An Almighty argument: Amos Oz may not care for God but he believes devoutly in debate, language - and jokes

Oz is Israel's great teller of unsettling stories and uncomfortable truths.

If Amos Oz had helped to steer the politics of Israel with the
same insight, empathy and wisdom he has brought to his fiction over
the past 45 years, then the Middle East might today be a zone of
peace -and irony, and jokes. "I was approached a few times by
people who wanted me to run for office," he says.

An understatement: Israel's former Labour leader Shimon Peres, now the nation's president, reportedly once spoke of Oz as a possible successor, though the author then moved left to the Meretz party. "But I think I would make a very poor politician. I'm incapable of pronouncing the words 'no comment'. Besides, no one would write my books for me."

Oz, a peerless imaginative chronicler of his country's inner and outer transformations ever since the young kibbutznik began writing fiction in the mid-1960s, has always twin-tracked shrewd and often brave public advocacy with the single-minded life of literature. The two lines run in parallel; they do not converge. "I try not to mix the two. When I tell a story, I never try to make a point. A story is an end in itself… At the same time, I have been politically engaged for all my adult life - and perhaps even shortly before."

The punditry - perhaps even, the prophecy - ranks as a necessary evil that history has decreed. Now 73, Oz sits in his London publisher's top-floor boardroom and speaks with exquisite, drily humorous precision about places, and ages, of blood and rage. He says: "I wish there will come a time when people read my works - my stories and my novels - without inserting… the question, 'Is Israel good or bad? Has Israel the right to exist or should it die?' I wish that such a time will come. In fact, for me, the fulfillment of the Zionist dream will occur when Israel is removed once and for all from the front pages and news pages and instead occupies the literary supplements, the musical supplements, the gardening supplements. That would be the day."

One fruit of his political engagement consisted of the essays about the route out of violence now re-published as How to Cure a Fanatic. Oz, one of the founders of the Peace Now movement, remains steadfast in his commitment to the "two-state solution" of equally independent, mutually respectful Israel and Palestine. These days, that proposition - his answer to the region's tragic collision of right against right - looks to many like damaged goods. Just consider the alternative, says Oz: "The 'one-state solution' is no option at all because it would be a lunatic idea to try and push into a honeymoon bed two deadly enemies who have been fighting each other for more than a hundred years." His own preferred slogan runs: "Make Peace, Not Love".

But how feasible is this disentanglement? I mention that, when I was in Jerusalem for the city's writers' festival in May, I went to Ramallah in the West Bank, to visit the Palestinian author Raja Shehadeh. He drove me around the hills to show how the tight-woven pattern of new Israeli settlements has stitched up the rolling landscapes of Judaea. But Oz's response reveals his radicalism: those Jewish settlers should become citizens of Palestine. "There will be always an Arab minority in the Israeli state. There can be a Jewish minority in the Palestinian state. It's not the end of the world, as long as two nations have equal rights of self-determination," and can "develop relations of decent neighbourliness."

Conflict-free proximity, rather than cosy familiarity: such a limited harmony often feels like a tough call for the divided and self-divided characters of Oz's fiction, let alone for the warring peoples who share the land. Ever since early works such as My Michael, and in landmark novels such as The Same Sea, the Jerusalem-born writer has exposed the endless obstacles and detours on a road-map to peace within a village, a marriage, a family - or a human mind. It's always, for his people, a heroic - an epic - task to set their own small houses in order. "I'm a provincial writer," he says. "I like writing about provincial places. Sometimes I even think that almost all great literature is provincial." He cites Chekhov, Faulkner and Garcia Marquez. All dig giant stories from miniature patches of soil. As does Oz.

He was born Amos Klausner in 1939 ("Oz" means "strength" in Hebrew), his Lithuanian and Polish parents tragically vulnerable to all the dreams and despairs of idealistic immigrants. After the tumultuous Jerusalem upbringing recounted in his great memoir A Tale of Love and Darkness, with his mother's sucide as its terrible finale, he moved as a teenager to the Hulda kibbutz to help construct the socialist, Zionist dream. "A kibbutz is a very small village… But it's a microcosm. I learned more about human nature in my 30 years on Kibbutz Hulda than I would have learned if I travelled ten times around the world… I came to know all the secrets, all the intimate gossip… For a writer, this is a goldmine."

He also possesses the treasure of his language: the modern Hebrew he has helped to mould. "Hebrew is my love, it's my musical instrument." With each other, his parents "spoke in Russian and Polish. They read German, French and English for culture. They dreamed their dreams in Yiddish. But to me, they only talked Hebrew. Not for chauvinism… but because in the 1940s they were afraid that if I knew even one European language, I might be seduced by the deadly charms of Europe - and go to Europe and catch my death!

Whatever their dark motives, he cherishes the old-young tongue. "A language that had been almost as dead as ancient Greek or Latin is revived - spoken in my childhood 60 years ago by less than half a million people; spoken today by more than 10 million. In this language of the Bible people fly jumbo jets, conduct open-heart surgery, launch satellites into orbit." Forget making the desert bloom; a Hebrew author can make the tongue flower. "Modern Hebrew has many things in common with Elizabethan English. The language is like melting lava, like an erupting volcano."

Since the mid-1980s, Oz has lived in the desert town of Arad: once again, a social microcosm. "The desert begins five minutes' walk from my home." Every day begins for him, at five, with a walk into it. Yet change also reaches far into this small world. Arad is now "heavily Russian", with 40-45 per cent of its people Jewish migrants from the ex-Soviet Union. These Russians "tend to be more hawkish, more right-wing and more untrusting. They don't trust anything that comes from the government - not even the weather forecasts!"

The interlinked stories of Oz's Scenes from Village Life portray the intersecting - but somehow isolated - citizens of the fictitious "pioneer village" of Tel Ilan. Its people remain both closely bound to one another and yet - as the title of one story has it - "Strangers". "Loneliness," even among family, lovers, neighbours, is its principal theme, Oz affirms. The deep rifts between Jewish Israelis - or even within torn individual minds - that he so often explores raise the question of where any core of solidarity might lie.

It's a theme that, with mischief, wit and (yes) sheer chutzpah, Oz and his historian daughter Fania Oz-Salzberger answer in a forthcoming book: Jews and Words. For father and child, the Jews - never a single ethnic group, not much of a political entity, not even a coherent religion in their view - share above all not a bloodline but a textline. Arguments and remonstrations about the meaning of books and stories unite and bind the community, generation upon generation. The family that kvetches together, stays together.

Shamelessly secular, the Ozes root their Judaism in words, ideas and - most crucially - "self-biting" interpretative debate. "We have no use for the synagogue," Oz says. "We believe that Judaism is a civilisation based mostly on language." For them, "Jews not only disagree with each other. They often disagree with God. The Jewish tradition, starting from Genesis, is full of... arguments with God." As for the disputatious rabbis of the Talmud, Oz cites his favourite tale of "reverent irreverence": the story of Akhnai's Oven. "Two saintly rabbis argue about interpreting the law in their capacity as judges. And they cannot reach a verdict. They will die arguing, but God has mercy on them. A voice is heard from above, saying 'Rabbi Eliezer is right. Rabbi Yehoshua is wrong. Go to sleep.' And then the loser, Rabbi Yehoshua, turns his eyes upward and says, 'Please keep out of it. You have given the Torah to human beings. Buzz off! Buzz off!'"

Ever since Abraham wrangled with God over the fate of Sodom like "a shrewd second-hand car dealer", Jewish dialectic has dared to scold the Almighty. As for the Ozes, "secular to the bone" but profoundly devoted to Jewish tradition, they have no hesitation in telling pious believers where to go. But can they pick and choose: the jokes, tales, heroes and heroines, with none of the theology? "People will hurl at us that Judaism is package deal: take it or leave it. It's not a package deal. It's a heritage. And a heritage is something you can play with. You can decide which part of the heritage you allocate to your living room, and which part goes to the attic or to the basement. This the legitimate right of every heir. And I regard myself as a legitimate heir of the Jewish civilisation. I can relegate some of the heritage to the attic."

In the book, this boisterous excitement over words and ideas generates a little paradise beyond politics. It opens up a garden of play and joy, of dispute without hate and passions without victims (except the meddlesome God of all the fundamentalists). "In Judaism," Oz insists, "nothing - nothing at all - is above debate and above joking. My grandmother used to say, when you have cried out all your tears… that's the time to start laughing."

'How to Cure a Fanatic' and 'Scenes from Village Life' are published by Vintage; 'Jews and Words' by Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger appears from Yale University Press on 29 November

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls


The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury


Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas


Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7


Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary


Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence