Like a Pillar of Fire

This weekend an important Israeli will celebrate his 87th birthday. Although he is the same age as Israel's president, and his influence on Israel's history has not been much smaller than the latter's.

This weekend an important Israeli will celebrate his 87th birthday. Although he is the same age as Israel's president, and his influence on Israel's history has not been much smaller than the latter's, the Cameri Theater will not be holding a gala event in his honor nor will the high and mighty cloak him in hollow gestures of love. In fact, no one will probably even notice his birthday.

While his contemporary, Shimon Peres, has always gone along with the crowd, this man went far before it, like a pillar of fire. Alert, original, independent, brave, clear-headed and razor-sharp as always, he shaped the face of the nation more than the nation ever acknowledged. While Peres always tried to satisfy everyone, this man tried only to satisfy his own truth, which became, quite late, the truth of most of us.

And yet, he has been short-changed. Perhaps these lines will set right, in however small a way, the injustice that has been done to this unacknowledged prophet, Mr. Hebrew Journalism, Uri Avnery.

As Avnery celebrates his 87th birthday, and almost the same number of years in public activism, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud is discussing in Washington the ideas that Avnery raised 40 years before him. At a time when more than half the country and almost the whole world are saying "two states" Avnery has been forgotten and consigned to oblivion. If his vision comes true - an incorrigible optimist, he never lost hope that it would - at least the minister of history, if not ministers in this government, will remember who set the cornerstone.

Israeli society should have already asked forgiveness from this besmirched and ostracized man, regretted the wasted decades of blood shed needlessly only because his advice was not heeded. It is not difficult to imagine what kind of Israel we would have had had Avnery been in the influential posts that Peres held; if Netanyahu, Peres and the like had adopted Avnery's ideas in time, and not outrageously late.

A Zionist in the deepest sense of the word, Avnery is a true Israeli patriot. He fought in 1948 and since then, he has fought with the same determination against the perpetuation of the policies of 1948, which, sadly, never ended. A former member of the fighting unit known as "Samson's foxes", he was the first and the bravest to stand up against the military government, the expropriation of lands in the Galilee, discrimination, the takeover by the "mechanism of darkness" - a phrase he coined for the Shin Bet security service - of democracy and became among the first to call for an end to the occupation, the establishment of two states and to meet with the leaders of the PLO, when that was considered treason. As a lone MK, his impact on the Knesset was greater than all of today's quasi-left parties together.

As the editor of the weekly Haolam Hazeh for some 40 years, he influenced the character of the Israeli press more than any other journalist. In Basel, the Jewish state was founded, but Gordon Street in Tel Aviv, the editorial offices of Haolam Hazeh, saw the founding of its independent, anti-establishment press, fighting fearlessly against all forms of corruption from the theft of antiquities by a past defense minister to the theft of lands by the settlers, even if they appeared on the publication's signature tabloid back cover.

An entire generation of important journalists grew up on this weekly, generations of young people read it, sometimes on the sly, lest they be caught in the iniquitous act. Everyone slandered the publication, even as they stood in line - like the one that formed every Tuesday night at the newspaper seller's at the doorway of Cafe Kassit in Tel Aviv, and the next morning at the Knesset library - to read it.

From the Hebrew we speak, through the newspapers we read and to the prime minister who is now speaking with his voice - Avnery's influence can hardly be overstated.

Now, the fullness of his years outshines his youth. This noble senior is writing, protesting and fighting. In the ultra-Orthodox world he would have long ago been considered a supreme leader; in the secular world he has remained as always - a lone soldier thrust onto the sidelines. He long ago won the Alternative Nobel Prize. No one mentions him as a candidate for the Israel Prize, although awarding it to Avnery would give respect to the prize rather than the prize giving respect to Avnery. A more honest and courageous society would at least now be listening to him, and then would bow its head in great respect to this wonderful man on his 87th birthday. Congratulations, Uri Avnery, to you and to us.