Heinrich Heine Award for Amos Oz

A Literary Bridge-Builder Par Excellence

The Israeli writer Amos Oz was recently awarded the German Heinrich Heine Prize. The jury praised Oz's work for combining "literary creativity, political sensitivity and humanist engagement." Loay Mudhoon presents the author and peace activist

Amos Oz giving his acceptance speech for the Heinrich Heine Prize (photo: dpa)
Amos Oz giving his acceptance speech for the Heinrich Heine Prize. The writer is also politically active, co-founding a new Social Democratic movement campaigning for Israel's February elections for the first time

​​ The jury could not have found a better candidate for the highly respected award in the name of the great writer Heinrich Heine, Düsseldorf's most famous son.

Not only because the chosen Israeli author Amos Oz has created numerous award-winning literary works gaining him international respect, but also because the award commission wanted to honour his "bold clarity and determination in trying to build bridges between Israelis and Palestinians" – very much in the footsteps of Heinrich Heine.

In his work, the self-proclaimed "fanaticism expert" Oz tackles a subject present throughout his entire literary and journalistic output: causes and consequences of fanaticism. Or: how can fanatics be cured? This may be one reason why he is flattered to be seen in Heine's literary tradition: "Heinrich Heine is one of my heroes," Oz commented.

Emphatic champion of peace

Heine, he added, "taught that humour and irony are the best medicine for extremism and narrow-mindedness." Heine, a Jew who converted to Christianity, was part of an age of miracles in Jewish-European history, Oz said, when Jews streamed into the universities and academies, the art studios and laboratories, becoming part of the "architectural team" behind modern Europe.

Heinrich Heine, painted by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim (photo: Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz)
Humour and irony as medicine for extremism and narrow-mindedness: Heinrich Heine

​​ For decades, Amos Oz has been an emphatic champion of peaceful reconciliation between the Israelis and Palestinians, supporting a two-state solution to the Middle East conflict since as early as 1967. He was one of the activists behind the publication The Seventh Day: Soldiers' Talk about the Six-Day War, a cornerstone of the later Israeli peace movement that emerged from 1977 on. In 1982 he criticised the Lebanon War, nine years later condemning the European peace movement for its actions against the 1990/91 Gulf War.

In Israel, Oz' work has always prompted major controversies due to its veiled and open criticism of society. His first publication, the 1965 short story collection Where the Jackals Howl, addressed the threat to the kibbutzim from dark menaces, dangers, the wilderness and death. His first novel, Elsewhere, Perhaps, then dealt with the threat posed to life on the kibbutz based upon socialist and Zionist ideals by envy and selfishness from within and enemies from without.

His second novel, My Michael, published in 1968, was the first time that Oz broke various taboos concerning Arab-Jewish relations; the book became a bestseller and finally established him as an author. The novels and short stories that followed also take a realistic but dramatic, at times burlesque and fantastic, at times satirical look at the state of the Israeli nation, its society, politics and psychology.

Literature as a bridge between peoples

For Oz, literature is a "bridge between peoples". "I believe curiosity can be a moral quality. I believe that imagining the other can be an antidote to fanaticism. Imagining the other will make you not only a better business person or a better lover, but even a better person."

Amos Oz helping Palestinians with the olive harvest in Nablus, 2002 (photo: AP)
Amos Oz helping Palestinians with the olive harvest in Nablus, 2002. For Oz, peace is only possible if the fanatics on both sides can be kept in check

​​ The Jewish-Arab tragedy, Oz has written, is partly down to the inability of many Jews and Arabs "to imagine each other. Really imagine each other: the loves, the terrible fears, the anger, the passion. There is too much hostility between us, too little curiosity."

In Oz's assessment, the conflict can only be solved with the aid of European values such as rationality, pragmatism and tolerance. "Almost every Israeli and almost every Palestinian knows deep in their heart what form a possible compromise might take. The conflict is being kept alive by fanatics on both sides. If we succeed in keeping the fanatics in check, we will find ourselves in the solution of a dispute over real estate, not in a holy war."

Oz sees the role of writers in today's Israel with sober composure: "Israel is probably the only country in the world where a prime minister invites a writer over for a profound discussion. He admires his answers and then ignores them entirely."

Loay Mudhoon

© Qantara.de 2008

The Heine Prize is one of Germany's most important literary awards, presented every two years in memory of the Düsseldorf-born writer Heinrich Heine (1797 – 1856). The prize honours individuals whose creative work promotes social and political progress, builds understanding among nations or propagates the message that all people belong together, in the sense of basic human rights as advocated by Heinrich Heine.

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

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