Elon, Amos 1926-
ELON, Amos 1926-
PERSONAL: Born July 4, 1926, in Vienna, Austria; immigrated to Palestine (now Israel), 1928; son of Max (in business) and Marie (Ringelheim) Elon; married Beth Lois Drexler (an editor), 1961; children: Danae. Education: Attended schools in England and Israel; received B.A. from Hebrew University (Jerusalem).
CAREER: Writer and journalist. Ha'aretz (daily newspaper), Tel Aviv, Israel, foreign correspondent, editorial writer, and columnist, 1952–83; writer, 1967–87. Military service: Israeli Army, 1948–49; served in Palestine during Arab-Israeli War; became first lieutenant.
AWARDS, HONORS: Kenneth B. Smilen/Present Tense Literary Award for social and political analysis, 1982, for Flight into Egypt; honorary doctorate in letters, Baltimore Hebrew College, 1989, for histories and biographical studies; Wingate literary prize for nonfiction, Jewish Quarterly, 2004, for The Pity of It All.
Yerushalayim lo naflah, 1949.
In Einem heimgesuchten Land, Kindler, 1966, translated by Michael Roloff as Journey through a Haunted Land: The New Germany, Holt (New York, NY), 1967.
The Israelis: Founders and Sons, Holt (New York, NY), 1971.
(With Sana Hassan) Between Enemies: A Compassionate Dialogue between an Israeli and an Arab, Random House (New York, NY), 1974.
An Egyptian-Israeli Dialogue (sound recording), Encyclopedia Americana/CBS News Audio Resource Library, 1974.
Herzl (biography), Holt (New York, NY), 1975.
(With Dore Schary) Herzl (three-act play based on Elon's biography), produced on Broadway, 1976.
Understanding Israel: A Social Studies Approach, edited by Morris J. Sugarman, Behrman (New York, NY), 1976.
Timetable, Doubleday (Garden City, NY), 1980, published as Timetable: The Story of Joel Brand, Hutchinson (London, England), 1981.
Flight into Egypt, Doubleday (Garden City, NY), 1980, revised edition with introduction by Elon, Pinnacle (New York, NY), 1981.
(Compiler, with others, and author of introduction) The Israelis: Photographs of a Day in May, Keter Publishing House (New York, NY), 1985, published as A Day in the Life of the Israelis, Thames & Hudson (London, England), 1985.
(Author of text) The Holy Land from the Air, photographs by Richard Nowitz, Abrams (New York, NY), 1987.
Habet ahorah be-vehalah mesuyemet: rishumim me-Erets Yisra'el u-sevivoteha, Am oved (Tel Aviv, Israel), 1988.
Jerusalem: City of Mirrors, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1989, revised as Jerusalem: Battlegrounds of Memory, Kodansha International (New York, NY), 1995.
Founder: A Portrait of the First Rothschild and His Time, Viking (New York, NY), 1996.
Ha-Meyased: avi shoshelet Rotshild u-tekufato, Am oved (Tel Aviv, Israel), 1998.
The Pity of It All: A History of Jews in Germany, 1743–1933, Metropolitan Books (New York, NY), 2002.
Contributor of "Letters" columns from Egypt, Israel, and Argentina to New Yorker.
SIDELIGHTS: Amos Elon is generally considered one of Israel's most distinguished journalists. As a foreign correspondent, editorial writer, and columnist for the Tel Aviv daily newspaper Ha'aretz for more than three decades, he earned respect in his field for his scrupulous research, detailed and unbiased reporting, and eloquent prose style. His critically acclaimed works, which are written in both Hebrew and English and have appeared in numerous translations, focus mainly on the history of the Jewish people and explore such issues as the legacy of the Holocaust, the century-long struggle by Jews to establish a Jewish state in Palestine, and the ongoing tension between Arabs and Israelis.
Elon's first book, Journey through a Haunted Land: The New Germany, is an account of his travels in 1965 through a divided Germany. The author contrasts his observations of the East and West German people of the mid-1960s with a remembrance of the Holocaust, analyzing the impact on the German population—twenty years after the war's end—of Nazi crimes against the Jews. While several critics questioned Elon's motivations, perspective, and objectivity in examining postwar Germany as an Israeli, most agreed that the journalist presented an unbiased view of a country in transition. In an article for the New Republic, Stanley Kauffmann noted: "The book is intelligent, probing, [and] generally well-balanced," adding that Elon is "intent on learning, rather than substantiating preconceptions."
In compiling data for Journey through a Haunted Land, Elon looked to members of the German intelligentsia—artists, politicians, educators—for a contemporary view of the opinions and sentiments of the German populace. Quoting the verse of German poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Elon captures the confusion of a new generation of German youth forced to bear the guilt of its ancestors: "What have I lost here? / In this country / Into which my elders brought me…. / What am I doing here? what am I to say? / In what language? and to whom?" Doris Peel, writing in the Christian Science Monitor, suggested that Elon's "grace of awareness … [his] feeling for the shared dilemmas of our humanhood, as well as for a particular people's shadowy heritage … gives both distinction and poignancy to his report."
Elon's 1971 book, The Israelis: Founders and Sons, offers an analysis of the continuing Arab-Israeli crisis. Originally an ancient kingdom in Palestine, present-day Israel was established in an apportionment of Palestine between Jews and Arabs, as recommended by a United Nations committee. The Arab-Jew conflict over Israel stems from militant opposition by Palestinian Arabs to Jewish domination of the land. War erupted in Palestine in 1948 as Arabs resisted longtime efforts by the Jews to establish a Jewish state there. Under the watch of UN forces, the two sides maintained a somewhat uneasy peace—which was interrupted by occasional raids—through the mid-1950s. Convinced that the Arabs in Egypt were planning an assault, Israel attacked the country in 1956. Another conflict in 1967, now called the Six-Day War, saw Israel gain control of Arab territories, including the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Egypt's Sinai peninsula.
The Israelis: Founders and Sons is an extensive critical and historical study that opens in Jerusalem in 1968, two decades after the formation of the Israeli state and one year after Israel's victory in the Six-Day War. The celebration, however, is tainted by a sense of bewilderment and regret. Both "exaltation" and "melancholia," noted David Schoenbrun in the New York Times Book Review, inform Elon's "penetrating, profound, explosive essay-analysis of the Israelis and the Jews (a new 'hybrid' of an ancient people)." According to Arthur Cooper in Newsweek, the author's "journey through his homeland leaves … some myths shattered."
In The Israelis, Elon questions the motives of the early Zionists, pioneering revolutionaries who worked for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. The author theorizes that the first Zionists were so steadfast in their claim to Palestinian land that they failed to consider the fate of approximately 750,000 Arabs already living there. The expulsion of Arabs from Palestine, reasons Elon, gave rise to the vehement Arab nationalism that has since threatened Israel. In addition, the author contends that the Jews in Palestine during World War II failed to fully assist their European brethren during the Holocaust. If they had helped, the genocidal horrors perpetrated by the Nazis might have been averted or brought to an earlier end. "The question," Elon writes in The Israelis, "has haunted Israeli politicians…. Its moral dimensions are monstrous."
Elon relates the persecution of Jews in Europe to the Arab-Israeli conflict, implying that the Holocaust fueled an obsessive drive in Israelis to unite and set up a homeland in Palestine—at any cost. As the author explains in his controversial book, "The Arabs bore no responsibility for the … suffering of Jews in Europe; yet in the end, the Arabs were punished because of it…. 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." Irving Howe, writing in Harper's Magazine, countered Elon's assessment of Arab treatment, stating: "The early Zionists were aware of Arab aspirations, and discussed them not only among themselves but with the Arabs too. They simply believed, rightly or wrongly, that an equitable relation between the two aspiring peoples could be worked out in Palestine." The majority of critics, however, found Elon's view of Israel insightful, provocative, and remarkably impartial. In an article for the New York Times, Roger Jellinek commended the author for his "cool oasis of a book in an arid desert of tedious rhetoric," declaring, "Elon has written the most acute, even-handed portrait yet of the perennially controversial Israelis." Discussing the book in a 1987 interview with CA, Elon noted: "In all my writing I have felt that my most important task was to work for that emotional detente and ideological disarmament which is so necessary for any Arab-Israeli settlement in the future."
In Herzl, Elon examines the life and ideals of Theodor Herzl, a founder and principal leader of the Zionist movement. While Herzl did not originate the idea of creating a Jewish state, he did much to promote it. Ac-cording to Elon, Herzl believed that a failure to establish such a state would threaten the future existence of the Jewish people. A Hungarian-born Austrian Jew, Herzl was deeply affected by his own experience of anti-Semitism in late nineteenth-century Europe, an experience that fueled and shaped his conception of a Palestinian homeland. Elon details the founding Zionist's complexity and exposes his ambiguous nature, his ironic fetish for the trappings of aristocracy, his tragic family life, and the alleged hint of madness that inspired his vision. Several critics observed that Herzl—a well-documented, historically accurate, analytical work—resembles a dramatic novel: "[Herzl] is his own illumination," assessed Stefan Kanfer in Time. Deeming the book a biography of an "unlikely messiah," Arthur Miller concluded in the Washington Post Book World, "Elon has given us Herzl, warts and all … and better yet the mysterious dialectical interplay between his personality, his obsessions and his fears, and the underlying menace of his pre-World War I Vienna and … Europe." Elon told CA that as a native Austrian, he was fascinated by the environment from which Herzl came: "In the Vienna of the turn of the century, all kinds of flowers sprouted, some sweet and others poisoned. They were all strangely related and somehow nurtured one another through a curious, often hidden convergence of ideas. I was intrigued by the fact that that same city of Vienna had produced a Herzl as well as a Hitler, the antidote before the poison."
Europe in the era of German dictator Adolf Hitler is the setting of Elon's 1980 book, Timetable. It takes place in 1944, as Hitler's military power began to fail and the end of World War II drew near. Billed as Elon's first novel, the work is actually a fictionalized documentary, focusing on Jewish-Hungarian businessman Joel Brand's secret efforts to rescue Jews from the Nazis. Brand had successfully smuggled people out of occupied European territory in 1943. The next year, Adolph Eichmann—the German Nazi leader in charge of exterminating the last one million Jews in Hungary—offered Brand a deal: Eichmann would spare the Jews and exchange them for trucks and supplies needed by the ailing German military. In an article for New Republic, Judith B. Walzer stated that Elon's account of Brand's ultimately failed mission "raises long repressed questions about [Allied] complicity in at least some of the murders committed by [the] enemy." Timetable probes alternative courses of action which, if taken by the Allies, may have spared European Jews from the Nazi death camps. "It is this unhappy speculation—what might have been," continued Walzer—"that Elon, with restraint and understanding, allows to haunt his novel."
Several reviewers implied that Brand's story should not have been fictionalized, especially since Brand published his own memoirs. But other critics, including New York Times Book Review contributor Frederic Morton, approved of Elon's novelistic approach. Morton asserted that the author's presentation "indelibly renders both the courage and hopelessness of Brand's ordeal" and added, "This book is upsetting, unsettling and crucial." In his CA interview, Elon said of the book, "It's not fiction, it's faction. The events described in the book actually happened; the conversation is reconstructed. The main protagonists are called by their real names. The letters and telegrams are genuine—I got them out of the official archives. I decided to develop the dialogue freely in the manner of the modern factual novel because I was interested in inner motive, of which, of course, there is no written record. I was trying to fathom motive and character, and I thought this was how it should be done…. I had two forces fighting within me, the journalist and the writer. The journalist is always in need of more facts and documents. The writer always wants to take more liberties than he can safely take. The historian must stick to the dry facts. The artist can safely paint the sky green…. I tried in this book to walk the middle line between the two extremes, and I hope that I did not entirely fail."
Flight into Egypt, Elon's next book, deals with the relationship between Egypt and Israel in the years following the Six-Day War. In October of 1973, after Egyptian president Anwar Sadat's rise to power, Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on Israeli positions. Both countries' forces were eventually repelled by Israel, and in 1974 a UN buffer zone was created. Flight into Egypt, published in 1980, recounts Elon's visit to postwar Egypt in the spring of 1979. While in Cairo, Elon witnessed the signing of the historic Arab-Israeli peace agreement. In an article for the New Yorker, Naomi Bliven noted that the book "is everywhere pervaded by the bittersweet relief of peace, which includes regrets for the losses of war, a sense of the unnecessariness of those decades of hostility, and a lingering uncertainty." Most critics have agreed that this uncertainty and anxiety stems from the mutual distrust that is so deeply rooted in the history of Arab-Israeli relations.
During his 1979 visit to Egypt, Elon was allowed to travel freely. After mingling with writers, artists, politicians, and Jews living there, the author theorized that Egyptians had tired of fighting and longed to break the cycle of war with Israel. According to Elon in Flight into Egypt, the peace mission—which he claims was initiated by Sadat in response to public sentiment—was seen as a way to officially establish Egypt as a distinctive state and reaffirm the country's national identity. Calling the work "elemental to the creation of an enduring peace between Israel and Egypt," Phil Freshman concluded in the Los Angeles Times, "Elon can simultaneously embrace and transcend the emotional patterns he shares with his countrymen, while managing to turn out acute, responsible reportage."
Interfaith and intercultural tensions also inform 1989's Jerusalem: City of Mirrors, revised in 1995 as Jerusalem: Battlegrounds of Memory. Elon sees Jerusalem, a city considered sacred by Jews, Christians, and Muslims, as being endangered by religious fanaticism. He reports on the threats to Muslim holy sites by ultra-Orthodox Jews—an activity that has the endorsement of some U.S. Christian fundamentalists, who believe conflict in the Middle East will move up the Second Coming of Christ. He also comments on the Roman Catholic Church's unease with Jewish-controlled Israel. Mark Krupnick, reviewing the original edition for Christian Century, found Elon's account excellent as journalism but lacking in analysis: "Elon's reportorial gifts are inadequate for understanding the zealotry he deplores." However, Victor T. LeVine, discussing the revised book in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, deemed it "passionate, lyrical, as well as critical and hard-headed." It was more relevant than ever, LeVine wrote, after the assassination in November, 1995, of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was open to new ways to accommodate Arab Palestinians in Jerusalem. Rabin was killed by a Zionist law student who opposed the government's peacemaking strategies.
Elon returned to a European setting with Founder: A Portrait of the First Rothschild and His Time. The book details the life of Meyer Amschel Rothschild, patriarch of the Rothschild banking family. Rothschild was born in 1744 in Frankfurt, Germany, where as a Jew he was forced to live in a filthy, overcrowded ghetto, under a variety of restrictions. Jews were allowed out of their neighborhood only for business purposes, and could not leave it at all on Sundays or Christian holidays. Rothschild was orphaned at age twelve and soon afterward became an apprentice in a banking firm. He was able to use the knowledge he gained there to become a financier to European aristocrats. His business success also enabled him to take a leading role in Jews' struggle for equal rights.
Several critics noted that Founder focused as much on Rothschild's environment as on the man himself. "The book is more than a biography; the author does not attempt to imagine the thinking of a man who lived two centuries ago," related James Flanigan in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. "In laying out an atmosphere in which discrimination was part of everyday life, Elon tells a cautionary tale about the depths to which institutional prejudice can reduce a society." New York Times reviewer Richard Bernstein commented that "in many ways, Mr. Elon is more interested in Rothschild's circumstances than in the biographical data itself, and the circumstances are indeed what make the life gripping." He praised the "often colorful detail" with which Elon chronicled Rothschild's rise, but found that the book failed to answer the question of how Rothschild overcame his lack of education to achieve such prominence in business. In the New York Times Book Review, Ron Chernow offered a similar criticism: "Despite his lucid prose and intelligent judgments, Mr. Elon can't entirely paper over a paucity of information about this first Rothschild…. Unavoidably, the book's background is far more brilliantly colored than the pale, blurry figure in the foreground."
Still, reviewers observed that the book provided a much-needed acknowledgment of the work of Meyer Rothschild, whose five sons had become more famous than he. Chicago Tribune writer Jacqueline Fitzgerald added that the book also highlighted the role of the Rothschild women, who could work in the family firm but not on equal footing with men, as they could not inherit it or inspect the books. All the same, Fitzgerald noted, Elon makes it clear that women made a contribution; for instance, Meyer Rothschild's wife, Guttle, was a strong woman who helped the family's business grow. Flanigan found the book overall an insightful study of "the strength in adversity that produced that later success" of the Rothschild family and the story of "a simple but ambitious man…. Meyer Amschel Rothschild worked diligently to build a business and raise a family in conditions most Americans today would find beyond their endurance."
A Blood-Dimmed Tide: Dispatches from the Middle East, outlines the violent and fractious history of politics in the Middle East, and the often storm relations between Jews and Arabs, over a thirty-year period beginning with the end of the Six-Day War in 1967 and the ascendance of Netanyahu's Likud Party in 1996. Elon provides clear portraits of Israeli leaders such as Dayan, Rabin, and Peres as well as "cogent analysis of Arab leaders (Arafat, King Hussein) and thoughtful reports on public opinions and political developments" in the Middle East and internationally, reported Mary Carroll in Booklist. "This book provides a timely and well-informed analysis of the conflicts between Jews and Arabs," remarked Fred Rhodes in Middle East. Library Journal contributor Sanford R. Silverburg called it a "genuine and intelligent critical inquiry" into modern Israeli politics, Zionism, and the development of Palestinian statehood. A Publishers Weekly critic concluded that "on the whole, the essay are will written and incisive. Whether or not you agree with them, they are always thought-provoking."
The Pity of It All: A History of Jews in Germany, 1743–1933 covers almost 200 years of Jewish history in Germany, from the time of Frederick II to the rise of Adolf Hitler. Elon begins with Moses Mendelssohn's arrival in Berlin at age fourteen, and concludes that the generally small number of Jews in Germany "tended to be German to the core, thus magnifying the shock at the ascendancy of the Nazis," noted a reviewer in First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life. The Jewish population of Germany never amounted to more than one percent, but the German Jews were prominent in areas such as literature, theology, the arts, politics, business, and the natural sciences, noted George Cohen in Booklist. Elon provides detailed biographical material on prominent individuals such as Salman Schocken, founder of Schocken Books; Nobel laureate Schmuel Agnon; Franz Kafka; Albert Einstein; Martin Puber; and Gershom Scholem. Despite their contributions, German Jews were often mistreated and humiliated, until their situation culminated in the Holocaust. Elon suggests that much of the problem originated in the German Jews' attempt to be both Jewish and nationalist at the same time. "This work provides fascinating insight into the Jewish dilemma of coping with modernity," commented Frederic Krome in the Library Journal. Steven J. Zipperstein, writing in the New York Times Book Review, noted that "Elon writes with a gentle irony, a keen sense of the intrusion of small joys, the tug of erotic or other impulses even in the throes of grand historic moments." The book is, Zipperstein noted, "a work packed with beautifully sketched portraits, and constructed with a practiced eye for the memorable, well-executed anecdote."
In an interview in Ha'aretz, Elon expressed strong opposition to the presence of religion in any political process. "I'm not being original when I say that religion that enters politics is dangerous," he commented. "Such religious people would be better off behind bars and not in politics. Certainly." Elon also lamented the transformation of journalism from a source of serious thinking and analysis to something more resembling an entertainment product. "What I did wasn't part of the entertainment industry," he stated in the Ha'aretz interview. "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."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, June 1, 1997, Mary Carroll, review of A Blood-Dimmed Tide: Dispatches from the Middle East, p. 1650; September 15, 2002, George Cohen, review of The Pity of It All: A History of Jews in Germany, 1743–1933, p. 197.
Bookseller, May 7, 2004, "Grossman and Elon Win Jewish Prizes," p. 6.
Christian Century, May 30, 1990, Mark Krupnick, review of Jerusalem: City of Mirrors, p. 575.
Contemporary Review, March, 2004, review of The Pity of It All, p. 186.
Economist, January 25, 2003, review of The Pity of It All.
First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, May, 2003, review of The Pity of It All, p. 74.
Ha'aretz, December 27, 2004, Ari Shavit, interview with Amos Elon.
Harper's, September, 1971, Irving Howe, review of The Israelis.
Library Journal, May 1, 1997, Sanford R. Silverburg, review of A Blood-Dimmed Tide, p. 124; October 1, 2002, Frederic Krome, review of The Pity of It All, p. 113.
Los Angeles Times, December 9, 1980, Phil Freshman, review of Flight into Egypt.
Middle East, November, 1999, Fred Rhodes, review of A Blood-Dimmed Tide, p. 42.
New Republic, March 11, 1967, Stanley Kauffmann, review of Journey through a Haunted Land.
Newsweek, June 7, 1971, Arthur Cooper, review of The Israelis: Founders and Sons; August 11, 1980, Jean Strouse, review of Timetable, p. 70.
New Yorker, March 30, 1981, Naomi Bliven, review of Flight into Egypt.
New York Times, May 1, 1971, Roger Jellinek, review of The Israelis: Founders and Sons; November 4, 1996, Richard Bernstein, review of Founder, p. A24.
New York Times Book Review, September 7, 1980, Frederic Morton, review of Timetable, p. 12; November 9, 1980, Jan Morris, review of Flight into Egypt, p. 3; December 31, 1995, review of Jerusalem: Battlegrounds of Memory, p. 16; October 27, 1996, Ron Chernow, review of Founder: A Portrait of the First Rothschild and His Time, p. 50; November 24, 2002, Steven J. Zipperstein, review of The Pity of It All, p. 18.
Publishers Weekly, September 2, 1996, review of Founder, p. 99; April 14, 1997, review of A Blood-Dimmed Tide, p. 61.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 19, 1995, Victor T. LeVine, review of Jerusalem: City of Mirrors, p. D5.
Spectator, March 15, 2003, Andrew Gimson, review of The Pity of It All, p. 45.
Time, March 31, 1975, Stefan Kanfer, review of Herzl.