Uri Avnery - Alex Levac
Uri Avnery. Photo by Alex Levac
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When Israel's so-called Libel Law was passed in 1965, Uri Avnery, editor of the weekly Haolam Hazeh, declared war from the pages of his decidedly left-leaning magazine.

"It's either go to the Knesset or go to jail," he wrote. As in any other war, he added, "this editorial staff has operated as a journalistic commando squad for 15 years, with commando techniques, in the spirit of commandos. Now, we are being compelled to act as political commandos. We will make our way into the electoral system as commandos. We will operate as commandos in the Knesset."

Avnery, who was born in Germany in 1923, decided to run for a Knesset seat in the hope he could win diplomatic immunity for both himself and his magazine against libel suits.

"The Libel Law ... has been passed because Haolam Hazeh threatens the regime's existence," he wrote. "If they are saying that there is no room in one country for both this regime and Haolam Hazeh, and thus we have to liquidate Haolam Hazeh, then we have to reply: Correct, there is no room in one country for this regime and for Haolam Hazeh, so we have to liquidate this regime. And we are going to liquidate it."

Sitting in the living room of his home in Tel Aviv this week, Avnery shared his recollections of that time.

"The law was adopted on the final day of the Fifth Knesset, in the summer of 1965, and the press, the media in general, woke up to the matter only at the last minute," he says. "They did not take it seriously. Nobody thought that such a thing could even pass."

Avnery recalls that he "had decided beforehand that if this law passed, I would form a party to run for Knesset. We listened to the news and when it became clear that the Knesset had adopted the defamation law, I said, that's it, I'm going to the Knesset. We launched a war against the law."

The 1965 statute, which has been changed to some extent over the years by legislative amendments, toughened the demands placed on media outlets that are sued for defamation: It required them to prove conclusively that their publication of certain information served the public interest. It expanded the definitions of libel, mentioning the specific position-holders in the media who would be held responsible for acts of defamation. This section of the law specifically named the "head of the editorial staff," a position that Avnery says existed at the time only at Haolam Hazeh.

The clause made Avnery think the law was directed at his publication, and that it was the latest in a series of attempts to silence him. These included an ad boycott of Haolam Hazeh by the state and the Histadrut labor federation; complaints against the weekly, which sometimes published nude photographs of women, based on obscenity laws; and physical assaults on staff members.

In elections to the Sixth Knesset, Avnery mustered about 14,000 votes, enough to pass the threshold and gain a seat for himself.

'Competition of insanity'

"Lethal," is how Avnery describes the current amendment to the bill drafted by MKs Meir Sheetrit (Kadima) and Yariv Levin (Likud), which would broaden the scope of compensation set in the 1965 law from NIS 50,000 to NIS 300,000 without need to prove damage.

Avnery says the threat of monetary damages can be much more damning to journalism than the threat of jail.

"Everyone has an editor and the editor has a publisher and the publisher has an owner," he says. "What this means is that no one will publish a story that has even the slightest doubt. Please don't think I am against defamation laws. Absolutely, the press can be reckless, just like every other body. Democratic defamation laws are not improper - on the contrary," he adds. "Yet on the other hand, the more esteemed and exalted you are, the weaker the defamation laws should be. Anyone who wants to change that legislation always claims he is doing it for the little guy. But his true intentions are always aimed at the big guys. No one cares what happens to the little guy."

Avnery says the new law is part what he calls a "neo-fascist anti-democratic" wave of legislation meant to stifle dissent.

In your opinion, what is this wave of legislation stemming from?

"Today, before the Likud primary, it is intended to draw attention. After all, what is the object of a Knesset member? I say this from experience: From the moment a Knesset member is elected, he has one objective in life - to be reelected - and he dedicates four years to that end. That is why he needs to get into the media, and that is why, short of killing his own mother, he is willing to do anything and everything.

"A person comes, tries to have a totally insane legislative bill passed, while his sole objective is to get a headline the next day, with a big photo of him. Haaretz comes out the next day, giving him a quarter-page with a dazzling picture - and, hey, you are encouraging him to do it. Another MK sees that and thinks: Why, I'll propose something even more monstrous ... So there is this sort of competition of insanity, of gluttony."

But if a newspaper didn't report on such a legislative bill, you would scream bloody murder, that it failed to fill its function.

"However, it is also possible to run the story in a different, not so grandiose, manner. Not with a flattering photo. The obligation to report exists, but not to award a prize to someone. This is how a suicidal media operates.

"Subconsciously, the normal reader is influenced not only by what is written, but also by the intensiveness of the emotion invested in the article. Is this thing good, or is it not very nice, or is it something terrible and tragic that serves those who would destroy Israel? What I am missing here is a moral emotionalism, condemning these new laws."

What, in your opinion, should journalists do? Does everyone have to run for Knesset to receive immunity?

"It helps. That's what I did."

That's a pretty big step to take.

"I exploited it infrequently, but when I did exploit it, I did so in full. I am in favor of personal sanctions against anyone who proposes these laws: not running a photo [of them] or anything flattering in a paper, and not allowing media interviews. This is something that should be thought of more often. It wouldn't harm freedom of reporting, but it would make it possible to punish people.

"Nevertheless, the first thing that should have been done is to call a strike. That is clear, so that the public would begin to understand ... The public only knows there is some sort of argument going on over some sort of law, it doesn't understand and neither is it all that interested. Most certainly, it doesn't think that it affects the public. And if the press itself is not taking measures to make it clear to the reader or the viewer that this is important or serious, why should someone else think so? The first thing that should have been done is to call a strike, as happened then.

"We have to organize a very broad front, to rescue democracy, and the front should start with the idea that the public at large doesn't even understand why this affects it. The public thinks: So it'll be this judge and not that judge, what's the difference? The media? So they will be a little more careful, that would be very good, right? The nongovernmental organizations? Who even needs them? Taking money from abroad? A scandal. Social protest? Okay, it happened, now we've moved on. People don't understand that it pertains to their lives, to their wages. Today's generation in Israel never lived under a nondemocratic regime.

"Can anyone even imagine what it means to live under a regime in which if you do not sign a declaration in favor of a certain party and you are the chief physician in a brain-surgery department - the next day you are washing windows? Can anyone even imagine such a thing that journalists are being killed in the street, as is happening in Russia? ... People don't get it, they don't make the connection.

"First, you have to explain to the public that it affects them. It's not a matter of 'the higher-ups' quarreling among themselves. ... It is that tomorrow the police arrest you for a crime you did not commit, and there won't be a newspaper that will publish the story, because the papers will be banned from publicizing the arrests of individuals, and people will begin to disappear from the street and might disappear completely, as happened in Argentina ... on the pretext that it protects the citizens. This affects every person in the country. It is not something abstract, not some theoretical disagreement between the parliamentarians and the judges."

In a column that you wrote, you draw a link between present-day legislation and the collapse of the Weimar republic.

"I was nine when the Nazis came to power, and as a child in a very political household I was very much aware of what happened. Especially when the child sees what is going on, in a very visual way: the uniforms, the parades, the music. So I know how the republic fell. I was aware of it, stage by stage, one small step followed by another small step, and then the whole thing collapsed. Collapsed because the public did not understand why it was important. The public did not summon up from within the emotional strength to oppose.

"When I see the first sign, that first red light goes on for me. I wake up a little earlier than the others. Others are waking up, too, but it takes time. At the beginning they said to us: How can you make a comparison to Nazi Germany? How could you even compare the two? So it doesn't have to be Nazi Germany, which truly was unique in human history ... It doesn't have to be Hitler - what about Mussolini? And if not Mussolini, how about Franco? Or Pinochet in Chile? Or the colonels in Greece? And if not any of these, how about Ceausescu, or Putin now? There are so many levels - from the very worst to the less worst, but each of them creates hell."

And where are we in the hierarchal ranking you described?

"We are past the first step. We are far from the last step, but in my opinion it is the first step that determines where it will head. The barricades have fallen. Things that are not to be believed are being believed. Things that it would have been impossible to imagine are imaginable, and that is one small step, but a very decisive step. Our nerve endings are beginning to be dulled. But civil rights aren't 'left.' They don't have to do with 'left'. Civil rights affect every individual.

"How do you impart to the common citizen that the struggle is his struggle? That the freedom of expression is his? That the High Court of Justice is his? That the democracy is his? This is where you need a public campaign the likes of which there's never been. Ultimately, we are speaking of Israel's future, the future of our lives. An undemocratic state won't last, it's as simple as that."

Avnery paraphrases the famous poem by German pacifist Martin Niemoller, "First they came..." about public silence in the face of encroaching fascism, as describing what is happening in Israel today.

"This is one of the most profound statements," he explains. "And you could translate it into today's reality: First they came to destroy the court, then they came to destroy the media, then they came to destroy the NGOs, I was silent - in the end, when I will want to protest, I will not be able to, because there will not be anyone before whom I can do so ... and that will be dangerous. People don't understand."