Israel Under The Volcano

Amos Oz is Israel's best-known contemporary author. In works of fiction and nonfiction alike, he often depicts his country as a society under emotional as well as physical siege. He also has taken sides in Israel's culture wars, as he did last week after a mass rally in Jerusalem by ultra-Orthodox Jews. The demonstrators were protesting recent Israeli Supreme Court rulings they see as opening the way to recognition of Conservative and Reform Judaism. In response, Oz signed on as a member of the Reform movement--a gesture of opposition to the ultra-Orthodox and their political supporters, whom he and other secular artists and intellectuals denounced as "enemies of democracy." A native-born Israeli, Oz, 59, served in two Middle East wars (1967 and 1973). Yet he remains a staunch advocate of peace and understanding between Israel and its Palestinian neighbors. After 30 years on a kibbutz, Oz now lives in Arad, a town on the edge of the Negev desert. He spoke by phone there with NEWSWEEK's Jeremy Caplan. Excerpts:

CAPLAN: What led you to join the Reform movement?
OZ: This was a demonstrative move, not a theological change of heart. It was an act of solidarity with Jewish religious groups who are discriminated against by Orthodox groups in Israel and are victims of the heavy pressure of the Orthodox on the Israeli Legislature and Supreme Court.

How do you explain the rising tension between religious and secular Israelis?
Religious parties control only 15 or 16 percent of the Knesset [Parliament]. But for 30 years, Orthodox leaders have tipped the balance between hawks and doves, and have been in a position to determine who forms a coalition and who runs the country. Knowing that they are running out of time, they are trying to press for as much religious legislation as they can. Hence their crusade against Reform and Conservative Jews. But I don't foresee massive violence. The expectation of many people outside Israel of witnessing a full-scale Jewish civil war will remain unfulfilled.

What will be the determining factors in Israel's upcoming May 17 elections?
In the last elections a set of suicide attacks decided the consequences of our elections for us, and indeed for the Palestinians as well. I'll give you a forecast: sometime after the next election a bipartisan foreign policy will be formed. The actual gap between Labor, Likud and the new central party is microscopic. All three parties are now willing to accept the existence of a Palestinian state next to Israel [though they] still differ on the magnitude of Israeli concessions of land on the West Bank. The election will not be friendly, though. It will be more fierce, more ugly than ever, precisely because the actual differences between the parties are smaller than ever.

You have said that your new book, "Let Her," is the one you'd like to be remembered by. Why is that?
In many ways it's closest to my heart, closest to what I've always wanted to write. It's perhaps my most inventive work, not limited by a particular genre. It's a novel that partly rhymes, partly works as a madrigal, an assembly of voices. It's playful. It's not about the West Bank, Palestinians or the Golan Heights. I wrote a novel about Israelis who live their own lives on the slope of a volcano. Near a volcano one still falls in love, one still gets jealous, one still wants a promotion, one still gossips.

In your other recent book, "The Story Begins," you describe the pleasures of slow reading. Do people read too fast?
I'm opposed to the entire concept of "speed reading." I recommend the art of slow reading. Every single pleasure I can imagine or have experienced is more delightful, more of a pleasure, if you take it in small sips, if you take your time. Reading is not an exception.

Let's talk some more about the Middle East. How will Jordan's King Hussein be remembered in Israel?
He was one of the few individuals who understood the importance of the emotional element of a conflict. Unlike what cynics tell us, international conflicts are affected by emotions like fear, anger, mistrust. King Hussein created an emotional breakthrough by noticing and attending to emotional sensibilities. No Israeli will forget his eulogy for Yitzhak Rabin, or his apologizing on his knees for a Jordanian soldier who ran amok. No sovereign had ever gone down on his knees to apologize to the Jews. This was a monumental emotional breakthrough. I wish Israeli leaders recognized this and made parallel efforts with the Palestinians. They should be more creative in resolving conflicts, not just thinking about square kilometers. A conflict begins and ends in the hearts and minds of people, not in the hilltops. King Hussein understood this and he set an example.

How would you like to see Israel move forward on the peace front?
We should go to the Palestinian National Assembly in Gaza and, without taking blame for the conflict, lock eyes, and say that we understand the tragedy that has befallen the Palestinians, that we sympathize with their ordeal and their humiliation, and that we are willing to do everything we can to help them, short of committing suicide. This would be an emotional breakthrough, similar to Sadat addressing the Israeli Knesset in 1977. It's about empathy and an attempt to heal the wounds.