Friday, 31 July 2009

Amos Oz on Israel and Arabs

Like many of us I imagine, I've been in discussions and arguments and even falling-outs over Israel. From my youth I remember the image of idealistic kibbutz; I don’t remember taking much notice of the 1967 Six Day War. I paid little more attention until recent years when I've read one book and a few articles about the history of Israel. A few months ago I read a piece in one of the papers about Amos Oz and gathered that his A Tale of Love and Darkness (trans. Nicholas De Lange, Vintage 2005) gave a detailed personal account of being on the inside of that history.

So that was my big holiday read. As it turns out it’s far more than a personal memoir, going into his family history before the various moves to Palestine and back into the nineteenth century in Eastern Europe.

I wasn’t in fact clear when I started whether it was a memoir or a novel – the blurb didn’t say; the clarity and detail of scenes from his very early childhood and even from episodes before he was born are of a sharpness we associate with novels. The book is about all sorts beyond his own life: characteristics of Diaspora Jews, the feelings of Jews in countries like Poland and Latvia about the ‘real’ Europe to the west, what Jewish children were taught in Jewish schools in Lithuania about Israel, attitudes to the Enlightenment and religion, anti-semitism in Europe; the shabbiness and poverty of the actual Palestine the émigrés encountered (‘The Levant is full of germs,’ his grandmother declared on landing) compared with the image presented in the propaganda, growing up in Jerusalem, the contrast between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Ben-Gurion and Begin, the end of the British mandate and the shameful conduct of the British…

The big question people like me have about Israel concerns, of course, the rights and wrongs of its occupation of a land which had previously been more or less Arab, in so far as it was occupied at all and acknowledging that there were still some Jews who had lived there from ancient times. About the legitimacy of Jewish demands for their own state, a homeland, I had no doubts: after their experience of the ‘civilised’, ‘advanced’ states of Europe in the 1930s and 40s, who would say they should trust to their citizenship of any of existing state? But about their relations with the Arabs? Well, one passage in Oz’s book was, I thought, sane and helpful on this and it’s the account I’m inclined to subscribe to until I’m taught otherwise.

Here it is, from pages 418-19:

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