Judas, the final novel of the Israeli author Amos Oz, published three years before his death in 2018, is set in a cold and bleak Jerusalem during the winter of 1959-60.
Its vividly described characters are Shmuel Ash, a shambolic lefty student in his old duffel coat, with an ungainly posture and uncombable hair and beard on which he sprinkles baby talc; Gershom Wald, an elderly, infirm man confined to his bedroom who needs sparring partners to argue with; Atalia Abravanel, a beautiful woman in her mid-forties who lost her husband, Gershom Wald’s son, in the 1948 war; and her deceased father, Shealtiel Abravanel, in whose gloomy house the father- and daughter-in-law live. It is Shealtiel Abravanel’s political ideas that continue to haunt the old house as if they were his ghost.
Shmuel, dumped by his girlfriend and deciding to give up his university studies – an MA dissertation on “Jewish views of Jesus” – answers a job advert pinned on a university notice board. In exchange for board and lodging and modest salary the successful applicant will keep an elderly man company and engage him in conversation for five hours every evening. This is Gershom Wald and it is his daughter-in-law Atalia who is recruiting for the post. Shmuel accepts the job and so begins his search for answers to questions that are buried in the recent past.
Oz said that all his books are about families or, more specifically, unhappy families. We learn of Shmuel’s childhood in which he lacked for nothing other than the warmth of an affectionate family and a bedroom of his own – he slept in the corridor of his parent’s flat. Through Atalia, we find out that her principled father of ideals was not really cut out for fatherhood. The oppressive atmosphere of the old Jerusalem house is a lingering reminder of the tense relationship between Atalia’s father and her father-in-law, particularly after the death of her husband.
But the main theme to emerge against the backdrop of families is that of betrayal. Or, more precisely, how an accepted account of betrayal can be rendered ambiguous when we hear alternative viewpoints.
Two parallel stories of betrayal run through the book and are revealed gradually like a detective novel. One, based on Shmuel’s abandoned academic research, is the existence of an alternative narrative to Judas Iscariot’s betrayal of Jesus. The trope of the perfidious Jew may have arisen from a misinterpretation of Judas’ actions. Sent to spy on Jesus, he became the most loyal and devoted of his disciples. Judas believed so fervently in the divinity of Jesus that he convinced him to demonstrate it through the act of crucifixion in order to gain more followers.
Contrary to Judas’ own conviction, Jesus did not survive the crucifixion and Judas hanged himself in despair. It was not a betrayal but rather an act of sheer love, devotion and faith.
The other parallel story is a more contemporary one. It unfolds as Shmuel investigates questions that arise from his conversations with Gershom Wald and Atalia with whom he cannot resist falling in love. Shmuel asks Atalia about her father early on in the book:
“Abravanel? Such an aristocratic name… I seem to recall that there was someone called Shealtiel Abravanel here in Jerusalem in the ‘40s? A member of the Executive of the Jewish Agency? Or a member of the National Council? If I remember rightly he was the only one to oppose the creation of the state? Or else he was only opposed to Ben-Gurion’s approach? … I have an idea he was a kind of one-man opposition? And afterwards Ben-Gurion ousted him from the leadership, so he wouldn’t get in his way. Or maybe I’m muddling up two different people?”
The answers to these questions blend fact with fiction in a way that tells a tragic backstory to the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. These are at the core of the book.
David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of the new state, is the only non-fictional name to appear in the novel. However, the fictional characters seem to be a fascinating tangle of actual personalities of the time. Shealtiel Abravanel closely mirrors the real Judah Magnes, president of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem when it was under the British mandate (1918-1948).
Both the fictional Abravanel and the real Magnes proposed alternatives to partition that were grounded in cooperation with the indigenous Arab population. Without such arrangements they predicted a never-ending spiral of war and bloodshed would be unleashed. Both Abravanel and Magnes were branded as traitors for propagating such views.
Gershom Wald echoes the position of the philosopher Gershom Scholem, a professor at the Hebrew University. Both initially opposed partition but later embraced Ben Gurion as a realist and a ‘necessary evil’. The arguments between Gershom Wald and Shealtiel Abravanel on the creation of a Jewish state are reminiscent of those between Gershom Scholem and the political thinker Hannah Arendt. These predated their famous falling out in 1963 over her report on the Jerusalem trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the main organisers of the Holocaust, in which she coined the term ‘the banality of evil’.
The names Oz gives his fictional characters suggest that this entanglement of fact and fiction is a deliberate ploy rather than coincidence. A further hint lies in Shealtiel’s Sephardic surname Abravanel - its traditional spelling Abarbanel is the name of the Jerusalem street in which Gershom Scholem lived.
Where does Oz stand in this amalgamation of positions voiced by his characters? In a fictional discussion with Atalia on whether the nation state was an anachronism by 1948 and whether a new kind of political entity should have been pioneered in Palestine (a position held by Magnes and Arendt among others), Shmuel uses almost verbatim the words spoken by Oz in a 1982 interview. In it he justified the Jewish nation state given that nation states are still the norm and appear to be the only way to be safe in the world. Both express the need for a nation with “bars on its windows and bolts and locks on its doors”.
Shmuel adds that in 1948, when Israel was founded, there was no alternative but to fight because “we had our backs to the wall”. If this is Oz’s justification it is an ambiguous one – Atalia’s reply in the spirit of her father is: “No, you didn’t have your backs to the wall. You were the wall”.
Oz shows how one particular competing position within Zionism was eclipsed, discredited, written out of history even. There is little trace of it ever having existed. He suggests that Abravanel flushed all his notes down the toilet before he died. In reality the ideas still exist in the writings of Magnes, Arendt and others.
We are left to ponder whether it was unrealistic and ridiculously idealistic to hold such ‘lofty ideals’ as these characters did. Alternatively could it have been, as Arendt implored in her 1948 article “To save the Jewish homeland - there is still time” , that they offered realistic practical solutions?
For these factual and fictional characters there was only one feasible proposal for Palestine in order to avoid disaster. As Arendt succinctly put it: “Many opportunities for Jewish-Arab friendship have already been lost, but none of these failures can alter the basic fact that the existence of the Jews in Palestine depends on achieving it”.
Although nothing in human and political affairs is ever predictable and we cannot know what would have been if this other path had been taken, the cautionary words of Shealtiel Abravanel continue to haunt the present situation: "You’ll see. All this will hold for a few years at best. Two or three generations at the outside. Not more".
Judas by Amos Oz is translated from the Hebrew by Nicolas de Lange and published by Vintage.
Stefanie Borkum completed her PhD in 2018. After that she vowed never to write anything longer than book reviews.