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.

More on this topic