Amos Oz makes his words count in Israel

Amos Oz makes his words count in Israel
Amos Oz (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

The novel.

That enchanting beast.


"It's not made of ideas or concepts or plots or intrigues. It's made of words," Amos Oz, one of Israel's most acclaimed writers, said of how he makes a living. "This is never easy because words have no color. They make no sounds. They produce no smell. They are very abstract. If I use the word 'sunshine' in one of my books, I will have to rely on you, the reader, to recruit all the sunshines you have experienced for anything at all to happen."

He paused. "Otherwise," he said, "these words are just black ants on a white field of snow."

Oz writes in longhand. He uses two pens, one black, one blue, which sit on a desk in a home in Tel Aviv. His best work is done before 9 a.m. His words unspool in eloquent threads. They can also be terse. Sharp. They can dance. They absorb and give off light, and even the omitted ones summon deep meaning. He has been writing since he was a boy, and now, at 76, Oz, one of most provocative voices against Israel's treatment of Palestinians, is a man energized by fitting words to the travails and joys of a scarred land.

His novels and essays have been translated into dozens of languages; he is often mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize for literature. His fiction — a term he doesn't like — includes "My Michael," the tale of a disintegrating marriage, and "A Perfect Peace," about passions and ideological struggles on a kibbutz before the 1967 Six Day War. The film version of his autobiography, "A Tale of Love and Darkness," was directed by Natalie Portman and is expected to be released this year.

Oz was in Los Angeles this week to accept the UCLA Israel Studies Award for contributing to a "greater understanding of Israel." In remarks during the ceremony, Portman praised the author for "putting words to our longings and for never losing to cynicism and your insistence on peace, even when it is not as popular as it should be."

Born in Jerusalem, Oz has lived and written through the founding of a nation, wars, intifadas, the rise of Hamas, the nuclear ambitions of Iran and a Middle East landscape upset by Arab uprisings. He has been labeled a dove for his persistent calls for a two-state solution to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict but is a committed left-leaning Zionist, criticizing anyone who questions Israel's right to exist.

"Nobody presented this question in Germany during the days of Hitler or in Russia under Stalin," said Oz. "But the question is being presented more and more often about Israel, and I don't like it." He added there is "something dark, looming underneath" the antipathy toward Israel that is "based on the assumption that Jews are not like everybody else."

Oz, who spent many years on a kibbutz, is accustomed to enemies. He chafes at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's hard-line policies and opposes the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. He was vilified last year by right-wing groups and others for comparing militant Jewish settlers to neo-Nazis. Others have questioned his patriotism, which in Israel is set against intense political maneuvering and daily concerns about security.

"I regard the title traitor as an honorary declaration, and I wear it [as a] badge because I am in excellent company," he said, noting that Abraham Lincoln, the prophet Jeremiah and many writers and intellectuals were branded traitors. "It may be a more respectable club than those who have never been called traitors by anyone."

Oz is slight. He moves like an aging wrestler. His blue eyes glow behind glasses, his gray hair is a bit mussed, but the face — evolving in photos over time like carvings on stone — is rugged and handsome. It is a face of the elements, of the desert. His voice is accented and clear and, at times, a finger rises to emphasize sentences that flow with foreboding and mischievous delight.

"Oz and his contemporaries were influenced by American and European writers and believed in art for art's sake," said Avraham Balaban, an author and professor of modern Hebrew literature. "But writing in Israel of the late '50s and '60s, he could not detach himself from what was going on in society and politics. His work is structured so that the powerful personal psychological struggles correspond with the broader struggles characterizing Israeli society."

The writer and his nation are entwined. Oz is as animated talking about politics as he is about the spin and whirl of words, their nuances and cadences. He is a realist; he believes many nations, including Iran, will eventually build nuclear weapons and that mutual deterrence will emerge based on a "balance of horror." But he also senses possibilities — perhaps too wishful — in a region inured to strife.

"Israel stands at a unique opportunity to reach a comprehensive peace with neighboring Arab countries and with secular Palestine," he said. "Not because the Arabs are suddenly turning Zionists and not because their eyes have been opened to see the light of the Jewish state but simply because every one of the Arab regimes has a more immediate and dangerous enemy right now. Israel is an ally in the battle of the Arab governments against fundamentalist Islam."

At such a crucial time, Israel's relationship with America is strained, highlighted by the rancor between Netanyahu and President Obama over Iran's nuclear program.


"It's a very bizarre relationship," Oz said. "Israel has the sanction of the screaming baby, and it's quite an effective sanction. America has the sanction of the angry parent, and this latter sanction is not fully exercised yet, but it might be one day."

Animosity between friends, a possible peace between enemies. The stuff of great stories. But Oz said Israeli writers may be slipping away from the Judeo-Slavic tradition in which poet and author were regarded as prophets "to provide a sort of vision, to show the way." It was easier to fill such a role decades ago, when Israel was in the throes and tremors of becoming a country.

"Israeli writers are normalized," he said. "They write about everyday life: love, jealousy, solitude, ambition, longing, loss, the great and simple topics. Everyday existence in Israel is no longer ... the epic of the birth of a nation. The nation is born for better or worse. So you will find fewer and fewer Israeli writers dealing with the birth of a nation, dealing with the question of where do we go from here."

He paused and took a breath. "Instead," he said, "you will find more and more about the tragicomedy of everyday life in a beleaguered, besieged country."

Twitter: @JeffreyLAT

Special correspondent Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.