x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Israel's conscience

An Austrian-born Jew who fled to Tel Aviv from the Nazis with his family before the outbreak of the Second World War, Amos Elon was a passionate supporter of the Palestinian homeland.

Amos Elon presented a balanced approach in his writings on the Middle East conflict.
Amos Elon presented a balanced approach in his writings on the Middle East conflict.

Amos Elon, the Israeli essayist, author and intellectual, has died aged 82. He wrote extensively on the Middle East conflict, trying to present a balanced perspective, taking into account issues affecting both Israelis and Palestinians, yet ultimately lamenting the current impasse and the extremist voices hailing from both sides. Frustrated, he left Israel for Tuscany where he lived out his last years.

In 1933, the eight-year old Amos Dan Elon moved with his family from his native Vienna to Palestine, as incipient Nazism took hold in Europe. The family settled in Tel Aviv. They spoke German at home, but Elon would also learn English and Hebrew. He was never, he said, an "ideological Israeli" as he had arrived in the country too young. Indeed, he had a keen sense of the disregard the Israelis reserved for members of the German Jewry, considered a secular elite, haughty and aloof. It was a stereotype that he did not necessarily attempt to distance himself from.

Ari Shavit, interviewing Elon for the liberal Jewish newspaper Haaretz in 2004, described him thus: "If Elon has feelings, he keeps them hidden deep inside. At least outwardly, he is serious, German, stern." Elon served three years in the Haganah, the precursor to the modern Israeli army, before completing his studies in law and history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and at Cambridge. Already recognised as one of the Israeli intelligentsia, he was discovered in 1951 by Haaretz's editor Gershom Schocken. He worked as a reporter for the newspaper from the mid-1950s until 1986, covering some of the most important episodes of Israeli history, including Jewish immigration from North Africa and the schism in the Kibbutz movement.

As a foreign correspondent, he reported from Paris, Bonn and Washington, where he met his American-born wife Beth. Unlike many contemporaries, transported by the victory won by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War and the annexing of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Elon - an early advocate of the right to Palestinian self-determination - urged consideration of the responsibilities that such a triumph implied.

Decades later he called Gaza "a powder keg that will explode ? That's why I still say today that the victory in the Six-Day War was worse than a defeat". His 1971 publication, The Israelis: Founders and Sons published in 1971 as the concept of Palestinian nationalism was starting to emerge, was his passage out of journalism. "The Arabs bore no responsibility for the centuries-long suffering of Jews in Europe," he wrote.

"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." Of the nine books, supernumerary essays and opinion pieces for various journals that he wrote, Between Enemies: A Compassionate Dialogue Between an Israeli and an Arab, comprising a series of written conversations between Elon and Sana Hassan, the wife of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's spokesman, was the most personal expression of his intellectual ideal: thoughtful communication between Israeli and Arab.

He was also the author of a highly acclaimed biography of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, who cautioned his successor shortly before his death in 1904: "Don't make any stupid mistakes while I'm dead." Amos Elon was born on July 4, 1926. He died on May 25. He is survived by his wife and daughter. * The National