Ilan Halevi: Jewish author, journalist and politician who rose to prominence in the PLO
Thursday 25 July 2013
Ilan Halevi was an intellectual, writer, journalist and politician, born as a Jew in German-occupied France. His passionate espousal of the Palestinian cause culminated in his becoming an adviser to Yasser Arafat and a prominent PLO member, receiving the highest national award from Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority. Among tributes following Halevi's death in Paris at the age of 69, the Israeli anti-Zionist, Michel Warshawski, said: "Ilan's footprint in the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations… is indelible … It is no exaggeration to say that Ilan Halevi played a key role in the long process of recognition of Palestine by the international community."
The trajectory of his career encompassed multiple identities, conflated ethnicities, crisscrossed borders and drew on an armoury of skills, including eloquence as a diplomat, brilliance as a linguist. As Alain Albert he was a writing prodigy (at 16 he had a 40-page poem published in the prestigious literary review Écrire), and a talented jazz musician; but while he found sustenance in literature and music, central to his creativity was the reinvention of himself, the better to ally with those waging battles of liberation.
From the perspective of his older brother Marc Albert (translator, art historian, writer and source of the "real facts" throughout this account): "Alain/Alan/Ilan was traumatised by the circumstances of his birth under a false name in Lyon in 1943, in a post-office that was a Resistance hide-out, where our mother Blanche delivered him without medical help."
Hours after they left, an anonymous tip-off resulted in the Gestapo arresting the postman and his son, who never returned. "Our original name was Levin, which was changed to several false names... After the death of our father Henri Levin in 1952, his friend Emile Albert married our mother and adopted her four children," Alain being the third. Growing up in a Normandy village, the brothers suffered racial taunts for being relatively dark-complexioned.
Alain learnt English from American jazz musicians visiting Paris (he even played drums at le Chat qui pêche, a cellar club in the Quartier Latin where the likes of Bud Powell performed). There he met Ellen Wright, widow of the novelist Richard Wright, who was a literary agent. She introduced him to Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, which led to the 1962 publication in Les Temps Modernes of an article entitled "Study in Brown", bylined Alan Albert.
He also met Chester Himes and James Baldwin, and wrote for the pan-African journal Présence Africaine. Survivor of childhood discrimination, he chose to identify himself as black, by empathy, and in solidarity with his most admired friends. This is when he wrote his first novel, The Crossing, about racism in the deep South. The American publisher George Braziller, suspecting that Ellen had sent him a pseudonymous early manuscript by her husband, made a trip to Paris to verify that the author was indeed a 20-year-old Frenchman who had not yet set foot in the US.
Abiola Irele in Transition called the book "something of a miracle…young art informing a universal but passionate protest"; for Lillian Smith in the Saturday Review, it was "a brilliant, mind-smacking account of a young man's journey from nowhere to hell". As "Georges Levin" he translated the French edition published in 1965.
During this era I first met Alain Albert, associate of a vibrant group of expatriate black writers and activists in Paris. At Haynes' soul food restaurant in rue Clauzel he was among the few who met Malcolm X on his return from Mecca. He travelled extensively in Africa: to Mali (paid for by Sartre and de Beauvoir), with his Martinican wife and infant son, where he worked as a radio journalist and imbibed the wisdom of Amadou Hampaté Bâ; to Algeria, where he did translations for the MPLA and the ANC. He also learned about the Palestinian question, and decided in 1965 to go "to study the Israeli reality". His brother explained: "When he went to Israel, he obtained a passport with the testimony of a Yemenite residing there – the reason that this origin is sometimes given as his."
Having begun learning Hebrew in Paris, he perfected it in a kibbutz, and began using the name Halevi. He joined the anti-Zionist group Matzpen, and later he and some friends created their own leftist political entity, Ma'avak, before he was shown the door of the kibbutz, branded an agitator.
Libération, whose correspondent he was in Israel, invited him to Paris in 1975; in 1976 he joined the PLO. In 1981 he wrote his highly-regarded book Question Juive [A History of the Jews: Ancient and Modern] and co-founded the Revue d' Études Palestiniennes. Other books include Face à la guerre: Lettre de Ramallah (2003) and Allers-retours (2005), a semi-autobiographical novel.
He was appointed Fatah representative to the Socialist International and was a member of the Palestinian delegation to the Madrid and Washington negotiations. After the 1994 Peace Agreements, he lived in Jerusalem then Ramallah, becoming Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs. In 2002 his apartment in Ramallah was destroyed during Operation Rampart; political commitment took its toll on his personal life and health.
Halevi's often-quoted characterisation of himself as "100 per cent a Jew, 100 pr cent an Arab" was his provocative way of defying rigidly divisive categorisation. He latterly wrote a letter to family and close friends in which he recalled with gratitude that Arafat, ever since their meeting in 1979, understood his intellectual position and never classed him as a specialist on the "Jewish Question".
Halevi's was a lifelong fight for his right, every person's right, to be recognised as worthy of respect, simply as another human being. He was one of a kind, the self-made product of a rich mixture of cultures and heritages, which continues in his remarkable family in France, Germany, Africa, the US, the Middle East and the Caribbean.
Georges Alain Albert (Ilan Halevi), author, journalist and politician: born Lyons 12 October 1943; married firstly Giliane Defort (divorced; one son, deceased 2002), secondly Hava (one daughter, one son), thirdly Catherine Lévy (one daughter, one son), fourthly Kirsten Maas (one son); died Clichy-la-Garenne, France 10 July 2013.
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