Opinion | Amos Oz’s Rebuke to Cowardice

Napoleon is said to have remarked that if he had been killed in 1812 as he entered Moscow in triumph, he would have gone down in history as the greatest general who ever lived. Then came the retreat, the long limp back to France, and unspeakable loss.

Good timing in death, as in any departure, is important. I have been thinking about this in relation to the passing last month of Amos Oz, the great Israeli novelist whom I counted as a friend. He was the conscience of Israel, true to the founding ideals of the nation and to Judaism itself, and he went as every idea he had stood for — peace, compromise, dignity, decency and human rights — is being trampled in the Holy Land and beyond.

Oz, at least, will be spared the spectacle of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, fawning over an American president, Donald Trump, whose notion of peace in the Middle East seems to be a dismissal of every Palestinian claim. He will be spared the littleness of the leaders of Israel and Palestine. He will be spared their cowardice. He will be spared the farce of Jared Kushner’s ideas about peace, should they ever issue from His Languidness. History is spinning backward.

I would meet Oz at his Tel Aviv apartment. He was an early riser. His best working hours were between 5:30 and 8:30 a.m. “You have to work very hard for your readers not to note a single false note,” he told me. “That is the business of three-quarters-of-a-million decisions.” He told me, with that twinkling smile of his, about receiving a literary prize from China and telling a crowd in Beijing how honored he was because between them the Chinese and the Jews represented close to 20 percent of humanity.

He believed that Jews should laugh.

Scorning zealotry, he also believed Jews should never abandon contentious debate, the “intergenerational quizzing that ensures the passing of the torch,” as he put it in “Jews and Words,” written with his daughter Fania Oz-Salzberger. He believed Jews need a homeland, Israel. His father, as a young man in Lithuania, endured the refrain: “Jews go home to Palestine.” Now, plenty of people scream, “Jews get out of Palestine.” Enough said.

Or not quite enough said. Jews will be just fine in a binational state shared with the Palestinians! Jews will be just fine as anti-Semitism rises again! Jews will be just fine forgetting the millennia of persecution and insult in the diaspora! Jews will be just fine trusting those they have no cause to trust!

Oz, who fought in two wars, did not believe it. I do not believe it. As he once said to me of that most sacred of Palestinian principles, “The right of return is a euphemism for the liquidation of Israel.”

At the same time, Oz was cleareyed about the insidious corruption of Israel through more than a half-century of the occupation of the West Bank. How it has gradually blinded Israelis to the humanity of millions of Palestinians. How it has made the oppression and humiliation of another people somehow acceptable. How it has ingrained habits of arrogance. How it has fed the rightward lurch that has buried in messianic nationalism the dream of a two-state peace and ensconced a leader, Netanyahu, who made it his foul business to bury Yitzhak Rabin’s push for that peace.

Oz told me Netanyahu was a “coward,” the anti-Rabin in his inability to have a big or generous thought.

“Building settlements in occupied territories was the single most grave error and sin in the history of modern Zionism, because it was based on a refusal to accept the simple fact that we are not alone in this country,” Oz told me.

I once summed up Oz’s political credo this way, “Two states, absolutely, are the only answer. Palestinians and other Arabs once treated Israel like a passing infection: If they scratched themselves hard enough it would go away. Israel treated Palestine as no more than “the vicious invention of a Pan-Arabic propaganda machine.” These illusions have passed. Reality now compels a compromise — ‘and compromises are unhappy; there is no such thing as a happy compromise.’”

That was a few years ago. Today, it is harder to believe that “reality” compels a two-state compromise. Reality is pushing in another direction. Ethnonationalist bigots are on the march.

In his masterpiece, “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” Oz described walking out early each morning into the desert near his home in Arad. “Now,” he wrote, “you can hear the full depths of the desert silence. It isn’t the quiet before the storm, or the silence of the end of the world, but a silence that only covers another, even deeper, silence.”

That is how I imagine Oz now, inhaling the biblical silence — a silence that is also an admonition to the shrieking of the cowards who would call themselves leaders.

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Roger Cohen has been a columnist for The Times since 2009. His columns appear Wednesday and Saturday. He joined The Times in 1990, and has served as a foreign correspondent and foreign editor. @NYTimesCohen

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