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Employing Language in the Service of Peace

Amos Oz Knows Words Can Heal as Well as Wound

January 28, 1998|LISA MEYER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"It's not so much who is in the driver's seat," Oz says. "It's where the car is going. If it is going toward peace, I don't mind that Netanyahu stays there. Of course, I prefer a Labor government. But if it takes a right-wing government to make a breakthrough toward peace, I prefer that. It's very simple: The government is the vehicle. The peace is the destination."

America is not helping when it pressures Israel to continue withdrawing its troops from the occupied territories, Oz argues. Sympathy and support for both the Israelis and the Palestinians would be more effective.

"Much as I am eager to see Mr. Netanyahu out of office today, yesterday, the day before yesterday," he says, "I would hate to see this happen as a result of an American string-pulling."

If Oz had his way, nation-states would not exist. They are archaic, clumsy ideas, he says.

"I would be glad to live in a world where there are 500 different civilizations and thousands of languages and dialects and millions of local traditions and not a single nation-state. Trying to conduct this planet through a system of 160-something nation-states is as crude as trying to operate Kennedy Airport with candles."

Oz would like civilizations to form their identities around languages rather than around races, religions or passports.

"Because language is a mentality," he says. "And people who speak the same language--no matter how divided they are politically, ideologically and religiously--are capable of actually living together, happily or unhappily."

But his most recent novel asks the question: What does it mean to belong to a nation? "Is belonging simply confirming all the existing narratives around you? Or can you belong while challenging some of the narratives? Can you define yourself without those narratives? Can you define yourself with those narratives imposed on you?"

In keeping with his artistic technique, Oz leaves the question as an answer.

In Israel, a land of immigrants and a profusion of cultural narratives, Oz is accustomed to questions. And it is this contentious atmosphere that has broadened his perspective to the point where his words speak to people all over the world. His work has been translated into 26 languages. Back home, he is a professor of Hebrew literature at Ben Gurion University of Negev.

"A certain joy and eagerness and satisfaction and relief are generated when we suddenly discover that some person in a faraway place where we have never set foot, or in a faraway time, long before we were born, has certain secrets which are precisely our secrets," Oz says. "That is a comfort, a relief, a satisfaction and a joy. And if my novels can from time to time generate this feeling in a reader in a faraway country and a faraway culture, then I'm a lucky man."

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