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The Last Canaanite

Israel loses Amos Kenan, author, artist, activist, native son

Liel Leibovitz
August 11, 2009

For years now, Amos Kenan couldn’t remember a thing.

His mind gnawed by a neurological disease, he was motionless, blank, absent. When he died last week at the age of 82, the obits dryly listed his laurels: author, artist, political activist, bohemian. As is customary in such cases, most of the press reports kept the precise nature of his affliction—Alzheimer’s disease—deliberately vague. He died, they stated sotto voce, of a grave illness.

Amos Kenan, one suspects, would’ve scoffed at such euphemisms. Had he been around to comment on Amos Kenan’s death—the nation’s most unsparing columnist, it’s hard to recall a significant event he hadn’t addressed in print—he might have cherished the irony of Israel’s greatest rememberer ending his life in a fog of forgetfulness.

It was memory, after all, that made Kenan who he was. He was born Amos Levin in Tel Aviv in 1927, the morning after May Day, to an avidly socialist father. He belonged to Ha’Shomer Ha’Tzair, a socialist youth movement, but then he forgot all about its communitarian ideals and joined the Lehi, the most radical underground militia operating against the British mandate in Palestine and a hotbed for many of the nation’s future right-wing luminaries. He fought in the War of Independence, was wounded, and became a writer. He met Yonatan Ratosh, a charismatic poet, and joined Ratosh’s movement, the Canaanites.

Largely forgotten today, the Canaanites committed their considerable talents—the movement attracted a radiant lineup of artists, poets and journalists—to a radical reorganization of history. Forget the Bible, they preached, and its talk of a holy nation in God’s good grace. Forget the Jews. Remember only the Canaanites, the ancient Hebrews, who lived off their land and hunted and fought hard and spoke in the hardened tongue of battles and wounds and stood proud and invincible. They preached a collective cultural amnesia, one that would do away with Zionism and erect instead a neo-primordial society, inviting of all the land’s inhabitants and free of the vagaries of religion, nationality, and ideology.

The Canaanites’ influence soon faded away, silenced by the thundering of Israel’s independence. But Kenan emerged from the movement inspired. His would be a homeland unencumbered by heaven and its imperial demands, he swore. In June of 1952, when a bomb was thrown into the home of David Tzvi Pinkas—Israel’s minister of transportation and a religious Jew who tried to ban driving on the Sabbath as a means to save gasoline—Kenan was arrested on the scene. He denied all guilt and was eventually acquitted. (Recently unearthed testimonies, however, suggest he was behind the attack.) Still, he was too much for polite society to take, and immediately after his case was dismissed he was fired by Haaretz, for whom he’d been writing a popular column.

Twenty-five years old and persona non grata, he exiled himself to Paris, where he made a living writing a column for a radical Israeli magazine which he defiantly titled “The Wandering Knife.” He lived with the author Christiane Rochefort, hung out with Jean-Paul Sartre, and soaked up the French literature of the absurd that would later come to influence his writing greatly.

But for all the wonders of the City of Lights, he felt the greatest spiritual affinity to the craggy hills of Israel, and he returned to Tel Aviv in the early 1960s, taking on a position as a columnist in Yediot Aharonot that he would hold for more than 30 years. He dealt with his journalistic subjects the same way he had with his political enemies, with wit and without mercy. True to his Canaanite rules, he savaged Judaism and celebrated the land of Israel. Earth, not faith, was his haven.

And yet, after the war of 1967, Kenan became one of the first intellectuals to object to Israel’s control of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, supported negotiations with the Palestinians, and, in 1970, was one of the founders of the Council for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, a deeply radical organization at a time when even the most open-minded of the nation’s intelligentsia considered such actions verboten.

Such political and cultural isolation took its toll. Increasingly, Kenan’s writing became more dystopic, more desperate, less empathic. In 1974, he published what is arguably his most famous novel, The Road to Ein Harod, a terrifying tale of Israel in the throes of a Jewish fascist takeover.

“Don’t you see?,” asks a nefarious general, one of the book’s antagonists. “Whoever wants to stop what is happening today from happening today has to find a way to stop what happened yesterday from happening yesterday and what happened the day before from happening the day before. Only he who can stop today what happened the day before yesterday can also stop what will happen tomorrow because of what’s happening today, if you see what I mean.” Kenan was turning the perceived wisdom about history on its head: only those who can forget the past would avoid repeating it. A year later, Kenan struck the same theme more forcefully, naming yet another novel about post-apocalyptic Israel Shoah 2.

But Kenan was as ravenous in his earthly passions as he was in his politics, and for every lashing article he published he penned lyrics to popular tunes, comedy skits, satirical plays. Even in his lighter works, however, he was never without his violent wit: he signed his long-running restaurant review column as Loculus, an ancient architectural term referring to a burial place just big enough to hold a human corpse. He pursued pleasure, but saw in each delightful bite a small step bringing him closer to the grave.

It was his turn as bon vivant that brought him into friendship with some unlikely characters: despite his political activism, he was a close friend of Ariel Sharon, a fellow gourmand. When Sharon decided to leave the Likud and form his own party in 1977, he named the new enterprise Shlomzion, after Kenan’s daughter.

Everywhere you looked in Israeli culture, Amos Kenan was there. And his ubiquity might have been his downfall. He was so much a part of the fabric, most Israelis couldn’t see him anymore. They needed their artists to be solitary, singular, remote. Kenan was none of these things. He was the landscape. He was—to paraphrase Bob Dylan, whom he admired—so easy to look at and so hard to define.

For years now, Israelis have forgotten about Amos Kenan. But he had the last laugh: he had forgotten about them first.

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.