Amos Oz is one of Israel’s best known authors, and one of the most controversial. At 77, he is widely considered as the godfather of Israeli peaceniks. After fighting in the 1967 Six-Day War, he was the first Israeli to call publicly for the creation of an independent Palestinian state in the newly occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. “Even unavoidable occupation,” he wrote, “is a corrupting occupation.” His opposition to Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, led to his co-founding Peace Now in 1978.
For most of his life, Oz has been an admirer of Jesus, whom he called “one of the greatest Jews who ever lived.” His view aligned with that of his is great-uncle, the scholar Joseph Klausner, who reclaimed Jesus as a Jew in his 1921 book, Jesus of Nazareth, which scandalized Jews and Christians alike.
Oz has long been fascinated by Judas, who, in the Middle Ages became the archetypal Jewish villain for allegedly betraying Jesus. His new novel, Judas, set in Jerusalem in the winter of 1959, wrestles with the question: Are traitors always bad?
“Anyone willing to change,” insists his central character, Shmuel Ash, “will always be considered a traitor by those who cannot change.”
In contemplating the motivations of a Judas, Oz brilliantly interweaves the ancient Judas story, with the history of Zionism, and the fictional Shmuel, a disheveled, overweight student who was forced to drop out of an unnamed university because his parents could no longer pay the tuition.
It is a story of desire and unrequited love. After his girlfriend dumps him for her former boyfriend and he has all but given up hope, Shmuel spots a job notice seeking an intellectual companion for an elderly religious scholar, Gershom Wald, who lives on the western fringe of a then divided Jerusalem. Shmuel takes the job, eager for the solitude that living in an attic of an old stone house would provide. Instead, he becomes obsessed with an older woman—Atalia Abravanel—who runs the house.
As Shmuel tries to win over this enchanting woman, he learns that her father—Wald’s son—was the renegade politician, Shealtiel Abravanel, “a kind of one-man opposition” in the late 1940s – a modern Judas. Although a Zionist, Abravanel advocated Jewish-Arab co-existence, detested the “archaic, primitive, murderous delusion” of nationalism, and rejected “the pretentious idea of setting up a separate state for Jews.
The New Testament Judas of Oz’s novel is sent as a spy by the Sanhedrin (the Jewish authority in Jerusalem under Roman rule) to infiltrate the inner circle of Jesus – a preacher in distant Galilee who attracted an enthusiastic following with his miracles and reinterpretation of what it means to follow God.
Even more than Jesus himself, Judas becomes an ardent believer in the divinity of the preacher. It is Judas who encourages Jesus to take his message to Jerusalem, and who presses the High Priest to have Jesus crucified, in the belief he will rise from the dead. When, according to Judas, that doesn’t happen, he sees himself as the only true Christian and hangs himself from a tree.
The legacy of the fictional Shealtiel Abravanel seems to haunt the three inhabitants of Gershom Wald’s eccentric household. Their conversations juxtapose the story of Judas with that of Abravanel, who suspects David Ben-Gurion, the leader of the Jewish community in Palestine, of having a messiah complex.
In Oz’s telling, Abravanel has close ties with the local Arab population and proposes that Jews and Arabs live side-by-side as equals in a country under international control. His colleagues reject the idea and accuse him of conspiring with the enemy. They label him a traitor and force his resignation from the executive committee. He lives out his life as a Judas – “a prophet without honor in his own land…. probably the most lonely and most hated man in Israel.” Shut away in the gloomy stone house, he is killed in a brutal ambush during Israel’s War of Independence.
On one level, Judas is a tale about Shmuel’s unrequited love for Atalia. On a deeper level, the book reflects the politics and experience of Amos Oz himself, who has been branded a traitor by some of his fellow Israelis in reaction to his criticizing the Israeli government for refusing to work toward a two-state solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Oz’s novel seems to be saying that some figures condemned as traitors may, in fact, be a prophets, pointing the way toward a future filled with hope and possibility.
Rabbi Robert Orkand, who retired from the pulpit rabbinate in 2013, lives in the Boston area. He is immediate past-chair of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America.