Uri Avnery could be described in a lot of ways. If I had to choose just one, I’d say he was a great freedom fighter, marvelously consistent and courageous. He was an Israeli patriot who loved his country and who spent his life looking for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, based on a profound understanding that only a peace agreement that ends the conflict can secure Israel’s existence over time.
But first and foremost, Uri Avnery was an editor and journalist; he was an author, too, a thinker, a knowledgeable intellectual, and a politician.
On Friday, September 21, his friends planned to celebrate his 95th birthday at the Tzavta Theater. Everything had been organized, including the order of speakers. But the truth is that everybody wanted to come because they wanted to hear Avnery himself speak. He always managed to be interesting and original. But they won’t be hearing him anymore. The meeting at Tzavta will now apparently be turned into a memorial.
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It was sad, and hard, to see him lying unconscious, in the Soroka Medical Center's intensive care ward. It was so not Uri. This perpetually young man, creative, and independent, with extraordinary courage, who bustled around Israel and the world and went to every demonstration, who burst with ideas – was lying there helpless, attached to machinery and dependent on doctors. It was so the opposite of him.
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He remained active practically until the last minute, his mind intact. He still managed to attend his weekly meeting with friends on August 3, at “Avnery’s table” on 8 Dubnov Street, Tel Aviv. As usual, he was the central speaker. But on Shabbat he was felled, from stroke, and found unconscious in his bed, in his home.
He died after a two-week stay at Soroka, without regaining consciousness.
Avnery was one of the people who shaped Israel, leaving his mark on his supporters and opponents alike. His actions were mainly in three areas: incessantly aspiring to peace, fighting corruption in government, and fighting religious coercion.
His resume is the resume of the state. He was born in Germany and immigrated to Israel with his family at the age of 10. He went to work at a young age in order to help sustain the family, never finishing school. So he learned from books, becoming an autodidact. He volunteered for the Etzel fighting force at age 15 and upon Israel’s establishment in 1948, joined the Givati Brigade’s commando force known as Samson’s Foxes; he was badly injured during a fight with Egyptian forces in the south.
In 1950, he and friends bought the magazine called HaOlam Hazeh – “This world”, which he turned into a radically left-leaning weekly, introducing a great many innovations into Israeli journalism including in respect to language, graphics and bold political investigations into the most powerful force in the land, the Mapai regime. He changed the face of Israeli journalism, creating dozens of reporters who would work throughout the industry.
As editor-in-chief, for 40 years he abided by the weekly’s slogan: “Without fear and without bias.” Avnery exposed corruption and great wrongs by the government (the Yadlin affair, Ofer and Kafr Qasem) where other newspapers feared to tread. He was a one-man school of journalism. The establishment, which hated and feared him, never awarded him his due– the Israel Prize for media.
Avnery was a professional troublemaker, with anti-establishment views. He wrote against every prime minister, from David Ben Gurion to Benjamin Netanyahu. His positions led the Shin Ben security service under Isser Harel to launch a rival magazine that was supposed to wipe him out financially, but it failed. There were two attempts on his life but he was not deterred. He bought and carried a gun, and went on.
Avnery was calling for the establishment of a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank, and for the inclusion of Israel in the Semitic space, back in the 1950s. he also fought in those years for full equality for the Arab citizens of Israel, and for the abolishment of the military rule. After 1967, he devoted his main efforts to resolving the conflict according to the formula of “two states for two nations.” This opinion, which he had all his life and which had once been a negligible peripheral position, is today the consensus of the center-left. He once said with pathos that his ideas had won the day hands down but had been defeated at the political level, which is what counts.
Avnery was a pioneer in more than diplomacy. In the early 1950s he published a series of articles, titled “Screwing the Blacks” in which he criticized the discrimination against immigrants from Arab countries, well before that opinion became fashionable. Come the 1970s, Avnery supported the Black Panthers, a Sephardi movement, and was also prominent in speaking out against religious coercion. In the mid-1960s he founded the political party HaOlam HaZeh – Koah Hadash, and sat in the Knesset during three terms (the sixth Knesset, the seventh and the ninth – and by the way, he invented the Hebrew acronym for Knesset member, “khak”).
In 1982, he shocked the establishment by meeting with Yasser Arafat in Beirut, as the Israeli army was besieging the Lebanese capital, and interviewing him for HaOlam Hazeh. During their conversation, Arafat talked about establishing a Palestinian state along the 1967 boundaries.
Avnery was immediately declared an enemy of the people, but he did not retreat. He held Arafat in high esteem as an accepted, strong leader with whom a peace agreement could be signed, an opportunity that was missed.
Avnery loved to converse. He loved to lecture but also to listen. “Avnery’s table” at Dubnov 8 began in 1958, at the defunct restaurant “Kassit”. Many of the people who would sit at that table are no longer among us. The late Itzhak Livni used to call me every Friday to find out if Uri would be coming, “and if he is, tell me and I’ll come,” he would say. The truth is that everybody would come for the same reason: to hear Avnery’s original political analyses, which were based on profound historical knowledge. Although he was categorically left-wing, he was capable of surprising his audience with unexpected views, as befits a true intellectual.
As long as his wife Rachel lived, every Friday they would go demonstrate against the separation barrier in the Palestinian village of Bi’lin. Even as he approached 90, he would skip with her over the hills, flee from tear gas grenades, with 20-year-olds running by his side. From there he would go straight to the weekly meeting at the restaurant. “Avnery’s table” probably won’t be convening any more. Without him, what’s the point.
Avnery was boundlessly optimistic. Even at the worst of times, he did not give up on achieving a solution to the conflict. He believed that sooner or later, the two peoples would have to work out an arrangement, strike a treaty, and that Jerusalem would be the capital of the two peoples. He even titled his autobiography “Optimistic.”
At age 80, he said that he had decided not to die before peace would arrive. He did not keep his promise.
His wife Rachel, who went with him to every demonstration and activity, died in 2011. Her body was cremated and her ashes were scattered at sea. Avnery has asked that the same be done with his remains. Once he told me, “I ate fish all my life, and enjoyed it. When the time comes, the fish should enjoy me too.”