I have long believed the world would be much better off if Hollywood airheads would stick to entertainment and never pretend to be intellectuals, spouting off with their “ideas” about politics, diplomacy, etc. I am no less convinced that popular literary figures do little more than embarrass themselves when they attempt to serve as political commentators.
Amos Oz is arguably Israel’s best-known writer and at the same time the leading member of Israel’s Literary Left. Proudly declaring himself a major thinker in the “peace movement,” Oz celebrates his political biases openly.
I am in the large hall of a Belgian university to listen to a speech by Oz, who is to receive an honorary doctorate and meet with students and faculty. Oz’s books have been translated into many languages and he is well known in Europe. He has been invited to speak about literature to the university audience, but devotes the entire speech to politics, without mentioning literature even once. Oz is an eloquent speaker, but there is an enormous gap between his command of words and images and the depth of his understanding of political reality.
There is an old saying that a shallow moral symmetry is the hobgoblin of small minds. Oz is the master of shallow moral symmetry. The Arab-Israeli conflict (which he invariably calls the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which it is not) is neither black vs. white nor good against bad, he tells his listeners, but rather a conflict between two goods, even if the behavior of both sides is often that of two bads. He condemns Israeli “oppression” and mistreatment of Palestinians as morally symmetric to Palestinian terrorism and xenophobia.
Oz is at his silliest when he tries to distinguish between stark unequivocal moral choices and complex ambiguous ones. “You Europeans have a tendency to frame everything in simplistic good vs. bad terms,” he says. “This is OK for some conflicts, like that between fascism and anti-fascism, or that between colonialism and anti-colonialism, or that between the U.S. and Vietnamese, but the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not that.”
Of course, the allegedly simple moral conflicts offered by Oz tell us more about him than about the conflict. Anti-fascists have at times been worse than fascists; anti-colonialists generally were far more savage and brutal than European colonialists; and Oz’s insistence that the U.S. was the unambiguous evil power in Vietnam is little more than the attempt of an Israeli leftist to pander to fashionable anti-Americanism, to ingratiate himself with those who imagine Europe is the moral superior of the U.S. – something Oz tries to do repeatedly throughout the evening.
The other problem with Oz’s silly characterization of moral clarity vs. ambiguity is that the Arab-Israeli conflict is actually as morally unambiguous as was World War II. Yes, Allied troops sometimes conducted acts of injustice and, yes, German and Japanese civilians were often killed as the war was fought out, but that changes nothing about the moral unambiguousness of that conflict.
The Arab-Israeli conflict exists because the Arab world, controlling 22 states and territory nearly twice that of the United States (including Alaska), is unwilling to allow the Jews to enjoy any self-determination or control over even a tiny piece of territory. Ultimately, the tremendous damage that Oz and his kind have done has been in muddying what should be a clear moral understanding of the Middle East war, all in the name of the sanctity of moral symmetry, and this muddying has undercut Israeli willingness to resist and fight.
Oz devotes his entire speech to promotion of the “two-state solution,” by which Israel will withdraw to the pre-1967 borders, removing nearly all settlements, making way for a Palestinian state. This solution is not liked by either side, says Oz, but perhaps 80% of those on both sides declare they expect that this is what in fact will happen. That of course is not exactly the same as accepting a plan or policy as legitimate, and Oz diplomatically skips over the inconvenient fact that nearly all Arabs see this “solution” as a temporary stage in the process of destroying Israel. Oz declares over and over that the bulk of Palestinians understand that Israel is “here to stay” – something that would come as a great shock to them.
In reality, Israel’s decades-long pursuit of a national policy of surrender, cowardice and weakness has convinced virtually all Palestinians that the Jews are on the run and that achieving their dream of exterminating Israel is now within their grasp. Oz declares that less than 30% of Palestinians support Hamas, and the audience smiles approvingly at this complete lie.
Very few in the audience know that two partitions for the purpose of creating “two states for two peoples” have already been attempted. The first was the detachment of Eastern Palestine in 1921 to form Transjordan, a step that was supposed to make a Jewish homeland in all of Palestine west of the Jordan possible. Then, in 1947, the UN proposed a new partition of Western Palestine, creating an Arab Palestinian state in one half and a Jewish one in the other. The Arabs reacted by attempting to commit genocide against the Israeli Jews.
No one in the audience thinks to ask Oz about the total failure of his “ideas” in the Gaza Strip (in a sense, a third partition). Almost immediately after Gaza’s Jews were expelled and the territory turned over to the Palestinians, Sderot became the first Israeli Guernica, bombarded daily by rockets; Ashkelon is now well on its way to becoming the second. In other words, Oz’s lovely “two state solution” was already implemented in part in Gaza, and it produced the worst terrorist bombardments of Israeli civilians in history.
Oz is at his most “Peresian” (Peres-like) when he insists over and over that history is irrelevant, that there is nothing to be gained by trying to dredge up the past, to draw lessons from it. An inverse of George Santayana, who wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,”Oz tells the audience that his dream is to disconnect all the microphones whenever Arabs or Jews start to mention the past.
“I refuse altogether to look at history,” he says. Of course, learning from the past might allow na?ve audience members to pick out Oz’s factual errors or to understand how his “two-state partition” will achieve nothing more than a new all-out Arab war against Israel.
A few years back, a group of Israeli Jewish literary figures met in Haifa with Arab writers to discuss politics. Each of the Jewish writers – good doves all – got up and declared that he accepted the legitimacy of the Palestinian people, supported their right to a state, and acknowledged their having as much moral right to independence as that of the Jews. (I believe Amos Oz was one of the people present.) They waited for the Arab writers to get up and make similar statements about the legitimacy of Zionism and Jewish self-determination. Not a single one did.
A slang expresion among Israelis is “Good Morning, Elijah.” It is a sarcastic statement, roughly analogous to the American “Well, duh!” It is a wonderful literary summation of Israel’s obtuse literary leftists.
Steven Plaut, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press, is a professor at Haifa University. His book “The Scout” is available at Amazon.com. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.