An Interview with Amos Elon

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 Ha’aretz.

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
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 Ha’aretz’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 Ha’aretz 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

Amos Elon, looking over
the list of books you’ve written in the past decades – “The
Israelis,” “Herzl,” “The
,” “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 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

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.

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

“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

“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

“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

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

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

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

“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

“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

“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?”

Ari Shavit writes for Ha’aretz, where
this interview originally appeared.