BORN TEL AVIV, MAY 2, 1927. DIED TEL AVIV, AUGUST 4 , 2009, AGED 82.
HIGHLY TALENTED as a satirist, poet, novelist, sculptor, stage and screen writer, and political activist, Amos Kenan was both a deeply loyal son of Israel and one of Zionism’s most articulate and trenchant critics, writes Mordecai Beck.
His very name encapsulated the paradox of his intellectual and emotional identity. As Amos, he was named by his parents after the biblical prophet, scourge of his fellow countrymen’s lax morality and arrogance to the poor and weak.
Kenan, which he adopted in place of his family name, Levine, expressed the “Canaanite” ideal of a new Israel reborn from Canaanite roots.
Born to secular socialist parents in the still-young city of Tel Aviv — his father was originally a building worker — Amos dropped out of school at 16 and became a factory worker and member of Hashomer Hatzair, the leftwing secular youth movement.
Opposing the British mandate, he first joined Lehi (the terrorist Stern Gang) but fought in the 1948 War of Independence in the Haganah, the mainstream pre-state forces, under the legendary Brigadier Yitzhak Sadeh. He took part in the Deir Yassin massacre -– a role which always haunted him.
Leaving the army, he met the poet, Yonatan Ratosh, and joined his Canaanite movement –-a small group of idealists aiming at a secular state for Arabs and Jews, without Judaism or Islam.
In 1950 he started his ground-breaking satirical column, Uzi and Co, for the prestigious Ha’aretz newspaper. Its shock value lay both in its anti-establishment attitude and its linguistic style. Breaking away from the standard high-minded literary tone of the day, he wrote ordinary, vernacular prose.
His column ceased in 1952 when he was charged with attempting to assassinate the Minister of Transport, Tzvi David Pinhas, who brought in Sabbath restrictions on public transport.
Though acquitted, Kenan left for Paris in 1954. During his eight-year stay, he created monumental sculptures and wrote stage and screen plays and articles for two Israeli papers, Ha’Olam Hazeh and Yediot Aharonot.
Returning to Israel, he married literary academic Nurit Gertz in 1962 — whose 2008 biography of her husband revealed that he had indeed been part of the bombing plot — and continued writing for stage, screen and press.
Though his play, Friends Talk About Jesus, was banned in 1972 by the Israel Supreme Court for desecrating Christianity, his prodigious literary output never flagged.
His array of national and international prizes include the 1962 Sam Speigel Prize, the 1970 Israel Cinema Prize (he wrote, directed and acted), an honorary award from the French Cultural Ministry in 1975, the 1995 International Theater Award, and the 1998 Brenner Prize.
A political activist, he campaigned after the 1967 Six-Day War for two states for two peoples. On behalf of the Israel Foreign Ministry, he interviewed leading intellectuals, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Herbert Marcuse and Noam Chomsky, on the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
He saw Israelis and their Arab neigh- bours as natural allies and thought Israel should carve out its own identity, rooted in the Mediterranean and Middle East. Subsequent political developments left him feeling increasingly isolated as he observed that “the state of Israel has destroyed the Land of Israel”.
A victim of Alzheimer’s, he is survived by his wife, Nurit, and two daughters; journalist Shlomzion and Rona, a singer-songwriter and poet.
Amos Kenan: radical writer, artist and political theorist