Friday, July 10, 2009

Mourning Amos Elon, Z”l

Last Shabbat I went to a memorial event for the journalist Amos Elon that was announced for Saturday Night, but began at 5 pm. In fact, the event ended almost an hour before Shabbat ended. The emcee began the program with "Good evening," although it was only 5, and the sun shone bright. Religious Jews add a "Shabbat addition" to their day of rest. Secular Jews – and I was one of two religious Jews out of 150 – start Saturday night early, apparently.

Perhaps the real reason why the program was announced as being held on Saturday night was so as not to get the host – the Mishkenot Sha'anim Conference Center – in trouble with the rabbinate, if they have a restaurant that has a kashrut certificate. Who knows?

Ten speakers, many of whom are heroes of the Zionist left, spoke. They included Amos Schocken, Publisher of Haaretz, the historian Idit Zertal, Shulamit Aloni (who, as his her wont, gave a long devar Torah, showing that there are still secularists who have heard of the book), Gideon Levy, B. Michael (the only speaker with a kippah, who had the crowd rolling in the aisles with an anecdote brilliantly told about Elon), Avishai Margalit, and others.

Most of the speakers, and most of the crowd, were over 65. The pain in their room was palpable – not so much over Elon's death, as over the death of an Israel that they had loved and fought for. Perhaps it never existed. They sang about peace, they marched for peace, and they saw their country sink into a perpetual moral morass that it will probably not emerge from, certainly in their lifetime. How many conflicts were resolved in the last fifty years? Perhaps Elon's choice, to live out his remaining years in a villa in Tuscany, was the only one left for these people of the old Zionist left. Their political party has crashed; The discourse in Israel is now not between left and right, but between right and righter.

Still, this was a convocation that remembered an extraordinary writer, perhaps the most famous explainer of Israel to the intelligentsia of the outside world. The mob had Abba Eban; the intellectuals had Amos Elon, whose Israelis, Founders and Sons is still worth reading.

Elon was a yekke, a German Jew. According to Margalit, he "hated" Eastern European Jews, old people, and the Orthodox. He belonged to that strand of German Jewry that produced Zionists like Buber, Simon, Weltsch; of course, he wrote the brilliant A German Requiem that chronicled the end of the German-Jewish culture. He also a generous patron of writers and authors that he admired.

Gideon Levy published his tribute from last Shabbat in Haaretz today. Read it here. He went to the Haaretz archives and read from some of his reportage. Here is one citation from Elon's pen, written in 1967, at a time when the country was gripped with nationalist hysteria:

"The political leadership continues to behave in the West Bank like someone who received a live crocodile for his birthday. It doesn't know where to put it - in the bathtub or the living room .... The time is coming when we will have to at least tell ourselves what we want and what we don't want: peace or new territories? The time has also come to make clear to ourselves what we expect from the defeated population, which will soon awaken from the psychological shock. What do we want, blind obeisance of hostile prisoners without choice, or sympathetic cooperation between free, war-weary people? They say that within six months there will be peace between the peoples of Palestine for the first time since 1918; or there could be a Vietcong movement in the large area between Jenin and Hebron. We stand now at a turning point. Temporary frameworks are giving way to permanent arrangements ... Israel has yet to clarify for itself what it wants. We have no plan. We're like a person who doesn't know where he wants to go on vacation but has already bought the plane tickets."

Does anybody even remember the Vietcong today? But here we are, forty-plus years later, and our nightmare continues. Elon predicted that at a time when the Chief Rabbi, Shlomo Goren, was asking the military brass to blow up the Mosque of Omar.

I never knew Elon, but I read with avidity his pieces in the New York Review of Books. May his memory be for a blessing -- but also,

May we learn from his and his generation's mistakes

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