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Amos Kenan dies at 82; writer helped shape Israeli culture

The novelist and newspaper columnist sought to create an Israeli identity separate from Judaism. He was known for his 1984 novel 'The Road to Ein Harod.'

August 08, 2009|Times Staff And Wire Reports

Amos Kenan, a novelist, newspaper columnist and sculptor who as a member of Israel's founding generation helped define modern Israeli culture, died in Tel Aviv on Tuesday. He was 82.

He struggled with Alzheimer's disease for years, said Uri Avnery, a prominent Israeli peace activist and journalist who was a longtime friend.

Born in Tel Aviv in 1927, Kenan fought in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Soon after, he became a peace activist and wrote satirical articles about organized religion and the newly created state of Israel.

He was known for the 1984 novel "The Road to Ein Harod," which described a dystopian Israel where a military dictatorship had seized control and pursued the protagonists -- an Arab and a Jew -- as they tried to reach the last bastion of democratic values at Ein Harod, a kibbutz in northern Israel. The book was heavily criticized for its apocalyptic view of Israel's future, but Kenan insisted that it reflected the country's realities.

"If you think this is science fiction," Kenan told the Associated Press in 1984, "you're mad. It's virtually a documentary."

In the 1940s, Kenan was one of a number of artists and intellectuals who sought to create an Israeli identity without Judaism by rejecting Jewish history and harking back to the biblical Canaanites, whose name the artists adopted for their group.

A sculptor in Paris for several years, he returned to Tel Aviv in the 1960s and worked as a satirist and journalist.

"Amos Kenan was one of the creators of Hebrew culture -- Hebrew, not Jewish," said Avnery, who met Kenan when the two were soldiers in the 1948 war for Israel's independence.

Kenan saw Israelis as an entirely new creation separate from the Jewish Diaspora, Avnery said, and believed they had more in common with Palestinian Arabs.

Kenan was party to several efforts to create an alliance with the Palestinians.

Along with Avnery, he helped pen a 1957 manifesto calling for the creation of a Palestinian state in federation with Israel at a time when few Israelis acknowledged the Palestinians' existence as a national group.

An infamously argumentative and hard-drinking personality, Kenan was also one of the key figures in the creation of a new, more vernacular Hebrew that replaced the stodgier, biblically tinged language that had been used in Hebrew literature before Israel's creation.

Kenan is survived by his partner, Israeli film and literature scholar Nurit Gertz, and by their two daughters. One, Rona Kenan, is a popular Israeli singer.

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news.obits@latimes.com

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