NEW YORK (JTA) — I write in memory of Amos Kenan, the Israeli artist, playwright and columnist who died Aug. 4 in Tel Aviv at the age of 82. I first met Amos in 1969 when (as unlikely as this would be today) the youth department of the World Zionist Organization brought him to the United States for a series of lectures on campuses specifically aimed at the increasingly anti-Israel New Left that was dominant among student activists. I was tapped to be his New York City campus guide. For years thereafter, I visited him at his apartment on Nachman Syrkin Street in Tel Aviv.
Kenan was considered right for the job because he had written a column for Yediot Achronot in 1968 that was translated into English and received with great enthusiasm by center-left Jewish students who supported Israel but were bewildered by the new hostile environment they faced on campus.
There were still 1968 vestiges: When Black Panther leader (and author of “Soul on Ice”) Eldridge Cleaver fled the United Stated and ended up in Algeria, he told intimates that his first choice would have been Israel. But the tide against Israel was turning. And this ideological transition was creating enormous tension for Jewish students who were pro-Israel (even self labeled as Zionists) but otherwise identified themselves with the radical politics and culture swirling around them. Everything was all right with the left, we thought, except for its position on Israel. This proved untenable, but wisdom had not yet arrived by 1968, and Amos Kenan’s column exploded like a flare, a burning pillar showing us the way to reinforce our position against mounting encirclement and assault.
Kenan was a rebel, starting with his youthful membership in the Stern Gang, properly Lehi. He flirted with the non-Zionist Canaanites, a grouping of intellectuals who saw Israel as a radical break with the Jewish world. Kenan lived in Paris from 1954 to 1962, where he sat at the table with Sartre at the Left Bank’s Le Cafe Flore, sipping coffee spiced with the heady fumes of existentialist thought, cultural modernism and political revolution.
Almost immediately after the Six-Day War, Kenan was proposing that Israel should focus on the Palestinian dimension and, as in 1947, agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel as the best of a bunch of bad outcomes. Much of his weekly column, “A Letter to All the Good People,” was by now a familiar critique of the left’s anti-Israel view. But it was not familiar then; it broke new ground.
His stand put him at odds with the New Left and the Israeli establishment at the same time. His proposal was quite a departure from the establishment line: the nascent “doves” argued for a deal with Jordan. No one among the Israelis or Palestinians was talking about a Palestinian state alongside Israel except for Kenan and some fringe voices on the Israeli left. (Aryeh Eliav, the secretary general of the Labor Party and card-carrying member of the establishment, would soon join Kenan, at the price of his party leadership position.)
Kenan’s column ran in the Friday Yediot, appearing on the same page as a column by a fellow Lehi veteran, Boaz Evron, who had similar sympathies. The page was called “Fatah-land” — Israeli slang for southern Lebanon — a reference to the writers’ perceived Palestinian sympathies.
Following the 1948 elections, in which Lehiniks were marginalized and could not, in the main, get government jobs, those members with a literary bent turned to Yediot. (One Lehi commander, Yitzhak Shamir, had a highly successful career in the Mossad before turning to politics and ending up as prime minister.) Ma’ariv served as a similar outpost for veterans of Menachem Begin’s Irgun.
It was Kenan, the big leftist, who gave Ariel Sharon the idea to name his party after Kenan’s daughter, Shlomzion. The party ran in the 1974 elections and the general was backed by the rebel intellectual. Shlomzion worked because it also was the name of an ancient and powerful Jewish queen. To complete the trifecta, Shlomzion means Peace of Zion.
During one visit to Syrkin Street, Kenan suddenly picked up and said he was running late for a lunch with Sharon. I asked him why he would meet with Sharon, and he replied that Sharon was a much more interesting guy than you think — he was referring to the general-turned-politician’s unique stand with respect to the Palestinians. Sharon admitted to the need for a Palestinian solution — his choice was to replace the Hashemites and let the Palestinians enjoy sovereignty on the far side of the Jordan.
If Kenan’s thinking on the Palestinians was still heresy on the left, Sharon’s acknowledgement of a Palestinian national dimension was dismissed with even greater enthusiasm by the right.
With the passing of Kenan, we lost a unique man whose like we probably will not see again.
(David Twersky writes widely on Israel and Jewish issues.)