The Burden of Israeli Strength
Where the Jackals Howl, Amos Oz’s newly reissued 1965 story collection, questions the virtues of toughness
In 1954, the 15-year-old Amos Klausner moved from his family home in Haifa to a kibbutz called Hulda. There he changed his last name to Oz, the Hebrew word for “strength” or “might.” As Amos Oz, he became one of Israel’s most famous writers—his latest book, Jews and Words, co-written with his daughter Fania Oz-Salzberger, is due out this fall. He is also widely known as one of the most effective voices on the Zionist left; though the Klausner family was one of the mainstays of right-wing Revisionist Zionism, Oz has been calling for a two-state solution since 1967 and was one of the founders of Peace Now.
The exchange of a European name for a Hebrew one was a right of passage for the first generations of Palestinian Jews: David Grun became David Ben-Gurion; Isaac Jeziernicky became Yitzhak Shamir. Oz belongs to the next generation of Israelis, the first native-born generation, who earned the nickname Sabra, after a cactus, for their prickliness and toughness. Those qualities have earned Israelis the sometimes ambivalent admiration of American Jews, who are inclined to a feel a little soft in the face of Israeli steeliness. But it is surely impossible to take upon yourself the burden of the name “strength,” as Oz did, without paying some kind of psychic price. What does it mean to be born into a country, and into an ideological movement, where strength is the ultimate virtue? How do the children of Zionism live up to its necessary demands and its nearly superhuman legacy?
These are the questions Oz canvassed in his first book, the story collection Where the Jackals Howl, which appeared in Hebrew in 1965 and has just been reissued in a new English edition by Mariner Books. Seven of its eight stories deal with the residents of an unnamed kibbutz in 1950s Israel. But the emotional tenor of the book is clearest in the eighth and longest story, “Upon This Evil Earth,” which expands on the biblical tale of Jephthah, from the Book of Judges. Jephthah is the warrior-judge who goes off to battle promising God that, in exchange for victory, he will offer as a sacrifice the first thing he sees on his return home. This turns out to be not an animal as he expected, but his own daughter, whom he duly kills.
As Oz tells the story, Jephthah becomes the spokesman for a whole line of wronged children in biblical history. Oz invents a back story for the daughter-slayer, imagining him as the illegitimate son of an Israelite and a foreign woman, persecuted by his siblings, who wants only to be accepted by his father and his father’s God. But isn’t the God of the Bible a notoriously unjust patriarch? “Once Jephthah asked the priest why God was more merciful to Abel and Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Ephraim, and why he preferred them to their elder brothers, Cain, Ishmael, Esau, and Manasseh: Surely all the evil in the scriptures came from God himself, surely it was to him that the blood of Abel cried from the earth.” There is no good answer to this question, and Jephthah grows up with an image of a terrifying God: “At night Jephthah dreamed of God coming heavy and shaggy, a bear-God with rapacious jaws who growled at him panting gasping and panting as though he were throbbing with lust or boiling rage.”
A traumatized father who sacrifices his child for military victory: The application to the Zionist family romance is only too clear. In fact, “Upon This Evil Earth” only makes explicit what Oz’s more realistic and contemporary tales have already implied. The world of the kibbutz, as Oz portrays it, is one constantly aware of being under threat. The howling jackals of the title are a reminder that just outside the guarded walls of the settlement predators roam, that the kibbutz is a fragile man-made oasis in a wilderness: “The inner circle, the circle of lights, keeps guard over our houses and over us, against the accumulated menace outside. But it is an ineffective wall, it cannot keep out the smells of the foe and his voices. At night the voices and the smells touch our skin like tooth and claw.” The atmosphere is very much like that of a Western, with the kibbutz functioning as an outpost in Indian territory, always waiting for the next attack.
Yet the violence that interests Oz in these stories is not that of the Jews’ enemies. We hear of battles with Arabs and reprisal raids, but the only actual Arab characters in the book are the Bedouins who appear in “Nomad and Viper”—peripatetic tribesmen who do not threaten the kibbutz but merely steal crops and small tools. When violence erupts in this tale, it is committed by the Jews, determined to teach the Bedouins a lesson. In particular, Oz notes, it is the younger members of the kibbutz—his own generation, the Sabras—who are intent on fighting. Their elder and leader, Etkin, retains the idealism of the early Labor Zionist movement and warns against using force: “It was fitting, in view of the social gospel we had adopted, that we should put an end to this ancient feud. It was up to us, and everything depended on our moral strength.” To the young Rami, on the other hand, this is merely “rubbish”; he leads his peers out of the room, on their way to commit an attack Oz leaves ominously undescribed.
The triumph of strength and toughness, in other stories in Where the Jackals Howl, is an unqualified disaster—above all, for Jews who find themselves unable to live up to it. In “The Trappist Monastery,” the whole kibbutz bows down before the soldier Itcheh, a military hero whom “the Divisional Commander himself once described … as the spiritual brother of the warriors of King David … or of the Gideonites and Jephthahites.” Yet Itcheh “was a king,” Oz shows, not just in his heroism but in his brutish, arrogant treatment of fellow soldiers and women. Nahum Hirsch, a medical orderly who idolizes Itcheh, fantasizes about the soldier getting shot so that he can save his life and then ends up actually endangering both their lives. The story is a wonderful portrait of the strange forms obsession, jealousy, and admiration can take and of the self-contempt of the civilian in a warrior society.
But the story that best captures this dynamic is “The Way of the Wind,” which reads like a psychological retelling of the Jephthah story. In it we meet Shimshon Sheinbaum, a “founding father” of the Hebrew Labor Movement who exemplifies the ideological rigidity of the pioneer generation—he is to be found “at his desk, summer and winter alike, with no concessions.” For his actual son Gideon, on the other hand, he has nothing but contempt: “He was a slow, bewildered child, mopping up blows and insults without retaliating. … He did not shine at work; he did not shine in communal life.”
To win his father’s approval, Gideon pulls strings to get into an elite paratrooper squad. He hopes to finally dazzle his neighbors when he takes part in a parachute drop over the kibbutz as part of Independence Day celebrations. But as he falls, he suddenly fears that his neighbors won’t recognize him among all the soldiers: “How will they be able to fix me and me alone with their anxious, loving gaze. Mother and Dad and the pretty girls and the little kids and everyone. I mustn’t just get lost in the crowd.” To make himself conspicuous, he decides to pull both the regular parachute cord and his safety chute. But the extra lift generated by the two chutes causes him to drift into an electric wire, where he dangles helplessly, until the public humiliation leads him to a terrible decision. The story unfolds with the slow inevitability of a nightmare, or better, of a Greek tragedy, in which parentage is character and character is fate. Almost 50 years after it first appeared, Where the Jackals Howl remains one of the most remorseless fictional X-rays of the Israeli soul.
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The Moby-Dick author sought spiritual connection on an 1857 Holy Land trip. He found dust and rocks instead.