The shelf life of a newspaper article is often brief. But when Amos Oz, who died Friday at age 79 and was laid to rest Monday at the cemetery in his one-time home in Kibbutz Hulda, sat down in August 1967 to write an essay, he produced, just two months after the close of the Six Day War, a lasting document, a piece of writing that has endured as well as many of his works of fiction.
One can agree or disagree with his position on territorial expansion, while still marveling at the timing and the manner in which he marshaled his arguments.
The piece was published on August 22, 1967, in Davar — “the newspaper of the workers of the Land of Israel.” The font was tiny, resembling, in shape and size, a cramped rabbinic commentary.
Found on a stained reel of microfilm in the National Library — though it also exists in a far neater format here — the article is entitled “The Defense Minister / and Lebensraum” (merhav mihya in Hebrew; living space in English).
Oz was 28 when he wrote it. He had published a collection of short stories two years earlier and a debut novel the previous year and was still in the process of earning his writing time from the kibbutz. It was given reluctantly, and amid fierce debate. One old kibbutz hand said, “Young Amos may be the new Tolstoy, but he is too young to be a writer; let him work in the field until he’s 40, and then he knows something about life and he can write,” Oz told Vox Tablet in 2013.
Recently returned from the war, though, he managed to carve out some time. The writing is fluid and forceful and aimed squarely at the hero of the age, Moshe Dayan, and the settlement policies he espoused.
“During Defense Minister Moshe Dayan’s speech at a conference of Rafi Party activists and supporters,” Oz began, “the speaker expressed a line of thought that raises both alarm and amazement.”
Dayan’s August 10 address called for a “withdrawal” from the notion of returning territory in exchange for peace. Oz likened this stance to “a finance minister delivering a private speech against the annual budget,” and then suggested, in the genteel tones of 1967 Israel, that “no one is forcing him to shoulder the responsibility of a diplomatic policy that stands in such polar opposition to his own beliefs.”
The national mood at the time, Oz readily admitted, was leaning in the direction of Dayan. Israel had more than tripled its territory during the six days of the war, and the victory in June had many in the public likening the situation “to the days of Joshua Bin-Nun,” the disciple of Moses who led the Israelites into the Land of Canaan and oversaw its conquest.
Oz, though, was concerned and incensed. Above all, he reviled the phrase Dayan chose to justify his desire to hold on to territory: lebensraum. “I don’t know how Moshe Dayan’s voice did not tremble while employing that phrase, with all the harrowing memories it raises. Living space means one thing: disenfranchising the foreigner, the inferior ‘savage’ and making place for the superior and the civilized—the powerful.”
“Not for that did we fight. Israel’s living space is entirely before it: the wastelands of the Galilee and the Negev. We have no living space in the West Bank of the Jordan, because it is populated by a nation living on its land, even though it is currently a nation routed in battle. The expression ‘living space’ defiles our war. Our enemies were seemingly correct when they suspected… that behind the peace declarations upon our tongues lurked a need for expansion and annexation…”
Lebensraum was a phrase used by the Nazis to justify their expansionist policies.
The article is split into four parts. The first addresses Dayan’s assertion that Israel’s eastern border, as drawn by the old 1949 armistice line, was absurd. “Expansion will worsen the situation, for we will find ourselves ruling over a foreign population, against its will and (in violation of) its rights,” Oz wrote. “That sort of rule encompasses an absurdity that is far graver than the serpentine path taken by the armistice line with Jordan and Egypt.”
The only logic that ought to govern Israel’s policy in the West Bank, he argued in the second part, was the logic of demography. “True, there should be no withdrawal without a stable and established peace. For a month, a year, a generation we must remain as occupiers in the provinces that our hearts cry out for on account of their historic heft, but only so long as we remember: as occupiers. Without a choice. As a pressure tool for hastening peace. Not as redeemers and not as liberators… there is no land that is enslaved and no land that is liberated. People are enslaved and only as pertains to people does the word liberation cohere. We did not liberate Hebron and Ramallah and al-Arish, and we did not redeem their residents.”
He knew how popular Dayan’s sentiment was at the time and said clearly, “I fear that these simple matters may be heard among us as something approaching apostasy or treason…but I see no validity to the eternal annexation to Israel of certain provinces without the agreement of the residents.”
The war was not a jihad or a crusade; it was an attempt to guarantee Israel’s rights, liberties, and well-being, he wrote, and once that happens it will be incumbent upon Israel to uphold the rights of the Arabs of Palestine. “And I risk my life and add: this is true, too, of the residents of East Jerusalem.”
Finally, in a long passage that is still very much relevant in this current Israeli election cycle, he wrote that there are some who believe that if Israel would only annex the West Bank, the resistance among the residents would wane. He called this a “notion of vanity” and asserted that it was product of a worldview that sees the Arab as made of lowly material.
Looking ahead, he wrote, “The shorter the occupation, the better for us. Because even an imposed occupation is destructive. Even an enlightened and humane and liberal occupation is an occupation. I fear for the quality of the seeds we sow in the near future in the hearts of the occupied. More than that, I fear for the seed that is being sown in the heart of the occupiers. And the first signs are already recognizable now, on the fringes of society.”
The Davar reporter at the rally noted that Dayan’s speech was stopped repeatedly to accommodate the “rousing applause.” I fear, Oz wrote, that the report was accurate. “I fear that we are encircled by the thrill of victory and that it is the thrill that gnawed at the roots of great nations until it flipped the wheel upon them.”