The personal portion of Oz’s memoir is a dark and dizzyingly sensual account of his upbringing in Jerusalem by his feckless and over-educated father, who “could read sixteen or seventeen languages and speak eleven”, but who never had much success in the academic world, and by his disappointed mother, a migraineur, whose slow decline and eventual suicide is the central point around which this book spirals gingerly but obsessively:
…in Kerem Avraham, in Amos Street, in the cramped, damp basement apartment, downstairs from the Rosendorffs and next door to the Lembergs, surrounded by zinc tubs and pickled gherkins and the oleander that was dying in a rusty olive drum, assailed all day by smells of cabbage, laundry, boiled fish, and dried urine, my mother began to fade away. She might have been able to grit her teeth and endure hardship and loss, poverty, or the cruelty of married life. But what she couldn’t stand, it seems to me, was the tawdriness.
As this passage would suggest, this is one of those rare and wonderful books that takes full advantage of the fact that human beings have five senses. It;s impossible to come away from it without a strong impression of what it was like to see and smell and feel the city of Jerusalem, and the infinite universe of childhood, through the person of the young Amos Oz:
…in a voice that is not your voice but may be your voice in thirty or forty years’ time, in a voice that allows no laughter or levity, it commands you never to forget a single detail of this evening: remember and keep its smells, remember its body and light, remember its birds, the sky running riot from one horizon to the other before your eyes, and all of this is for you, all strictly for the attention of the addressee alone. Never forget Danush, Ammi, and Lulik, or the girls with the soldiers in the woods, or what your grandma said to your other grandma, or the sweet fish floating, dead and seasoned, in a sauce of carrots. Never forget the roughness of the wet stone that was in your mouth more than half a century ago, an echo of whose grayish taste of chalk, plaster, and salt still seduces the tip of your tongue…
This memoir, which has a chance to become a classic of its kind, hasn’t been and won’t be universally popular, and not just because its style (in a translation by Nicholas de Lange) is sometimes denser than a fruitcake to which triple helpings of dried fruit and nuts have been added. For those who like their stories simple and their victims and villains clearly demarcated, its attempts at balance will be a problem too, especially because it does, indeed, make the lately overlooked Israeli case. Consider this brief but chilling passage: “When my father was a young man in Vilna, every wall in Europe said, ‘Jews go home to Palestine.’ Fifty years later, when he went back to Europe on a visit, the walls all screamed, ‘Jews get out of Palestine.’”
Those who witnessed the ugly tirade by the retired “journalist” Helen Thomas (“Israel should get the hell out of Palestine” and Jews should go back to “Germany, Poland” where, needless to say, the concentration camps were located), or who heard some members of the recent Gaza flotilla on tape shriek that the Jews should “go back to Auschwitz”, will understand the sinister logic behind this graffito, or why Jewish people sought and needed a safe homeland in the place of their ancestors’ birth.
Though he doesn’t deal with this question directly, the very fair-mindedness of Oz’ memoir raises a larger question: Why does such a large proportion of the liberal elites of the West so revile a country that shares so many of their values, that resembles their own countries in so many ways, and that brings to the Middle East the same ethnic and religious pluralism they claim to value in Europe and America?
There is of course a simple thirst for justice, however unevenly applied, and an affection for the underdog, albeit an underdog that is too often repressive, mindlessly violent and racist. However, there also is self-contempt and guilt and, worst of all, a kind of unexamined racism of their own that is perhaps unique to Western liberals— not anti-Semitism (though of course there is plenty of that, as well) but rather its distorted mirror image, a feeling that “the Jews, with their history of oppression, should know better” or that “we expect more of the Jewish people”.
The unstated corollary of this viewpoint is that liberal elites expect less of the Arab people, and that, by any measure, is racist. The Palestinians have been done no favors by those who excuse away their constant recourse to terrorism and glorification of martyrdom, which has served only to dig them a deeper hole in their scraps of salvaged land. When the Israeli settlers, at enormous political and financial cost, were forced out of Gaza by the Israeli government, their greenhouses, as well as others donated by sympathetic Jewish-American charities, were left behind in order to give the Gazans a start on building their own economy. When certain Gazans, like petulant children, instead smashed and looted them, the Western press was largely silent, as if this sort of behavior were best left ignored.
The Palestinians, and in particular the ones who didn’t loot or smash, and who would have benefited from the jobs and the produce of the greenhouses, deserve better than this patronizing forbearance. The ones who do loot and smash deserve at least a fraction of the calumny heaped upon the Israelis who, it should be pointed out, never sent suicide bombers to the cafés of France or Germany, from which countries those Jews who were not murdered were exiled and dispossessed. Of course, there isn’t any great moral credit to be had in not being a deliberate mass murderer, but the occasional glorification in the Western media of Palestinian suicide bombers suggests that the standards of moral behavior are unevenly applied and, in the case of the Palestinians, kept at an insultingly low level.
My preference, and Oz’s, I suspect, is that the Western elites maintain the same high expectations for the Arabs, with their centuries of magnificent cultural and scientific accomplishments that far outpaced the West, as they do for the Israelis, rather than selectively excoriating one and excusing away the other.
Unfortunately, ever since the 1967 war, Israel, that geographically insignificant chip of a country, has served as a convenient whetstone against which the US and European left could sharpen its high-sounding moral indignation. China apparently won’t do, despite its support for the fanatical North Korean regime and its ongoing ethnic cleansing of Tibet; it’s just too large and economically important. Russia won’t do, either, despite its ruinous wars in Afghanistan, Chechnya and other Muslim regions; again, it’s just too big.
Israel, however, is just small enough to be a safe target to satisfy the West’s need to appear as if it is on the side of the oppressed without actually doing anything about it (the janjaweed of Sudan, as just one bloody example, continue to rampage, unhindered by America or Europe.) At the same time, the tendency of those illiberal members of the Left to become infatuated by monsters like Stalin or Mao and contemporary mini-monsters like Chavez and Ahmadinejad creates an even more poisonous environment for beleaguered countries that attempt, however imperfectly, to maintain democratic values. For those who are of a genuinely liberal cast, Oz’s book, with its mixture of family and national history, is a great reminder that Israelis, as well as Palestinians, are human beings too.
Incidentally but not unconnectedly, A Tale of Love and Darkness deals with another aspect of liberal culture that, like respect for plurality, fair-mindedness and democracy, is in danger of disappearing: the world of books. The books that Oz is referring to specifically—and it’s a sign of our times that this even has to be explained—are the kind that take up shelf space, as in this description of his uncle’s apartment:
...there was not an inch of space that was not covered with rows of books, shelves upon shelves rose from the floor to the high ceiling, full of books in languages whose alphabets I could not identify, books standing up and other books lying down on top of them; plump, resplendent foreign books stretching themselves comfortably, and other wretched books that peered at you from cramped and crowded conditions, lying like illegal immigrants crowded on bunks aboard ship. Heavy, respectable books in gold-tooled leather bindings, and thin books bound in flimsy paper, splendid portly gentlemen and ragged, shabby beggars, and all around and among and behind them was a sweaty mass of booklets, leaflets, pamphlets, offprints, periodicals, journals, and magazines…
At another point in the narrative, Oz reminisces:
My father had a sensual relationship with his books. He loved feeling them, stroking them, sniffing them. He took a physical pleasure in books: he could not stop himself, he had to reach out and touch them, even other people’s books. And books then really were sexier than books today: they were good to sniff and stroke and fondle. There were books with gold writing on fragrant slightly rough leather bindings, that gave you gooseflesh when you touched them, as though you were groping something private and inaccessible, something that seemed to tremble at your touch. And there were other books that were bound in cloth-covered cardboard, stuck with a glue that had a wonderful smell. Every book had its own private, provocative scent. Sometimes the cloth came away from the cardboard, like a saucy skirt, and it was hard to resist the temptation to peep into the dark space between body and clothing and sniff those dizzying smells.
Try doing that with an ugly plastic Kindle.
The love of books on display here, the cherishing of free expression, and the commitment to fair-mindedness and genuine diversity, are interconnected in Oz’s universe. All are hallmarks of traditional liberal humanism, and all, this book reminds us, are in danger of disappearing into an illiberal, repressive and exclusionary future.