A Moral Guide: On Amos Oz’s “Dear Zealots: Letters from a Divided Land”

Seth Greenland responds to “Dear Zealots,” a call for peace by the late Israeli novelist Amos Oz.

Dear Zealots by Amos Oz. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 160 pages.

THE INTRACTABLE CONFLICT between the Israelis and the Palestinians is a problem about which everyone and her uncle has an opinion, often quite strongly held. Who is entitled to that fraught sliver of rock and desert? What can be done for those who were displaced? Who can predict the fate of Jews should Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank become a single state? Much depends on how we frame these vexing questions. Is an innocent civilian population with a historical claim to the land being bedeviled by a terrorist government funded with foreign money, or is an innocent civilian population with a historical claim to the land being bedeviled by a terrorist government funded with foreign money? Both Palestinian Arabs, who endure the constant indignity of occupation, and Jewish Israelis, who live with the existential threat posed by rockets and bombs, lay claim to the mantle of victimhood. Both populations would suffer from severe PTSD if they were ever post the traumatic part. Into this seemingly endless miasma of dysfunction and despair wades the great Israeli author Amos Oz, offering both a diagnosis and a prescription. Readers of open mind should take heed.

In the time between when I decided to write about Dear Zealots and now, Amos Oz died at 78, from cancer. His death is a tragedy for Jews and Arabs alike since his singular voice is not one of politics or airy bromides but of humanness. My use of the word “humanness” is not to imply anything of the dewy-eyed kumbaya variety. While I have no idea how he acted at weddings and bar mitzvahs, I can report that Oz is clear-eyed and unsentimental in this book. It is an astringent humanity to which he subscribes, one that acknowledges that beneath a kippah or keffiyeh, everyone is flawed.

The trilogy of trenchant, well-argued essays that comprise Dear Zealots represent decades of accrued wisdom about the situation into which the author was born (Jerusalem, 1939) and spent his career thinking and writing about. With deft brushstrokes, Oz charts his evolution from what he describes as “a little Zionist-nationalist fanatic” to the more measured, circumspect crusader for peace that he became. To paraphrase the philosopher Eric Hoffer, great causes will often begin as movements and wind up as cults or rackets. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that Oz believes (the present tense is appropriate because his words are now eternal) that both the Israeli and Palestinian governments have reached the racket stage in the way they’ve become unmoored from their animating impulses and slaves to nothing more than a Nietzchean will to power. Fittingly, he leans on Hoffer’s seminal work on fanaticism, The True Believer, in his analysis of how certain putty-minded individuals willingly subsume their identities into that of some larger idea or cause and become the zealots he addresses in the title.

In Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke lectures a reader primed to glean the wisdom being proffered by an accomplished elder; the young writer reads it with notebook in hand. Although Oz’s book is called Dear Zealots, it’s hard to imagine any zealot keen to read the author’s ruminations on the subject of how one might reconsider the extremist path. This is a shame. But it’s undeniable that even those of us who are not wreaking actual havoc in the agora could benefit from a little more circumspection.

The three essays are about, respectively, fanaticism (hence the title), the fundamental elements of Judaism that render zealotry of any kind unacceptable, and the author’s plan for unwinding the current stalemate in the neighborhood. His views of the antagonists on both sides of the conflict are unsparing. The zealots of the title are, in Oz’s construction, those shouting Death to the Jews as well as those shouting Death to the Arabs. Yet he remains convinced the combatants can all one day eat from the same bowl of locally sourced hummus. His book is well timed, and not only for those interested in the Middle East. It’s regrettably germane to Europe, South America, and, of course, the United States, where many of us have found ourselves thinking about the depredations of the government under which we are living far more than is appropriate in an alleged democracy.

In Jessica Cohen’s nimble translation, Oz’s sentences are spare, declarative, and peppered with wit. Indeed, he cites Monty Python’s Life of Brian and makes the case for humor in the fight against fanaticism, observing:

I, for one, have never met a fanatic with a sense of humor. Nor have I ever known anyone capable of making a joke at his own expense become a fanatic. Humor engenders a curvature that allows one to see, at least momentarily, old things in a new light. Or to see yourself, at least for a moment, as others see you. This curvature allows us to let the hot air out of any excessive importance. Moreover, humor usually entails a measure of relativity, of abasing the sublime.

It’s also into our own souls, Oz tells us, that we must look, “ridiculing, just a little, our own convictions.” When was the last time you ridiculed your own convictions? I’ll wait …

In the second essay, “Many Lights, Not One Light,” Oz has choice words for his fellow Jews. A longtime peace activist vilified by the Israeli right, he was (alas, we now have to abandon the present tense) a deeply secular man who tried to live by the simple tenet “Cause no pain.” While he doesn’t overtly troll the more observant of his co-religionists, even the most conservative among them, he makes a strong case for Jewish culture as something apart from religion. He points to the democratic ideal embedded in Judaism itself. Not only do the Jews have no pope, he reminds us, but

Jewish culture is characterized by a vibrant anarchist gene that engenders constant and vehement dispute. How are these disputes settled? “Follow a multitude.” That phrase [Exodus 23:2], along with the verse “Beloved is man, for he was created in the image [of God],” represents an ironclad bridge between Judaism and democracy.

For Oz, the heart of the culture resides in the words found several years ago on a potsherd at an archaeological site: “Plead for the infant, plead for the poor and the widow […] Support the stranger.” This is antithetical to the fanatic. And it does not escape Oz’s attention that both the first and second temples were destroyed after Jewish fanatics took the wheel. Religious Jews, Oz notes, are fundamentally undemocratic. As befits a novelist, he advocates the reinvention of Jewish thought through art, which he views as the only way forward, since history has taught us that messianism leads to destruction.

How to reconcile the Jewish humanist tradition with the current political situation is the subject of the third essay. As a staff sergeant in the IDF, Oz came by his convictions through experience, and it is his belief that large risks must be taken to achieve lasting peace. The current situation is unsustainable. Oz knows that continued occupation of the Palestinian territories will lead to a binational state that, in his view, is “a sad joke.” Although Oz is shamed by the actions of his government, “I like being an Israeli. I like being a citizen of a country where there are eight and a half million prime ministers, eight and a half million prophets, eight and a half million messiahs. Each of us has our own formulation for redemption, or at least for a solution.” But he is justifiably fearful for the days ahead.

A modern Jeremiah, Oz offers this book as a warning. Will the zealots once again gain the upper hand, or can the strident voices shouting imprecations and prayers in a din of Hebrew and Arabic be tempered into some kind of sustainable harmony? While the voice of Amos Oz will be missed, we have his words as a moral guide.


Seth Greenland is a novelist and screenwriter living in Los Angeles.

LARB Contributor

Seth Greenland’s first memoir, A Kingdom of Tender Colors, will be published in 2020 by Europa Editions. He is the author of five novels. His 1997 play Jungle Rot won the Kennedy Center/American Express Fund for New American Plays Award and the American Theater Critics Association Award. He was a writer-producer on the Emmy-nominated HBO series Big Love.


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