Amos Oz - Israel: War, Peace and Storytelling
One of the world’s finest thinkers and writers, the incomparable Amos Oz, delivers the 2011 Monash Israel Oration at Melbourne Town Hall, under the title ‘Israel: Peace, War and Storytelling’. The oration is followed by an on-stage interview with Mark Baker. Through his portrait of modern Israel and its conflicts, the much-loved author and celebrated peace activist demonstrates his rare compassion, wisdom and conviction.
Oz is introduced by his daughter Fania Oz-Salzberger, Professor to the Leon Liberman Chair of Modern Israel Studies at the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation.
A civilisation of doubt & argument
Opening his oration, he explores the birth of Israel, which “was born out of a dream, and everything - everything at all - that is born out of a dream is destined to feel like a slight disappointment… Israel has a certain air of disappointment about it, but this disappointment is not in the nature of Israel. It is in the nature of dreams.”
According to Oz, the “contradictory or even mutually exclusive” aspirations of Israel’s founders set the foundation of a society vibrating with diversity, rife with conflicting opinions and such an entrenched love of arguing that even God is not spared. Revealing complex and ambivalent feelings about his country, he offers that “Israel is neither a nation nor a country; rather, it is a fiery collection of arguments”.
But while he notes some diaspora Jews beckoning his Israeli compatriots to pipe down, he proves a defender of the great pleasure of open disagreement: “This is freedom, for me”. Oz argues that disagreements are at the “heart and soul of the Jewish tradition. It is a civilisation of doubt and argument.” It’s a tradition that creates an ideal climate for creativity, invention, renewal and culture.
He challenges the media’s retelling of that civilisation’s modern story - particularly the suggestion that Israel is a nation primarily peopled by “fundamentalist ultra-religious West Bank settlers”. Instead, he explains, Israel is “very Mediterranean” and “secular to the bone”.
Of course, religious and political clashes do occur, as do philosophical ones. Oz acknowledges deep divisions in Israeli society where “everyone knows better”. He tells a story of his time as a reservist on the eve of the Six Day War in 1967, where his unit’s strategising turned into a heated mid-battle argument about the particulars of Tolstoy and war.
Oz declares himself a great believer in compromise, which he takes up later in talking about Palestinian-Israeli relations. Acknowledging the negative connotations of the word “in the ears of young idealists”, he nonetheless holds that “the opposite of compromise is fanaticism and death”.
Israel & Palestine
His appraisal of the situation as “a tragic clash between right and right” acknowledges that both sides are making just claims for a peaceful and secure homeland. Rather than a holy war, he sees the conflict as essentially a real estate dispute. The vast majority of both states know there will be two neighbouring states, Oz says, adding that the region will eventually be something like a semi-detached house.
In the light of his expectation that Palestine will unilaterally declare statehood later this year, Oz urges Israel to become the first state to officially recognise Palestine. The writer’s hope is that Israel can retreat from the front page of newspapers and into a cultural renaissance.
As part of his writing process, Oz employs two pens, black and blue. He explains the human need to hear stories and to tell stories - the task reserved for one of those pens. The other pen the author reserves “to tell the government to go to Hell!”
Asked by an audience member where the Palestinian Amos Oz is, he refers to his counterparts across the disputed borders, but also urges a realistic approach: enemies won’t become best friends overnight. The aim, he says, is to “make peace, not love”.
The Monash Israel Oration is presented in partnership between the Wheeler Centre and Monash University’s Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation, and under the auspices of the Leon Liberman Chair in Modern Israel Studies.
Born in Jerusalem in 1939, Amos Oz is the internationally acclaimed author of many novels and essay collections, translated into 30 languages. He has received several international awards, including the Prix Femina, the Israel Prize and the Frankfurt Peace Prize. He lives in Arad, Israel.
Mark Baker is director of the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation and an associate professor at Monash University.