The betrayal of the first Christian: was Judas really a traitor?

The former Archbishop of Canterbury considers the complicated “traitor” revealed in Amos Oz’s new novel, Judas.

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Whatever careless or malicious generalisations may tempt people to see Israel as some kind of ideological monolith, the reality is that it still harbours a more ferocious internal argument about its nature and vocation as a state than perhaps any other country in the world. Amos Oz has long been a vocal participant in that argument, and his latest novel (translated with elegance and clarity by Nicholas de Lange) approaches it afresh by an unexpected route.

The central figure, the appealingly clumsy and innocent Shmuel, is a left-wing radical in Jerusalem in 1959-60 who finds lodging and a kind of employment in the household of Gershom Wald, an ageing intellectual who pays him for a fixed number of hours of conversation each day. Wald’s widowed daughter-in-law, Atalia, acts as his housekeeper alongside her work as a private investigator; for Shmuel, she is a tantalising, enigmatic and erotic presence throughout the narrative. Shmuel learns that Atalia’s father (once Wald’s closest friend) was the notorious Shealtiel Abravanel (the family name is that of one of the most celebrated Sephardic dynasties), a fictional politician who was initially close to Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, but was then expelled from the Zionist executive committee because he opposed the formation of the Jewish state. He learns, too, that Atalia’s husband was brutally mutilated and killed by Arab militants.

The moral colouring of events is thus established as irredeemably complicated – something that Shmuel can recognise, as his grandfather was killed in 1946 by members of a Jewish underground group on suspicion of betraying secrets to the British. In fact, he had been acting as a double agent on behalf of the Zionist cause.

Not surprisingly, Shmuel is haunted by the question of what constitutes betrayal and treason. The various treasons, real and imagined, woven into his and Wald’s family histories, are also, for him, bound up with the definitive figure of the “traitor”, Judas Iscariot. He frets about why Jewish anti-Christian polemic has never really tackled this figure and imagines a novelistic history in which Judas, originally an agent of the priestly hierarchy in Jerusalem, becomes convinced of the supernatural status of Jesus and “betrays” him in order to give him the opportunity of staging a triumphant miracle. His suicide follows the disastrous failure of this strategy. Perhaps, Shmuel thinks, Judas was “the first Christian. The last Christian. The only Christian.”

In other words, is it possible that the “traitor” may be driven by a conviction that the truth to which he is committed requires action that everyone will see as disloyalty to that truth, if the truth is to become effective? Every vision that has become embedded in the actuality of history is the fruit of some sort of betrayal. The world is divided not between loyalists and traitors, but between different kinds of “traitors”. There are those who betray the vision by never allowing it to engage with the raw facts of history, and there are “traitors” who put what seems the essence of the vision at risk in order to make it more than just a vision.

So, what was going on in the anguished and violent era in which the state of Israel was formed? Oz leaves a range of questions open. Should we understand Abravanel as protesting against the “treason” of implementing a version of Jewish statehood that reduces Israel’s moral identity to that of just another selfish or oppressive nation state? Or do we see it, as Wald implies and as Shmuel reflects, as a refusal of the reality of a world in which nation states are not going to disappear any time soon; where, in an environment of “bolts and bars”, it is suicidal to forgo these protections when there is no other homeland to go to? Is Ben-Gurion the Judas who brings about an outcome that is alien to the founding vision – just as Judas inadvertently creates the Christian narrative of redemptive death that betrays Jesus’s Jewish identity? Or is Abravanel the one who, in effect, hands over his people to death in the name of a fantasy or a mythology?

It is a mark of the seriousness of the novel that we are given no short answer to any of these questions. Oz has – with predictable irony – been accused of “betrayal” in this and other novels by some on the Israeli right. Yet the debates evoked here are carried through with unusual compassion and balance; not a balance that is academic and cool, but a genuine clash of deeply felt convictions and identities. Shmuel’s idealistic attempts to see the situation in the context of hope for an ultimate secular universalism are touching but unhelpful. Wald responds, “If two men love the same woman, or two peoples claim the same land, they can drink rivers of coffee together, and those rivers will not quench their hatred, neither can the floods drown it.” This is a bleak inversion of the biblical line “Many waters cannot quench love”.

The narrative does not attempt to dissolve Shmuel’s irresolution and obsession with these issues of treason and loyalty. It is as if Oz is arguing that what matters in the context of contemporary Israel is the acknowledgement of the profoundly tragic – and indeed, as Wald suggests at one point, the tragically absurd (Gogol rather than Tolstoy). We make decisions that undermine what we care for most, because what we care for most can never be allowed to remain only a theory; and as soon as it ceases to be a theory, it becomes a betrayal. There is an echo of another striking novel about Jesus, Anita Mason’s The Illusionist (1983), in which Christ says to Peter that as soon as a truth is uttered, it becomes untrue. Yet silence or passivity is not an option.

Judas is therefore a novel that is not exclusively about the state of Israel, but about the perennial question of what has to be sacrificed in order to make “the good” happen, and what sort of sacrifice ends up destroying that good. It would be a mistake, however, to translate this too rapidly into a general point. Israel is a state whose existence is bound up with deep moral and spiritual anxieties and convictions, with the irreducible facts of a religious bond with the land and a historical debt incurred by Christian Europe. Secular universalism doesn’t quite fit the bill; yet it is as impossible to think of dealing with the situation exclusively in terms of these religious and historical constraints as it is to avoid them.

Universal rights and dignities, the commitment to legal equality and fair redress cannot be sidelined – and the irony is that the religious tradition that establishes the sacredness of the land is also one of the main roots of that legal universalism. Amos Oz is not so much advocating a way through (politically he is a persistent defender of the two-state solution) as arguing that there will be no way through until all parties stop deploying the simplistic tropes of absolute loyalty v treachery.

It is worth saying, and it is effectively said. The novel gives a finely vivid and sympathetic picture of a Jerusalem (and an Israel) that has largely disappeared: the shabby, precarious, intense world of the Jewish population before 1967. The loving detail of this is an indispensable aid in grasping some of what is still central to a good deal of the Israeli self-image.

There are flaws. Paradoxically, the Arab presence is almost entirely a second-hand and profoundly “other” shadow in the discourse of the main characters. And the conceit of having Shmuel paid to converse with Wald allows Oz a bit too much licence for long passages of exposition that would hardly have been necessary for a young man such as Shmuel, educated and politically active, in the era depicted. The discussion of the historical Judas theme is likewise heavily loaded with reading lists and explanation.

Yet the warmth of the storytelling wins through. This book is compassionate as well as painfully provocative, a contribution to some sort of deeper listening to the dissonances emerging from deep within the politics and theology of Israel and Palestine.

Rowan Williams was the archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012 and is a lead book reviewer for the New Statesman. His own latest book is “Being Disciples: Essentials of the Christian Life” (SPCK Publishing)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article appears in the 01 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Syria's world war