Books

'A Tale of Love and Darkness': A Child of Israel and the Children of Palestine

Reading narratives of the seemingly intractable Arab-Israeli conflict is like trying to follow the plot of a novel that has had every other page ripped out. Amos Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness has fewer missing pages than most.

Reading most narratives of the seemingly intractable Arab-Israeli conflict is like trying to follow the plot of a novel that has had every other page ripped out. The pages that are missing in Arab or Western left-wing versions of the conflict would cover the continuing presence of Jewish people in the land of Israel since the time before Christ; the fact that Arab hostility toward Israel began long before the putative casus belli, the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, itself the result of a failed attempt by Arab armies to destroy Israel; and the more than 60 years of Arab rejection of partition and compromise.

There are many other missing pages as well, such as those that would focus on the large indigenous Jewish populations driven out of Arab countries and into Israel before and during Israel’s declaration of independence; the deliberate policy by Palestinian radical groups of creating civilian casualties among Israelis and Palestinians alike for, if you will, "public relations" purposes; and the overriding reality that Israel’s military might and belligerence is the result of, rather than the cause of, the ongoing efforts by some of its Arab and Persian neighbors to exterminate a Jewish presence in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, the missing pages in pro-Israeli accounts of the conflict are those that would focus on the disastrous and self-defeating settlement policy; the failure to get out of the occupied territories at some point after 1967, or at least to help the territories build strong and independent economies; the callous treatment of those Arabs who chose not to settle in the new state of Israel but either departed voluntarily or were driven out; and the ongoing failure to treat these people, later to become know as “Palestinians“, as individuals with the same right to self-determination as the Jewish people.

Most of all, the missing pages in the pro-Israeli accounts are the ones that would draw attention to the Israeli penchant for militaristic over-reaction, especially as concerns Lebanon; and the massive and bloody bombardments of its neighbors that, more than its vibrant economy, its hugely successful high-tech sector or its democracy, have come to define Israel to the world.

It's safe to say that Amos Oz’s lengthy and ornately detailed 2003 book, A Tale of Love and Darkness, has fewer missing pages than most others of its type. It's half memoir, the story of Oz’s early childhood in the new state of Israel and of his mother’s suicide when he was 12-years-old; and half informal history of Israel’s beginnings, in the years before popular opinion about the country in the West had hardened into its current state of permanent and hypocritical hostility.

Since Oz is a Jewish Israeli (not nearly as redundant as saying, for example, “a Muslim Saudi”, since there are more than a million Muslim citizens in the Jewish state of Israel but virtually no non-Muslim, much less Jewish, citizens of Saudi Arabia) it isn’t too surprising that he is largely supportive of the Israeli enterprise. What might be a bit more unsettling to those nurtured on diatribes and polemics on either side of the divide is that from the beginning, Oz has made a fair-minded attempt to take into account that other side, as in this childhood memory of the terribly fraught decision of what kind of cheese his family should buy:

…when we went to Mr. Auster’s grocery shop on the corner of Obadiah and Amos streets, we had to choose between kibbutz cheese, made by the Jewish cooperative Tnuva, and Arab cheese… Somewhere, in some kibbutz or moshav, in the Jezreel Valley or the hills of Galilee, an overworked pioneer girl was sitting, with tears in her eyes perhaps, packing this Hebrew cheese for us -- how could we turn our backs on her and buy alien cheese? Did we have the heart? On the other hand, if we boycotted the produce of our Arab neighbors, we would be deepening and perpetuating the hatred between our two peoples. And we would be partly responsible for any blood that was shed, heaven forbid. Surely the humble Arab fellah, a simple, honest tiller of the soil, whose soul was still undefiled by the miasma of town life, was nothing more or less than the dusky brother of the simple, noble-hearted muzhik in the stories of Tolstoy? Could we be so cruel as to punish him?

This is droll, and in the retrospect of years beyond naïve, but is probably an accurate account of how Oz and other Israelis used to think. With due respect to those commentators who like to lazily note that “there is plenty of fault on both sides and neither side holds a monopoly on what is right", I wonder how many Arab families of that time would have weighed, however condescendingly, the relative benefits of purchasing Jewish, rather than Arab, cheese. More broadly, I cannot say I have encountered (though it may exist) a book written by an Arab who is witness to Israel’s independence that attempts to be as balanced as Oz’s:

The Europe that abused, humiliated, and oppressed the Arabs by means of imperialism, colonialism, exploitation, and repression is the same Europe that oppressed and persecuted the Jews, and eventually allowed or even helped the Germans to root them out of every corner of the continent and murder almost all of them. But when the Arabs look at us, they see not a bunch of half-hysterical survivors but a new offshoot of Europe, with its colonialism, technical sophistication and exploitation, that has cleverly returned to the Middle East -- in Zionist guise this time -- to exploit, evict, and oppress all over again.

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