Thursday, May 28, 2009

Amos Elon (1926-2009)

Amos Elon died earlier this week at age 82. I published this appreciation of him on New Yorker.com.

“Well, I hope you are r-right, dear boy.”

This was the way my conversations with Amos Elon almost always ended. Year after year, ever since the late nineteen-seventies, his expression of “hope” for my analysis of Israel had been a sign that there was really nothing more to analyze, that though I had won the debate I had lost the argument. I had done my duty: had laid out a logic, a possible convergence of forces that left room for peace, or, at last, American action; had shared part of an interview he hadn’t attended, or pointed out an economic trend he hadn’t considered.

But I had somehow neglected the overriding facts of life, which it was his duty to uphold. And uphold them he did. “It is good that you are optimistic,” he’d say, finally. That is, things do fall apart; history is made by people. Oh, yes, there are naïve, avid Arab kids willing to blow themselves up—and demagogues on both sides who secretly feel relief when they do. But there are also maniac settlers, and clueless American Jews, with their lobby. Philip Roth once wrote, “Jews are members of the human race. Worse than that I cannot say about them.” Amos put it a little differently, explaining (as does a character in Roth’s “The Counterlife”) that one lives in Israel because it is the only place on earth where you can tell anti-Semitic jokes.

Of course, this cheerful misanthropy was partly bravado. His warmth—or the evidence of his fierce wish for it—was everywhere, in the books strewn on his desk, or the drawings on the wall, or a sudden call to his wife, Beth. His clever eyes could beckon like a port. The conversation never ended without a hug, which he found awkward and American, but which he never resisted. Yet his warmth was mixed with serious disappointment. He had seen this tragedy grow from its infancy. At times the conversation began before my coat was off: “Did you read what that idiot said?,” the idiot being someone on the Left who should have known better. (Idiots on the Right were just a force of nature.)

Opening questions, I hasten to add, were not just pawn to king-four. Amos hated intellectual games, or, more precisely, intellectual brats and bullies. He cared that the idiot should have known better, and who if not us should say so, for all the good it would do. What writer who is merely skeptical, or querulous, writes essay after essay, column after column, employing a penetrating sense of history to explain Israelis and Jews to themselves, much the way a physician examines patient after patient who will not quit smoking?

Some eulogists have suggested that, while Amos promoted humankind, he had little compassion for humans. This is exactly backward. Amos could not get over how history went wrong because of the ways in which broken-hearted people act together and ricochet off one another, how qualities that we ordinarily like in people—creativity, loyalty, sincerity, steadfastness—combine to create disasters; how human desires, whose details only a compassionate observer can describe, explain everything, including how we routinely throw happiness away:

Had they [Palestine’s Arabs] agreed in 1919, not to turn Palestine into “the” Jewish homeland, but to incorporate “a” national home for the Jews, as stipulated by the Balfour Declaration, a Jewish minority, moderate in size, probably would in time have been absorbed into an Arab-Palestinian state. Had the Arabs not rejected British proposals for a Palestine Legislative Council a few years later, the Jews would have at best emerged a minority within the general Arab framework, similar perhaps to the Maronites in Lebanon….If, if, if. On the other hand, had Israel after 1949 been more sensitive to the fate of the Palestinian refugees—had it permitted more to come back or compensated the rest for their abandoned property rather than allow the neighboring states to exploit the problem for political ends—perhaps some of the intense hatred of Israel that prevails among the Arab masses and ties the hands of more moderate leaders would slowly have abated…

The easy work of hindsight? In fact, this passage is taken from an essay in The New York Review of Books that Amos wrote in August of 1968—an essay in which he was already pleading (against his colleagues at Haaretz) for a sensible partition and warning of the dangers posed by devotees of Greater Israel—people whose excesses he understood, which made them all the more horrible to contemplate. We went together to Nablus in 1981, just before Menachem Begin was reelected, to interview its former mayor, Bassam Shakha, who had lost his legs to a bomb planted by a Jewish terrorist group. While we were there, as if on some cosmic cue, Shakha’s youngest son, who had spent six months in prison, suddenly appeared at the front door, unexpectedly freed. Amos turned to me, moved, as father and son fell into each other’s arms. “Of course, they don’t love their children the way we do,” he said, winking darkly, resigned to what his readers would say even before he began writing.

Which brings me to his books. The best books, Orwell once observed, organize your scattered thoughts, tell you what you already know. But at times they tell you what you don’t know, or more important, what you don’t want to know. Amos wrote so many such books, over a span of forty years—and with Orwell’s glass-like clarity—that you have to ask the question, What big thing did he know that his readers could not easily bear? Where did he get the stamina—how did he sustain the indignation—to stay so far ahead of the readers he worked so hard for?

The record is impressive, even on its face. While Israelis were finally digesting the facts that came out of the Eichmann trial, Amos wrote “Journey Through a Haunted Land,” which gave Israelis their first glimpse of a democratic Germany emerging from the war, burdened and yet surrendering to the passion for normality much as Israelis themselves were—a Germany that Israelis once thought they would never set foot in, but now journey to more or less routinely. After the Six-Day War, while Israelis were still savoring their victory—and Moshe Dayan had not yet surrendered his laurels—Amos wrote “The Israelis: Founders and Sons,” a book that left no doubt about the ideological sophistication, and corresponding blinders, of the pioneering Zionist leaders, but left you wondering about the coarse “realism” of their heirs: people who prided themselves on thinking that the land was theirs the way the sun rises in the morning—that is, that their parents’ philosophical enthusiasms, like theories of planetary motion, betrayed a diaspora mentality.

Herzl” came next. You could not put the book down without admiring Theodor Herzl’s courage and practical achievements—his romance turned into a Congress, a bank, a diplomacy. But you could also not fail to reflect on the deeply neurotic sources of Herzl’s ambition and, not coincidentally, of national feeling in general. Amos’s next books—his travels to Egypt, and then his most impressionistic book, “Jerusalem”—sustained these latter reflections, in a way. It was as if he felt that all nationalist and political clichés needed to be explored, down to every frustrated libido and social grievance.

As for historical “lessons,” including the ones in Herzl’s “Der Judenstaat,” we needed to learn how grotesque they could be—how grotesque historical determinism of any kind must be. Amos’s last great book, “The Pity of It All,” tried to nail down this ultimate point by surveying the record of German Jewry, to show that their disaster was by no means preordained, as Zionist theories alleged, but was an unexpected and dreadful interruption in their real progress toward an emancipation unique in Europe until then—and that interruption was another horrifying consequence of the madness and desperation left over from the First World War. The real lesson, if that’s the word for it, was that violence drives people crazy. You needed only ordinary compassion to see this. Violence should be avoided.

This brings us pretty close to the big thing that I believe Amos knew. It was hardly an original bit of knowledge for a Viennese-born Jew advancing, if only in imagination, toward civil society and bildung. People, being people, need political structures that allow them to settle disputes without violence. They—Jews, too—need a state that looks like American or European civil society; they need fair laws and civil rights and common decency, just to keep savage instincts in check. One of the most charming stories he told me (he loved the word “charming”) involved an experience during the 1948 war:

I was a runner in Jerusalem during the war, and one mission was to bring a message to the head of the Haganah in the Jewish Agency building. I arrived one dark evening at the building in the middle of an artillery barrage, with boom-boom everywhere, and the place was gloomy and deserted—except for a light in one office, where I found Dr. Leo Kohn, the legal adviser to the Jewish Agency, curled over his desk, writing. “What are you doing here?,” he asked.

I told him I was looking for the Haganah headquarters.

He pointed me to the basement.

I was young, and a little brash, so I could not resist. I asked him, “What are you doing here?”

He answered almost nonchalantly, in a heavy German accent, “I am writing the constitution of the Jewish state.”

This constitution was never enacted, of course. Kohn’s forlorn hope is what made the story charming. He was, like Amos, a liberal among revolutionaries. And this reminds me of the other backward thing said about Amos, especially after he and Beth began living full time in their home in Tuscany: that Amos—this ultimate journalist insider—left for Europe because he had given up on Israel, or politics, or both. The fact is, Amos had never left “Europe,” any more than Dr. Kohn or, say, Abba Eban did—had never seen Israel from within the closed theories of Labor Zionist theory, or the closed precincts of any Zionist parties. He knew the open society and its enemies, and was sickened by the thought that Israel would fill up with the latter. He was something like our Camus: always an outsider the way a healthy citizen must be: alert to what has been thought said and done in other places and other times.

He was posted in Hungary during the 1956 uprising and saw how absurd revolutions become. As his newspaper’s Washington correspondent, he was a friend and neighbor of John F. Kennedy (“He was furious about our nuclear program”) and celebrated the American civil-rights movement. While Israelis remained stuck in a kind of socialist prudishness, Amos was a natural man about town, an important first for an Israeli intellectual. It was no accident that, when he came back to Israel in the mid-sixties, with his gorgeous, sassy American wife, he began to focus almost immediately on the peculiar, vulgar legal status of Israel’s Arab citizens. He wanted to bring the world to Israel—he lived, above all, in the world.

Nor was Amos indifferent to or (for the sake of expediency) indulgent of Israel’s Orthodox, the way most Israeli leftists were. He actively despised halachic life, the way free-thinkers despise all forms of orthodoxy. He was the first to notice that Tel Aviv and Jerusalem were becoming two separate realities. Don’t try lighting Sabbath candles around him.

But during the last weekend we spent together, this past February at his home in Tuscany, with the winter sun setting, I sang to him Bialik’s welcome to the Sabbath bride, and he listened quietly, smiling, amused (and reassured) by the irony of my singing it and his hearing it—the irony that alone saves the Hebrew gestalt from piety. No, he did not live out his last days in his Tuscan home out of anger, but because he wanted the beauty of the place, which was no more than humans deserved. It was, he told me, a matter of dolce far niente: the sweetness of doing nothing.

Arthur Koestler, whom Amos particularly admired, once wrote that there were two planes of experience, the tragic and the trivial, and that artists and writers are blessed—cursed, really—with seeing “everyday experience” on the tragic plane, the “angle of the eternal.” My last view of Amos called that distinction to mind. He was lying in his living room, too weak from the developing leukemia to sit up, unwilling to speak of disease or goodbyes, asking for a blanket, asking perfunctorily where I was going next in Florence, his frail hand in my hand. But then he was reminded of something that some Likudnik had said, something that we had actually covered earlier, but never mind—and it prompted a new scoffing sentence, a new disbelieving laugh, and his voice rose, gaining strength from the pity of it all.

9 comments:

Tamar Orvell said...

This is beautiful, loving, intimate, inspiring. I love how you share your experiences, conversations, and insights, which counteracts the gossip, the digs, and the ignorance that hounded him even as he found a less-than-perfect peace of sorts these final years. You do your friend proud.

Y. Ben-David said...

Elon was a magnificent writer. I read "The Pity of it All", and you certainly understand the sadness of Elon...to him, the ultimate goal of the Jews was assimilate in Europe. Of course, he was wrong, the Holocaust was not some sort of "mishap", because all throughout Europe, in the period after the Emancipation, all countries viewed themselves as having a "Jewish Problem". Why, after all, were something like half the doctors and lawyers in Berlin Jews when Jews were only 1% of the population. This was an ongoing "problem" and Europe finally found a people (the Germans) who would take on the dirty work of solving this "Jewish Problem".
So since Europe vomited Elon out, he had to find a place to go. That place was "Palestine". For all his concern for the rights of the Palestinian, there never would be a Palestinian who would NOT view the immigrant Elon as anything other than an alien invader. And his view of what Israel should be, corresponding pretty much to what Dr Avishai's "Hebrew Republic" is, which is a Rhodesia on the Mediterranean...a model, well-run state that was supposed to be materialist, consumerist, secular which has no roots in the Middle East, which is viewed culturally and economically as a threat by the surrounding Arab/Muslim populations. Just as Rhodesia couldn't last, neither could Elon's dream state. In spite of the efforts of the Labor Zionist education system to try to get Israel's young to reject the traditionalist/religious traditions of their elders (which Elon despised as Avishai points out here), they failed and Jewish traditionalism is making a comeback...just as Ataturk's secular revolution is being rolled back in Turkey.
Elon, like many Labor Zionists finally fell victim to the contradictions of its ideology....to be univeralist and particularist at the same time, to be a "socialist" while actually enjoying the good life at taxpayers expense, like so many MAPAI/Labor people, to support Arab "rights" while living on land taken from them in the 1948 War. Elon reached the logical conclusion that he was not capable of reconciling these contradictions, so he chucked it all and left the country.
The "Pity of it all" is for him.
I noted that at the end of the book, he doesn't talk about how many German Jews forced out of their beloved Germany then came to Israel and contributed so much to the cultural and economic base of the Zionist project there, instead he says how so many German Jews committed suicide because they were rejected by the country they loved. Elon is saying much the same about himself, and was expressing the despair he himself was feeling for I guess what he considered living a lie for so many years. A pity.

Shoded Yam said...

"....there never would be a Palestinian who would NOT view the immigrant Elon as anything other than an alien invader."

Nonsense. The fact that you can only seem to define yourself through the eyes of the other is your problem, not everyone elses. Your speculations re. Mr. Elon are not educated guesses. There projections.

"...Elon, like many Labor Zionists finally fell victim to the contradictions of its ideology....to be univeralist and particularist at the same time, to be a "socialist" while actually enjoying the good life at taxpayers expense, like so many MAPAI/Labor people, to support Arab "rights" while living on land taken from them in the 1948 War. Elon reached the logical conclusion that he was not capable of reconciling these contradictions, so he chucked it all and left the country."

More self-serving nonsense. Much of the land that these "socialists" and "universalists" (try using the term "Israelis" instead of indulging in transparent agit-prop) were utilizing was actually bought and paid for prior to 1948, in contrast to todays fashion, where we discard social niceties, and just steal it. The lands that was acquired as a result of 1948, were seen as being legitamate spoils of a war of survival. The fact that people like Mr. Elon were never comfortable with that, speaks to the mans greatness. But since we're indulging in conjecture, it far more likely that Mr. Elon (being in the vanguard of a secular hebrew culture that he saw as superior to the ossified, primitive culture of the shtetl) could'nt reconcile living in a country given to humoring the ignorant and medeival.

Dr. Avishai, my condolences sir. Mr. Elon was a good and wise man and he will be missed.

Potter said...

After all those who would have preferred coexistence right from the beginning, no mistake about it, on both sides have left, not to return, the land will be left to those who wish fight it out to the bitter end.

I agree with Shoded Yam's analysis.

I prefer to think that Amos Elon did actually find a "more perfect peace" in the end but within himself ( which is after all the only place anyone can find it) understanding that he was most valuable in the role of writer, able to express his deep feeling and his deep interest through close observation. This he did for us. He apparently was blessed with awareness and a good heart. He was present at what surely seemed to him to be some very important moments for Israel and he wrote about it convincingly. Those experiences might very well have been enough to last a lifetime.

Mentioned above is Elon's first piece for the New Yorker magazine ( July 29, 1985) "Letter from Israel" which is also the title essay (re-titled) in Elon's book (in English), "The Blood-Dimmed Tide". It is amazing to read it now. This was 24 years ago and what he touches on holds relevance.

Anonymous said...

It was my great good fortune to have met Amos some years ago and to have had dinner at his home. Mr. Avishai gets exactly right the combination of gentleness of spirit and tough mindedness that so much impressed me. Amos was a great man and we shall miss him.

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