Uri Avnery - Daniel Tchetchik - July 2011
At 90, Uri Avnery, has yet to let up on his efforts toward peace. Photo by Daniel Tchetchik
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Uri Avnery, one of Israel's most prominent left-wing activists and the founder of the Gush Shalom peace movement, is one of the most vocal critics of the so-called "Boycott Law." This bill, which has the government's backing, would impose various sanctions on any person or organization that publicly calls for an economic, cultural or academic boycott of Israel in general or the settlements in particular. It was slated to come up for final approval in the Knesset plenum this evening, though a last-minute hitch may cause the vote to be postponed.

Uri Avnery, will the Boycott Law lead you to stop calling for a boycott of goods from the settlements?

"The boycott law is a sophisticated law. It doesn't impose criminal sanctions on someone who calls for boycotting the settlements. If it did, we wouldn't have the slightest problem; we would go to jail. Instead, this law makes everyone who calls for boycotting the settlements liable for paying millions of shekels in compensation to the settlers.

"There is no limit to the sum that the settlers can demand of us in compensation for damages, without their even having to prove it [the damages]. If I call for boycotting the produce of Yitzhar, then every resident of Yitzhar will be able to sue me for millions of shekels in compensation. This could amount to astronomical sums. I think this is a move that has no precedent anywhere else in the world."

If so, do you fear the law's effect on protests against the settlements' existence?

"This law makes it unequivocally clear that it isn't Israel that controls the settlements, but the settlers who control Israel. How is it possible not to fear this law? We will have to deal with the matter and see how to oppose it.

"This is most the draconian law in the history of Israel. Obviously I am concerned. It's not a hollow, demonstrative law that is empty of content. It is a substantive law that turns the dictatorship of the settlers into the basis of Israeli law."

But perhaps imposing boycotts is a problematic and dangerous tool? Perhaps the struggle should not be aimed at harming the settlers' livelihood or their cultural life?

"There are dozens of boycotts in Israel every day. The religious impose boycotts on nonkosher stores. From their point of view, this is absolutely all right. No one can force them to buy in a store that sells pork or prevent them from announcing the boycott with posters in the streets.

"Vegetarians can boycott stores that sell meat. The secular can boycott religious people whom they don't like. The religious [i.e the ultra-Orthodox] boycott bus companies that don't separate men and women. The list is endless.

"All of us at one time boycotted products from South Africa. We boycotted the Soviet Union when it would not let Jews out. In 1933, all Jews boycotted the produce of Nazi Germany. Only one boycott has been banned - a boycott of the settlements. They are holier than all the other holies. We have created a monster here.

"You and I financed the cost of establishing the settlements out of our taxes. With our tax money, the Israel Defense Forces protect these settlements. With our tax money, infrastructure for water, electricity and roads is built on every far-flung illegal outpost. And now we see that the settlers have taken over the state."

This law bans boycotts against the State of Israel in general, and as part of that, boycotts against the settlements. But you have voiced strong criticism only of the provision regarding boycotts against the settlements.

"Boycotts of the settlements are the reason for this law. All the rest is decoration. The articles that relate to the entire state of Israel can't be implemented and are stupid.

"The fact that the law was drafted to prevent boycotts of the settlements was stated explicitly during a discussion of the matter by the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, headed by David Rotem. No one is trying to hide anything here.

"As for boycotts of the State of Israel, we all oppose that. I'm opposed to it. I've fought against it in dozens of lectures and speeches that I've given abroad."

The law does not call for punishing citizens who participate in a boycott, only those who publicly call for carrying it out. In principle, no one would say anything to Israeli citizens who decided, for example, not to buy produce from the settlements.

"That is completely clear. The law does not threaten people who carry out the boycott, it threatens only those who call for a boycott. But calling for a boycott is like any other statement in a democratic country: It is a basic act of political and democratic expression.

"In America, during the black civil rights movement, they boycotted thousands of businesses that discriminated against blacks. Is it conceivable that anyone would punish someone who called for a boycott of this kind? Until not too long ago, there were hundreds of clubs in the United States that would not let Jews enter, and the Jews announced a boycott of them. Is it conceivable that anyone would have prevented this? That would be anti-democratic.

"This law is at bottom anti-democratic. It fundamentally undermines equality: Boycotts of one kind are permitted while boycotts of another kind are banned."

The attorney general has announced that he will defend the law in its present version if a petition against it is submitted to the High Court of Justice. How do you explain the contradiction between his statement and your claim that the law is anti-democratic?

"The settlers have succeeded in terrorizing the prosecution and the legal system. These are the same settlers and hilltop youths whom we saw just last week blocking roads on behalf of settler rabbis who supported the murder of gentile babies.

"We don't realize how quickly we are racing toward the abyss - not only toward a state governed by Jewish law, but a state in which the settlers' rabbis rule. This is a dictatorship pure and simple, and a vengeful one.

"I spent the first 10 years of my life in Germany. I saw how Hitler rose to power. There was no great revolution when he rose to power. Nothing dramatic happened. It was a small step.

"When my father decided to leave Germany a few months after the Nazi regime came to power, all his relatives told him he was crazy. Today, all their names written on the list of Holocaust victims in that city's town square.

"We are on a fast track to a regime of that kind. All my life I dreaded having to say those words. I always said: 'Forget it, you can't compare anything to the Nazis.' That was a mistake. I'm sorry I spoke like that."

Rachel Avnery, your wife of 58 years, died this May, and an evening to remember her will take place in Tel Aviv's Tzavta Theater on Wednesday. In the notice you published, you said she was "a partner to the struggle."

"I wanted this not to be a memorial service. There was no one who met her who wasn't impressed by her unique personality. Rachel was a teacher for 28 years and taught only first and second grades. Hundreds of children were her pupils, but no one forgot her. Men of 40 stop me in the streets, as do middle-aged women, and tell me, 'Rachel changed my life.'

"She was a life partner and a partner to the struggle. We were a single entity for 58 years. When someone loses an arm, he continues to feel as if it were there. I find myself in the same position. When I hear something, I want to run and tell it to Rachel, and then I have to remind myself that there is no one to tell. She had a very, very great influence on me.

"Rachel was not buried. At her request, her body was cremated and the ashes were scattered. Therefore, all those who loved her did not have an opportunity to take leave of her. This evening is going to be a farewell evening."