Amos Oz had meant to talk mostly about his book. At his simple home on the edge of the Negev Desert last month, Israel’s most celebrated writer led me to the basement study where he has crafted all his recent novels, including one being published in the U.S. this month as Scenes From Village Life. But politics kept intruding. On television, a program marking the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks quietly flickered. In New York, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was poised to ask the United Nations for membership, prompting Israeli threats. “If I were the government of Israel, I would ask the Palestinians for a 24-hour advance notice before they declare independence so that we can make our announcement,” Oz told me in his study, where his own books take up several shelves. “Israel needs to be the first country to recognize Palestine, and then we can discuss the borders.”
For nearly 50 years now, Oz has spent some part of each day either writing intimately observed fiction or advocating for a Palestinian state alongside Israel. In the first endeavor, he has had more success than just about any other Israeli writer. His books have been translated into 30 languages, and he’s regularly among the finalists for the Nobel Prize in Literature, including this year. His 2002 memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness, has sold more than a million copies around the world. But at 72, with Israelis and Palestinians farther apart than in decades, Oz is starting to come to terms with the possibility that his other pursuit may well go unrequited—that peace might not materialize in his lifetime. “I remain an optimist but with no time-table for my optimism,” he told me.
Among Israelis of his generation, Oz is the consummate sabra, or native-born Israeli—brash, steely, and ruggedly good-looking. He grew up in Jerusalem, fought in two wars, and lived for years on a kibbutz, where the communal leadership body initially allowed him just one writing day a week (he worked in the fields on the other days). His foray into political writing coincided with his emergence as a novelist. Immediately after the 1967 war, in the euphoria over Israel’s liberation of Jerusalem and other territories, Oz wrote presciently that a sustained domination over more than a million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip (the population has since swelled to 4 million) would have a corrosive effect on Israeli society.
He has since written powerful essays about the volatile psychology of the Arab-Israeli conflict, including the misperceptions that both sides hold. “The Arabs look at us as Israelis and can’t see who we really are: a bunch of half-hysterical refugees and survivors. What they see…is an extension of the white, oppressive, sophisticated, colonizing Europe pressing and humiliating the Arabs,” Oz wrote in a 1992 essay. “We Israelis, on the other hand, look at the Arabs … as nothing but an incarnation of our past oppressors: Cossacks, pogrom makers, Nazis. They have grown mustaches this time and wrapped themselves in kaffiyehs, but they are still out to do the same old thing: cut Jewish throats.”
Though Oz’s novels tend to be firmly rooted in the Israeli experience, he says they are never allegories for the nation’s larger dramas. In fact, he spent years bristling at the misinterpretations, until he learned to make peace with them. “I know it’s the destiny of any writer who writes in a troubled part of the world,” he says. “I can bet with you that if I wrote a little story about father, mother, daughter, and pocket money, there will be people who will decide that the father is the government, the mother is the religion, the daughter is the young generation, and the pocket money is the shaky economy.”
His latest book is set in the type of village of which there are few in Israel—old and quaint, dotted with boutiques and small wineries. Its characters are plagued not by terrorism or political strife but by the more prosaic dramas of everyday life—loneliness, unhappy relationships, and the feeling of being stuck in the wrong geography. The one Arab character in the seven vignettes that make up the book is neither friend nor foe to the Jews but a student who happens to live among them. In some ways, the narrative is more about the claustrophobia people endure in suburbs or small towns everywhere than a specific rendering of an Israeli condition.
And yet the sense of foreboding that hangs over the stories feels decidedly Israeli. At an evening gathering, the sound of helicopters in the distance portends what might be another round of fighting. In their own homes, the characters are haunted by things they can’t explain. One of them hears digging under the house but can’t pinpoint the source. Another retraces the steps of his missing wife. Pesach Kedem, the book’s liveliest character, is a former politician, now in his 80s, who rants about Israelis having lost their sense of communal responsibility. “We dreamed of improving ourselves, of improving the whole world,” Kedem grumbles to his daughter. “Now all the hearts are dead.”
Coincidentally, Kedem’s tirades echo the themes that, in real life, powered the huge protests in Israel this past summer against the disparity between the country’s super-rich and everyone else (Oz published the book in the original Hebrew two years ago). They also highlight a question that Israelis have been asking frequently since the summer protests: how did the country devolve from its egalitarian beginnings in the last century—with its kibbutzim and its emphasis on shared wealth—to a society in which a small number of families wield huge economic power?
Oz blames the “big-capital governments” of the past 30 years for policies that favored the rich and fostered a climate of greed. But he also believes the kibbutz experiment contained the seeds of its own demise. “The founders ... wanted to create a mutation of the human species in one generation. They wanted to create people who are no longer materialistic, no longer hedonistic, and no longer selfish, no less. And they believed they could do it by changing the environment and changing the circumstances and the rules of the game. This was destined to end up in disappointment.”
Whether peacemaking is also destined to chronically end in disappointment is a question that has come to vex people on all sides of the conflict. Oz believes majorities among both Israelis and Palestinians have reluctantly come around to embracing a division of the territory as the only possible solution. The problem is one of leadership, he says. “I would say that the patients, Israelis and Palestinians, are unhappily ready for the surgery, but the doctors are cowards.” In the mid-1990s, he confides, he was approached to become head of the Labor Party, which at the time controlled a substantial number of seats in Parliament. But he couldn’t imagine spending even a short time in politics. “I have a physical handicap,” he says. “I cannot pronounce the words ‘No comment.’
“So how,” he asks, “can I be a politician?”