I first met Amos Elon in Germany in the 1990s. We were participants in one of a series of meetings generously hosted by the Bertelsmann Foundation, where Germans, Israelis, and Jews gathered to exchange platitudes. Most of those present sought either to proselytize and grandstand (in the case of Israelis and Jews) or else to avoid giving offense (in the case of the Germans). Amos, uniquely, did neither. There, as on every occasion when I heard him speak, he succeeded in being both outspoken and yet somehow effortlessly sensible—he dominated conversation by force of reason. He had a mordant wit and a dismissive eye; he was contemptuous of fools and pedants; he smiled only rarely but when he did so it was real. He made a lasting impression upon me.
The German setting was altogether fitting. Amos, who was born in Vienna and was the author of an influential biography of Theodor Herzl, never lost his attachment to German culture and history, a subject on which he wrote frequently and with empathetic insight. The Pity of It All, his 2002 study of the Jewish presence in Germany from the Enlightenment to Hitler, displayed a fine sensitivity to the tragedy of Germany’s Jews. For good and ill they remained profoundly attached to their cultural homeland, long after they were forced to leave it for Israel or America or elsewhere: more than the Jews of any other European land, they would feel their loss.
But it is for his writings on Zionism and Israel, and his lifelong engagement with the country and its dilemmas, that Amos Elon will be best remembered. In The Israelis: Founders and Sons (1971) he offered a critical history of Zionism, its practitioners, and its heirs; an account that directly confronts the shortcomings of the Zionist project and its outcome. Today such critical accounts are common currency in debates in Israel; in those days they were rare indeed. Amos Elon’s commitment to Israel, the country where he lived and worked for most of his life, was never in question. But for just this reason his awkward stance, relentlessly engaging with the country’s failings, set him apart. His courageous refusal to endorse the clichés with which Israel’s defenders parry every criticism contrasts not only with the defensiveness of contemporary left-wing Israeli commentators but also and especially with the pusillanimous apologetics of Israel’s American claque.
Thus Amos, unlike so many of the land-fixated commentators among his fellow countrymen, was one of the first to recognize that the settlements in the territories Israel has occupied since 1967 were a self-imposed catastrophe: “The settlements…have tied Israel’s hands in any negotiation to achieve lasting peace…. [They] have only made it less secure.” That a country with the strongest military in its region, and with an unbroken string of armed victories behind it, should be so obsessed with the security risks of relinquishing a few square miles of land may seem odd indeed. But …
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