Fighting Words

Remembering Amos Elon

The historian who explained Israel to itself.

Amos Elon

In a week of apocalyptic news from the Korean peninsula and from Pakistan, those two notorious examples of the horrible failure of partition, I still felt very affected by the death of Amos Elon, whose life and work so deftly tracked the fault lines of another partition—in Palestine.

Amos was one of those people whose life stories are uncomfortably close to the 20th century. He was born in Vienna in 1926 to a family that exemplified the success of Jews in Mitteleuropa. But the fragility of their historic achievement was demonstrated seven years later, when his parents decided to remove themselves from Europe and start again in Palestine. (To have made this decision as soon as Nazism took power in Germany, and not to have waited as even Sigmund Freud did until after the Austrian Anschluss, argues that they had a good dose of that premonitory or seismic intuition that some Jews are held to possess.)

Still, as Amos was himself later wryly to concede, if the Jews had been all that smart and all that keen on self-preservation, they might have thought two or three times before moving to a hotly contested British colony where Arab nationalism was on the rise. As he never failed to put it—he the biographer of Theodor Herzl and historian of the early Zionist founding fathers—the key and indispensable insight was to appreciate that non-Jews cared about this land just as much Jews did.

For many years Amos was the best-known writer about his country, both inside and outside it. As an ironic and lucid and mordant essayist for the daily paper Haaretz, he wrote about Israel “proper,” about the territories it had seized after 1967, about the Germany where he lived for many years, and about the United States, with which he also had a kind of love-hate understanding. Herewith, some vignettes.

Many Israelis didn’t like Amos’ book about the federal republic, because he wrote about Germany and Germans as if the thing could be done without hyperbole or hysteria. I once watched him pass a very exacting test of this attitude. It was in early 1992 in Berlin, where over dinner he mentioned to Ian Buruma and me that he had received an invitation to “preview” the new museum at the Wannsee villa. This was the lakeside house where the barons of the Nazi empire had met half a century earlier in January 1942, under the leadership of Reinhard Heydrich, to discuss the details of the Endlossung, or “Final Solution.” We could, he said, accompany him if we liked.

Not an easy afternoon to forget: We had the place to ourselves and saw the house much as those attending the murder-summit must have seen it. I remember saying to Ian, look, this is where their chauffeurs must have parked the staff cars while they had a smoke. Inside, amazingly courteous and helpful young Germans helped us to find our way about. Then we noticed that Amos had done a slight fade. He returned to view after an interval. He had been consulting the brand-new computer database of names of victims, looking for kin. And had he found any? “I think one or two, yes. Maybe three.” I didn’t ask how close they had been: His manner of understatement was unsurpassable.

His lifetime as an Israeli journalistic insider gave him the most extraordinary sources. One day in Washington several years ago, as it became obvious that things in Baghdad were becoming hellish for the American-led coalition in the Iraq war, he told me the following story. In the run-up to the intervention in Iraq, the United States had approached the Israelis and asked how many citizens they had who spoke “Iraqi Arabic”—i.e., who had lived in Iraq before they had left or been expelled and who understood the local idioms and vernacular. The answer was that there were still quite a few. A group of these was put aboard an AWACS plane that flew high over Iraqi airspace and asked to listen in to radio traffic between Iraqi officers as the date of the Bush ultimatum to Saddam drew nearer.

When debriefed, all the former Iraqi Jews were of one opinion: Saddam’s army would not fight, and many of its soldiers had already decided to melt away when the attack began. I thought this was a mildly interesting anecdote and indeed told him so, on the Watergate balcony where we happened to be standing. He was exasperated with me. “Don’t you see?” he said. “This means that all the ‘shock and awe,’ all the damage to Baghdad, all of that, was completely needless? We could have brought down Saddam without smashing Iraq.” I have been brooding on this ever since.

But it was his lifetime as an Israeli political outsider that came to define him. He was one of the first to denounce the occupation of the post-1967 territories and to predict moral and military disaster if the settlement and colonization persisted. He became more outraged and disgusted as time went on, even telling his old newspaper Haaretz in late 2004 that Israel was pulling out of Gaza mainly to escape responsibility for the social explosion among the 1.3 million refugees that its policies had made inevitable. In the same interview, he used the term quasi-fascist to describe the religious fanatics in Israel who “are dictating our fate without any democratic process.” At our last meeting, however, in New York, he was hardly less cutting about those who thought of Hamas and Hezbollah as a reincarnation of the Algerian revolution against France.

In the result, he actually did become a true outsider, abandoning his home in Israel and moving back to Europe to rejoin the Diaspora—in which, he concluded, Jews had just as good a chance of surviving and prospering as they did as settlers in Palestine. He didn’t actually go back to his ancestral lands, the ones he described in his book The Pity of It All, which described the amazing success of German Jewry between 1743 and 1933. Instead he lived in Tuscany, which caused him to be laughed at but which is hard to blame a man in his 80s for deciding to do. There was nothing risible about Amos. For him, there was a vitally necessary thread that bound the Jewish people to internationalism and to the Enlightenment, and his life and work both witnessed amply to the connection.