Author Amos Oz, in S.F. talk, celebrates a contentious Israel

"Our day of atonement would become England's final day of judgment," one of the boys, now 58, recalled.

Luckily, the English escaped disaster by "putting up beforehand," ceding the Jewish state, said the grown boy, Amos Oz, during a speech on Thursday of last week at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco.

The novelist, who is best known for aiming verbal missiles at Israel's right wing, was in San Francisco to address an educational symposium sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council and other Jewish agencies. The daylong event commemorated Israel's 50th anniversary.

A crowd of about 250 attended the talk on Thursday of last week at the St. Francis Hotel. Oz is a leading literary figure in Israel as well as a noted peace activist.

If he was 10 in 1948, one would expect him to be middle-aged today.

That's not how he sees himself.

"Being an Israeli of my age is the equivalent of being a 326-year-old American. I have known George Washington and I have been at the Boston Tea Party.

"So you must treat me like a wise old sage," he quipped.

And, in fact, no one challenged his assessment of the country that has matured along with him. After years of writing social and political commentary about Israel, Oz said no period of history is as exciting to him as the present. He sees it as having the historical significance of the eras in which the Talmud was created and Chassidism was born.

This moment, he explained, is the culmination of all that Israel has become. While some may not be able to see past the country's current political tensions to appreciate the moment, Oz says it is precisely those debates that represent the vital essence of Israel.

"I wish you people would stop looking at this as a crisis and begin to look at it as it. This is it — Jewish civilization."

He acknowledged that such debates have cut down one prime minister and led a couple renegade Jews to kill. But compared to the bloody revolutions of other Western countries, democracy in Israel has been relatively bloodless.

Foreign correspondents have been asking Oz, "When are you going to provide us with a juicy, little Jewish war like in Belfast?" he said.

"They are blind," Oz shrieked. "The Israeli civil war has been going on for decades, but we are fighting by giving each other ulcers and heart attacks everywhere.

"Israel today is neither a nation or a country but a fiery collection of arguments — 6 million prime ministers, 6 million messiahs, 6 million prophets," he said.

"Israel stepped right out of a [Federico] Fellini film."

As if it were an aside, Oz conceded that he was no fan of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But while right-wingers have accused him of being a Palestinian apologist, Oz countered, "[Neither do] I acknowledge Mr. Arafat as my Ho Chi Minh or myself as his Jane Fonda."

Rather than plunge too far into that argument, he returned to his passionate analysis of Israeli society. He praised the artists and intellectuals for their contribution to the debate.

"They are the ones doing the [real] spiritual challenging. All this represents an awesome moment in Jewish history," he said.

Oz ventured no daring predictions about the future, but closed humbly: "I want to be cautiously optimistic about Israel's future. I don't promise paradise."

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.