Uri Avnery at 90: Still Leftist, After All These Years

Avnery, the spiritual father of the Israeli left, still believes in the miracle of peace and has no doubt that he'll live to see it.

Yanai Yechiel

Since Uri Avnery’s wife, Rachel, died in May 2011 and her ashes were scattered at sea, his apartment has been graced by large floral arrangements that he buys every week, costing a total of 1,200 shekels ($340) per month. Near the flowers, hard by the bookshelves that hold volumes of Haolam Hazeh – the groundbreaking, muckraking weekly newsmagazine Avnery published and edited – hang splendid photographs taken by the woman who was his partner for 58 years.

Avnery, a journalist, writer and politician, was born Helmut Ostermann in September 1923 in the German town of Beckum, near Münster. He tells me that he feels no nostalgia for his early years as the pampered, golden-haired youngest of four children. Indeed, “Optimistic,” the first volume of his memoirs (in Hebrew), is strikingly unemotional, still less nostalgic, though the sections on his childhood and youth are fascinating. Politics began to be discussed around the family dinner table when he was eight, and those conversations “shaped my intellectual and moral world,” he writes.

Today, at the age of 90, the veteran but still vigorous peace activist who lives in Tel Aviv declares vociferously that he has no intention of leaving this world soon: He’s counting on reaching 100.

Avnery gets up every morning at 9:30: “I wash, read newspapers, have breakfast, and at around noon I get down to business. Four days a week I write. I have just finished the second volume of my autobiography [due out in September]. Then I go to the beach, walk for half an hour and exercise beneath the sky.”

After his 4 P.M. meal – “I am not allowed to eat fruits and vegetables; I am nourished by unhealthy food like meat, which I order from restaurants” – he does a little more work. He watches the “London and Kirschenbaum” current affairs program on Channel 10, and then the evening news on the same channel, or on Channel 2, after which “I make myself supper at midnight and go to sleep at 2 A.M.”

He devotes two hours a day to writing his weekly article, which appears on the Internet in four languages. He writes the Hebrew and English versions (http://www.avnery-news.co.il/english/) for the website of the Gush Shalom peace movement, which he founded, and goes over the German translation and the French version which appear on various sites online. “By the time it’s all done, corrected and then re-corrected, it’s already Friday afternoon.” At that point, Avnery goes to meet the other regulars at the Dubnow 8 restaurant in Tel Aviv. “I’ve had a table there since 1958.”

Do you feel the weight of the years?

“Not in the least. Every person has a self-awareness that has nothing to do with his biological age, but rather with the way he sees himself. I see myself as being 40 to 42 – I am now in my prime.”

You were first elected to the Knesset at the age of 42 [on the list of the Haolam Hazeh-Koah Hadash party, which he founded], and that’s where you end the first volume of the memoir. Why?

“I am stuck in my 42nd year. Physically, there are a few creaks. I’ve had hearing aids for years – a hereditary thing. I have a little diabetes, a little Crohn’s disease. When Rachel was on her deathbed, I had cardiac catheterizations.”

Unflattering descriptions

Don’t you feel alone in the apartment after Rachel’s death?

“Rachel is gone, and I have to get used to that. I am not interested in having a relationship with anyone else, so I am alone – a person who lives with himself – and I have no problem with that. Rachel is present in the apartment. I still have in my ears many things that she said. She was a merciless critic of mine. For 58 years she went over every word I wrote before publication. I had no end of arguments with her over all kinds of things that she couldn’t abide. Wherever the word ‘almost’ appears in an article, it’s her work. She kept adding the word – as in ‘almost everyone in France,’ for example. I exaggerated wildly, in her view. I love psychological analyses, but she’d say: ‘Erase it, it’s pop psychology.’ Or, when I wrote emotional descriptions, she ordered me to delete them: ‘You’re not good at describing emotions,’ she told me.”

There are some unflattering descriptions of people’s bodies in the book, such as of [the late general and MK] Yigal Allon’s chest or [the late defense minister] Moshe Dayan’s awkward body. Didn’t she erase them?

“In the book they are the crux of the matter. Rachel objected to malicious descriptions that you’re tempted to write about people you can’t stand. Rachel and I were complete opposites in personality: She was the embodiment of empathy; I am more focused on logical or abstract elements. That’s why we were so suited to each other. We also had many points of overlap. We both came from a bourgeois-intellectual, Jewish-German background. Our mother tongue was German – she spoke perfect German, even though she came to Palestine at the age of one year. And she couldn’t put up with injustice in any form – in that regard, I am like her.”

In a previous interview, I had the impression from you that she admired you almost to the point of self-abnegation. I wondered what price she paid, as it seems clear that you and your activities were the center of her world.

“We both believed that what was I was doing was important, and she identified completely with it: She brought those values with her and did not imbibe them from me. There was certainly no self-abnegation. Rachel was quite a strong woman in her own right, even though she didn’t think so. She saw herself as a weak person. For example, she didn’t agree with me that she was beautiful. When people told her she was beautiful, she thought it was mere flattery. She truly was beautiful all her life.”

Why didn’t you agree that she would become a mother?

“We agreed between us that we would not have children. She was a first-grade special-education teacher for 28 years, and she loved her pupils. Raising children did not suit us. We were too immersed in work to devote the proper attention to children. I saw too many children who grew up in the home of strong parents and emerged very disturbed.”

Avnery sets the record straight in this interview about why his own mother cut him out of her will.

“It was quite amusing. My mother didn’t understand the first thing about politics, and she didn’t know Hebrew. She got her information from a nationalist German newsletter. After my father died, we married her off to another man. She then lived with my wonderful sister Ruthie, who looked after her. In 1982, during the Lebanon War, I crossed the lines and met with [PLO leader] Yasser Arafat. It was a Friday, and every Friday I visited my mother in Rehovot. So I committed two crimes: I didn’t visit her, and I was in Beirut with the ‘monster.’

“After she died, I heard that on that same day she instructed her lawyer to change the will. My sister gave me my share of the inheritance, which was a symbolic amount of money: My mother had no property other than her apartment in Rehovot.”

Were you closer to her or to your father?

“I held my father in higher regard, because he was an intellectual; I admired my mother’s adaptive ability. Many of my character traits were shaped in my first six years – the self-confidence, the knowledge that I was better than others in certain things. At the same time, I developed a shyness and was not a sociable child. I brought those traits with me when we moved to Palestine. [Avnery’s well-to-do family left Germany in 1933, when the Nazis came to power; he was 10.] There was a different world here, and my formative period was from the age of 14 to 18.”

‘No place for nostalgia’

You say in the book that in the course of 58 years, you never managed to say to Rachel “I love you.” Why?

“It’s nonsense to say ‘I love you.’ That superfluous, endless form of speech: ‘I love you, I love you.’ You find that in silly movies and in Mizrahi songs [referring to Jews from Islamic lands]. I can’t bear all that kitsch and I hate fakery. From the instant that sentence is uttered, even if it’s true, it’s fake. Two people who love each other know it and have no need to express it verbally.”

You founded the weekly Haolam Hazeh and fomented a revolution in print journalism in Israel, but some of those who learned journalism from you maintain that you have no feelings.

“Almost a thousand journalists worked under me at different times, and nearly all of them speak positively about me. We were professional journalists, we didn’t deal with feelings. What the ‘1948 generation’ has in common is that we all decided to give up prosaic matters and concentrate on important goals. At a certain age I decided that I would shape my character to consciously suit it to the goals I set myself. I forsook certain things that my associates complain about, such as sociability. Emotion, I told you, is a vacuous slogan. There is no person without feelings. I think I am a very nice guy. Those who complain mean that I didn’t invite them to my home and didn’t hang out with them in pubs.”

Does your book reflect a longing for the past?

“I am a person who does not long for his past. I remember the feelings of every stage of my life – contrary to the legends, this wasn’t an ideal country back then. It’s not as if things were perfect here until the Six-Day War in 1967. There is no place for nostalgia.

“The situation is worse today, and I am not talking about politics or the occupation. One thing led to another; all the seeds of this sprouted back in Herzl’s time. Zionism was a movement which could only realize its goals by expelling the Arabs living in the country. That is what it did and is still doing.”

National identity

As a member of Etzel [the pre-state underground also called “Irgun”], were you involved in the liquidation of Jews suspected of being informants for the British?

“I never personally took part in the liquidation of informers. My unit did not take part in operations, because we were 15 years old at the time, in 1939. But I distributed leaflets that informed the public about this, and as such I bear responsibility. Etzel planted bombs in markets in Jaffa and in Haifa, which killed dozens of women and children, and I supported that, otherwise I would not have stayed in the organization.

“I joined Etzel as a direct reaction to the hanging [by the British of the Irgun underground activist] Shlomo Ben-Yosef. He and two others were responsible for throwing a grenade at an Arab bus carrying women and children. The grenade did not explode. I cannot and do not wish to claim that I did not support this. Joining Etzel was the right thing to do, and it was just as right to leave it.”

While reading your new book I asked myself: Is Uri Avnery a patriot or not? Is he a Zionist or not?

“I am national in my outlook. A major human right is the right to belong to a nation or collective. Human beings need this identity-based affiliation. I have always thought that the nation is important in the life of the individual. Accordingly, it was only natural for me to believe that if we have the right to a national life, so do the Arabs of this land. It was clear to me that the Palestinians deserve to live a national life. I discarded Zionism at a very young age – my view was that a new nation could be forged here.”

So you say explicitly that you are not a Zionist?

“Zionism fulfilled its goal – the establishment of the State of Israel – and thereby concluded its mission. Just as one dismantles scaffolding after the building is finished, so too this thing must also be got rid of. We are a Hebrew nation and definitely connected with world Jewry. The Arabs think I am a Zionist. I invented the term ‘post-Zionist.’”

War and peace

You write, “The war changed the course of my life.” In fact, from the moment you enlisted, you became a happy person. Why?

“War is something very liberating. In regard to my world view, I came out of the 1948 war with the wholehearted belief that there was a Palestinian people. During the war I was filled with compassion for the Arab population. You know, I entered a dozen villages whose inhabitants had fled a few minutes before – the pot on the Primus [stove] was still hot.”

You, of all people, say “fled”?

“They did what any normal civilian would do when fired on. They fled because we shot at them.”

Were you a patriot?

“I have always been a patriot – today, too. I am working for my homeland. My whole life I have felt that I belong here. After all, I would not have done any of what I did during the past 60 years if I didn’t want the country to exist and to change. Before the war, I established a group, Bama’avak, that advocated an alliance to the point of unification between the national movement of the Hebrews and the Arab national movement. I entered the war at the age of 24 with a clear political concept of what I later called ‘integration into the Semitic context.’”

Avnery is not religious and does not generally believe in miracles, but he apparently does believe in wonders. As the title of his memoir suggests, he has no doubt that he will live to see the signing of a peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians.

“My life experience and my age advantage contribute to my optimism,” he says. “I have seen so many unexpected things in my life, good and bad. The pessimists who see only doom, like [the late left-wing activist and head of Meretz] Shulamit Aloni, are different from me. I am an optimist by nature and I think we will extricate ourselves from the tangle we got ourselves into.”

How?

“A miracle will occur. It might happen the hard way, perhaps preceded by a catastrophe. The consciousness of the Israeli public has to undergo a change. Like what happened when [Anwar] Sadat alighted from the plane [referring to the Egyptian president’s visit to Israel in 1977]. That is the essence of a miracle. Sooner or later, the two peoples will have to get along. Maybe after a war, maybe in the wake of irresistible international pressure. In fact, I hope to write a third volume about the miracle of the peace, if it occurs in my lifetime.”

Have you drawn up a will?

“Of course. I am leaving my property to the Israeli people. I am leaving them my money in order to carry out peace projects. I have appointed two people, one of them a lawyer, as executors. I have a three-room apartment and savings. I get a [monthly] pension of about 20,000 shekels [$5,780] from the Knesset. I can live on that, but I don’t have time to spend money, so it stays in the bank. When I die it will go to those causes, and the executors will use the money according to my instructions. One goal is to change the national anthem, and if possible also the flag. I will say no more. The funds from the estate will be used to further the struggle for peace.”

Am I wrong, or has the peace movement shrunk?

“The truth is that there is no peace movement. There are different groups of activists who are doing marvelous things, but regrettably, each group [is working] separately: B’Tselem, Physicians for Human Rights, Breaking the Silence, Yesh Gvul, Anarchists Against the Fence – there are 10 to 15 such organizations. I tried several times to establish a united peace movement, but unsuccessfully. I am optimistic – it will happen. That is the miracle I am waiting for. One day a leader will arise and do it. I have a fully worked out plan, but it’s waiting for the right person. I am too old.”

All in all, would you say you love yourself?

“Yes. More precisely, I have come to terms with myself. There is no feeling involved – what is feeling? A person who is dying wants to look back and sum up his life. All told, I did what I wanted and I did what I could. Is that love, not love? I don’t know.”

From family album
Yakov Agor
Reuters
Moti Milrod