On the Death of a Friend in Israel

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

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.”

Whatever the complexities and realities of Israel’s founding mythology, I never got the sense that Elhanan felt the need to reaffirm the legitimacy of the Israeli cause in the eyes of anyone. He had been sick for quite some time so I don’t know for sure, but I am fairly confident that he had a jaundiced view of the demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. This demand—which has become something of a fetish in certain circles—is either a ploy to ensure that peace negotiations fail or a sign that those making the demand recognize that their claim remains open to political challenge. Elhanan did not think this way. He did not need an official pronouncement from the Palestinians to legitimize his existence.

For all of Elhanan’s unapologetic Zionism, however, he was far from a maximalist. He did not like the settlers and their enablers both in Israel and the United States. I remember hanging out one evening, chatting politics, when we got onto the issue of Jerusalem. This was some years before the Israeli effort to alter the demographics of the city kicked into high gear. We discussed the challenges and complexities of the city, but Elhanan finished the conversation with a wry smile and said, “Isn’t it obvious that parts of the city are theirs [the Palestinians'] and parts of it are ours? Shouldn’t that be the basis of an agreement?”

Someone might say that Elhanan was naive, but pragmatic is more like it. To Elhanan’s thinking, Israel was a successful society and the surest way to its ruin was to continue to be wrapped up in conflict with the Palestinians that would grow only more complex and corrosive over time. This is the context that, in the emotion of the current moment of a stomach-churning war of the cities, seems to be lost on almost everyone. Israelis and Palestinians seem surprised at each other’s rage and wrath, but they should not be. Hasn’t this hit-and-run violence been going on for the better part of a century? And for their partisans abroad, it seems easier for people to hold on to absolutes, which makes it easier to cheer as rockets rain indiscriminately down on civilians for the sole purpose of killing civilians, or to advocate for the collective punishment of an entire population.

I digress. My perspective on Elhanan may be warped by the passage of time—I got to know him in the 1990s—and grief. He died at a moment of crisis and, perhaps in my own revulsion at the violence and ugly commentary around it, his words have taken on meaning to me that he never intended. Still, I know that in his extraordinarily normal way, Elhanan believed that Israel, as a strong and vibrant society, could withstand peace.

This post appears courtesy of CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.