I decided to re-read this book after 25 years. And once again I was dazzled by the quality of the insights, and the masterful handling of dialogue, in which Amos Oz excels. For the non-Jewish American it is difficult to obtain an authentic, realistic portrait of Israel through the American media filter. Far better for that is Haaretz and Amos Oz. He sees, and conveys the anguish, in this collection of eleven marvelous short stories.
One of the major themes, but fortunately there are numerous others, is the one that divides the secular Israelis from the religious ones, the "Jews", which he conveys so eloquently in his story on "An Argument on Life and Death (A)". And it is the latter, in the adherence to their mindless fundamentalism that are ascendant; Oz struggles to convey the sentiments of the "Jews" even-handedly, but it is a struggle that he often loses.
Oz has this incredible ear for dialogue and the ability to transpose this to the written page. In short vignettes he explains why there was a major political transformation, without 800 pages of leaden analysis. For example, his story "The Insult and the Fury" clearly captures the anger that resulted in the rise of the Likud, and the political victory of Begin. Oz goes to the village of Bet Shemesh, with its heavy Sephardic population. The resentment seethes: "I'll tell you something about the hatred. But write it in good Hebrew. You want the hatred between us to end? First of all, come and apologize, properly." A catalog of grave offenses and slights of the "elite" Ashkenazis follows. One of the resounding point made is their unwillingness to ever give up the West Bank, because of their feeling that they had been brought to Israel to be the "hewers of wood, and drawers of water" for the Ashkenazis. No longer, they say; that chore is "delegated" to West Bank and Gaza Arabs.
The opposite sentiment is expressed in the story "The Finger of God?" The Arabs would be expelled from their homes in Nablus, Bethlehem and Hebron, just like they were from Ramla and Jaffa in '48. Ethnic cleansing, but then who will be those "hewers"?
In "An Argument on Life and Death (B)" Oz takes a completely different approach. No selected dialogue. It is his well-argued position made before the "settlers" in Ofra. At the beginning he clearly states: "You are convinced that to relinquish Judea and Samaria would endanger the existence of the State of Israel. I think that annexation of these regions endangers the existence of the State of Israel." The subsequent exposition of his case is as valid 25 years later as it was then.
In the story, "The Dawn" he goes to the editorial offices of the East Jerusalem Arabic newspaper, "Al-Fajr." Among others, he talks to Attallah Najar, a 30 year old Israeli citizen, who was born in the Galilee. Probing his duel allegiances, he asks him a fascinating question: "What if you are one day offered a choice between serving as the Israeli ambassador to Palestine and serving as the Palestinian ambassador to Israel? What will you chose?
In "A Cosmic Jew" Oz goes to the coastal town of Bat Shlomo, and talks with 78 year old Zvi Bachur, and his wife, Sarah. His parents came from Minsk in 1900, and they, and he scratched out an existence by farming. He is quite proud of his manual labor, and says that in the early mornings Israel is an Arab country, because the Jews are still asleep. He laments the lost "work ethic," like many of his generation, in many different countries. His story is an important one, as is his philosophical outlook.
Oz was born in Jerusalem in 1939. He clearly loves his country, and describes its physical aspects with care to the details and much affection. For example: "It is chilly in Jerusalem. At four in the afternoon there is already a faint scent of evening in the air. The sky, the asphalt street, the mountain slopes, the cypress trees and the stone are all tinged by autumn here in varying shades of grey..." In these stories, at least, he never bemoans his fate in living in a country of so much turmoil, passion, and anguish. He never speculates what it might have been like become attached to, say, Winesburg Ohio. Or even if the same emotions could be felt about such a "normal" place. But he does close this book with a story set in Ashdod, a pleasant, small city, recently created on the Mediterranean coast, a city "not pretending to be Paris or Zurich or aspiring to be Jerusalem... without imperial boulevards, without monuments... a city living entirely in the present tense... almost serene." Wistful seems to be the sentiment.
This remains the quintessential book on Israel. Oz is a master, to be savored, yes, yet again.
(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on September 17, 2008)