A conversation with the Israeli author Amos Oz, conducted on November 12th in the guesthouse of the Hamburg Senate, upon receiving the first Siegfried-Lenz Prize.

Natascha Freundel: Bruchim Habaim leHamburg! — Welcome to Hamburg!

Amos Oz: Thank you very much. Being the first recipient of the Siegfried Lenz literary award is a great honor but also a very deep sadness, because we have lost Siegfried Lenz just a few weeks ago, and I was so much hoping that he will be the one who will hand me the award.

NF: I think that Amos Oz no longer needs any introduction in this part of the world. Especially, since his great novel, A Tale of Love and Darkness. The book was published ten years ago and the author, after having already received the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade years ago, is also known as a winner of the Goethe Prize and the Heine Prize. Of course, he is known for more than this novel: Amos Oz is a prolific novelist and at the same time perhaps the most powerfully eloquent advocate for a two-state solution for a peaceful Israel and a peaceful Palestine. Your belief in the power of words, Amos Oz, puts you in the company of Siegfried Lenz, in whose name you are now once again distinguished.

AO: Siegfried Lenz was a personal friend for more than 30 years, and also in some ways a mentor. I learned a great deal from Siegfried Lenz. He wrote extensively in his novels about moral dilemmas, about ambivalent situations, about loyalty and treason, and it so happens that many of those issues, many of those subjects, are central in my own work as well. So Siegfried Lenz as a novelist and as a man has always been very close to my heart.

NF: How did your friendship with Siegfried Lenz develop?

AO: You know, writers who have read each other’s works never meet for the first time. Not even when they meet for the first time. In 1982 or 1983, Siegfried and Liselotte Lenz walked into my little study in Kibbutz Hulda. Siegfried walked in with his childlike smile, and Liselotte with her very coy and modest habit, and I liked them both right away — right as they walked into my study. We started talking and we have talked ever since for more than 30 years. We talked even when we were not together. We talked even when we were not on the telephone or corresponding or visiting each other.

NF: Was there something Jewish about Siegfried Lenz?

AO: There is something Jewish everywhere. Cultural Jewish genes are all over the western world. But no, I don’t think that Siegfried Lenz was inspired by Jewish origins or Jewish sources, probably not. His fascination with painful moral dilemmas, with situations which are not black or white, is very close to my heart, and very close to my tradition.

NF: I ask you this, Amos Oz, because in your latest book, which you wrote with your daughter, Fania Oz-Salzberger, you connect “Jews and words.” You write: “what connects us, are not blood-relations, but texts.” According to this view, one could suppose that all readers or literate people are free to become Jewish. Now of course you don’t mean just any text, not the canon of world literature, rather you mean the Tanakh and the Talmud. The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, and its exegesis. Now I am wondering, as a secular Israeli Jew, how do you understand the Bible today?

AO: My daughter, Fania Oz-Salzberger, and I wrote a book together about Judaism as civilization and not as a religion. But she and I often disagree in the course of the book. Some of the book is actually a debate and disagreement between the two authors. And the debate is the essence because Jewish civilization, in good times, has been a lasting multi-generational debate about interpretation of text, reinterpretation of the same text, counter interpretation, adding texts upon texts, writing new texts based on old texts… This is in my view the crux of the Jewish civilization. It’s a civilization of doubt and argument.

Many would not agree with me: orthodox Jews will say it’s all about the Torah and the Talmud. To me the Torah and the Talmud are the most wonderful texts created by Jews, but they are not exclusive. There are other texts. To me the words of Jesus are also Judaism. The modern secular Hebrew literature of the 19th and 20th century is a tremendous addition to the Jewish heritage. I don’t believe in Jewish genes. I don’t believe in a Jewish race. There is not such a thing. It’s enough to spend a day in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem or Arad, and look around, and find out immediately that there is no Jewish race. There are black Jews and yellow Jews, and they come in all kinds of colors, and there are blond Jews and dark Jews. It’s not the race or the genes. It’s rather a certain inclination to debate and to argue. It’s about the relations with texts. It’s about certain family-focused traditions. And this book, which my daughter and I wrote together, is about the secular Judaism of book lovers.

Book cover of Jews and Words by Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger © Yale University Press | Amazon
Book cover of Jews and Words by Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger © Yale University Press | Amazon

NF: You yourself have said, Amos Oz, that your book Jews and Words is a dialogue between your daughter and yourself, written as an exchange of ideas. I would say it has a slightly essayistic inflection. But buried in this very accessible book is a strong thesis, a thoroughly bold thesis, which I find very sympathetic, but which has big political consequences. Namely, if Judaism is not a question of genes, and also not a question of archaeology, but rather a question of texts and words; if Jewish continuity is a continuity of words, that would have certain political consequences. What would they be?

AO: There are many political consequences to our reading of the Jewish tradition. One of them is that holy places are not terribly important in the Jewish tradition, and therefore it is reasonable that Israeli Jews will give up some of their past for the sake of the future — provided that the Palestinian people will also give up some of their past for the sake of the future. Another political consequence is that Jewish civilization is a civilization with no central authority. It’s about debate, it’s about doubt; it’s about argument. Jews never had a pope, nor can they have one. If anyone ever calls himself or maybe herself the pope of the Jews everyone will be slapping this pope on the back and say: “hi Pope, you don’t know me — I don’t know you — my grandfather and your uncle used to do business together back in Casablanca in Morocco, or back in Minsk, and therefore dear Pope please be quiet for just five minutes and I’ll tell you once and for all what it is that God really wants from us.” This is a political consequence. Let us remain open, let us doubt, let us debate, let us disagree, let us differ without calling each other traitors.

NF: Perhaps I should ask again in a slightly different way. Israelis define Judaism somewhat differently than you, namely, as a question of blood relations. Whoever has a Jewish mother is a Jew. And that has very concrete political consequences in the state of Israel. If we take seriously your thesis on Judaism as a certain culture of the text and refer to political realities, what consequences would this have?

AO: Well first a correction, with your permission: some Israelis define Jewishness as a bloodline, connected with a Jewish mother. Other Israelis challenge this and disagree. For me, for Fania, for millions of other Israelis, any human being who is mad enough to call himself or herself Jew is a Jew. I think that Israel and the Jewish people is a genetic cocktail, and I have no problem with this. I’m very, very curious to know how many of my genes originate from the prophets. But even if someone would prove to me scientifically that none of my genes comes form the prophets, it would make no difference to me. I would still regard myself as an heir of the civilization of the prophets, because we share the same texts, and this is what matters, and not the blood.

NF: That Israel should be a “Jewish and Democratic” state is something to which all leaders in Israel adhere, whether they are on the left or the right. It is doctrine of the state. Today there is more and more, and in particular recently, reflection on the question of whether Israel’s definition as Jewish and democratic is practicable and whether it perhaps makes certain racist tendencies in the daily life of Israel possible. Now, Amos Oz, I wonder what you think about this debate.

AO: Well, there is a Jewish people, whether we are happy about it or not. And this Jewish people deserves self-determination, political self-determination, as every other people deserves it. Would, one day, the Israeli Jews and the Israeli Arabs integrate into one nation? I hope so. It will not happen in my day, and it will not help if we attach a title on something that doesn’t exist. I would like Israel to evolve into an Israeli society one day. It cannot happen as long as there is a bloody conflict between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs. It will take generations. It is not enough to put the Israeli Jews and the Israeli Arabs into bed together and ask them: why don’t you become lovers and start a honeymoon right away? The fact is that there is a Jewish people, there is a Palestinian people, there are Israeli-Palestinian Arabs. There’s a tension, and there’s anger and there’s bloodshed. This is not going to change by a miracle. It is going to change by a slow evolutionary process. We need to be patient.

NF: You have spoken about the culture of debate, a very specific culture of debate. Now I want to ask you, Amos Oz, what do you think about the culture of democratic debate in Israel today?

AO: Well, I’m very worried because there is a radicalization of the argument. Half the Israelis call the other half traitors, more or less. It is not a good time. No nation and no country has been at its best in free debate in the middle of a deadly conflict. If I look at one hundred years of modern Zionism — one hundred years of solitude you may say — [I find that] forty or fifty Jews were killed by other Jews because of religion or ideology. This includes Rabin — and others. Now to be sure even one is too many. But compared to the record of other civilizations our record is spectacular. Don’t forget that America only became America through a bloody civil war with hundreds of thousand of Americans killed by other Americans. France became France through the guillotines. Even phlegmatic England developed its rule of the game about civic society after a century of civil wars. Our record is relatively wonderful. We conduct our eternal civil wars mostly by screaming at each other, thus giving each other ulcers and heart attacks: this is terrible, but not as bad as Germany or France or America or Italy. Give us time.

Remember how many centuries it took European countries to separate church from state, and to put an end to the chauvinism and the wars and the bloodshed. It took Europe a thousand years. We in Israel, we in the Middle East, are not going to take a thousand years. We are taking too long. Too long: I wish it would be faster. But give us time. We only appeared on the scene a few decades ago; it’s too soon to except Israel to become Sweden. It cannot, it’s impossible — only two or three generations after the holocaust, and in the middle of a life-and-death conflict with fanatic Islam. It is not possible. We have to struggle for it, we have to believe in it, we have to attempt to achieve it, but at the same time we have to be patient. I’m an evolutionist. I don’t believe that an individual or a people can be born again overnight and change completely. This is just not the way history works.

NF: You turned 75 in May and you gave a talk, in which you characterized the young settlers in Israel, who are prone to violence, as “Hebrew neo-Nazis.” You were consequently named a “traitor,” was there any public agreement with this?

AO: Let’s be very exact about this. I never dreamt of calling the settler youth, as such, neo-Nazis. When I said ‘Hebrew neo-Nazis’, I meant Hebrew neo-Nazis: the individuals who burn mosques, who write ‘death to the Arabs on the walls’, and who desecrate holly places of other religions. It’s a small group but it exists on the scene. Yes, I’m supported by many people, and I’m hated by many people, and it is alright by me, I do not complain.

NF: You asked me not to speak too much about the political situation in Israel, since you came to Hamburg as a writer for a literary event. Nevertheless we cannot ignore a political event that took place last summer, namely the latest war in Gaza. Interestingly, unlike past armed conflicts, you have not protested against this last war.

AO: I didn’t write as much or speak as much as I did in previous years for personal reasons. I spent much of last summer in hospitals. I did protest against the disproportionate Israeli response in Gaza. It was excessive, exaggerated and disproportionate. But I never advocated, now or in the past, that Israel turn the cheeck when it is bombarded with rockets. I never said that if the Hamas launches thousands of rockets at Israel, we’ll respond by buying more and more ambulances. I never said “make love not war.” I’m not a pacifist in the European sense of the word: for pacifists, the ultimate evil is war, for me the ultimate evil is aggression, and aggression has to be repelled sometimes by force.

NF: Could you, Amos Oz, identify one or two good results from this last war?

AO: No I can’t, I don’t think that this war had any good results whatsoever. I thought that this war could have been avoided altogether If Israel recognized a Palestinian state on the West Bank a long time ago. And I think Israel could do it; and I think the Palestinian PLO-leadership could reach terms that are acceptable to both sides. If this had been achieved, there would be no Hamas in Gaza, because the Gaza people would overthrow Hamas and join the party. This has not been done. But once Hamas started firing hundreds and thousand of rockets into Israel, there was no way Israel could send a polite letter to Hamas saying please have mercy and stop it.

NF: Is it possible that people in the so-called West, that is, Europe, cannot fully comprehend the existential angst that Israelis have regarding Islamic extremism?

AO: No, I’m not going to generalize and speak to you about all western people or about how all Israelis feel, there is no such thing. But I think that many western people tend to treat every international conflict as a Hollywood movie with good guys and bad guys. And they often have the urge, not always but often, they have the urge to sign a petition in favor of the good guys, launch a demonstration against the bad guys, and go to sleep feeling good about themselves. Now the Israeli-Palestinian issue and the entire Middle Eastern issue is not a Hollywood movie. It’s not a western movie; it’s not black and white. As I said many times in the past, Israel and Palestine is a clash between right and right. Recently it’s a clash between wrong and wrong, but it’s still not black and white. And I’m amazed that people who claimed often that they despise Hollywood, and despise western movies, when it comes to Israelis and Palestinians it is black and white. A Western. Good guys and bad guys.

To some extent I can tell you this happens because, morally, the 20th century was fairly easy. Fascism and anti-fascism was black and white. Colonialism and decolonialism was black and white. Vietnam was black and white. South Africa was black and white. Israel and Palestine is not. Many people tend to think that because in the past, in the major events, you could easily take sides with the good guys, the same relates to Israelis and Palestinians. I’m sorry; it’s not that simple. It’s not that simple. I don’t expect anyone in this world to support the policies of Netanyahu’s government. They are disastrous policies, I think its an anti-peace policy, I think it’s a negative policy. At the same time, I think it would be a great mistake to embrace and hug Islamic fanatics and Islamic aggressors; and Hamas aggressors, and ISIS aggressors, just because Israel is wrongly building settlements in the West Bank.

NF: Thirteen years ago, your daughter wrote in her book Israelis in Berlin about a trend before it was a trend. Since then the number of young Israelis in Berlin is in the thousands. Many say, “no longer do we want to live under the political and social pressure that prevails in our homeland.” A young man compared the price of chocolate pudding in Berlin with the price in Israel and urged people to immigrate to Berlin. It caused a lot of commotion in Israel. I wonder, how would you reply to this young man?

AO: Well you are asking me more than one question. If the issue is the price of pudding, then the place to go is Bangladesh or Namibia, not Berlin. If the issue is that many people feel suffocated and they want to try a different life, then my answer is that I’m not in a position to tell anyone in this world how to live or where to live. And my answer is also that this is part of a universal phenomenon. Millions and millions of people, mostly young but not only young, are immigrating now. From Poland to England or to Germany, from Mexico to the United States, from Africa to Europe, from the Middle East to Europe. In this 21st century, there are entire populations moving. Personally, I would not miss the Israeli drama for the life of me. Because, with all the pain, and with all the agony and with all the frustration, Israel is a fascinating place, and I wouldn’t like to miss it, and I wouldn’t advise anyone to miss it. In spite of the terrible conflict, and in spite of the internal contradictions, and in spite of the radicalism and the racism, Israel is undergoing a golden age: in literature, in music, in the science; in painting and sculpting, it’s one of the most fascinating arenas in the 21st century. So I personally will not replace it with any other place.