TEL AVIV — Amos Oz is one of Israel’s most prolific, celebrated writers, capturing the past and exploring the present in more than 30 novels, dozens of essays and hundreds of articles. But his latest book, “Dear Zealots: Letters from a Divided Land,” may contain his most urgent message yet.
The book, published this month in English, is a collection of three short essays that examines the rise of zealotry in Israel — and around the world — not to mention the inflexible ideologies and opinions that can lead to hatred and violence. He also puts forward the case for defining Israel by its Jewish culture, not by religion or nationality, and highlights the need for Israelis and Palestinians to reach peace with a two-state solution.
Born in Jerusalem in 1939, Oz rebelled against his right-wing Zionist family by moving to a socialist kibbutz in his teens. He published his first book, a collection of short stories, in his early 20s, and a continuous flow of literary works has followed. His writing has been translated into more than 45 languages and won numerous international prizes and awards.
In Israel, Oz has faced criticism for his political views from both the far left-wing peace camp and the far right-wing nationalists, but he says being called a traitor puts him “in the best of companies in Jewish history and world history.”
“Very often a traitor is promoting change to the very people who despise change, fear change, cannot even understand the meaning or reason for change,” he said. “I’m not saying everyone who is called a traitor is ahead of his or her time, but very often this is the case.”
The Washington Post met with Oz recently at his apartment in the suburbs of Tel Aviv. This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
Q: You've written about zealotry in the past. What prompted you to return to this topic now?
A: My previous book on the topic is based on a series of lectures from 2002; 16 years later, it has become very clear to me that fanaticism is the plague of the 21st century. Just like the previous century was devastated by world reformers and redeemers, by ideological movements with magical formulas, this one is dominated by various types of fanatics.
Q: Why do you think fanaticism has become so widespread?
A: The more complex issues have become, the more people crave simple solutions, not just in Israel but everywhere. All people want to know is: Who are the bad guys? They want a blanket formula for all their troubles. So they blame everything on globalization or neocolonialism or militant feminism or sexism or Zionism.
Q: Are there people who are encouraging this phenomenon?
A: There are people who are riding deliberately on its wave. I think maybe this is just a prominent syndrome of a deep crisis of democracy. Fanaticism is much older than democracy; it’s older than Judaism, Christianity, Islam, but democracy once had a mechanism to expose crazy fanatics. Now it seems this mechanism is failing.
Q: You make the argument for Judaism as a culture, rather than a religion or nationality, but in light of recent political debates in Israel, is your voice a lonely one?
A: It is and it isn’t. If you turn your eyes away from Jerusalem to Israel’s coastal plain, where 70 to 75 percent of Israeli Jews live, this is not a country of mad extremists. The profile of Israelis is noisy, hedonistic, impatient, rude, warmhearted, materialistic, you name it, but the vast majority gave up the occupied territories years ago. The only reason they object to a far-reaching compromise with Palestinians is that they don’t want to be suckers. The common myth here is that we handed them Gaza on a silver plate and got rockets in return. They don’t want to see this mistake repeated on the West Bank.
Q: Do you believe there is still hope for a two-state solution?
A: This theory that the occupation of the West Bank is irrevocable is interesting. I hear it from the radical left and the radical right. It is as if they have conspired together to declare the two-state solution is dead. But I have lived a very long life and I have seen the irrevocable happen again and again, not always, but very often.
Q: "Dear Zealots" paints a fairly pessimistic outlook for Israel and the world. Why dedicate it to your grandchildren?
A: I don’t regard this book as pessimistic. It contains some very useful information, which I tried to present in an accessible way. Politically speaking, I have been engaged and involved in writing articles, making speeches for 60 years. Now it is my time, not to retire but to provide my ammunition, my experience to the younger generation and let them take it from here.
I have tried to give them arguments on Judaism, on secular Judaism, humanistic Judaism, on the dangers of fanaticism, including the inner fanaticism inside every one of us. Many people carry that fanatic gene. It begins with the idealistic urge to change your kin, your neighbors, everyone around you, because they are blind and cannot see what is good for them.
Usually fanaticism is associated with religion, though that is not necessarily so. I have seen my share of fanatical vegetarians and peace activists. They are not equally dangerous, of course, but I can trace it left, right and center. I have developed quite a nose for detecting it.
Q: What do you predict for them in the future?
A: I don’t predict because the unpredictable is the most predictable, at least in this part of the world. The truth is I know what I would like to happen, but I don’t know what will happen. What I do know is that the present course is dangerous for Israel, dangerous for the region and dangerous for the world.
Ruth Eglash is a Washington Post reporter in the Jerusalem bureau.
By Amos Oz
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 160 pp. $23.