jumble of illusions, meant to mislead world public opinion,” was the Israeli cabinet’s harsh verdict of the historic 1988 declaration. But as the faulty Oslo Accords a few years later clearly demonstrated, the PLO’s willingness to recognise Israel was not an illusion but very real.

Israel is repeating a similar series of errors with its refusal to deal with Hamas and its inhumane blockade on Gaza, which is bound to fuel grievances for long years to come and is clearly against Israel’s own self-interest. Even PA president Mahmoud Abbas, one of the architects of the two-state solution, is seen as beyond the pale in many Israeli circles today.

And so the endless, impossible, rhetorical search for a “suitable” partner for peace continues fruitlessly.

Although Eban’s assertion about missed opportunities is the one that has lodged in the Israeli popular psyche, another of his quotes is a far more apt description of Israel and Zionism’s approach to the Palestinians and wider Arab context: “History teaches us that men and nations only behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives.”

Sadly, we do not seem to have reached this vital juncture in history yet.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 22 October 2012.

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Israel’s Wizard of Oz on the anarchy of Jewish civilisation

 
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By Khaled Diab

Israeli novelist Amos Oz believes that Jewish civilisation is founded on dissent and non-conformity, but how true is this?

Thursday 27 September 2012

Although there wasn’t a yellow-brick road in sight, the voice of Judy Garland singing “We’re off to see the wizard” danced involuntarily into my imagination. As I surveyed my two companions in the car, I couldn’t figure out which of us was meant to be the Scarecrow, the Lion or the Tin Woodman – and where on earth our Dorothy had got to was anyone’s guess.

The wizard we were on our way to see did not live in Oz, rather his name is Oz, and he is not actually a wizard, though he can do some magical stuff with words. In fact, this verbal sorcerer’s entire civilisation is “made of words”, he believes, and not “pyramids or cathedrals or bridges or palaces”.

Amos Oz is one of Israel’s foremost novelists and public intellectuals. A few years older than the state he has dedicated his soul to, his fertile imagination has held a creative mirror up to this young society and played a significant role in shaping modern Israel’s self-image.

Oz is a confounding, intriguing mix of complexities, even contradictions. He stands at the very epicentre of Israel’s intellectual cosmos, yet lives in a tiny desert town, Arad, in the Negev. Oz is also at once a romanticiser of the Zionist dream and Israel’s accomplishments since achieving statehood, and a steely eyed and harsh critic of its less savoury consequences and manifestations, acknowledging the “essential injustice” endured by the Palestinian people.

This contrast between romanticism and realism, optimism and pessimism, public and private, fact and fiction, light and dark is symbolically embodied in the title of one of his bestselling and most translated works, A Tale of Love and Darkness, an autobiographical novel published in 2002.

After greeting my companions and I with unexpected levels of warmth and friendliness (I had half-expected him to be something of a gloomy hermit), Amos Oz led us into his almost subterranean study, his intellectual den, a no-nonsense yet cosy space of well-worn furniture and carpets.

All the available walls were taken up by his considerable library – including an entire corner dedicated to his own titles and all 40-plus language versions of them – which seemed to comfort this man who dreamed, as a child, of metamorphosing into a book. “I wanted to grow up and become a book… because, as a book, I would have a better chance of survival,” he explained, betraying the existential angst felt by many Jews of his generation.

Interestingly, the same dream filled the young mind of one of the foremost Palestinian intellectuals of recent decades, the late Edward Said, who was gripped by a different kind of existential angst. “Passed from hand to hand, land to land, place to place, time to time, I could remain my own true self (as a book),” he wrote in his memoir, Out of Place.

During our long and stimulating conversation, Oz and I talked about literature, history, politics, living the kibbutz experiment and, inevitably, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But one particular area which piqued my interest was our discussion of Israeli and Jewish identity.

For Oz, like some other leftist Israeli intellectuals I have met, being a Jew means belonging to “basically, an anarchistic civilisation; a culture of doubt and argument, where people argue and debate all the time”.

“If you read about the ancient Jewish civilisation, you will find that the Jews argued ever since the beginning, ever since Abraham bargained with God over the destiny of Sodom,” he said, referring to the story in Genesis 18 in which the ancient patriarch haggles with the supreme deity to persuade him to spare Sodom if 50, then 45, 30, 20, or even 10 righteous people could be found in the “wicked” city.

So, does that mean a Jew who is a conformist is not a Jew, I asked him playfully? He’s a bad Jew, in my judgement,” was Oz’s verdict.

This left me pondering the question of whether Jews really are so rebellious and non-conformist and, if so, whether this has really always been the case. At a certain level, Amos Oz is right. The mere fact that a group of people chooses to hold on to a minority religion and culture that is viewed with distrust by its giant cousins requires a certain amount of non-conformity, not to mention guts.

In addition, for over a century now, some of the brightest, most original and influential minds in the Western world belonged to Jews. Consider such luminaries as Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx and Franz Kafka, to name but a few. That is not to forget that around a fifth of all Nobel prizes have been awarded to Jews.

But can this disproportionate success be attributed to the peculiar restiveness and unruliness of Jewish civilisation, as Oz believes, or is there a more complex answer?

If this were the case, then you’d expect Israel, which, after all, possesses the largest concentration of Jews in the world and is the spiritual home of modern Jewish civilisation, to be a cut above the rest. While it is true that, technologically and scientifically, Israel is leaps ahead of its neighbours, this has more to do with Arab failure than Israeli success.

Moreover, it would seem that diaspora Jews generally outperform Israeli Jews academically and scientifically. This is reflected, for example, in the fact that only 10 Nobel laureates have come from Israel (and three of those were in the peace category), five of whom were born abroad.

How can we explain this apparent anomaly? While part of the answer probably relates to the relative scarcity of resources in Israel, it is my view that diaspora Jewish success is partly a function of the symbiosis that comes of being a minority, which seems to awaken creativity and originality, not to mention the oft overriding desire to prove yourself as capable or more so than the condescending mainstream.

Minorities the world over are often more successful and wealthier than the mainstream or their kin in countries where they constitute a majority. This applies to the Armenians, Indians, Lebanese, even to Arabs as a whole, particularly in the United States and Britain – Egypt’s only winner of a Nobel prize in science earned his stripes in America, while the UK and the world’s foremost heart surgeon is Egyptian.

And Jews being the oldest and one of the most vulnerable and persecuted minorities in the West possess the opportunity, motivation and insecurity for the talented and hardworking to put in the extra sweat and tears required to succeed, while in Israel, some of the complacency associated with majority rule has set in.

But even if Israelis have not been as successful as diaspora Jews, they could still be anarchistic, non-conformist and individualistic, right? Yes, and many are, as reflected by the boastful and self-deprecating adage I’ve heard here that if you put two Israelis together in a room, you’ll have three different opinions.

That said, I’ve also witnessed alarming levels of mindless conformity here too. And there are Israelis who share my view. “Israel is a deeply conformist society… You can see that in the totally secular parents who eat ham on Yom Kippur but still circumcise their children,” one confessed to me. “I admire the anarchists, but despite their radical politics, most are conformists in their lifestyles.”

So how about historically? Were Jews an especially rebellious and anarchistic people, as Amos Oz maintains? Well, there are all the famous revolts, the most destructive being against Rome. But throughout history many peoples have revolted, and regularly, against imperial power, especially when it becomes tyrannical. But they are less well-remembered because their exploits were not chronicled, and almost certainly embellished, in scriptures that have become holy to at least half the world’s population, who follow one of the Abrahamic religions.

Speaking of Abraham. Though he may have defied God over Sodom, as Oz pointed out, he was more than happy to oblige him in his unreasonable command that the patriarch execute his own son – a supreme act of mindless obedience if ever there was one.

But then, Oz points out, their surfeit of prophets and absence of a rigid religious hierarchy reflects the prized nature of individualism in Judaism, Oz insists. “It’s not for nothing that Jews never had a pope, nor could they have a pope,” he said.

Although Jews never had a pope, in ancient times, kings, like David, were “anointed”, i.e. holy, and had High Priests, who had much of what we would regard as papal authority.

Besides, Muslim reformers say the same about Islam, to show that questioning authority is part and parcel of their culture and heritage, yet much of the world regards Islamic societies as being pretty conformist. That said, Arabs and Israelis do share a deep scepticism and distrust of authority, and find creative ways of disobeying it – the exception being the family.

More importantly, possessing a pope does not make you necessarily more conformist. In fact, it can have the opposite effect, as occurred in Western Europe. After all, the Enlightenment was in great part a rebellion against the abuses of the church and rulers who claimed to govern by divine right. In the diaspora, rabbis often played the role of local popes.

In fact, the mytho-historical idea that Jews are somehow more individualistic and unruly than others probably began with another enlightenment, that of the Jews, the Haskalah. Reformist Jews sought to reinterpret their history and traditions in a more modernist light – where Israelite and Jewish “disobedience” was disapproved of by traditional religion, secularists took pride in it as a sign of rationality and questioning.

They say that history is written by the victors, but it is often revised by the reformers and visionaries who sell their ideas by convincing others that the future they want, at least partly, existed in the past.

Note: Amos Oz and his daughter, Fania Oz-Salzberger, are cooperating on a book entitled Jews and Words. It will be published by Yale University Press on 20 November 2012.

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This article first appeared in The Huffington Post on 18 September 2012.

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