Amos Oz, Israeli Author and Peace Advocate, Dies at 79

Orbituary by By Isabel Kershner published in the The New York Times

JERUSALEM — Amos Oz, the renowned Israeli author whose work captured the characters and landscapes of his young nation, and who matured into a leading moral voice and an insistent advocate for peace with the Palestinians, died on Friday. He was 79.

His death was announced by his daughter Fania Oz-Salzberger, who wrote on Twitter that he had died after a short battle with cancer, “in his sleep, peacefully.” She did not say where he died.

In recent years Mr. Oz had been living in Tel Aviv.

One of Israel’s most prolific writers and respected intellectuals, Mr. Oz began storytelling in his early 20s. He published more than a dozen novels, including “My Michael” and “Black Box,” as well as collections of short fiction, works of nonfiction and many essays. His work was translated into more than 35 languages.

His acclaimed memoir, “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” was first published in Hebrew in 2002 and became an international best seller. A movie based on the book, directed by and starring Natalie Portman, was released in 2016.

Among a generation of native Israeli writers that included A. B. Yehoshua and David Grossman, Mr. Oz wrote richly in modern Hebrew. The revival of that ancient language was extolled by the founders of the state as a crucial element in forging a new Israeli identity.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was in Brazil on Friday, described Mr. Oz as “one of the greatest authors” Israel has produced and said that he “deftly and emotionally expressed important aspects of the Israeli experience.”

Alluding to Mr. Oz’s piercingly eloquent left-wing advocacy, Mr. Netanyahu, a conservative, added, “Even though we had differences of opinion in many fields, I greatly appreciate his contributions to the Hebrew language and the renewal of Hebrew literature.”

Mr. Oz came into the world nine years before the state of Israel was established, in what was then Palestine under British rule, and his life spanned the country’s history. He weathered its upheavals and pried into its divisions like an angry, secular prophet.

His own soul was scored by early tragedy after his mother committed suicide when he was 12. Much of his writing revolved around intimate portraits of Israeli life laced with a sense of loss and melancholy.

“Without a wound,” he once said, “there is no author.”

Though a passionate voice for peace, Mr. Oz was not a pacifist and had no illusions about the hostile neighborhood in which Israel exists. He served in the military, fought in two wars as a reserve soldier in a tank unit and said it was sometimes necessary to use force in order to fight aggression, in the tradition of pragmatic Labor Zionism.

Soon after the 1967 Middle East war, in which Israel conquered the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, Mr. Oz began advocating for withdrawal and a two-state solution, meaning the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, long before the idea became mainstream.

In the late 1970s he helped found Peace Now, a left-wing group that formed during the negotiations for a peace treaty with Egypt.

With the weakening of the Israeli left in the wake of the violence of the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, which broke out in 2000, and the national shift toward the right, Mr. Oz’s voice seemed to become increasingly anachronistic. Critics on the far right called him a traitor.

Mr. Oz said there was nothing new in that. In a 2014 interview with the newspaper Yediot Ahronot on the occasion of the publication of his novel “The Gospel According to Judas,” published in English as “Judas” in 2016, Mr. Oz said that he was first branded a traitor as a child when he was seen associating with a British sergeant, and that he had been called a traitor since 1967.

“Sometimes — not always, but sometimes,” he said, “the title, traitor, can be worn as a badge of honor.” He suggested that he was in good company, citing others who had been so branded, including Winston Churchill, David Ben-Gurion, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin.

Nor was he immune to criticism from the far left. In a review of Mr. Oz’s last book, “Dear Zealot,” in the liberal newspaper Haaretz, Avraham Burg, a former politician who posits that the two-state solution is dead and calls for a single, binational Jewish-Palestinian state, wrote, “Oz, as a fanatic supporter of the two-state solution, tramples everything on the way to his expired solution.”

“Dear Zealot,” a slim volume published in 2017, is made up of three essays on the theme of fanaticism, which Mr. Oz termed the worst scourge of the 21st century. He described the book as loaded “with the conclusions of a whole life.”

Mr. Oz’s concern about zealotry in Israel and beyond was already pronounced nearly two decades ago. Days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks of 2001, he wrote in an opinion piece in The New York Times, “Being the victims of Arab and Muslim fundamentalism often blinds us so that we tend to ignore the rise of chauvinistic and religious extremism not only in the domain of Islam but also in various parts of the Christian world, and indeed among the Jewish people.”

While many Israelis blame the Palestinians for the impasse in the peace process, dismissing the Palestinian leadership’s willingness or ability to reach a deal, Mr. Oz held Israeli leadership accountable. And he rejected any notion of a one-state solution, saying he was not ready to live as a minority in what would inevitably become an Arab country.

In addition, Mr. Oz wanted the character of Israel to be defined by humanistic Jewish culture, not only by Jewish religion and nationality.

He was born Amos Klausner in Jerusalem on May 4, 1939, and his early years were spent in an atmosphere that was both scholarly and militant. His father, Yehuda Arieh Klausner, a librarian, and his mother, Fania Mussman, had immigrated from Eastern Europe. They met in Jerusalem. Though polyglots themselves, they insisted that their son speak only Hebrew.

Amos spent his childhood in the city in a suffocating, book-crammed apartment with a steady diet of what he called “blood and fire,” referring to his parents’ belief in the necessity of strength and power to establish and maintain the Jewish state. As a young teenager, two and a half years after his mother’s suicide, he rebelled and moved to Kibbutz Hulda, swapping his urban home for fresh air and a communal life. It was there that he changed his surname to Oz, Hebrew for courage.

He said he “decided to become everything his father was not.”

He completed his secondary education in Hulda and worked in the rolling farmland between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The hardy, pioneering characters of the Socialist kibbutz movement would later inhabit some of his novels.
In Hulda, he met Nily Zuckerman. They married in 1960. She and their three children, Fania, Galia and Daniel, survive him, as do several grandchildren.

After Mr. Oz completed mandatory military service in 1961, the kibbutz assembly sent him to study at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he received a B.A. in philosophy and literature.

Returning to Hulda after graduation, he settled into a routine of writing and farming. He also did guard and dining-room duty and taught in the kibbutz high school.

He fought in the 1967 and 1973 wars and spent a year as a visiting fellow at Oxford University.

After returning to Israel, the family moved from lush Hulda to the southern desert town of Arad, where the dry air was considered beneficial for their son, Daniel, who suffered from asthma. They made Arad their home for decades.

There, Mr. Oz described a daily routine of rising at 5 a.m., drinking coffee and going for a walk to breathe the desert air before settling down to write in his small basement study.
In a 2009 interview with The New York Times, he said he marked the separation between his political and literary writing by using pens with two colors of ink, one blue and the other black, that sat on his desk.

“I never mix them up,” he said of the pens. “One is to tell the government to go to hell. The other is to tell stories.”

Mr. Oz also became a professor in the department of Hebrew literature at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, in Beersheba.

He won some of the literary world’s highest honors, including the Goethe Prize and the French Knight’s Cross of the Légion D’Honneur. He was perennially considered a possible recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

In awarding him the prestigious Israel Prize in 1998, the judges wrote, “For some 35 years, in his writing he has accompanied the realities of Israeli life and expressed them uniquely as he touches upon the pain and ebullience of the Israeli soul.”

Politics often infused his literary efforts, and he sometimes used literature to explicate politics.

Torn by the 100-year conflict with the Palestinians, Mr. Oz told The New York Times in 2013: “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a clash of right and right. Tragedies are resolved in one of two ways: The Shakespearean way or the Anton Chekhov way. In a tragedy by Shakespeare, the stage at the end is littered with dead bodies. In a tragedy by Chekhov, everyone is unhappy, bitter, disillusioned and melancholy, but they are alive. My colleagues in the peace movement and I are working for a Chekhovian, not a Shakespearean conclusion.”

Two years later, as an act of protest against the government, he said he would no longer participate in Foreign Ministry events at embassies overseas.

Still, the strong feelings he professed for Israel never faded.

“I love Israel even when I cannot stand it,” he wrote in his last book. “Should I be fated to collapse in the street one day, I want to collapse in a street in Israel. Not in London, nor Paris, nor Berlin, nor New York. Here strangers will come and pick me up (and when I’m back on my feet, there will certainly be quite a few who would be pleased to see me fall).”

He added, “What I have seen here in my life is far less and far more than what my parents and their parents dreamed of.”