Amos Keinan: Controversial Israeli journalist, writer and artist

Thursday 10 September 2009 00:00

He was an overbearing and unbearable man, and he was unpleasant to live with; but he was a poet." It was with these words that the French author Christiane Rochefort chose to sum up her lover, the Israeli journalist, writer and artist Amos Keinan, who has died in Tel Aviv. "Amos wakes up every morning and tries to decide whom he is going to hate today," said his friend (on some mornings) and contemporary Dan Ben Amotz. Even Keinan's wife, the film scholar Nurit Gertz, who had written a heart-clenching biographical book about him, failed to describe him as a particularly pleasant human being. However, Keinan's famous feisty rudeness, often supported by consuming an excessive amount of whisky, did not stop hundreds of Israelis, friends and foes alike, from attending his funeral, and lamenting one of the last icons of a generation gone.

Keinan was of the first generation of Palestine-born Israelis, known as "Sabras". He was born in Tel Aviv in 1927, and as a teenager had joined the Lehi underground movement, known in the UK as "The Stern Gang". During the 1948 Arab-Israeli War he took part in the massacre carried out by Lehi members in the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin – one of the truly infamous and haunting atrocities of that war. In the course of his life, Keinan delivered several varied accounts of the events in the village and his role in them, but it has always been clear that he was haunted by the day's memory, and that it influenced him both politically and mentally. To his wife, Nurit Gertz, he has admitted to having killed a woman in Deir Yassin.

Like many members of the Stern Gang, Keinan was deeply influenced by the marginal though influential Canaanite movement. The Canaanites wanted the basis of the state of Israel to be culturally "Hebrew" rather than religiously "Jewish". Therefore, in their attitudes towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, some Canaanites believed in inclusive solution, while others adhered to radical right-wing "solutions".

Like all Canaanites, Keinan was radical in his anti-religious opinions. In 1952 Keinan, 25 at the time, was involved, together with his friend Shaaltiel Ben Yair, in an attempt to assassinate the minister of transport at the time, David Zvi Pinkas. Pinkas was promoting legislation to prohibit driving on the Sabbath, as an energy-saving measure, which the two young aspiring assassins viewed as an attempt at religious cohesion. They were caught while leaving the minister's residence, but kept silent in their interrogation, and were hence acquitted in court due to lack of evidence. However, Keinan's long-time friends and colleagues, as well as his wife, Nurit, have heard Keinan's confession as to his part in the plot.

Despite his acquittal, the affair ended Keinan's career as a rookie journalist in the daily newspaper Haaretz; he turned to the dissident weekly Ha Olam Ha Zeh ("This World"), edited by Uri Avnery, and offered his services. Avnery sent him to Paris.

In Paris, Keinan was quick to hook up with Rochefort, a beautiful and accomplished woman and a first-class source for funds, contacts and booze. Keinan flirted with the Parisian intellectual circles which were gathering around the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Keinan even managed to arrange a meeting between himself, Avnery and Sartre, to discuss their ideas regarding Israeli-Palestinian peace. Avnery quotes Sartre as saying: "Monsieur, you rolled a stone from my heart. I cannot approve of the policy of the Israeli government, but I also don't want to condemn it, because I do not want to find myself in the same camp with the anti-Semites I detest. When you come from Israel and propose a new path for it, I am happy."

Keinan returned to Israel in 1960 and started writing a regular column for the daily Yediot Aharonot. His satirical and political column was running in the paper's "red centrefold", alongside other prominent and mostly left-leaning columnists, for the next 30 years. He also engaged in restaurant reviewing. A lover of all things sensual, Keinan was establishing himself as a master of indulgence. In puritanical Israel, just emerging from the recession of the 1950s, this in itself was enough to brand him as a bohemian. In 1968 he published the "Book of Pleasures", which summed up his adventures in these fields. The young Israeli journalist Asaf Abir described it as a still-relevant attempt by Keinan to teach Israelis how to "love, commit adultery, and cook a rabbit in plum sauce".

However, blood and gore were never too far beyond the sidewalk wannabe-Parisian chairs of Tel Aviv's artists' cafés. In 1967 Keinan, again, found himself at the centre of an atrocity when his IDF reserve platoon was involved in expelling the inhabitants of three Palestinian villages near Jerusalem – Yalo, Emmaus and Beit Nuba. When he was back in Tel Aviv he went to see his editor, Avnery.

"He was in a state of shock. He had just witnessed the emptying of three villages in the Latrun area. Men and women, old people and children, had been driven out in the scorching June sun on a foot march in the direction of Ramallah, dozens of kilometres away. It reminded him of sights from the Holocaust." Keinan and Avnery delivered Keinan's eyewitness report to the Prime Minister, Levi Eshkol, and to several ministers, including Menachem Begin and Victor Shem-Tov. But it was too late – the villages had already been razed to the ground. A park known as Canada Park has been created in their place, with Canadian donations, "to that country's shame", as Avnery puts it. Keinan had also got the story published in various foreign newspapers. In 1975 he had taken part in the founding of the Council for Israeli-Palestinian Peace – which promoted a two states solution to the conflict.

Keinan published 16 books between 1952 and 2003, including collections of his journalistic work, plays, poetry collections and novels. His most famous and successful works were The Road to Ein Harod (1984) and Waheb in Suphah (1988). His wife published On His Own Accord – a book presenting four biographical episodes of his life – a few months ago, just before his death.

He was also a sculptor and painter of some repute, and most of his sculptures are presented at the industrial park in Tefen in northern Israel.

Keinan was survived by two daughters with Gertz, Shlomtzion, a journalist and Rona, a rock singer who has achieved some prominence in Israel in recent years.

Daphna Baram

Amos Keinan, activist, journalist, sculptor and novelist: born Tel Aviv 2 May 1927; married 1962 Nurit Gertz (two daughters); died Tel Aviv 5 August 2009.

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