Return from Oz

Reviewed by Assaf Sagiv

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

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n 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.

Assaf Sagiv is Senior Editor of Azure

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