Islands of sanity in a highly charged atmosphere

July 2, 1999

Israeli academic and novelist Amos Oz tells Anne Sebba why universities can have a crucial role in the quest for peace.

Ask Amos Oz, the Israeli academic and novelist, the best way to cure fanaticism and promote world peace and he'll tell you first to try to change family life. "Family life has a powerful, if latent, fanatic side to it," says Oz. "Members struggle to change each other 'for their own good' - husbands and wives, parents and kids, brothers and sisters. The essence of fanaticism lies in the desire to make other people change - 'I want you to be like me because I want you to be happy'."

Oz, the veteran peace campaigner who lectures in literature at the Ben Gurion University of the Negev, believes universities can play a key role in the long-term struggle for peaceful co-existence. "Palestine is going to become a sovereign nation next door to Israel very soon. But come what may, there is always going to be a vast Arab population inside Israel that should be incorporated into Israeli society.

"Universities," Oz continues, "are one of the few enclaves where conflicts can be studied in an unbiased way, where the various narratives can coexist, meet and confront each other without suppressing one another. They are the one place where the conflict is not conducted, but researched and studied. They're often islands of sanity in an emotionally charged or injured atmosphere."

Oz teaches some Arab Israeli students, but as yet no Palestinian citizens. "Hebrew literature is not an urgent concern of young Palestinians," he points out. Mostly, the Israeli Arabs and handful of Palestinians at the 14,000-strong desert university are on medical or technological courses not widely available in Palestinian universities.

But Oz cautions against overloading the significance of building student friendships as part of the peace process: "Once a political solution has been reached, I'm sure the avenues of educational co operation and cultural exchange will blossom. Yet people assume, for sentimental reasons, that if the parties in conflict get to know each other better, the conflict will go away. It's the other way round. First you must find a solution for the real-estate dispute. Once this is resolved, the ground will be ready for emotional reconciliation.

Oz, a ruggedly good-looking man of 60, warms to his theme: "There is a popular European inclination to assume that every conflict is essentially a misunderstanding and with family counselling and group therapy everyone will live happily ever after.

"But there is no misunderstanding between Israeli Jew and Palestinian Arab. The Palestinians want the land they call Palestine - and all of it - because they regard it as theirs. The Israeli Jews want the same country for the same reasons, which creates a terrible tragedy. Rivers of coffee cannot resolve the issue of land. We need compromise."

To Oz, compromise is the supreme achievement: "I refuse to think of it as being dirty, often it's the ultimate manifestation of courage and creativity. Where there is life, there is compromise and the opposite of compromise is not integrity or idealism. It is fanaticism and death. Compromise is not capitulation nor is it turning the other cheek. It's about meeting the other halfway and that's true in ordinary life, too. After all, I've had the same wife for 39 years."

Oz thinks and talks in metaphors, and the family is a favourite. "I'm often asked: 'Why can't Israel and Palestine make love and become one happy family? The answer is we're not happy, we're not a family and we're not one. This is about a divorce, whose basis is partition, not a burst of love or a wonderful friendship. It will be painful, but I wish they had done it in Yugoslavia ten years ago - it would have saved a lot of bloodshed."

In London for a few days to deliver a Radio 3-commissioned lecture at the Royal Festival Hall - "How to Cure a Fanatic", for the series Sounding The Century - Oz explains how a fanatic is an altruist. "He is more interested in you than in himself, in changing you, for your own good, of course. He wants to save your soul, he wants to redeem you, he wants to liberate you from sin, from error, from smoking, from your faith or faithlessness. The fanatic cares a lot for you."

Surely, I suggest, a teacher is a fanatic in a way - trying to channel students' reading and writing habits in new directions he thinks will serve them better?

Oz vehemently refutes this: "The essence of being a good teacher is to encourage, to develop the capacity to change the way individuals want to change. I'm not shaping them. I'm trying to seduce them with a wide range of options. I'm there with a rich menu and a varied kitchen and they should choose their courses - in both senses. There is nothing more wonderful to watch than a human being changing, but there is nothing more dangerous than one human being working on another. My business is to lay a table with different delicacies. I praise it to my customers, but then I say 'you choose'. Of course, I won't put anything on it that I don't like. But it's a joke in my department that my students get points for challenging what I say. Whoever gives me back what I've given him, that's just medium."

His latest book, The Story Begins, is based partly on lectures he gave as Weidenfeld visiting professor of comparative literature at Oxford in 1998. Analysing the opening sections of various novels and short stories, Oz sets out to show how beginning a story is a form of seduction. "It's like making a pass at a stranger," he says. "There's an erotic dimension to relationships between reader and writer because it's about persuading someone to join you in an intimate experience, and why would they unless there is something attractive about the way the story is conveyed?" Israel's most prominent living novelist, Oz is one of a handful translated into English. He is proud to be writing in modern Hebrew at a time when the language is still being created.

His first book, My Michael, published in 1972, established his reputation internationally. Since then, he has written, among others, A Perfect Peace, In the Land of Israel, To Know a Woman and Panther in the Basement. He is banned in several Arab countries and is philosophical about the way that, whatever the subject matter, his books are invariably treated as political commentary rather than literature.

"It's the destiny of every writer from a troubled land. No one would suspect a Jane Austen novel of being an allegory of party politics in England, but everything from Latin America, the Middle East or South Africa is conceived as a statement on the state of the nation. It's a form of laziness or arrogance by reviewers, as if they are saying 'Why should an Israeli write about jealousy or love, leave that to the British. You have the Palestinians, the West Bank settlements and religious freaks to worry about.'" Some reviewers treat Oz, because of his active espousal of the peace movement, as the liberal conscience of Israel. For others, he is not pro-Palestinian enough; he is not a pacifist and has fought twice for his country (in 1967 and 1973). He vows he would do it again "if anyone tried to destroy our country or turn us into slaves, but not over 'national interests', resources or to gain an extra bedroom for the nation".

He is mildly optimistic about the chances of the new Israeli government resolving the Middle East crisis, but knows it is too early to set a timetable for peace. Meanwhile, he has a new novel under way, but will not be drawn on it. "I'm reluctant to talk about it because it's not good for the baby. You don't expose a pregnancy to X-rays unless you have to."

How to Cure a Fanatic will air on Radio 3, October 16. The Story Begins: Essays on Literature, Chatto and Windus, Pounds 12.99.

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