The news of Amos Kenan’s death in Tel Aviv August 4 came as a surprising, almost physical shock. A bohemian artist and journalist from Israel’s founding generation, Kenan has been on my mind a lot in the past few weeks. I met him only a couple of times, probably 40 years ago, when I was a teenager and he came to talk with our Habonim group in New York. He made an enormous impression that’s still vivid.
He’s been on my mind because of something he wrote back then, an article in Yediot Ahronot titled “A Letter to All Good People.” (If you can’t download a PDF, find the html version here.) It described in starkly emotional terms the sense of abandonment, isolation and even loneliness among left-wing Zionists in those months after the Six-Day War when the general left turned against Israel. Kenan described it from the point of view of a habitué of the cafes along the Left Bank in Paris who was suddenly cut off from his social, cultural milieu. Young Jews in America felt it in the sudden hostility coming from the New Left, from the antiwar and civil rights movements that had been our home and reference point throughout our formative decade. Cut off by former friends and comrades, alienated from the values of the conservative establishment that now embraced Israel, a generation raised to identify home with political solidarity found itself homeless.
Kenan’s “Letter” was translated into English and handed out in leaflet form by the tens of thousands on American and Canadian campuses. It became a rallying point for a new Jewish counterculture that was emerging. Kenan’s “Letter” was part of our birthright. Re-reading it, there’s a line or two that sounds dated, but it’s as powerful today as it was then. Maybe more so.
Meeting Kenan was an electrifying experience. For someone raised in a Zionist home, coming of age in the New Left and youth culture of the 1960s, here was someone who had been living that life and those values since the 1940s — in Tel Aviv, noch. It was a revelation. Personally he was charming, witty, a wonderful story-teller. He talked about Sartre, espresso, French wines, about fighting in the War of Independence, about his comrades-in-arms in the pre-state Stern Gang or Lehi (about a third of Lehi was socialist, he said). He confided that as left-wing as he was, most of his best friends were on the right, because “they’re more fun, less serious.” Once he brought along the great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish to talk with us. That was a life-changing experience. Kenan himself was a life-changing experience.
I’ve been thinking about Kenan lately because these times so closely resemble those times — the savagery of the Left’s hatred of Israel, the attacks on the Jewish left by the Jewish establishment, the machers’ rightward turn, the horrible sense of isolation. I had heard that Kenan was ill with Alzheimer’s, but I thought it might be possible to go see him one more time. Now I guess that won’t happen.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).