There are no traitors, says Amos Oz, only those unafraid of change

Celebrated Israeli author discusses his latest book, ‘Judas,’ about Jesus and his controversial disciple, with 1950s Jerusalem as the backdrop

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Amos Oz, at home in Tel Aviv, discussing 'Judas,' his latest novel, released in English in September 2016 (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Amos Oz, at home in Tel Aviv, discussing 'Judas,' his latest novel, released in English in September 2016 (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Amos Oz, award-winning author, Nobel Prize nominee, raconteur of Israel’s stormy history and politics, answered his front door barefoot. He was dressed in a short-sleeved button-down — loose over navy blue trousers — with a pen tucked into his shirt pocket.

As the interview started, the family cat, a large, furry specimen, hopped over to the couch and the visitor, where he stretched himself out comfortably before settling into a soft, snoring sleep.

We were in Oz’s Tel Aviv apartment, in a high-rise building in the upscale Ramat Aviv neighborhood, where his unmarked doorbell brings visitors up to the 12th floor to a spacious living room area with a dining room table pushed against one wall and bookshelves full of his books.

Oz’s latest novel, “Judas,” occupies pride of place on the shelves just behind his head, with at least six different translations visible. He said it has already been translated into 15 languages, with 15 more in the pipeline.

Amos Oz has always spoken his mind; here, he is in a scene from 'Censored Voices,' the award-winning documentary about the Six-Day War based on the book he co-wrote (Courtesy 'Censored Voices')
Amos Oz in a scene from ‘Censored Voices,’ the award-winning documentary about the Six Day War based on the book he co-wrote (Courtesy ‘Censored Voices’)

The novel, a treatise from Oz on Judas Iscariot — the infamous disciple who, according to the New Testament, betrayed Jesus — is what has brought the writer to a series of promotional interviews in recent weeks, as the book’s English translation hits the shelves.

It’s his first novel in a decade, although he had been considering the story for many decades since he first read the New Testament as a 16-year-old boarding school student living in Kibbutz Hulda. At the time, said Oz, it had become clear to him that there was no way he could understand Renaissance art or the music of Bach or Dostoyevsky without reading the New Testament. Yet it wasn’t taught in Jewish schools, so he went in the evenings to the kibbutz library, where he read the bible page by page, most of it new to him.

‘There were several things that he and I disagreed with, like any two Israelis’

“I had heard of Jesus, of course, but I discovered that Jesus was full of charm, poetic, funny at times, tender, very human,” said Oz. “But, there were several things that he and I disagreed with, like any two Israelis. He believes in universal love, I don’t. I believe that love is a very rare commodity and a human is destined to love five, 10, 15 people at most. He had magnificent examples of anger, and he loses his temper. He forgets that he’s Jesus and I like that about him. It’s human.”

But when Oz reached the story of Judas and how the wealthy landowner ultimately brought Jesus to the cross, he grew very angry, because the story made no sense in detective terms.

“It’s an ugly story,” said Oz. “All those racial stereotypes; a good editor would have just taken it out of the book.”

It didn’t make sense that a rich man like Judas would have accepted so little money, just “30 pieces of silver” — worth roughly 600 euros in today’s terms — to sell his master, and he couldn’t understand why Judas hanged himself immediately after Jesus died on the cross.

Greek Orthodox priests hold palm fond in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, traditionally believed by many to be the site of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus Christ during Orthodox Palm Sunday, in Jerusalem, Sunday, April 5, 2015. (photo credit: AP/Ariel Schalit)
Greek Orthodox priests hold palm frond in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, traditionally believed by many to be the site of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus Christ during Orthodox Palm Sunday, in Jerusalem, Sunday, April 5, 2015. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

For Oz, Judas’s behavior and the shifts that took place in history after Jesus was crucified ended up causing more bloodshed than any other story. He blames history’s massacres, pogroms, the Inquisition and perhaps even the Holocaust on that series of events, likening it to a “Chernobyl of Western anti-Semitism,” a phrase he’s mentioned more than once in recent interviews.

Judas, of course, became the traitor. His very name, said Oz, became the synonym for the term. But Oz doesn’t believe that he intended to be a traitor.

Jesus does go to Jerusalem “to get crucified in the heart of the world, in prime time,” quipped Oz, but he thinks that Judas believed that Jesus would walk off the cross, that he wouldn’t die because he was God. It is when Jesus is dying on the cross, in agony, that Judas realizes what he had done and goes and hangs himself.

It’s a shocking message, admitted Oz.

“Even secular Christian readers are shocked,” he said. “It’s not easy reading for any Christian, even for those who never set foot in church.”

But like all of his seminal works, it’s one that Oz was committed to writing.

The English language cover of 'Judas,' Amos Oz's first novel in a decade (Courtesy Amazon)
The English language cover of ‘Judas,’ Amos Oz’s first novel in a decade (Courtesy Amazon)

Oz places his entire hypothesis about Judas in the hands of a character named Shmuel Ash, a young academic who answers an ad for a paid live-in companion of a lonely, aged man. It is 1959, a strange time in Jerusalem, and Ash ends up living in a dark, forbidding home, drinking “gallons of tea” and talking all the time with the two other characters who form the traditional triumvirate of Oz novels.

There is the old man, Gershon Wald, an early Zionist and admirer of David Ben-Gurion, and his daughter-in-law, Atalia, a sexy 40-year-old widow, with whom Ash falls in love. She is the daughter of Wald’s archnemesis, Shealtiel Abravenel, who wanted Ben-Gurion to renounce the idea of a Jewish state in order to try and live in peace with the Arabs. Her husband, Wald’s son, was tortured and killed in the war of 1948.

“This is a piece of chamber music — three unhappy people each unhappy in his or her own way, locked together in a rather claustrophobic house in Jerusalem,” said Oz. “And they talk, that’s what they do — talk and drink tea.”

Shmuel Ash offers his own story in the novel, said Oz.

“I think his story makes more sense,” he said. “His idea of Judas was really as the most devoted of all disciples, the only one who believes that Jesus cannot die. Shmuel’s version of Judas tells Jesus he must go to Jerusalem, that the Galilee and provincial miracles will never change the world.”

Aside from the detective story about Jesus and Judas, there are the other familiar elements of any Oz novel, including enigmatic characters, the complicated environs of Jerusalem, the endless questions about the State of Israel.

For Oz, however, it’s a mystery how it became an international bestseller.

“There is no violence, no Mossad agents, no Holocaust, no Palestinians, no settlements, no Russian tycoons,” he said. “There is some sex, but you have to wait for it. Three people sit in a room and talk all the time, and somehow in the course of the novel, three different generations and three totally different views of the world become very loose with each other, which is a kind of secular miracle to me.”

Natalie Portman, lower right, directing her adaptation of Amos Oz's autobiographical novel, 'A Tale of Love and Darkness,' on the streets of Jerusalem last year (Yonatan Sindel/Flash 90)
Natalie Portman, lower right, directing her adaptation of Amos Oz’s autobiographical novel, ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness,’ on the streets of Jerusalem last year (Yonatan Sindel/Flash 90)

The characters, said Oz, are not “clay puppets,” but rather develop a personality that persists in being “what they are and not necessarily what I think they should be.”

He likened it to being pregnant, imagining that when a baby is inside a woman, it comes alive and isn’t “just another organ” but rather a being with its own personality and desires.

There is also treason, of various kinds, in “Judas.” There is the alleged treason of Judas; the treason of Ash, who abandons his loving parents in Haifa to adopt a new, temporary family in Jerusalem, made up of Atalia and Wald; the treason of Atalia’s father, in Wald’s eyes, against the fledgling Jewish state.

‘Treason is not very easy to define’

“Treason is not very easy to define,” said Oz. “In a sense, life itself is a treason, because we’re born of the dreams of our parents, and we can never live up to the magnitude of those initial dreams or our own early dreams.”

“We compromise, we settle for less; maybe this a form of treason, too,” he said. “Very often Shmuel Ash suggests that traitors are those who are ahead of their time in the face of contemporaries. People who fear change and people who do change are considered traitors.”

Perhaps Oz is referring to himself, having often been called a traitor for criticizing Israel, or to his friend Shimon Peres, who passed away hours after this interview, having spent years rethinking the goals and concepts of the State of Israel, changing the very vision he had as a younger man.

Israeli author Amos Oz spoke during the State funeral ceremony for late former President Shimon Peres at Mount Herzl, in Jerusalem, on September 30, 2016 (Photo by Emil Salman/POOL)
Israeli author Amos Oz speaks at funeral of former president Shimon Peres at Mount Herzl, in Jerusalem, on September 30, 2016 (Emil Salman/Pool)


Oz spoke at Peres’s funeral on Friday, referring to the former statesman’s “deep innocence,” the “innocence that is not the opposite of intelligence.”

“Because of his great dreams, people called him the dreamer,” Oz said, proceeding to compare him to the biblical Joseph. Like Joseph, “he saw most of his dreams come true.”

Oz says that while Peres’s innocence may have caused him to stumble in politics, he was a true diplomat. “There are those who say peace is not possible, but peace is essential and unavoidable” because neither the Israelis nor Palestinians are going anywhere.”

Israelis and Palestinians won’t be “honeymooning” anytime soon, he continued, “so there is no choice but to divide the land. Most people know this, but where are the brave leaders who will do it? Where are Shimon Peres’s successors?”

As for Oz’s own self in his characters, he said there is something of him in each of the three “Judas” characters, but that’s not unusual, given that everything he writes is in some way autobiographical, originating from things he’s heard or seen, dreamed, read or fantasized about.

What is familiar to readers of Oz’s previous works is the setting, Jerusalem of 1959, the years that were “the morning after,” said Oz, “after the cataclysm, after the euphoria, after the huge monumental changes unprecedented in Jewish history. The lines for chickens and eggs, the shortage of electricity, the bureaucracy, the long list for telephone lines.”

Jerusalem of Oz’s youth was a divided city, he added, with “barbed wire, minefields, walls, snipers. It was a very small city, yet with a kind of loose federation of different communities that on the whole coexisted very peacefully.”

“It was a divided city linked to the rest of Israel by a fairly narrow corridor, threatened almost daily,” said Oz. “Even before the State of Israel, it was a very tense and insecure place with uncertainty about the future when I was a little kid.”

Nobody talked to the young Oz about those uncertainties, but it was in the air. And that city, the city of his youth, the place where people came to get crucified, is another main character in the novel. But like the rest of the novel, it wasn’t easy to write.

‘People expect writers to hold the torch and light the way through different patches of history. Will they succeed?’

“I have been writing this novel for years and I despaired twice and came back to it with clenched teeth,” said Oz. “I thought it was too big for me.”

Now that it’s done, he’s on to his next project, but admitted that it’s all a lot harder at the age of 77.

“It’s getting harder and harder,” he said. “Writing a novel, unless you want to write the same novel again and again, which some successful writers do, if you want to write differently every time, it gets harder, not easier. Your foot on the accelerator becomes more hesitant and your foot on the brake pedal becomes heavier and heavier.”

Still, he will continue to write novels alongside his angry articles, which, he said, he pens with a different writing implement than the ones he uses for novels.

“I keep on essentially writing the same article for 55 years,” he said. “I don’t know of any way of measuring if I even moved a single grain of sand, but I do it. People expect writers to hold the torch and light the way through different patches of history. Will they succeed? Are they good guides or terrible guides? There’s no blanket answer.”

And with that, the interview is over. The cat awakens and I’m escorted out, through the door decorated with his grandchildren’s artwork, while Oz returns to his study, done, for now, with traitors and saviors.

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