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

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 '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 . 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 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 , history, politics, living the kibbutz experiment and, inevitably, the Israeli-Palestinian . 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 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 and absence of a rigid religious hierarchy reflects the prized nature of individualism in , 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 . 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.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

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


  • Khaled Diab

    Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, Jerusalem, Brussels, Geneva and Cairo. Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual media. Khaled Diab is the author of two books: Islam for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell journalism prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the and the UN, as well as civil society. Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled's life has been divided between the Middle East and Europe. He grew up in Egypt and the UK, and has lived in Belgium, on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

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