Under the Tuscan Sun

Once he was Israel's preeminent journalist, the chief chronicler of the Israeli story. Now he is known throughout the world but has become nearly anonymous here. After seven decades, Amos Elon is packing up his Jerusalem apartment for a permanent move to Tuscany.

Ari Shavit
Ari Shavit
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Ari Shavit
Ari Shavit

The young people at the news desk weren't quite sure who he was. The name sounded familiar but they weren't sure from where. A few had heard about one of his books. A few had once used another book as a textbook. But many people don't really know who Amos Elon is. The man who was once the preeminent journalist in Israel has been totally erased from the memory. The man who was the chief chronicler of the Israeli story has ceased to register in the Israeli consciousness. He is much better known to readers of the New York Review of Books than to readers of Haaretz.

He was born in 1925, in Vienna, and immigrated to Mandatory Palestine with his family in 1933. In the 1940s, he was one of Tel Aviv's prominent young intellectuals - and was close to Uri Avnery and influenced by him. He wrote a patriotic book about the War of Independence which he'd rather forget.

In the early 1950s, Amos Elon quickly became a star. For Haaretz, he wrote several outstanding series of articles on subjects such as the rift among the kibbutzim, the life of immigrants and the "second Israel" (the underprivileged sectors of Israeli society). Elon became the protege of Haaretz publisher and editor-in-chief Gershom Schocken, was sent to Europe and later spent six years as Haaretz's Washington correspondent. In 1970, he published his book, "The Israelis," which was an immediate international success (it was published in English in 1971 as "The Israelis: Founders and Sons"), and subsequently left the paper. In 1978, in wake of the peace process with Egypt, he returned to Haaretz and remained with the paper until 1986.

In the small Italian village where he lives, Elon wrote his books about Herzl, the Rothschild family and the history of German Jewry. The current publication of the Hebrew version of "The Pity of it All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch, 1743-1933" (which was published in English in 2002) is coinciding with a significant biographical moment: Last month, Elon packed up the apartment that he still kept in Jerusalem. Our conversation took place among the piles of objects slated to be given away and the piles of books due to be sent home, to Tuscany.

He looks much younger than his 79 years. He once wrote that Israeli faces tend to wrinkle as if from a lot of gazing straight at the sun. His face, however, is almost smooth.

If Elon has feelings, he keeps them hidden deep inside. At least outwardly, he is serious, German, stern. A devotee of human rights but not overflowing with brotherly love. Seemingly devoid of warmth and empathy, he is a man of high standards. A man of high-level journalism and high culture. His erudition is enviable.

A few of Elon's friends say something about him that he himself isn't ready to admit: His decision to leave Israel essentially derives from deep despair. From a sense that Israel doesn't have a chance. But it's also the man's personality structure that has made him not want to belong. Not to participate. To be an observer from a distance.

Maybe the young people at the news desk are right: Amos Elon doesn't interest anyone here anymore. He's no longer relevant. But maybe they're wrong. And not only because Elon is a supremely gifted journalist. Not only because the international intelligentsia still perceives him as a thoughtful Israeli voice. And not only because he is an inseparable part of the history of this newspaper. But because Amos Elon epitomized an attitude that characterizes a large part of the Israeli elite. In his words and his life, Amos Elon expresses the deep aversion to the new Israel. The nationalistic, religious, un-European Israel. This is apparently the reason why Amos Elon is leaving us. He is turning back the clock, going back to being a European Jew.

Amos Elon, looking over the list of books you've written in the past decades - "The Israelis," "Herzl," "The Rothschilds," "The Pity of It All" on German-Jewish history - it's like the Zionist movie is being rewound; the whole trajectory is from Israel backward.

Elon: "From Israel outward. And the reason is very simple. It's also related to my leaving Haaretz. Nothing has changed here in the last 40 years. The problems are exactly the same as they always were. The solutions were already known back then. But no one paid attention to them. And I found myself repeating them. I found myself saying the same thing all the time. And I started to bore myself. The dialogue wasn't fruitful. It was a useless dialogue. I was a lone voice in the wilderness."

Did you leave Haaretz and move to Tuscany to write historical books because you were opposed to the occupation or because the whole Israeli experience became unbearable to you?

"This place continues to be interesting and fascinating. It's in my blood to this day. I get up in the morning in my home in Tuscany and listen to Israel Radio and then I read Haaretz. But my feeling was that I couldn't say anything here. Everything had already been said. And there's no true dialogue. There's no suitable political development. But of course it's true that it's impossible to live here without feeling some unease. And this unease grows the worse the situation gets. And it has truly been getting worse all these years."

Have you developed a feeling of alienation toward Israel?

"Not alienation. Disappointment. I have no common language with the people who are at the top in politics. I think they're wrong. Their style repulses me. And maybe there is alienation because I don't know them anymore. I'm not involved with them. I used to know everyone. I used to be intimately acquainted with them. And today it's a group that I don't know. And maybe there is alienation because of the sharp rightward shift in Israel. Toward the right and toward religion."

Do you find Israel to be barbaric, unenlightened, nationalistic?

"In Israel there's the `Gush Dan' state and the political state. The `Gush Dan' state is a state of live-and-let-live. Of tolerance. Of the desire for peace and a good life. But the political state, well, you know what it looks like."

What does it look like?

"It's partly quasi-fascist and partly religious with narrow horizons."

Quasi-fascist?

"Quasi-fascist in the sense that abstract principles of religion are dictating our fate without any democratic process. There are religious people here who believe they've put their finger on the very essence of being. They know everything. They're in direct contact with God."

You have some profound anti- religious sentiment.

"I'm not being original when I say that religion that enters politics is dangerous. Such religious people would be better off behind bars and not in politics. Certainly."

The critical mistake of `67 opened the door to dark forces that overwhelmed the Israel to which you belonged, to which you felt a genuine closeness?

"There were two sources of the perversion: the mixture of religion with political policy and the secular right's military adventurism. Force. The worship of force. By the way, it hasn't only come from the Likud. It also came from Ahdut Ha'avoda (the United Workers Party, a precursor of the Labor Party), from people like Allon and Galili. Ahdut Ha'avoda always seemed to me to be a party of farmers fighting over each piece of land with pitchforks."

And the result is that this place has corrupted itself?

"The occupation certainly corrupted Israeli society. There is no dispute about that."

Has Israel slid into a situation that places it in a category other than the democratic Western nations?

"Without a doubt. And I'm still wracking my brain wondering what those people were thinking after the Six-Day War. How did they think they could keep it? What did Dayan think? Did he really think that if we just treat them nicely, everything will be fine? What provinciality it was. What historic ignorance. Had this ever happened anywhere else in the world? From this perspective, the Israeli occupation is perhaps the least successful attempt at colonialism that I can think of. This is the crappiest colonial regime that I can think of in the modern age."

How is it worse than French or British colonialism?

"In the French and British colonies, there were mixed marriages. In India, for instance. But especially with the French. They're freer than the British are in bed, that's well-known. But both the French and the British tried to co-opt the elites. As a rule, whenever a European nation took over territory in the Third World, it tried to embrace the elite. Here there was no such attempt. There were no mixed marriages, there was no significant commercial cooperation. The only human partnership was in the lowest dimension of all: crime."

What you're really saying is that there was Israeli political primitiveness. That we didn't even have a colonialist civilization worthy of the name.

"Correct. There was provinciality here. There was this upstart's arrogance. I'm not surprised when you look at the population. We know where it comes from. Either from the Arab countries or from Eastern Europe. But on the political level, this arrogance was manifested in a total forsaking of an embracing of the elites. They didn't know it was even possible.

"I'm not saying that everything would have been solved if they'd done this co-opting and married Palestinians. The intifada would have broken out in any case. But maybe, if Israel had behaved differently, the Palestinian war of independence would have been less bloody. Maybe it wouldn't have generated this horrific death cult."

Won't the disengagement solve this? Won't it remove the curse of the Six-Day War from us?

"I think that Sharon and Peres are perhaps the last statesmen here, and they're both Mapainiks [Mapai was another precursor to the Labor party]. Mapainiks are practical people who recognize that politics is the art of the possible and recognize the limits of force. I think that both of them, very belatedly, are demonstrating a degree of statesmanship that they didn't have before. But Israel is leaving the Gaza Strip now not because they recognize that it belongs to someone else, but because the occupation has become too messy. Because it's impossible to maintain this way. It's not worth it. It's a cost-benefit calculation. And I'm horrified by the fact that there are now 1.3 million hopeless refugees in Gaza. Which is a powder keg that will explode. And Israel is basically trying to get out of there now because it doesn't want to be responsible for this explosion. But it will be responsible anyway."

What you're saying is that it's an illusion to think that the disengagement will solve the problem.

"Of course it's an illusion. Gaza will explode. I think there will be a terrible explosion there. That's why I still say today that the victory in the Six-Day War was worse than a defeat."

You were the preeminent Israeli journalist. Respected, admired, well-connected. In 1986, you left it all behind. When you look back, do you feel any regret? Does it pain you that young Israelis don't even know your name?

"I miss the contact. It was good to be in contact. But on the other hand, I haven't made a bad career. I'm a research fellow in New York. I appear all over the world. And I live most of the year in Italy in my wife's house, which is paradise. So even if someone were to offer me the job of Haaretz editor now, I'd turn it down. I also wouldn't come back here to write."

So Israel and journalism are both beneath you now?

"I've gotten away from it. An American friend of mine says that journalism is only for the young. My wife Beth, who didn't want me to leave Israel, said it's true that journalism is for the young, but it also keeps you young. No, I wouldn't go back to it now. I adore my rest, and the tranquility I live in now. My nerves may be here, but I'm tired. And not so healthy. It's hard to believe, but next year I'll be 80. I've had two heart surgeries and my memory isn't what it used to be. Nor are my powers of concentration. So I prefer to be a pensioner sitting on a mountain and gazing at the gorgeous view."

Basically, you've chosen to live in exile.

"To a certain extent, it's exile. For sure. I'm not Italian. Italian politics doesn't interest me. I also miss my friends in Israel very much. I have some very dear friends here. There, I don't have any friends like the ones I have here. And I don't have an intensive intellectual contact there. But I'm an old pensioner who's nearing 80. Now I want my peace and quiet."

Is Amos Elon a Zionist, a post-Zionist or an anti-Zionist?

"I definitely agree with the idea that there was a need to establish a state-of-the-Jews in Israel for those Jews who want to live here. I also recognize the right of Jews who don't want to live here not to do so. They're doing okay. And in their daily life, they're refuting the Zionists' claim that they were doomed to extinction.

"I think that Zionism has exhausted itself. Precisely because it accomplished its aims. If the Zionism of today isn't a success story, it's the fault of the Zionists. It's because of the religio-zation and Likudization of Zionism and because what was supposed to be a state-of-the-Jews has become a Jewish state."

Or maybe you just can't identify with a state that isn't secular-European. I want to remind you that in your classic book, "The Israelis," there are no Sephardim or religious people or traditional people. The Israel you loved was the secular-European Israel. Its others didn't really interest you.

"That argument is correct. But when I wrote `The Israelis,' it wasn't my ambition to write a history of Israel. It wasn't my ambition to describe all of Israeli society. I wrote about those that interested me."

That's exactly the point. The non-Europeans and non-secular don't interest you. You wrote a book about the Israelis that excludes half the Israelis.

"You could make the same argument against the new book, `The Pity of It All.' There are no poor Jews and hardly any religious Jews in it, either. The people I write about are the secular, intelligent, successful, wealthy, brilliant ones, the Nobel Prize winners. They're the ones who interest me. Other people have written books about the rest."

Why don't you admit it: You're a European Jew who shows an interest only in European Jews just like yourself. Your heart goes out solely to them.

"I don't have any self-consciousness as a European Jew. This description is barely apt. I hardly think of myself as a Jew. As I see it, I'm an Israeli. An Israeli of Jewish origin."

That's the definition? An Israeli of Jewish origin?

"I think so. But I have many other loyalties. I'm at home in American culture. I write in Hebrew and English. I've also written a book in German. I have a real kinship with German culture, absolutely."

Your book on German Jewry is written with caution and restraint and historical matter-of-factness. But between the lines, you can sense a certain yearning.

"I like these people. I see myself as one of them. Therefore, I identify with these people and with their struggle. I also identify with their terrible tragedy, with the pain of how it all ended, how it ended in such a horrible way."

But you insist that this end wasn't necessary. That, as you see it, the Holocaust was not an inevitable event.

"I don't believe in deterministic processes. Aside from the Zionists, no one believes in that anymore. Only the Zionists believe that the hatred of the Jewish people throughout the ages will also continue in the future. But I'm saying that it's not inevitable. That it could be different. There was nothing fundamental in the relationship between German culture and German Jewry that absolutely dictated this appalling end."

If that's so, then basically you believe that this thing could have continued to survive. The option of the Jewish diaspora in Germany was the most promising cultural option for Europe, in your opinion.

"Certainly. German Jewry was the secular elite of Europe. They were the essence of modernism - leaders who made their livelihood from brainpower and not from brawn, mediators and not workers of the land. Journalists, writers, scientists. If it all hadn't ended so horribly, today we'd be singing the praises of Weimar culture. We'd be comparing it to the Italian Renaissance. What happened there in the fields of literature, psychology, painting and architecture didn't happen anywhere else. There hadn't been anything like it since the Renaissance."

You refuse to see the fact that there was a basic failure in this enterprise of secular European Jewry. You refuse to see that it couldn't last.

"I sincerely dispute that. I don't think there was something deep or fundamental or unavoidable here. It was chance. If the First World War hadn't destroyed Germany's liberal middle class, a very progressive nation would have developed there. Even after the war, Hitler wasn't the only alternative."

You're really insistent on that. It's important to you to cling to the lost option of the yekkes. The book you wrote is essentially a nostalgic ode to the refined lost paradise of that Jewish Germany. In a certain sense, it is your true homeland.

"No. I grew up here, not there. I grew up in Tel Aviv in a middle-class family that lost its assets as a result of its emigration to Israel. My parents arrived from Vienna in 1933. My father wanted to go to France but my mother said it had to be Eretz Israel. And so we ended up in Eretz Israel. That's why I am not an ideological Israeli. I did not grow up here out of choice. 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?

"Yes, my parents' friends were all immigrants from Germany and Austria. The big library at home was all German. And being a yekke [a Jew of German origin] was difficult then. It was a derogatory word. So it was important to me to write about the yekkes. Because in the past they didn't get such good press here. But they were really the first free Jews. And the first Europeans. And they built a civil society and believed obsessively in Bildung, which is self-improvement through the fostering of social concerns. They were constantly working on self- improvement. On self-refinement."

And on assimilation. Your book is a paean to the assimilationists.

"Yes, certainly."

Assimilation is a legitimate personal option. Perhaps it's even a fruitful one, as your book describes, for a generation or two. But it's not a sustainable option. In the third or fourth generation, the possibility of being an assimilated Jew dissipates. The Jewish element of the identity disappears.

"So it dissipates. That doesn't concern me."

It doesn't concern you whether there will be some kind of future for the Jewish people?

"The whole matter of Judaism as a nation is quite problematic. Apart from the Zionists, no one argues that the Jews are a nation."

In your view, the Jews are not a nation?

"I don't think that they are one nation. I don't think so. It's a religion."

If so, then the problem is even worse. A Jew who isn't religious is basically lacking an identity.

"Why must a person constantly define himself? Only doctrinaires demand that you present your identity card all the time. I don't want Judaism to be a tattoo on my forehead. And I can't say that I'm a Jew because I am a totally secular person."

Let's leave the matter of identity aside. The possibility that in the future there may not be a Jewish people or a Jewish civilization doesn't bother you?

"If people want to assimilate to the point that they disappear within the general society without a trace - that's their right. I don't think it's a tragedy. It's not the end of the world."

I want to go back to the journalist in you. Israel is a pretty major story. You were the chief chronicler of this story. And now you've given it up.

"Yes, but I'm leaving behind an opus that's worth something. And I'm fortunate enough to live in Tuscany on a hill that looks out on what may be the most beautiful landscape in the world. Nothing has changed there in thousands of years. And it's so beautiful that it melts your heart. So in the few years I have left, I want to look at this view most of the days of the year. On other days, I'll come to Israel and get mad."

You don't get mad in Italy?

"No. In Italy, I laugh."

You were a practitioner of serious, high-minded journalism. Do you think this type of journalism is in danger of extinction today?

"Definitely. There's no doubt. What I did wasn't part of the entertainment industry. Just the opposite. I spoiled people's moods. Nowadays, journalism all over the world is becoming part of the entertainment industry. It's becoming a circus. And in doing so it is forfeiting the constitutional role it had in a free society. This role was to educate, not to entertain."

Does this process worry you?

"I lament it. Years ago, The Times of London was one of the most civilized newspapers you could think of. You opened it in the morning and you felt like some nice, intelligent uncle had sat down next to your bed to explain the world to you. Today it's a tabloid. Sex, crime, gossip. And it's the same with The Guardian and The Telegraph. Even The New York Times has become part of the entertainment industry. Apart from the quality financial newspapers, the Neue Zuercher Zeitung and the Frankfurter Allegemeine are practically the only newspapers that haven't been overwhelmed by this process."

And in Israel?

"The evening papers are just headlines and pictures. They're tabloids. To me, they're not newspapers. But Haaretz is a much better newspaper than it was in my time. Much better. I think that Hanoch Marmari did wonders for the paper. He managed to do at Haaretz exactly the opposite of what's happening at other prestigious newspapers in the world. He made it bigger, more interesting, cosmopolitan. Today it's one of the best papers in the world, in my opinion. One of the few good papers to have survived. But I'm afraid that this miracle won't last. If they really get in trouble, they'll also be pushed toward entertainment. I'm very worried about it. Very worried. Aren't you?"

'They wanted a leader': Click here to read Amos Elon's answers to questions on the Six-Day War and Haaretz

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