This Day in Jewish History: Amos Kenan, Iconoclast, Peacenik, and Would-be Assassin Dies

He was also drawn to the 'Canaanite' concept of a secular state with a pre-Judaic 'Hebrew' identity rather than a religious 'Jewish' one.

Daniel Rosenblum

On August 4, 2009, Amos Kenan – Israeli writer and artist, iconoclast, and would-be assassin – died, at age 82. Kenan was part of a generation of Tel Aviv personalities, who also included such figures as his friends Dahn Ben-Amotz and Uri Avnery, who were enormously influential in the decades when the dominant culture was secular and left-of-center. But his range of activities and ideological journey was especially impressive, even by the turbulent standards of the state’s early years.

In her 2008 semi-biographical disc about her father, “Songs for Yoel,” Rona Kenan sings of how her paternal grandparents, devout socialists, wanted very much for their son to be born on May Day. But “cheeky child” that “Yoel” was, he deigned to show up only after the clock had struck midnight.

And indeed, Amos Levine (as he was known until he took the Hebrew surname “Kenan”) was born on May 2, 1927, in Tel Aviv to Yaakov and Rachel Levine. Yaakov was a Russian-born Labor Zionist who made his living as a construction worker. After a four-year sojourn with the family in Argentina, and a work accident after his return, Yaakov spent much of his final years in a mental hospital.

Rona Kenan singing at Barbie Club in Tel Aviv. (Photo: Tomer Appelbaum)

The Canaanite solution

Clearly, in the years leading up to Israel’s independence, Kenan was searching for answers. In high school, which he left before graduation in order to go to work, he was active in the socialist-Zionist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair. In 1946, the same year, he joined the right-wing Lehi underground militia.

He also met and was drawn to the so-called "Canaanite” philosophy, which aspired to a secular state that would have a pre-Judaic "Hebrew" identity rather than a religious "Jewish" one.

Kenan fought with the Lehi in the War of Independence, and participated in its disastrous attack, in April 1948, on the village of Deir Yassin, which resulted in the killing of more than 100 Palestinian villagers, many of them non-combatants. Kenan gave varying accounts over the years of his role at Deir Yassin. Later, he served in the Israel Defense Forces’ 8th Armored Brigade.

In the early 1950s, Kenan began writing a regular satirical column for Haaretz, which dropped him after he was indicted in 1952 on suspicion of participating in a plot to murder David-Zvi Pinkas, a transportation minister who proposed banning driving on the Sabbath, as part of a national plan to save fuel. Kenan saw this as religious coercion. He and a colleague were tried for bombing Pinkas’s home – the minister was unhurt, but died two months later of a heart attack – but were acquitted for lack of evidence. In her 2008 biography of Kenan, Nurith Gertz, who became his wife in 1962, wrote that he admitted to involvement in the attack.

Self-imposed exile

After the trial, Kenan went into self-imposed exile in Paris, where he worked in the theater, began doing sculpture, and wrote a weekly column for Uri Avnery’s magazine Ha’olam Hazeh.

In 1962, Kenan returned to Israel  and he married Gertz. The couple had two daughters, Shlomtzion, a writer and editor (for whom Ariel Sharon named his short-lived political party Shlomtzion, in 1977), and Rona, a poet and musician. He began writing for the popular newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth after his return, a relationship that continued for some four decades.

There seems to be little that Kenan didn’t do: He directed films, wrote plays, initiated meetings with Palestinians – as an early advocate of the two-state solution, and helped found the Open Museum at Tefen, in the Galilee, He also wrote an apocalyptic best-selling novel, “The Road to Ein Harod,” his only book to be translated into English, about Israel following a brutal military coup.

He was certainly a provocateur: his play “Friends Talk about Jesus” was banned by the Supreme Court for offending religious sensibilities. Even those closest to him said he could be personally insufferable. But Kenan was endlessly creative and questioning, and deeply in love with the Land of Israel, and when he was silenced by Alzheimer’s disease in his final years, Israeli culture felt his absence.

Amos Kenan died in Tel Aviv on this day in 2009.

Twitter: @davidbeegreen

My Prison by the Sea, by Rona Kenan, daughter of Amos Kenan