Under This Blazing Light

The essays collected in UNDER THIS BLAZING LIGHT were first published in Hebrew in 1979. Apart from the introduction, which appeared shortened in TIME in 1993, they date from 1962 to 1978, and thus include the Six Day War and the 1973 conflict (“Yom Kippur”) but not the Palestinian Intifada, which had yet to crank up. The essays reflect on what it means to live in a nation of five million surrounded by 100 million enemies, and how difficult it is to escape racism, hysteria, xenophobia, and chauvism, especially when the small nation repeatedly defeats its enemies. Lucid, undogmatic, humane, skeptical, hopeful, they may be considered variations on Oz’s recurring theme, “Wherever there is a clash between right and right, a value higher than right ought to prevail, and this value is life itself.” This theme runs through the essays and permeates their literal and figurative centerpiece “The Meaning of Homeland,” longest of the essays. In it, Oz, an unbeliever, sets out what it means to be at once a political Zionist and one who rejects the definition of Israel as the realization of the three-thousand-year-old mythology regarding the ancient pre-Diaspora kingdoms of David and Solomon, the first Temple, and the Jewish commonwealth.

Decades before the current uneasy truce, Amos Oz called for a recognition of the justice of the Palestinian cause and urged the land-for-peace position that has become the basis of the Israeli government’s negotiations with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). Yet Oz also writes of the survival of the Hebrew language and literature, a phenomenon, as in the Ireland of Yeats and Joyce, that parallels the drive to nationhood. Thus he celebrates writers and thinkers largely unfamiliar to the West but crucial to his understanding of himself and his country such as A. D. Gordon, Uri Greenberg, J. H. Bremer, S. Y. Agnon, “Mendele,” H. N. Bialik, and M. Y. Berdyczewski, all of whom plus others have made modern Hebrew literature, in Oz’s view, as explosive and exciting as the Elizabethan period.

The political and literary essays thus share the common theme of renewal. From his Kibbutz Hulda in the Negev, the city-shunning Amos Oz pursues his hope for an Israeli-Palestinian peace free of fanaticism and absolutes, one willing to settle for the “unsatisfactory, inconsistent compromise” life exacts of us if we would live at all with others.