Amos Oz and the Limits of Power


I am part way through Amos Oz’s latest novel Judas and I am reminded of why Oz is such a courageous and rewarding writer.  He is willing to look at situations from multiple perspectives and to try to understand where the “other” or “others” are coming from.  I have been a fan of Oz since my cousin encouraged me to read In the Land of Israel, which is more a collection of interviews than a novel.

In his latest work, which is set in Jerusalem in 1959, Oz quickly demonstrates his mastery of characterization and tone.  As rewarding as this is, it is the religious, political and philosophical thinking in his books that I adore above all.  Consider these passages from chapter 25.  The main character, Shmuel Ash, first considers what some Jews might be thinking upon establishing the modern state of Israel:

“’Up to a certain point it’s possible to understand a people that for thousands of years has known well the power of books, the power of prayers, the power of the commandments, the power of scholarship, the power of religious devotion, the power of trade, and the power of being an intermediary, but that only knew the power of power itself in the form of blows on its back.  And now it finds itself holding a heavy cudgel.  Tanks, cannons, jet planes.  It’s only natural that such a people gets drunk on power and tends to believe that it can do whatever it likes by the power of power.’”

But, Ash carries on a little later:

“’The fact is that all the power in the world cannot transform someone who hates you into someone who likes you.  It can turn a foe into a slave, but not into a friend.  All the power in the world cannot transform someone thirsting for vengeance into a lover.  And yet these are precisely the real existential challenges facing the State of Israel:  how to turn a hater into a lover, a fanatic into a moderate, an avenger into a friend.  Am I saying that we do not need military might?  Heaven forbid!  Such a foolish thought would never enter my head.  I know as well as you that it is power, military power, that stands, at any given moment, even at this very moment while you and I are arguing here, between us and extinction.  Power has the power to prevent our annihilation for the time being.  On condition that we always remember, at every moment, that in a situation like ours power can only prevent.  It can’t settle anything and it can’t solve anything.  It can only stave off disaster for a while.’”

The novel may be set in 1959, but the words above still resonate and give us pause to consider not only Israel’s dilemma or other political scenarios, but the use of power in social relationships as well.

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