Writer Explored Arab-Israeli Relations

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."

In an interview with the London Guardian, Mr. Elon once recalled being confronted on Israeli television by "some reactionary" who demanded to know, "Are you one of those self-haters?"

"No, I don't hate myself," he replied. "I just hate Jews like you."

Amos Dan Elon was born July 4, 1926, in Vienna. His father, a businessman, left Austria alone for the British mandate of Palestine in 1928. Aware of the Nazi threat but also seeking adventure, he moved his family to Palestine within a few years. Because the younger Mr. Elon arrived in Palestine at such an early age, he said he never considered himself an "ideological Israeli."

"I did not grow up here out of choice," he said in a 2004 interview with Haaretz. "But I did grow up here. Here is where I kissed a girl for the first time. And what is a homeland if not the place where you kiss a girl for the first time?"

The family settled on what Mr. Elon called "a sand dune in Tel Aviv" and continued to speak German in their home. Mr. Elon wrote mostly in Hebrew and English, but he returned to his native language for his book "Journey Through a Haunted Land," a portrait of East and West Germans struggling in the mid-1960s to reckon with the memory of World War II.

After service in the Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary organization and precursor to the modern Israeli army, Mr. Elon graduated from Hebrew University in Jerusalem and won a scholarship to attend Cambridge University in England. Haaretz gave Mr. Elon his first reporting job in 1951. It was as a foreign correspondent in Washington that Mr. Elon met his American wife, the former Beth Drexler. She survives, along with a daughter, Danae Elon of New York; a sister; and two grandsons.

Mr. Elon's books included biographies of Theodor Herzl, the father of Zionism, and Mayer Amschel Rothschild, the patriarch of the Rothschild banking dynasty, and studies on the cultural tensions in the Middle East.

Shortly after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, he and Sana Hassan, the wife of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's spokesman, began a series of conversations later compiled in the book "Between Enemies: A Compassionate Dialogue Between an Israeli and an Arab." Sadat reportedly was infuriated by the project, but three years later he became the first Arab leader to visit the Jewish state.

In the last 20 years of his life, Mr. Elon contributed to the New York Review of Books and wrote about the Israel-Palestine conflict with steadily increasing pessimism. In 2004, he gave up his apartment in Jerusalem and moved to Tuscany.

In an interview with Haaretz at the time, he spoke of Israel: "It's in my blood to this day. . . . But my feeling was that I couldn't say anything here [in Israel]. Everything had already been said. And there's no true dialogue. . . . It's impossible to live here without feeling some unease. . . . And it has truly been getting worse all these years."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company