On the Death of a Friend in Israel

Elhanan's story is, in many ways, the story of Zionism.
Elhanan Harlev

My friend Elhanan Harlev died on July 1 after a long illness. We had an odd friendship. He was an Israeli by way of Germany and Argentina. I am a kid from Long Island. Elhanan was more than three decades older than me. We did not share a common language. Against those odds we somehow managed to communicate. Oftentimes it was through an able interpreter like his wife, my cousin Carol, or one of her sons from her first marriage—most often Ari. At other times, Elhanan and I just found a way to understand each other. Never has a name—Elhanan means “God is Merciful”—been so apt for the soft-spoken, gentle, and wise soul that he was (and remains). His was an extraordinary life because it was so normal. And in that normalcy, he taught me more about Israel than much of what I have read.

I first met Elhanan in August 1992 after I stepped off a 10-hour flight from New York on my first visit to Israel. Bleary-eyed and a bit nervous (despite my 24-year-old cockiness)—I was on my way to study Hebrew and Arabic in Jerusalem in what was to be my first experience living abroad. I knew who he was immediately because my dad had told me as my parents bid me farewell, “Look for the guy with the Ben Gurion-esque shock of white hair. That’s Elhanan.” He was the friendly face in the overwhelming crowd. He took my bags and literally offered me a Coke and a smile. Over the course of the next 12 months, I became a fixture in Elhanan’s home on random weekends. When I was not mesmerized by the Mishpuchah channel, which ran mindless American television programs like Beverly Hills 90210, or gallivanting around greater Tel Aviv with a girlfriend, Elhanan and I talked politics and history.

Elhanan’s personal story comes straight out of Zionist lore—he became involved in a leftie Zionist youth movement that led to aliyah; he was a founder of Kibbutz Bachan, and served in the Nahal Brigade in the early fifties and during the June 1967 War, helping to drive the Jordanians from the northern West Bank. In between, he married, had children, divorced, built a business, remarried, and became a proud grandfather. That sounds like a lot of other people in this world, but Elhanan was also Israeli, which carries a certain imposed special burden—“the conflict” and the subsequent judgment of the world. Elhanan took it all in stride. There was no chip on his shoulder; he knew where he belonged and he understood what Israelis had built over his lifetime. He could even get a little bit misty-eyed. One night in the summer of 1997—when I was back in Israel doing research in Arab towns and villages and living in his TV room—Elhanan was engrossed in the movie adaptation of Exodus, starring Paul Newman. Ari and I gave him a hard time because everyone knows that Leon Uris’s novel was little more than crude propaganda. He knew all this, of course, but he was having none of our snark. It reminded him, according to Ari, “of the good old days that never were.”

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Steven A. Cook is Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square. He blogs at From the Potomac to the Euphrates.

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