Uri Avnery died as he lived – surrounded by a bit of drama, but with his lance and ideals intact
AUGUST 30, 2018, JERUSALEM – Uri Avnery died on August 19 at a Tel Aviv hospital from complications of a stroke. To add to the drama, he was just three weeks shy of his 95th birthday and slated to be one of the main speakers at an upcoming rally against Israel’s new and highly controversial Nation-State Law.
If you’re not familiar with the name, it’s because Avnery was somewhat out of the limelight in recent years for all but true connoisseurs of the Israeli Left. Yet for almost all of his adult life, he was dramatically front and center – and very much a thorn in the side of the Israeli establishment, whether led by Labor or the Likud.
Born to a prosperous banker and his wife in 1923 near Munster, Germany, he spent his early years in Hanover until 1933, when his parents, already seeing Hitler for what he was, opted to leave for British-mandated Palestine. He was forced to drop out of school at age 14 to help support the family, which apparently had been unable to bring its assets from Germany.
As a teen, Avnery joined the Irgun, the militant anti-British underground aligned with the Revisionist movement of Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky, but departed its ranks several years later, its modus operandi not to his liking. He flirted with politics of all stripes, but it was his experiences as a soldier in the 1948 War of Independence, during which he was twice wounded, that solidified his distaste for the Zionist establishment.
In the mid-1940s, he married Rachel Greenboim. It’s said that she was 14 at the time. Childless, they remained together until her death in 2011.
In 1950, together with several partners, Avnery bought a failing weekly publication called Ha’olam Hazeh (This World). It became a lance for him to poke the establishment and every sacred cow imaginable. Its style – decidedly low-brow, with photos of nude women – was credited with drawing the country’s stuffy, high-brow journalism of the time down to the feisty, provocative, heimish perch it now occupies. It had its drippy gossip section, yes, but it also went after corruption and hypocrisy in a big way, and it claimed its share of victories.
The devoutly secular Avnery remained more an iconoclast than a person of steady political views. In 1965 he became a member of Knesset, campaigning against a certain libel law he saw as singling out his newspaper rather than standing for or against anything else. But following the 1967 Six-Day War, he concluded that any long-term occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem would be a fool’s errand and started acting accordingly, agitating for a two-state solution long before most people understood what it even meant.
By this time, in terms of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, Avnery had been somewhat eclipsed in the mass mindset by Abie Nathan, a Royal Air Force-trained pilot who in 1966 flew his open-cockpit biplane, the Shalom 1, to Egypt in hopes of meeting with Gamal Abdel Nasser. Instead, the Egyptians arrested him and sent him back to Israel, where he was charged with leaving the country illegally.
In the 1970s, Nathan raised his profile even higher by establishing the Voice of Peace, a sea-borne pirate radio station anchored just outside Israeli territorial waters that broadcast popular music interspersed with messages of coexistence, not to mention early attempts to raise the profile of environmental issues. He was a slick beacon to young people who couldn’t understand why their parents had been making such a fuss over Avnery’s raggedy weekly.
Like Avnery, Nathan was an early proponent of meeting with PLO figures – which was illegal for Israelis – and in 1991 underwent a high-profile court trial and served six months of an 18-month sentence for breaking the law. But Avnery had actually beat him to it, somehow crossing into besieged Beirut during the first Lebanon war and meeting with Yasser Arafat himself before the latter was forced to flee for Tunis with much of the rest of the PLO.
Israeli intelligence was fully aware of that July 1982 meeting, but for a reason that is now lost to most observers, Avnery was never brought to trial. Yet news of the meeting became public owing to a published interview with Arafat, and it served to further solidify Avnery’s reputation as a leading and very diehard leftist.
Even after he closed his newspaper, he and his trademark snow-white beard and full head of matching hair remained firmly in the public eye, forming a group called Gush Shalom (Peace Bloc), becoming, along with Peace Now, the one constant that could be relied upon to ensure a relatively decent turnout for any anti-occupation protest.
With Abie Nathan felled by a stroke and reduced to begging for charity for his pet projects (and himself) before succumbing in 2008, the coast was clear for Avnery to regain his title as the left-wing enfant terrible-in-chief of the Israeli political and social scene.
To his dying day, both beloved and reviled (he was physically attacked and severely injured by assailants several times), he gripped the lance that had been Ha’olam Hazeh and wrote a weekly column for the relatively stodgy but sufficiently liberal Haaretz. In it, he regularly skewered any sacred cow that crossed his realm of consciousness, whether it was Israel the occupier, Israel the expeller of African asylum seekers, or Israel the appeaser of the ultra-Orthodox – yet not really Israel as much as the person at its helm, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
As liberal commentator Chemi Shalev wrote in Haaretz last week, “Leftist patriots are required to identify with a nation that, like others suffering from the same syndrome, repeatedly elects a leader in its own narcissistic image, who then feeds on its weaknesses. And they have to persuade themselves, despite indications to the contrary, that all is not lost. Like the late Uri Avnery … they need to be eternal optimists for their patriotism to survive.”
“Optimist,” in fact, was the title of Avnery’s autobiography (published in two volumes in 2014 and 2016) because, in addition to being a patriot, that is what he was. The alternative was to be a pessimist in a land where pessimism can drive you raving mad. Uri Avnery, a lucid and erudite man to the end, and one who said he’d go anywhere to help bring peace, had no intention of going there.
Lawrence Rifkin is a journalist based in Jerusalem.