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A novel providing peace

Emily Holman


Amos Oz
Chatto & Windus
288 pp






It’s the day of the changing of the season and the clocks in Israel and Palestine, a day after Jewish prayer begins to include a plea for rain, and, obediently, the first rains have already fallen. In a Benedictine church in Jerusalem, an Israeli author is being awarded for his significant contribution to Jewish-Christian dialogue. A large congregation of religious, including the apostolic nuncio, laity, academics, students, aspiring writers, and above all, readers, gather in the Dormition Church on Mount Zion to watch the ceremony and hear the famous writer’s acceptance speech.

Amos Oz is one of Israel’s most famous writerly exports, along with David Grossman, who won the Man Booker International Prize earlier this year, and was given the same award Oz is receiving now back in 1989. They’re the only two authors to have received the Mount Zion Award since it was established in the eighties. The prize is awarded biannually to individuals or organisations working for greater understanding between Jews, Muslims, and Christians in Israel/Palestine. What does it mean for an author to receive it?

The Rev. Dr Nikodemus Schnabel OSB made it clear in his opening speech that what writers contribute is significant. “Interreligious dialogue could be more fruitful if we listened more to the artists”, he said, continuing that artists can teach us more about both mankind and God. Oz’s award is not for a general contribution during his lifetime’s work as a novelist, but for his most recent novel, Judas, published in 2014 and shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2017. Judas reconsiders notions of treachery and betrayal, suggesting that Judas might have been Jesus’s most loyal follower, the disciple who believed in him more than anyone else: might even have been the first, and last, Christian. The novel, that is, furthers Judeo-Christian understanding: the Mount Zion Award, after all, is given on the anniversary of Nostra Aetate, a Vatican II document that signalled a significant shift in the Catholic Church’s attitude towards other religions, especially Judaism. In his Laudatio speech, Dr Clemens von Goetze emphasised that the figure of Judas has been a pivotal point of contention in Jewish-Christian relations over centuries. In readdressing the figure of Judas, Oz’s book forms a call for dialogue and approaching one another.

“Books are bridges which lead to essential questions of religion, history, and culture”, he said, listing a multitude of questions that Judas opens up. The book is not offering easy answers to all these questions, von Goetze stated; instead, it inspires us to ask these questions, and to ask them as a mode of dialogue. He also rightly pointed out that the book is about more than the story of Judas. The novel’s protagonist is Shmuel Ash, a young student who drops out of university, taking up a job as a live-in companion to the elderly Gershom Wald. Atalia Abravanel, Wald’s daughter-in-law, also lives in the house, and her developing closeness with Shmuel allows a story about her father, an Israeli who was derided as an “Arab lover” and traitor, to emerge. Treachery is at the book’s heart, and the parallels with Judas and Jesus add dimensions to an already powerful story invoking loyalty and betrayal.

Listening to the speeches about Oz’s achievement, I wondered what it means to offer this prize, which is given to those who have decisively contributed to peace, to a novelist. It isn’t straightforwardly that Oz has offered a new portrayal of Judas; that’s been done before, not least by a fourteenth-century Dominican and saint, Vincent Ferrer, who argued that Judas had done the will of God in betraying Christ. In 1937 Hebrew writer A. A. Kabak published a fictional retelling of Jesus’s life in which Judas’s betrayal is an act of the utmost loyalty, committed by a man willing to accept vilification for posterity in a faithful act of service to a divine plan. And Jesus Christ Superstar, a widely beloved rock opera, provides the final days of Christ’s life from Judas’s perspective.

As I listened I thought about the paradoxical fact that the prize isn’t really to do with subject-matter. The achievement of a novel is its form; in the case of this novel, it’s about how the words call readers to a different way of thinking about issues they tend to believe are closed. That a novel’s form is what constitutes its triumph is not a controversial perspective, but I’m continually intrigued by how difficult it is to put that effectively. The difference literature makes ends up being spoken of as an issue of content or theme or character; the buzzword over this last decade or so has been empathy. But, as Rowan Williams has argued, empathy can verge on appropriation, taking on someone else’s feelings, when we can’t know how someone else feels, and the idea that we can undermines the mysterious, unknowable complexity of each person—quite the opposite of what good literature accomplishes, in fact.

Oz’s achievement isn’t in writing about Judas. It isn’t even in making us able to imagine what it might have been like to be the man who kisses his lord to betray him. It’s Oz’s ability to create a world that shows up our simplistically delineated concepts for what they are, and prompts us to think again about how we use language to distinguish our behaviours and attitudes from those of the others, the villains, them over there, that the Mount Zion Foundation is celebrating in his work. In his acceptance speech, Oz spoke of the ‘moral value and virtue of curiosity’. He didn’t mention empathy, and I liked the shift: curiosity is an attitude, something that always seeks to know, while recognising that it cannot know, that there is always more to discover. Judas is a complex novel, and its power is not its plot or theme, but the sonorous depth of its shifting voices, its evocations of moral quandaries and fervent emotions, the mounting intimations of a mode of belief that requires betrayal in order to be faithful. Perhaps it’s only writers who can create the suggestion of revelation. Either way, let’s hope that more authors are recognised for the real-world accomplishments of their fictions.


Emily Holman is a postdoctoral fellow in literature at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute in Jerusalem.