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Amos Elon (Sternbach)

Also Known As: "Heinrich"
Birthplace: Wien, Österreich (Austria)
Death: May 25, 2009 (82)
Buggiano, Tuscany, Italy
Immediate Family:

Son of Meir Max Sternbach and Malka Mania Sternbach
Husband of Private
Father of Private
Brother of Chaya Matarasso

Managed by: Karen Beth Keating
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About Amos Elon

Amos Elon, Israeli Author, Dies at 82

By ETHAN BRONNER Published: May 25, 2009 JERUSALEM — Amos Elon, an Israeli essayist and author who examined his society’s flaws and myths, explored some of its greatest figures and became for many years its most renowned public intellectual, died Monday in Italy, where he had made his home since 2004. He was 82. His wife, Beth, said the cause was leukemia.

The author of nine books, Mr. Elon rose to international fame in the early 1970s after the publication of “The Israelis: Founders and Sons,” an affectionate but unsparing portrait of early Zionists. Israel’s founders, he argued, had failed to properly acknowledge the people living on the land that the Zionists had come to reclaim. They had embarked on “a national and social renaissance in their ancient homeland,” he wrote, but “were blind to the possibility that the Arabs of Palestine might entertain similar hopes for themselves.”

Such a critique is fairly common today, even in Israel, but it was rare then, particularly coming from the pen of an Israeli. Mr. Elon’s ability to step outside his society’s heroic narrative and present uncomfortable facts and perspectives in learned yet accessible prose set him apart. Appearing just as Palestinian nationalism was beginning to assert itself, the book fell on fertile ground.

At the time a correspondent and columnist for Haaretz, the liberal Israeli daily newspaper, Mr. Elon found his work on international best-seller lists and his thoughts in demand from European and American broadcasters. He left the newspaper (returning some years later before leaving again) and devoted himself to his books and to writing essays, some appearing in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine and especially The New York Review of Books.

A trim man with straight hair, a smooth face and unforgiving eyes framed by large horn-rimmed glasses, Mr. Elon had a severity of manner and, having been born in Vienna, a deep attachment to German culture. Widely admired, he was not an easy man to love. As Ari Shavit, a writer for Haaretz, said of him in the introduction to an interview with Mr. Elon in 2004, “a devotee of human rights but not overflowing with brotherly love.”

Mr. Elon was born in 1926 and moved with his family to Palestine in 1933. He studied law and history at Hebrew University and Cambridge. By the 1940s he was a member of the prestate Tel Aviv intelligentsia.

Hired by Haaretz, he rose quickly at the paper in the 1950s by focusing on topics others neglected — notably on what he termed “the second Israel,” meaning the poor Middle Eastern Jewish immigrants often overlooked by the country’s European founders. In short order the newspaper sent him to Paris as its correspondent, then to Bonn and later to Washington, where he met his American-born wife, Beth. They have one daughter, Danae Elon, a documentary filmmaker who lives in New York. He is also survived by a sister, Chaya Matarasso of Israel.

Fluent in German, Hebrew and English, Mr. Elon wrote for publication in all three, offering fresh perspectives not only on Israel, but also on its perceptions of the outside world and on European culture.

Tom Segev, who followed in Mr. Elon’s footsteps by becoming a Haaretz columnist and an iconoclastic best-selling writer of books that came to be called “new history,” said Mr. Elon’s book on Germany, “Journey Through a Haunted Land: The New Germany” (1967), was as much of a shocker to many Israelis as his books on Israel because it portrayed a vibrant, self-questioning society to readers who tended to see it only through its Nazi past.

His most recent book, “The Pity of It All,” published in 2002, was a portrait of German Jewry from the mid-18th century until the rise of Hitler. German Jews are known in Israel as yekkes, a Yiddish term of derision and affection that suggests punctiliousness and a touch of cultural snobbishness, and coming from that world, Mr. Elon said, he wanted to set the record straight and write of its depth and richness.

“They were really the first free Jews. And the first Europeans,” he told Haaretz in the 2004 interview. “And they built a civil society and believed obsessively in Bildung, which is self-improvement through the fostering of social concerns.”

An earlier book was a penetrating but admiring biography of Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism.

Mr. Elon owned a house in Italy, and five years ago he moved there permanently, selling his Jerusalem apartment and prompting a debate in Israel on what it meant that a cultural giant and social critic could simply leave.

“The move smacked of a man saying, in effect, ‘I am withdrawing to civilized Tuscany,’ ” said Amnon Rubinstein, a law professor, author and former government minister. “There was a feeling that he felt he no longer belonged.”

In the Haaretz interview, Mr. Elon said he had grown weary and angry at what he considered the growing influence of religion and a heightened focus on military power in Israel, especially after the capture of the West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 war.

Asked if he felt alienation, he replied: “Not alienation. Disappointment.”

As to whether he missed the story he had written about so forcefully, Mr. Elon said he took comfort from the Tuscan landscape: “It’s so beautiful that it melts your heart. So in the few years I have left, I want to look at this view most of the days of the year. On the other days, I’ll come to Israel and get mad.” From

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Amos Elon's Timeline

July 4, 1926
Wien, Österreich (Austria)
May 25, 2009
Age 82
Buggiano, Tuscany, Italy