A prominent Israeli author reflects on the country’s founding — and future

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WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Now to the “NewsHour” Bookshelf for a novel about Israel by its internationally renowned writer, Amos Oz.

He joined Jeffrey Brown at the Center for Jewish History in New York, in a conversation recorded before the recent U.N. vote on Israeli settlements.

JEFFREY BROWN: The 1950s, the early years of the state of Israel, a time of hope for Jews who’d seen a dream come true, and fear about what the future might bring.

AMOS OZ, Author, “Judas”: This is the period of my own youth. And these were, in terms of Israeli history, the years of the morning after.

JEFFREY BROWN: So the country’s still young, but the question is, what now or what next?

AMOS OZ: The question is what now, but the question is also, have we gone wrong somewhere? Have we taken the wrong turn someplace?

JEFFREY BROWN: Amos Oz was born in Jerusalem in 1939. He spent many years living on a kibbutz, served in the Israeli army, and eventually became his country’s best known writer.

His new novel, “Judas,” his first in more than a decade, is set in Jerusalem in those early years, the story of three people at very different stages in their lives and attitudes toward the new state.

AMOS OZ: I wanted to explore, first and foremost, how three totally different human beings lived for three months in the same room, change and almost reshape one another.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you start with the notion of going back to this period of what might come next, or do you start with the characters? How does it happen?

AMOS OZ: Always characters first.

JEFFREY BROWN: Always?

AMOS OZ: And I walk around pregnant with the characters for a long time before I write a single sentence.

And when, inside my head or inside my guts, the characters begin to do things to each other, what they do to each other is the plot. And then I can start writing.

What do we do to one another? It’s the one and only subject of literature, if you really have to squeeze it in a nutshell.

JEFFREY BROWN: Betrayal is a key theme in this book, in the ancient sense, through one of the character’s studies of the biblical story of Jesus and Judas, and in modern Israel’s founding.

JEFFREY BROWN: The title is “Judas,” right?

AMOS OZ: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: And this all begins, I gather, out of an interest of yours in the life of Jesus.

AMOS OZ: Yes, but also out of huge, growing resentment to the ugly story about Judas, about the 30 pieces of silver, about the most notorious case in history about the God killing.

In some point in the novel, the protagonist, Shmuel Ash, who is obsessed with his story, he writes about Judas hanging himself. Thus died the first Christian and last Christian, the only Christian.

It’s a very provocative sentence. It doesn’t come from me. It comes from the protagonist. But it’s trying to reconsider the worst story ever told by anyone in human history.

JEFFREY BROWN: Amos Oz has been a strong critic of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and a longtime advocate for a two-state solution with the Palestinians. That’s made him a traitor in the eyes of some of his countrymen.

AMOS OZ: I wear these as a badge of honor, because it puts me in wonderful company. Many, many great men and women in history, prophets, statesmen, intellectuals, artists, were accused of treason by many of their own contemporaries.

JEFFREY BROWN: What is the job or role of a writer in a country like Israel?

AMOS OZ: I resent the very term “role of writers” or “role of literature.” I’m sorry.

I think the right term should be the “gift of literature,” not the “role of literature.”

JEFFREY BROWN: The gift?

AMOS OZ: Yes.

Makes us look one more time at some things which we have seen a million times, and we see them afresh. Or, sometimes, it makes us reconsider things that we were sure we knew or we were sure we were convinced of.

JEFFREY BROWN: But is it different in a country such as Israel?

AMOS OZ: I don’t think so, no. I don’t think so.

I think literature is based on the deep human need to hear stories and to tell stories. It doesn’t have to serve any other purpose.

JEFFREY BROWN: Oz’s most famous story may be his own, the 2004 autobiographical novel “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” which has now been made into a film by the actress Natalie Portman.

It’s a tragic family story of a mother who commits suicide, leaving behind her young son, and also a story of a country in its early years of statehood.

You have advocated a two-state idea long before it was a diplomatic solution, right? Is that two-state solution dead?

AMOS OZ: I don’t think so.

I don’t see any alternative to the two-state solution. It is 50 years now since I and a few of my colleagues first advocated the two-state solution. Fifty years is a long time in my life, but it’s a very short time in history.

Look, it’s very simple. There are two nations rightly claiming the same tiny land. They just don’t trust the other. There is a lack of courageous leadership on both sides.

You know, it’s like a patient knowing that he has to undergo a surgery, wanting to postpone it because it’s painful. But the doctors are cowards. They don’t have the guts to tell the patient, let’s do it now. The sooner, the better.

JEFFREY BROWN: You still have hope for it?

AMOS OZ: Of course, because I see no alternative.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Amos Oz, the new novel is “Judas.”

Thank you very much.

AMOS OZ: Thank you for having me. Thank you very much.

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