Amos Elon

Amos Elon's book "The Israelis: Founders and Sons," challenged the image of his country's Zionist founders. His portrayal faulted the European-born pioneers for being blinded by an ancient claim to Palestine and failing to consider the fate of Arabs living there. ("Another Road Home' / Geoquest Entertainment Group)

Amos Elon, whose critical explorations of Jewish history and the roots of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict made him one of the most distinguished and provocative Israeli authors of his time, died Monday in Italy, his home for the last five years. He was 82.

His wife, Beth, said the cause of death was leukemia.

Elon was a well-known journalist in Israel in 1971 when his second book, "The Israelis: Founders and Sons," challenged the heroic image of his country's Zionist founders and gained him international recognition. His portrayal was generally sympathetic but faulted the European-born pioneers for being blinded by an ancient claim to Palestine and failing to consider the fate of Arabs already living there.

"The Arabs bore no responsibility for the centuries-long suffering of Jews in Europe," Elon wrote, voicing criticism that is common in Israel today but was rare at the time. "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."

He returned to that theme in other works on the Middle East while also writing historical biographies and other scholarly examinations of Jewish life in Europe before and during World War II. Some of his nine books became international best sellers, and many of his essays appeared in the New York Review of Books.

His columns in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, where he worked off and on for five decades, established him as an early critic of Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, territories captured from Arab nations in the 1967 Middle East war. He wrote that the occupation had corrupted and burdened Israel, turning it into a more militaristic society and making its 1967 victory "worse than a defeat."

After gaining stature as one of Israel's best known intellectuals and social critics, Elon withdrew from the country late in life -- disillusioned over its direction and the seemingly intractable nature of its conflict with the Palestinians.

Tom Segev, a prominent Israeli historian, said Elon's critique of Israel's founders and early policies paved the way for freer debate about the Zionist project in the nation's contemporary discourse. "He filled an important role in Israel, as one of the first to observe the society without being a prisoner of its ancient and national myths," said Segev, who followed in Elon's footsteps as a Haaretz columnist and author of iconoclastic bestsellers. "This required a critical eye and a somewhat removed and ironic perspective."

Born July 4, 1926, in Vienna, Elon moved to Palestine with his family in 1933, arriving so young, he said later, that he never considered himself "an ideological Israeli." In a 2004 interview with Ari Shavit of Haaretz, he said he continued to believe in the need for "a state of the Jews in Israel" but added: "Zionism has exhausted itself, precisely because it accomplished its aims."

Behind horn-rimmed glasses, the writer exuded intelligence and refinement that earned him the nickname "The Viennese" among newspaper colleagues. Shavit described him as "serious, German, stern." A secular Jew, he maintained a lifelong attachment to German culture; spoke German, English and Hebrew fluently; and wrote in all three languages.

He grew up in Tel Aviv and served three years in the Hagana, the paramilitary forerunner of Israel's army, while it was fighting against British rule. After Israel gained independence in 1948, he studied law and history at Hebrew University and Cambridge.

After starting at Haaretz in 1951, he became a correspondent in Europe and the United States. In Washington he met American-born Beth Drexler, who became his wife and an editor for much of his work. She survives, along with their daughter, Danae, of New York; two grandchildren; and a sister.

Shortly after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war Elon had a chance meeting at Harvard with Sana Hassan, the daughter of Egypt's ambassador to the United States at the time. A series of conversations between them was published the following year as "Between Enemies: A Compassionate Dialogue Between an Israeli and an Arab."

Egypt's president at the time, Anwar Sadat, was reportedly furious over the book, which helped shatter a taboo against Israeli-Egyptian contacts. But three years later he became the first Arab leader to visit Israel, a breakthrough that led to Israel's 1979 peace agreement with Egypt. Free to travel there, Elon wrote "Flight Into Egypt," a book based on interviews with Egyptians who told him the country had tired of the cycle of war.

"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," he said in a 1987 interview for the publication Contemporary Authors.

Elon's books included biographies of Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, and Meyer Amschel Rothschild, the patriarch of the Rothschild banking dynasty.

His 2002 book "The Pity of It All," his last volume, portrayed German Jewish life from the mid-18th century until Adolf Hitler's rise to power. The book explores the complex relationships between educated Jews who wanted to be complete Germans and Germans who respected Jews but could not fully accept them.

The failure to achieve a multicultural Germany, in which one could be both Jewish and German, was tragic in light of what befell the Jews under Hitler, Elon wrote. But the book challenges a widely held view that pathology in the German culture made the Holocaust inevitable.

Elon sold his Jerusalem apartment in 2004 and retreated to his longtime vacation home in Italy's Tuscan region, where he could write about Israel from a distance. Many Israelis were astonished by his departure; some called him an elitist who simply couldn't accept an Israel that didn't resemble Europe.

Interviewed by Haaretz that year while packing up in Jerusalem, he said he felt "disappointment" over the country's nationalistic policies and the religious influence in its politics, especially since the 1967 war.

"Nothing has changed here in the last 40 years," he said. "The problems are exactly the same as they always were. The solutions were already known back then. But nobody paid attention. I found myself saying the same thing all the time. And I started to bore myself."

boudreaux@latimes.com