Return from Oz

Reviewed by Assaf Sagiv

The Slopes fo the Volcano
by Amos Oz
Keter Press, 2006, 80 pages, Hebrew.

In 1961, Hannah Arendt was dispatched to Jerusalem by the New Yorker to cover the trial of Adolf Eichmann. Her impressions, first published as a series of articles and later collected in the book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, provoked immediate controversy. The dispute focused on Arendt’s claim that the prosecution’s efforts to portray the accused as a genocidal monster could not be reconciled with his bland, “everyman” persona. Writing that Eichmann was, in fact, an exceedingly average individual, Arendt believed that only his sheer “thoughtlessness” as an obedient bureaucrat in the Nazi machine made him a participant in genocide: “He was not Iago and not Macbeth, and nothing would have been farther from his mind than to determine with Richard III ‘to prove a villain.’ Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all. He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realized what he was doing.”

In his new book, The Slopes of the Volcano, the revered Israeli author Amos Oz offers a profound rejoinder to Arendt’s provocative argument. Many of the spectators at Eichmann’s trial, Oz explains, were struck, as was Arendt, by the fact that the accused did not fit the “ancient stereotype of the embodiment of evil,” and therefore mistakenly concluded that “before them was not an arch-murderer, but merely a banal bureaucrat.” But, insists Oz, “wickedness is banal only in the minds of those naïve and innocent souls for whom it is convenient not to believe in the very existence of evil.” In other words, Eichmann may have been a dreary pencil pusher, but that fact in no way mitigates his villainy; so, too, though his character did not fit the hackneyed image of the diabolical fiend, there is nothing banal about someone who played a leading role in one of the most heinous crimes committed in the history of mankind.

The insistence on calling things by their rightful names and on adhering to the traditional moral categories of good and evil is the common thread running through the three essays that make up The Slopes. The essays examine different aspects of Israeli-German relations—a relationship that, explains Oz, is “convoluted, occasionally intimate, difficult and rich.” Yet Oz’s treatment of this charged issue—which many Israeli writers have tackled before—is in truth a pretext for another, more fundamental discussion, concerning the nature of evil today. Indeed, it is in precisely this discussion that the real power of the book lies, serving as a bold indictment of the moral confusion that pervades the post-modern world. It is unfortunate, then, that the same discussion also discloses the book’s most egregious weakness: Its ineffective proposals for dealing with the modern world’s moral ailments, and ensuring that an evil the likes of Eichmann never achieves power again.

Two of the book’s three essays are speeches Oz delivered upon receipt of Germany’s prestigious Die Welt and Goethe literary prizes—a fact that is liable to cause many Israelis to wrinkle their noses in distaste. Too often, Israeli intellectuals and artists attempt to curry favor with the “enlightened” upper crust of Paris, Berlin, and London by speaking ill of their country. The Slopes, however, makes clear that Oz is innocent of such behavior. Although he is undoubtedly the most esteemed Israeli writer abroad, and certainly in Germany, he makes no effort to flatter European political and moral tastes. In fact, he takes pride in the unflinching and harsh criticism he levels at them.

In the book’s opening essay, Oz recounts his participation in a panel discussion in Germany, hosted by what he calls the “German peace- and reconciliation-mongers.” A woman in the audience asked him if he believes that the German people are guilty to a certain extent of the Palestinian people’s tragedy. Oz admits he was unforgiving in his response:

It was clear to me what they had suggested to her idealistic mind: “Here are those Jews, whose suffering hasn’t cleansed them at all, who come and do to the Palestinians now what the Germans did to them.” The devil tempted me to answer her that yes, in some manner Germany is to blame for the Palestinians’ tragedy, because if the previous generation of Germans had been less negligent and more thorough in its efforts, and if Nazi Germany hadn’t left a few million Jews alive, the Palestinians would have suffered no tragedy.

It seemed that my answer was not welcomed: It was received on stage and in the audience with utter silence, quite a prolonged one, the type of silence that was once called a “deadly silence.”

Oz’s agitation at that “sinister, almost compulsive need to draw comparisons and make analogies or causal connections” between Nazi atrocities and current events in the Middle East sets him apart not only from well-intentioned Europeans, but also from an increasing number of Israeli intellectuals. Indeed, while his opposition to the “occupation,” the Jewish settlement movement, and Israeli policy toward the Palestinians in general has been the driving force behind his public activism over the past several decades, he clearly has not lost a sense of historical and moral proportion. He shuns the discussion of the “affinity between the Holocaust and the tragedy in the Middle East” that is so enthusiastically embraced by many Germans, and only once in The Slopes does he hint at a possible connection between these events: The Holocaust, he writes, has left our nation weak even today, and has affected the destinies of the survivors’ descendants, whom he describes as “spiritually wounded.” Oz does not expand on this assertion, nor does he dare associate these spiritual wounds with Israel’s military actions. The only categorical statement on the subject he is willing to make is that Germany has a special responsibility toward the Jewish nation, one that includes a moral obligation to help Israel should it face annihilation.

Oz is careful not to infer from this moral responsibility that Germans are prohibited from criticizing Israel; nor, for that matter, does he find problematic the use of diplomatic or economic sanctions as a means of expressing disapproval of those policies. Yet he considers the harsh accusations leveled at Israel in Germany today as beyond the pale and indicative of certain pathologies.

For instance, the extreme anti-Israel shift in German public opinion, says Oz, is not the result of ingrained anti-Semitism, but rather the outcome of “old-fashioned sentimentalism, which has always tended to see the world in black and white.” Until the early 1980s, for example, many Germans were inclined toward an exaggerated idealization of Israel, a result of an “emotional convention, bordering on kitsch, according to which all those who are tormented and humiliated rise, as a result of their suffering, to a higher spiritual and moral ground.” Two decades ago, the German infatuation with Israel “gave way to a fury of disappointment, and occasionally even to a feeling that the lover had been deceived and that his love and devotion had been exploited.” Israel was portrayed, from that time onward, as militant, brutal, and oppressive: “The fervor of sentimental sympathy… was now bestowed on the Palestinians in particular and the Arab states and the Third World in general. And once again it was an emotional and enthusiastic sympathy, unconditional and indiscriminate.”

It is this insistence on distinguishing between justified and unjustified criticism of Israel that defines Oz’s consistent adherence to a moderate leftist stance, one that condemns the wrongs of the “occupation” while at the same time refusing to espouse-unlike the far Left-the scathing anti-Zionist rhetoric prevalent in Europe today. Oz deftly identifies the hidden motives behind this moralistic uproar, which is defined not only by gross over-simplification, but also by a troubling flirtation with anti-Semitism:

If not all the six million were Anne Franks, if the wrongdoings of Israel testify to there being some not-so-nice Jews among the victims, then—how shall we put it—perhaps this allows certain Germans to breathe more easily? Perhaps the enormity of the German crime is fractionally lessened?

At a time when Israeli intellectuals, anxious to be accepted by their right-thinking European colleagues, are required—and sometimes even volunteer—to help the continent purge its collective guilt, this statement, also published in German, demonstrates a commendable integrity. Oz is unwilling to make a Faustian bargain in order to gain international acceptance. He offers his German audience an opportunity to exhume its painful past—not to bury it.

The moral clarity that typifies Oz’s approach to the Israel-Germany relationship is most evident in his approach to the question of the nature of evil. This question arises almost of its own accord during Oz’s discussion of the Nazi phenomenon, since, in the view of many, it is the definitive test case of our basic moral categories. Oz thus takes the opportunity to clarify once again the validity of these categories, and to counter the intellectual fashions intent on undermining them.

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