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Employing Language in the Service of Peace

Amos Oz Knows Words Can Heal as Well as Wound


PRINCETON, N.J. — In a world made of words, Amos Oz uses his carefully.

An Israeli novelist and peace activist, Oz believes that choosing words carefully is a moral responsibility. Words create conceptions and self-conceptions and ultimately nations. They can start and stop wars. They can wound and heal.

"Each time and each place human beings are referred to as undesirable aliens, burdens or parasites, it's only a question of time before those humans will be actually persecuted," Oz says in his soft and thoughtful voice. "It's always a certain distortion of language which heralds impending atrocities. Hence, the particular responsibility for the choice of words."

One of Israel's preeminent intellectuals, Oz has written words that are part of the consciousness of a Jewish nation--a state still unfinished. In fact, Israel is experiencing one of its most volatile moments. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu barely has control of his government. He has been criticized by both foreigners and citizens for stalling, if not reversing, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Soon, Oz will return to this turmoil, which he regards as constant. For the last five months, he has been away from his home on the edge of the Negev desert and living in America, teaching Hebrew literature at Princeton University and promoting his 19th book, a novel, "Panther in the Basement" (Harcourt Brace).

Offering an explanation for the constancy of Israel's chaos, "Panther in the Basement" shows how nations are the creation of various cultural narratives. In the novel, Oz suggests how Israel--an imperfect yet remarkable building that is under construction while its blueprint is still being drawn--is a good example of the architecture of all nations. It is an uneasy coalition of conflicting and mutually exclusive master plans.

His narrator and protagonist, a 12-year-old boy, discovers how his private life is inextricably linked to the public world that swirls around him in the period before Israel became independent. His naivete not only creates humor and poignancy, but also unwittingly sheds light on the fictitious nature of all national narratives. Fascinated by words, he changes from a blind patriot, enslaved to slogans, to an empathetic skeptic who understands the malleability of language.

"Precision is a value," says Oz, sitting back in a wooden chair in a quiet room at Princeton. He is casually dressed in corduroy pants, a pullover sweater and sneakers. At 59, his short, gray hair is combed back from his tan and weathered face. He puts his hands behind his head and narrows his sky-blue eyes.

"The moment we are precise with our nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs, we are closer to doing justice, in a small way. Not universal justice. Not international justice. But the way I describe a person, a mode of behavior or even an inanimate object, the closer I am to the essence, the more I evade either exaggeration or incitement. . . . Words are important because they are one of the main means by which humans do things to each other. Saying is doing."

Oz keeps two different-colored pens on his desk. With one, he writes polemical articles. With the other, he writes fiction that does not offer answers.

His work in both genres has helped the cause of peace in the Middle East. His articles generate political arguments. His novels dramatize the creative urge even though they do not hold any conclusions.

"[But] in a very indirect, meta-political way," he says, "my novels may enhance tolerance and the ability to imagine the other. Now, imagining the other can be an indirect contribution to conflict management."

For Oz, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an ancient, bloody battle between two valid claims.

"It is a painful and complex story of tension and uneasiness," he said at a recent public appearance in New York. "It is a tragedy, not a Western movie."

Politically from the left, Oz is a leading figure in Peace Now, a movement committed to peace and security for Israel. He wants both sides to compromise, not for the sake of justice, but for the sake of life.

"The good news is that the cognitive block that had existed between Israel and Palestine is gone," he said. "For many decades, Palestinians and other Arabs maintained that Israel was a passing infection or nightmare. Many Israelis maintained for many decades that the Palestinian issue is just a vicious invention of a pan-Arabic propaganda machine aimed at embarrassing Israel. Now both sides know that the other is real.

"It is like waking from a surgery, and there has been an amputation, and both sides are screaming and bleeding. We need to maintain a surgical attitude toward peace: We are going to have crises and relapses. But this patient, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is now being treated."

Oz believes that amid Israel's current political crises, Mideast peace should take priority over changing the Israeli government.

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