Oz, Amos. “Dear Zealots: Letters from a Divided Land Hardcover”, translated by Jessica Cohen, Houghton, Mifflin Harcourt, 2018.
Israeli writer Amos Oz has written an urgent and deeply necessary work with “Dear Zealots”, three powerful essays that speak directly to our present age, on the rise of zealotry in Israel and around the world. This is “a depiction of one man’s struggle, who for decades has insisted on keeping a sharp, strident and lucid perspective in the face of chaos and at times of madness.” The essays are on the universal nature of fanaticism and its possible cures, on the Jewish roots of humanism and the need for a secular pride in Israel, and on the geopolitical standing of Israel in the wider Middle East and internationally. The language is rich and knowing (we would not expect less from Oz) and the essays are perfectly timed for our world where extremism and polarization has taken hold (something I never thought I would live to see). Oz says that he wrote these for his grandchildren and in them he retells history, religion and politics in a way that they are to be studied and possessed. Our future seems to be more uncertain every day.
The three essays,“Dear Zealots,” “Many Lights, Not One Light,” and “Dreams Israel Should Let Go of Soon,” share a common theme and that is to think as an individual and do not let blind devotion overtake our views. It is easy to be a zealot; we must listen to our opponents; learn nuance and learn to live with your neighbors. Growing fanaticism is manifested today in the illiberal democracy in the age of Trump and Putin. The characteristic here has become extreme hatred. We forget how disgusted we were with fascism and Hitler and Stalin
One of Oz’s most compelling points is that we were so disgusted by the fascism of Hitler and Stalin but as history fades and complacency rises, we are letting fascism spread.
Oz says that “Jesus regards all of humanity as morally infantile individuals who commit evil because they do not know that it is evil.” But Oz will have none of this. Even children, he says, are aware of the pain they inflict on other sentient beings. Is not the banality of evil facing us once again? It is indeed time to study Hannah Arendt again.
Oz sees “the essence of Judaism as rebellion against unfairness, presenting doubt against the complacency of certainty, questioning God when God’s actions appear tyrannical, fighting for justice, fighting against fanaticism, using persuasion and counterargument, negotiating compromise, and finding peace through tireless struggle.” I do not see that as far from my own philosophy.
Oz explains that fanatics are living in a black and white world with a simplistic view of good and evil. They are the people who try to save us from ourselves; the people who can never seem to hear anyone’s voice but their own. They are a people with no sense of humor. The disagreement over the differing views of the Messiah has brought hatred and anger to the world along with persecutions of the Jews, inquisitions, pogroms, mass murders. Why can we not wait patiently and see what happens?
This view of fanaticism informs Oz’s view of Judaism. Using the Torah and the Talmud, Oz argues that Judaism is passed down not through genes, but through books. At the heart of what it means to be Jewish is how we treat each other. It is actually very simple.
The third essay gives Oz’s views on the Israel Palestinian divide which lies somewhere between the right and left, though supportive of a two state solution; yet critical. These are Oz’s thoughts and ideas as he shows the intellectual and moral decay behind simplistic appeal of authoritarianism, absolutism, and religious dogma towards the observance and manner of practices of others. The discussion focuses on the dysfunction between Jewish religious fanaticism and the moral and humanistic intellectual foundation of Zionism. We also get interesting insight to the conflict between two thousand years of Jewish existence and tradition without independence, and the conflict between the humanist-Zionist approach and the messianic-Hasidic approach to the qualification of Israel as ‘Jewish’. There is so much here but I do not want to spoil one’s adventure of reading this very important work so I will stop and urge you to get a copy of “Dear Zealots”.