Interview with Israeli author Amos Oz

"I want peace"

Amos Oz, one of Israel's greatest living authors, has also been a pre-eminent peace activist and remains a passionate advocate of a two-state solution in his homeland. In interview with Sarah Judith Hofmann, Oz reveals how he believes peace can be achieved

Israel is celebrating its 70th anniversary. How do you feel about that? Will you raise your glass?

Amos Oz: Yes, I will raise my glass, because if I compare the kind of world into which I was born to the world of today, it's not that today's world strikes me as paradise or as heaven, but I was born into the world of Nazi Germany – Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Franco, the Japanese militarists. I was born in a tiny little enclave of terrified Jewish refugees, less than half a million of them, with no clear perspective of a future – hopes yes – but no clear perspective. I do believe that this very rough, cruel, bloody world of today is less bloody, cruel and hopeless than the world of the early 1940s.

You were born in Jerusalem before the State of Israel was born. What was it like to live in this Jewish enclave during such a difficult time?

Oz: Throughout my childhood, a heavy cloud of pain and disappointment and insecurity hovered over my home, my little street, my neighbourhood, Jewish Jerusalem, Jewish Israel. My parents never shared with me their disappointed love of Europe. But I could sense that pain and the longing. I could even sense that they were trying to create an artificial little European enclave in the middle of the heat and arid atmosphere of Jerusalem. So it was a strange world for a little boy, full of secrets, full of family censorship.

You were nine years old when David Ben-Gurion declared Israel's Independence. How do you remember 14 May 1948?

Israeli Prime Minister Ben Gurion on 14 May 1948 in Tel Aviv (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
On 14 May 1948, just ahead of the official end to the British mandate in Palestine at midnight, David Ben Gurion declared the establishment of a Jewish state, to be called Israel. The British army withdrew with the end of the mandate and on the heels of Ben Gurion’s announcement, the armies of Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq invaded. The war lasted for nine months, at the end of which the fledgling state of Israel emerged victorious

Oz: 14 May was a Friday. Jerusalem had already been under Arab siege for two or three months. And the only road which connected Jerusalem to the other Jewish parts of the country was practically controlled by Arabs. From time to time, convoys would supply, would break their way through into the city. But we experienced starvation and – since the water pumps had been blown up by Iraqi troops – water shortages. Jerusalem had no water, but plenty of fear.

In "A Tale of Love and Darkness" you describe how before 1948 you could still go to Arab neighbourhoods. How did this change?

Oz: A few months before 14 May, there was a kind of iron curtain dividing Jerusalem into Jewish and Arab Jerusalem. Some Arab inhabitants in the Jewish neighbourhoods migrated to the east and the south of the city. Jewish people from the east and the south migrated to the north and the west for personal safety. After the war of 1948 – Israel's war of Independence – Jerusalem was as physically divided as Berlin, with the iron wall and minefields and wires and no man's lands and concrete walls.

Standing on the rooftop of our building I could see East Jerusalem, I could see Mount Scopus, I could see the Arab neighbourhoods. But I could see the moon too – and the chance of me ever going to those places or the chance of ever setting foot on the moon felt about the same – unrealistic.

How do you see Jerusalem now?

Oz: I have mixed feelings about Jerusalem. It is fascinating, it is beautiful, it is tragic and it is extremely attractive to all kinds of fanatics or redeemers, world reformers, self-appointed prophets and messiahs. I find this fascinating, but I don't think I would like to live in the middle of this. I need my distance.

I don't know what will happen in Jerusalem, but I know what should happen. Every country in the world should follow the example of president Trump and move the embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. But simultaneously there should be an embassy of all countries in the world in East Jerusalem as the capital of the state of Palestine.

Why have you long been a strong supporter of the two-state solution?

Oz: I have been advocating this idea for 50 years. It is very simple. We are talking about a very small house – about the size of Denmark. It's the one and only homeland of the Jews, it's also the one and only homeland of the Palestinian Arabs.

We cannot become one happy family because we are not one, we are not happy, we are not family. We are two unhappy families. We have to divide the house into two smaller next-door apartments. There is no point in even fantasising that after 100 years of bloodshed and anger and conflict Jews and Arabs will jump into a honeymoon bed and start making love rather than war.

In your new book, "Dear Zealots. Letters from a divided land", you write that the Jewish people are indeed a nation and not just a religion. How would you define a Jewish state?

Oz: Before I define it I have to make a very strict distinction. It's "The state of the Jews" and not the "Jewish state". A state cannot be Jewish just like a car cannot be Jewish. A state is a vehicle, an instrument. It can be a good instrument, a bad instrument, a rotten instrument, a stinking instrument. A state of the Jews is a different idea. It means, the Jews, same as any other group in the world, have their right to be a majority and not a minority in one small patch of this planet. This is the State of the Jewish people and at the same time it's a state for all its non-Jewish citizens. That's how it should be – not how it is, far from it.

Amos Oz picks olives with Palestinian villagers in 2002 to protest against increasing violence from Jewish settlers (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Kahana)
"Every country in the world should follow the example of president Trump and move the embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. But simultaneously there should be an embassy of all countries in the world in East Jerusalem as the capital of the state of Palestine. We cannot become one happy family because we are not one, we are not happy, we are not family. We are two unhappy families. We have to divide the house into two smaller next-door apartments," says Oz

As a little boy, you were yourself a militant Zionist. Why?

Oz: I thought that the cause of the Zionist Jews was 100 percent right and anyone who resented or objected or interrupted this cause was an anti-Semite, a racist, a monster. It took me some time to realise that the fulfilment of the dreams of the Jews had a cost. And to a large extent the Palestinian Arabs had to pay this cost. I didn't realise this as a child. I do realise it now.

Where do you see Israel 70 years from now? Or where would you wish it to be?

Amos Oz: This is the land of the prophets, there is too much competition in the prophecies business here. I don't dare tell you where it will be seven months from now. I tell you what I want. This will be the shortest answer in the whole interview: peace.

Interview conducted by Sarah Judith Hofmann

© Deutsche Welle 2018

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