Thursday, August 21, 2008

Amos Oz, Oz, Oz, Oi! Oi! Oi!

Not content with his usual paeans about "plucky" little Israel on the opinion(ated) pages of The Australian (See my 20/1/08 post Gullible's Travels) , foreign editor Greg (Jerusalem Prize) Sheridan has recently taken to peddling the dubious wares of Israel's most famous literary propagandist, novelist Amos Oz, in its literary supplement, Review.

In Memoirs are made of this (16/8/08), Sheridan spruiks Oz's childhood memoir of growing up in 30s/40s Jerusalem, A Tale of Love & Darkness (2003) as "an incomparably good book. Perhaps... the best I have read." Since Leon Uris' Exodus?

He's mesmerised by Oz's "contrast, indeed conflict, of East European Jews trying to recreate an idealised Europe, one free of anti-Semitism, in the hot, dusty climate of Israel, surrounded by hostile Arabs..."

I thought it was still called Palestine back then, but Palestine, with its "hostile Arabs," malign creatures of the heat and the dust, is just a backdrop for the colonial fantasies of Sheridan, Oz and ilk. According to Sheridan, Oz "mocks his own earnest idealisation of kibbutz pioneers, yet somehow affirms it as well: 'Tough, warm-hearted, though of course silent and thoughtful, young men and strapping, straightforward young women... I pictured these pioneers as strong, serious, self-contained people, capable of sitting around in a circle and singing songs of heart-rending longing, or songs of mockery, or songs of outrageous lust... (people) who could ride wild horses or wide-tracked tractors, who spoke Arabic, who knew every cave and wadi, who had a way with pistols and hand grenades, yet read poetry and philosophy'." Sheridan sees here "a generous human solidarity and understanding for everyone" - everyone, that is, but the 'Indians' wasted by those pistols and grenades. Others, such as Perry Anderson, see merely a "mixture of machismo and schmaltz."

"If I could recommend just one book to tell you something about the human condition, this would be it," Sheridan concludes. Talk about working for The Oz.

But before you rush off to your bookshop to buy, it's worth taking a closer look at Oz the propagandist. Take this passage, for example, from A Tale:

"All the Jewish settlements that were captured by the Arabs in the War of Independence, without exception, were razed to the ground, and their Jewish inhabitants were murdered or taken captive or escaped, but the Arab armies did not allow any of the survivors to return after the war. The Arabs implemented a more complete 'ethnic cleansing' in the territories they conquered than the Jews did: hundreds of thousands of Arabs fled or were driven out from the territory of the State of Israel in that war, but a hundred thousand remained, whereas there were no Jews at all in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip under Jordanian and Egyptian rule. Not one. The settlements were obliterated, and the synagogues and cemeteries were razed to the ground."

Wow, not every Palestinian was ethnically cleansed from "the territory of the State of Israel" (notice how Oz includes the 24% of Palestine occupied by Zionist forces, over and above the 54% allotted by the UN for a Jewish state in 1947) in 1948, but every Jew was ethnically cleansed from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip! What a revelation! And that, folks, is one of the two Zionist talking points (the other being that the Palestinian refugee exodus of 1948, the Nakba, was more than offset by an exodus of Arab Jews to Israel) invariably trotted out whenever the subject of Israel's ethnic cleansing of Palestine is raised.

Oz's sleight of hand has been beautifully exposed by Israeli poet, author and journalist Yitzhak Laor:

"As the expert propagandist that he is, Amos Oz is well aware of how much more powerful 'absolute ethnic cleansing' is than 'partial ethnic cleansing'. He therefore takes great pains to describe minutely the "extermination of the Jewish nation" in the territories behind the Green Line, without specifying numbers. It is an absolute we're talking about - a veritable genocide, one after which no traces remain of the exterminated nation'. The absence of numbers for Jews is of course paralleled by numbers given for the expelled Arabs, a hundred thousand of whom stayed within Israel. The inevitable inference must be that the Jews committed something far less genocidal than the Arabs, whose deeds, framing this passage, constitute an 'absolute' atrocity. 'This of course is an old trick of salesmanship', Laor remarks. On the one side there is the removal of Kfar Darom by the Egyptian army, and that of Gush Etzion and the Old City of Jerusalem by the Jordanian Arab Legion, on the other the Palestinians are not even specifically mentioned, simply lumped together with the Arabs. The obvious must be stated: 'The ruin of the Palestinian people, four hundred of whose villages were laid waste, who were reduced to numerically negligent, racially discriminated against and poverty-stricken minorities in their own cities, hundreds of thousands of whom lost all they possessed, including the chance of decent human existence, this ongoing destruction, which continued while Oz wrote his book, is turned in the citation above into a not so terrible event, with many far worse than itself, our own fate for instance. Let us be clear. Oz has never employed the term 'ethnic cleansing' in relation to the conduct of the IDF in 1948. Now he does so only in order to say: if it happened, another was perpetrated that was far worse, a real one'." (Quoted in Gabriel Piterberg's The Returns of Zionism: Myths, Politics & Scholarship in Israel, 2008, pp 231-232)

But Oz's career as an propagandist began much earlier - in 1967 - when he co-edited Siah lohamim (Soldiers Talk), described by Piterberg as "one of the most effective propaganda tools in Israeli history, creating the image of the handsome, dilemma-ridden and existentially soul-searching Israeli soldier, the horrific oxymoron of 'the purity of arms', and the unfounded notion of an exalted Jewish morality." (p 233) Soldiers Talk contained conversations with kibbutz soldiers about their experiences in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. It was translated into 6 languages and received Sheridanesqe adulation from the likes of Golda Meir and Elie Wiesel.

Piterberg, however, cites an unpublished PhD thesis by Alon Gan of Tel Aviv University, which reveals just how this successor to Leon Uris' propaganda novel Exodus was constructed: conversations with kibbutzniks who evinced a passion for a Greater Israel or gave "voice to their messianic elation, unabashed hatred of the Arabs and trigger-happiness" (p 236) were omitted, and other conversations were manipulated "to intensify the image of the handsome, morally pure soldier, and to render the reasons for his dilemmas and bad conscience less specific..." (p 237) Direct description was replaced with insinuation, ellipses were widely employed and explicit accounts of the war sanitized.

You can see why Sheridan has the otz for Oz.

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