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Israel's Wizard of Oz on the Anarchy of Jewish Civilization

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Although there wasn't a yellow-brick road in sight, the voice of Judy Garland singing "We're off to see the wizard" danced involuntarily into my imagination. As I surveyed my two companions in the car, I couldn't figure out which of us was meant to be the Scarecrow, the Lion or the Tin Man -- and where on earth our Dorothy had got to was anyone's guess.

The wizard we were on our way to see did not live in Oz, rather his name is Oz, and he is not actually a wizard, though he can do some magical stuff with words. In fact, this verbal sorcerer's entire civilization is "made of words", he believes, and not "pyramids or cathedrals or bridges or palaces".

Amos Oz is one of Israel's foremost novelists and public intellectuals. A few years older than the state he has dedicated his soul to, his fertile imagination has held a creative mirror up to this young society and played a significant role in shaping modern Israel's self-image.

Oz is a confounding, intriguing mix of complexities, even contradictions. He stands at the very centre of Israel's intellectual cosmos, yet lives in a tiny desert town, Arad, in the Negev. Oz is also at once a romanticiser of the Zionist dream and Israel's accomplishments since achieving statehood, and a steely eyed and harsh critic of its less savoury consequences and manifestations, acknowledging the "essential injustice" endured by the Palestinian people.

This contrast between romanticism and realism, optimism and pessimism, public and private, fact and fiction, light and dark is symbolically embodied in the title of one of his bestselling and most translated works, A Tale of Love and Darkness, an autobiographical novel published in 2002.

After greeting my companions and me with unexpected levels of warmth and friendliness (I had half-expected him to be something of a gloomy hermit), Amos Oz led us into his almost subterranean study, his intellectual den, a no-nonsense yet cozy space of well-worn furniture and carpets.

All the available walls were taken up by his considerable library -- including an entire corner dedicated to his own titles and all 40-plus language versions of them -- which seemed to comfort this man who dreamed, as a child, of metamorphosing into a book. "I wanted to grow up and become a book... because, as a book, I would have a better chance of survival," he explained, betraying the existential angst felt by many Jews of his generation.

Interestingly, the same dream filled the young mind of one of the foremost Palestinian intellectuals of recent decades, the late Edward Said, who was gripped by a different kind of existential angst. "Passed from hand to hand, land to land, place to place, time to time, I could remain my own true self (as a book)," he wrote in his memoir, Out of Place.

During our long and stimulating conversation, Oz and I talked about literature, history, politics, living the kibbutz experiment and, inevitably, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But as it is Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish new year), a time which Jews believe is a day of judgement, our discussion of Israeli and Jewish identity seem timely and appropriate here.

For Oz, like some other leftist Israeli intellectuals I have met, being a Jew means belonging to "basically, an anarchistic civilization; a culture of doubt and argument, where people argue and debate all the time".

"If you read about the ancient Jewish civilization, you will find that the Jews argued ever since the beginning, ever since Abraham bargained with God over the destiny of Sodom," he said, referring to the story in Genesis 18 in which the ancient patriarch haggles with the supreme deity to persuade him to spare Sodom if 50, then 45, 30, 20, or even 10 righteous people could be found in the "wicked" city.

So, does that mean a Jew who is a conformist is not a Jew, I asked him playfully? "He's a bad Jew, in my judgement," was Oz's verdict.

This left me pondering the question of whether Jews really are so rebellious and non-conformist and, if so, whether this has really always been the case. At a certain level, Amos Oz is right. The mere fact that a group of people chooses to hold on to a minority religion and culture that is viewed with distrust by its giant cousins requires a certain amount of non-conformity, not to mention guts.

In addition, for over a century now, some of the brightest, most original and influential minds in the Western world belonged to Jews. Consider such luminaries as Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx and Franz Kafka, to name but a few. That is not to forget that around a fifth of all Nobel prizes have been awarded to Jews.

But can this disproportionate success be attributed to the peculiar restiveness and unruliness of Jewish civilisation, as Oz believes, or is there a more complex answer?

If this were the case, then you'd expect Israel, which, after all, possesses the largest concentration of Jews in the world and is the spiritual home of modern Jewish civilization, to be a cut above the rest. While it is true that, technologically and scientifically, Israel is leaps ahead of its neighbours, this has more to do with Arab failure than Israeli success.

Moreover, it would seem that diaspora Jews generally outperform Israeli Jews academically and scientifically. This is reflected, for example, in the fact that only 10 Nobel laureates have come from Israel (and three of those were in the peace category), five of whom were born abroad.

How can we explain this apparent anomaly? While part of the answer probably relates to the relative scarcity of resources in Israel, it is my view that diaspora Jewish success is partly a function of the symbiosis that comes of being a minority, which seems to awaken creativity and originality, not to mention the oft overriding desire to prove yourself as capable or more so than the condescending mainstream. It is also an unconscious survival mechanism to defend against majorities that may turn against you unexpectedly.

Minorities the world over are often more successful and wealthier than the mainstream or their kin in countries where they constitute a majority. This applies to the Armenians, Indians, Lebanese, even to Arabs as a whole, particularly in the United States and Britain -- Egypt's only winner of a Nobel prize in science earned his stripes in America, while the UK and the world's foremost heart surgeon is Egyptian.

And Jews being the oldest and one of the most vulnerable and persecuted minorities in the West possess the opportunity, motivation and insecurity for the talented and hardworking to put in the extra sweat and tears required to succeed, while in Israel, some of the complacency associated with majority rule has set in.

But even if Israelis have not been as successful as diaspora Jews, they could still be anarchistic, non-conformist and individualistic, right? Yes, and many are, as reflected by the boastful and self-deprecating adage I've heard here that if you put two Israelis together in a room, you'll have three different opinions.

That said, I've also witnessed alarming levels of mindless conformity here too. And there are Israelis who share my view. "Israel is a deeply conformist society... You can see that in the totally secular parents who eat ham on Yom Kippur but still circumcise their children," one confessed to me. "I admire the anarchists, but despite their radical politics, most are conformists in their lifestyles."

So how about historically? Were Jews an especially rebellious and anarchistic people, as Amos Oz maintains? Well, there are all the famous revolts, the most destructive being against Rome. But throughout history many peoples have revolted, and regularly, against imperial power, especially when it becomes tyrannical. But they are less well-remembered because their exploits were not chronicled, and almost certainly embellished, in scriptures that have become holy to at least half the world's population, who follow one of the Abrahamic religions.

Speaking of Abraham. Though he may have defied God over Sodom, as Oz pointed out, he was more than happy to oblige him in his unreasonable command that the patriarch execute his own son -- a supreme act of mindless obedience if ever there was one.

But then their surfeit of prophets and absence of a rigid religious hierarchy reflects the prized nature of individualism in Judaism, Oz insists. "It's not for nothing that Jews never had a pope, nor could they have a pope," he said.

Although Jews never had a pope, in ancient times, kings, like David, were "anointed", i.e. holy, and had High Priests, who had much of what we would regard as papal authority. In the diaspora, rabbis often played the role of local popes.

Besides, Muslim reformers say the same about Islam, to show that questioning authority is part and parcel of their culture and heritage, yet much of the world regards Islamic societies as being pretty conformist. That said, Arabs and Israelis do share a deep skepticism towards and distrust of authority, and find creative ways of disobeying it -- the exception being the family.

More importantly, possessing a pope does not make you necessarily more conformist. In fact, it can have the opposite effect, as occurred in Western Europe. After all, the Enlightenment was in great part a rebellion against the abuses of the church and rulers who claimed to govern by divine right.

In fact, the mytho-historical idea that Jews are somehow more individualistic and unruly than others probably began with another enlightenment, that of the Jews, the Haskalah. Reformist Jews sought to reinterpret their history and traditions in a more modernist light -- where Israelite and Jewish "disobedience" was disapproved of by traditional religion, secularists took pride in it as a sign of rationality and questioning.

They say that history is written by the victors, but it is often revised by the reformers and visionaries who sell their ideas by convincing others that the future they want, at least partly, existed in the past.

The interview from which Amos Oz's quotes are taken was conducted in the context of the forthcoming book on which Khaled Diab is working, which goes beyond the politics to explore the Israeli and Palestinian people, their societies and cultures.

Amos Oz and his daughter, Fania Oz-Salzberger, are cooperating on a book entitled Jews and Words. It will be published by Yale University Press on 20 November 2012.