Amos Elon, 82

Writer Amos Elon was an influential interpreter of Jewish life.
Writer Amos Elon was an influential interpreter of Jewish life. (Photo By Michael Argov, Tel-aviv. - Photo By Michael Argov, Tel-aviv.)
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By Emily Langer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Amos Elon, 82, one of the most distinguished Israeli writers of his generation and a leading chronicler of Jewish history and the intractable problem of building a livable home for Jews and Arabs in the Middle East, died Monday in the Tuscan region of Italy. He had leukemia.

During his 30-year career as a foreign correspondent and editorial writer for the Tel Aviv-based newspaper Haaretz, Mr. Elon became a household name in Israel. But he was always more a thinker than a scrappy newspaperman. His books range from biographies to studies on Middle Eastern politics, and he achieved his greatest influence as an interpreter of Jewish life.

In his book "The Israelis: Founders and Sons" (1971), Mr. Elon explored Israeli society's transformation from the motley group of early Zionists -- some idealists, others refugees; some from western Europe, others from the east -- to a more unified culture.

The book also addressed the relationship between Jews and Palestinians, a theme that Mr. Elon would probe throughout his career. That Arabs were pushed aside in Zionists' effort to build a Jewish homeland, he believed, was "a brutal twist of fate, unexpected, undesired, unconsidered by the early pioneers."

"The Arabs bore no responsibility for the centuries-long suffering of Jews in Europe," Mr. Elon wrote in "The Israelis." "Whatever their subsequent follies and outrages might be, the punishment of the Arabs for the sins of Europe must burden the conscience of Israelis for a long time to come."

Mr. Elon first spoke out on Middle Eastern issues in the 1960s as an editorial writer for Haaretz. Even at a newspaper known for taking liberal stances, his opinions were sometimes unpopular. He was an early supporter of Palestinians' right to self-determination after the Six-Day War in 1967, in which Israel won control of territory that included the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Tom Segev, a leading Israeli historian, said Mr. Elon's statements on Israeli-Palestinian relations at a politically charged moment made him an important and enduring voice in an issue that continues to this day.

Decades after the 1967 war, Mr. Elon called the Israeli victory in that conflict "worse than a defeat." Segev said Mr. Elon thought history had proved him right.

In his 2002 book "The Pity of It All," his final volume and the most significant work of the later part of his career, Mr. Elon traced nearly 200 years of Jewish life in Germany -- from the coming of age of 18th-century philosopher Moses Mendelssohn to Adolf Hitler's rise to power.

Mr. Elon argued that there was no "inexorable pattern in German history preordained from Luther's days to culminate in the Nazi Holocaust." That thesis put him at odds most prominently with Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, whose 1996 book "Hitler's Willing Executioners" blamed the Holocaust on pathology in the German culture.

"I don't believe in deterministic processes," Mr. Elon later told Haaretz. "Aside from the Zionists, no one believes in that anymore."

Mr. Elon was a passionate critic of those whom he regarded as Zionist ideologues, but he continued to believe that "there was a need to establish a state-of-the-Jews in Israel." As Mr. Elon put it: "I think that Zionism has exhausted itself. Precisely because it accomplished its aims."

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