The fanatic within

At a time when the lamps are once again going out, not only in Europe but across the world, I’ve been heartened by Dear Zealots, one of the last essays written by Amos Oz (1939-2018). Because of his work as an Israeli novelist and peace activist, reviews have tended to see this little book through the prism of the Arab-Israeli conflict, but the reach of Oz’s vision is universal. Dear Zealots is about fanaticism of all kinds, whether the origin is religious, racial, ideological or even social. Oz is concerned with the mind that sees redemption in a single cause, reducing the complex reality of individual experience to binary codes of right and wrong. His fanatic is a perverted idealist, dedicated to converting others to their salvationist belief – and eliminating them if they prove to unwilling to change .In their dream, redemption requires a world cleansed of difference. That path leads always to violence, since difference is intrinsic in human beings, and so the fanatic’s dream becomes the other’s nightmare.

“One of the distinct hallmarks of the fanatic is his fervent desire to change you so that you will be like him. To convince you that you must immediately convert, abandon your world and move into his. The fanatic does not want there to be any differences between people. He wants us all to be ‘as one’. He desires a world with no curtains drawn, no blinds shuttered, no doors locked, no shadow of a private life, for we must all be one body and one soul. We must all march together in threes, on the path ascending to redemption.”

Dear Zealots, Amos Oz, 2017

This way of thinking is applied not just to religious or nationalist ideologies, but to every belief that defines and divides people: the relationship between the sexes, attitudes to animals, global warming, sexuality, Brexit – the list is long indeed. Oz argues that force cannot end fanaticism, although he accepts that violence may be a necessary response to aggression.

“One can almost never vanquish an idea, twisted as it may be, simply by using a big stick. There must be a response; there must be an opposing idea, a more attractive belief, a more persuasive promise.”

Dear Zealots, Amos Oz, 2017

Our recent past is, among other things, defined by the inability of progressive politics to find ‘a more persuasive promise’ after the failure of socialism in the countries that adopted it during the 20th century. Neoliberalism has failed too, and been rejected by large majorities who understand it to have made their lives worse in the ways that matter most. But the alternatives now offered them— ‘whether from a thirst for power or a thirst for capital’ in Oz’s words—reduce the world to black and white, and fuel the fanaticism that defines others as the only obstacle to a promised and deserved paradise on earth. And so the public space has become filled with levels of outrage, hate and aggression that I have never before witnessed. What is the answer? For Amos Oz the novelist, it can be found in the imaginative empathy that art—at its best—strives for:

“We must try to imagine the inner world, both intellectual and emotional, of the other. To use our imagination even in times of strife. To use it also primarily in moments when we feel a surge of fury, insult, loathing, righteousness and the certainty that we have been wronged and that justice is entirely on our side. Perhaps also to ask, once in a while: What if I were her? or him? or them? To step, for a moment, into the Other’s shoes and under his skin, not in order to cross the river will be ‘reborn’, but simply to understand, to sense, what is there. What is beyond the river? What do they have in their head? How did they feel over there? And what do we look like from there? […]. Perhaps, indeed, in curiosity lies the prospect of openness and tolerance.”

Dear Zealots, Amos Oz, 2017

As well as being curious and imaginative, Oz wants us to laugh, especially at ourselves. Fanaticism, he says, cannot survive humour. In what might seem a throwaway remark, he points out the deeper truth: that the possibility of change is only ever in ourselves. The essay’s title is a trap. Dear Zealots would seem to be a letter addressed to other people, those across the river we are encouraged to fear and hate, those who must change. But we can only change ourselves—and accepting that is the best inoculation against fanaticism. Resistance to evil is a duty and a burden, and it starts with ourselves. It’s also where we can do the most good and the least damage.

Contending with fanaticism does not mean destroying all fanatics, but instead cautiously handling the little fanatic who hides, more or less, inside each of our souls. It means ridiculing, just a little, our own convictions as well, being curious, and trying to take a peek, from time to time, not only through our neighbour’s window but also, more importantly, at the reality viewed from that window, which will necessarily be different from the one seen through our own. 

Dear Zealots, Amos Oz, 2017


  1. Thank you for holding up a torch for reason and compassion towards everything, reminding us to always being open to listen to other people’s ideas. Brexit seems to be our just reward for failing so many people in this country. As for action around Climate Change, I am trying to not be fanatical but much more aware of my own behaviour and quietly proactive.

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