The world of letters lost an inimitable voice on Monday, when the journalist and historian Amos Elon died in Italy, at the age of eighty-two. For decades, Elon's stylish essays graced the pages of The New York Review of Books, where he wrote about a wide range of subjects, most notably Israel/Palestine, to which his Viennese parents fled in 1933, when he was eight. Elon went on to become the leading journalist of his generation, the Washington correspondent for Haaretz and the author of numerous acclaimed books. Yet he grew increasingly estranged from Israel as it veered to the right in the decades after the 1967 Six-Day War, eventually packing up his belongings and moving to Tuscany in 2004.
Elon's finest essays blended reportage and scholarship, in a voice at once learned and unsparing. Here he is on Jerusalem, in a piece published in 2001:
By now, generations of Palestinians and Israelis have been forcefully and dogmatically instructed by their political and religious leaders that the Old City is exclusively theirs. The early Zionists were wiser than their children and grandchildren. Like most European nationalists of the liberal school they were opposed to religious authority. Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, never bothered to have his only son circumcised. He advocated the internationalization of Jerusalem. For the capital of his proposed secular Judenstaat (a "state of Jews" as distinct from what later came to be called a Jewish state) he preferred Haifa, overlooking the Mediterranean sea. Jerusalem, he felt, was redolent with fanaticism and superstition, the musty deposit of "two thousand years of inhumanity and intolerance..."
One can hear in this passage Elon's undisguised admiration for Israel's founders, whose world he richly evoked in his superb book The Israelis: Founders and Sons. One can also sense the basis of his bitter disappointment with what happened to Israel after 1967, the turn toward religiosity, militarism and jingoistic nationalism that eventually drove him to exile. In 2004, the year he left Jerusalem for good, Elon expressed some of this bitterness (along with a sense of battle fatigue) in an interview with Ari Shavit. "Nothing has changed here in the last 40 years," he complained. "The problems were exactly the same as they always were. The solutions were already known back then. But no one paid attention to them."
And yet, into his eighties, Elon continued to write about those problems, with a depth and seriousness that was rarely matched by less critical (and less informed) observers. His voice will be missed. His work and the high standard he set remain, to be appreciated and emulated.