“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.