The Price an Unwavering Israeli Leftist Paid for Conscientious Objection

Uri Avnery always saw himself as a foreign minister without a government, not a political activist. His memoir is a type of consolation for his political isolation.

Uri Avnery.
Uri Avnery. Alex Levac

“Optimi” (“Optimistic”), Vol. 2, by Uri Avnery, Yedioth Books, 578 pages (Hebrew), 98 shekels

Uri Avnery is a phenomenon. At the age of 93, the Israeli writer and longtime political activist continues to demonstrate in the streets as though he were 33. In the first volume of his autobiography, which came out in 2014, he wrote about his childhood, his activities during the War of Independence in 1948 and the history of Haolam Hazeh, his political, gossipy-ad-nauseam, pornographic (lite) weekly magazine. The second volume begins with his surprising election to the Knesset in 1965. He garnered votes from those who didn’t want to vote for establishment parties, a kind of harbinger of the so-called “atmosphere parties” that respond to a momentary political mood. But unlike them, Avnery never wooed the consensus, but continued to adhere to his views on the Palestinian issue even after 1967, when very few people talked about the subject.

He parlayed his connections with Fatah figures Said Hamami and Issam Sartawi into a track that led to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Avnery says that he let the Israeli establishment know about those connections. No one prevented him from pursuing them. Avnery takes pride in this, and rightly so. There has been no better test of courage over the past 50 years than presenting a consistent public posture on the Palestinian issue. He has been constant in two areas: One of them is peace with the Palestinians.

Avnery’s selective memory is well organized. In his description of the first Land Day, on March 30, 1976 – organized by Israel’s Arab community to protest the government’s extensive land-expropriation plans – only he and the painter Ran Kedar and the poet Yevi saved the state’s honor by rushing to Galilee in order to lay wreaths on the graves of the Arabs who had been killed in the day’s events. Rakah, the Communist Party of Israel, which had organized the protest strike for months, is barely mentioned. Nor does he mention the demonstration in Tel Aviv on that Saturday, when he went to Galilee to be photographed. And in fact there was a lynch attempt on Dizengoff Boulevard. Avnery didn’t hear about it. That’s his approach throughout the book.

The world is divided into the famous and the nameless. For example, Yaakov Manor, co-winner of this year’s Leibowitz Prize for public activism and a veteran of Avnery’s Gush Shalom (Peace Bloc) – and without whose devotion many of that movement’s activities would not have taken place – is not mentioned by name. We don’t learn much about the legendary Adam Keller, without whom Gush Shalom would not have functioned. One of the book’s photographs shows the handsome Peretz Kidron, who was an activist in Yesh Gvul, which opposes military service in the occupied territories, and a journalist with several scoops to his name (i.e., about the way David Ben-Gurion gave the order to expel the Palestinians from Lod, and how Nazareth was spared the same fate). Kidron, of blessed memory, isn’t even mentioned in the photo’s caption. Only the names of the “famous.” People who live long lives have an advantage: They can tell a story however they want.

This is not a complaint about the lost honor of unknown left-wingers. None of them worked like a mule, certainly when working with Avnery, in order to be remembered. What always impressed everyone who worked alongside him – whether in the anti-Zionist Matzpen organization in the 1960s or the Siah (New Israeli Left) group in the early 1970s – was his totally impersonal ability to be just one thing: a guided missile. In some cases he was a dictator who did not achieve rule other than within his kingdom, principally the magazine. Young people today who know Haolam Hazeh only through stories won’t understand.

In the early 1970s, journalist Aharon Bachar had the temerity to publish an unflattering book about Avnery. Here’s the description of Bachar, now deceased, in the new autobiography: “Bachar, who came from a Bulgarian family, was extraordinarily ugly. Possibly that heightened his sensitivities. In any event, he developed a complex love-hate relationship toward me, as happened to me often. When he left our magazine, he wrote a book about me that displayed an obsession with my personality. Even though I didn’t read it, a few details were made known to me.”

Or the “pursuit of honor” by former Meretz leader Ran Cohen: “Somehow I understood Cohen’s psyche. Born in Iraq (his original name was Said), he was taken in by a kibbutz as an ‘outside child.’ These children, mainly those of Mizrahi [Middle Eastern or North African] origin, suffered in the society of sabra children, Ashkenazim all, who treated them patronizingly, even contemptuously. He had to fight hard for his place, and that led him to occupy himself with the pursuit of honor. It also impelled him to be more ambitious in the army, and after his regular service he served with great dedication in the reserves, achieving the rank of colonel.” No senior officer in the book, and there are several, is accorded this type of “analysis.”

The criterion for most things in the world is Avnery himself. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat “was of average height, about the same as me … We both pulled out our pipes at the same moment. I restrained my laughter: We both had the same pipe, a leather-covered type.”

On Ariel Sharon: “Now Sharon told me that he too, like me, was against that [intervention by the Israel Defense Forces in Jordan in September 1970]. Except that I did it publicly, and he behind the scenes, in the General Staff … As a devotee of military history (another militaristic side of me), I was forced to admit that in many of the arguments about military decisions, I agreed with him.”

And later, “Sharon didn’t make a move without [the journalist] Uri Dan, his blind follower, who stuck to him the way a baby sticks to its mother. As will be recalled, I ‘invented’ him, hired him for Haolam Hazeh when he was still a youth, gave him his name and helped him become a star. He admired me. After he parted from me to do army service, he adopted Moshe Dayan as an object of his veneration, and afterward, Sharon.”

Or this gem: “As an amateur strategist, I leaned toward Sharon’s military approach.”

Without minimizing in the least his importance in the Israeli left, it has to be said that Avnery always saw himself as a foreign minister without a government, not as a political activist. The book is a kind of compensation for his great political isolation. That’s the key to this volume.

Here he is on Henry Kissinger: “The person who oversaw all the moves was Henry Kissinger. I never liked him, even though we had a common origin: We both left Germany in 1933, when Nazism came to power, we were both 10 years old, but whereas Helmut Ostermann’s father [referring to Avnery’s original name] took him to Palestine, Henry Kissinger’s father took him to America. I wonder what would have happened if my parents had taken me to America and he’d been taken to Palestine. I had to abandon school at the age of 14, but Kissinger became a professor and his books made waves.”

Or a report on a talk he held with Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky in the late 1970s: “Kreisky had good relations with Sadat and set himself the goal of turning the Egyptian statesman into what’s known, in good German as a Salonfaehig – namely, suitable for proper society. On one occasion I met with him immediately after he’d met with Sadat, and he told me, ‘I have paved Sadat’s way to Europe. Now I would like to do the same with Arafat. Do you know a reasonable (Verneunftig) Palestinian with whom it would be possible to speak?’ ‘I have just the person for you,’ I replied. ‘His name is Issam Sartawi.’ ‘Then please, arrange a meeting for me with him,’ he concluded.”

On one occasion, Avnery had lunch with Maj. Gen. Israel Tal, the developer of the Merkava tank: “We lunched in Olympia, a restaurant that officers liked. Passersby were curious about this odd couple – the renowned general and the peace activist.” And elsewhere: “Among my colleagues in the peace movement, I acquired the reputation of being a devotee of the IDF; some called me ‘the only militarist in the peace camp.’ This is an opportunity to comment on that. A boy who grew up in Germany during the period of the Weimar Republic could hardly avoid becoming an army devotee. The cult of the army was everywhere.”

This foolishness is repeated elsewhere: “Some viewed my ‘militarism’ as the result of my early education in Germany. Indeed, in the Weimar Republic, in which I lived until the age of 10, militarism hovered above the whole education system … Throughout most of my life I have been an enthusiast of march music … It was only when I reached the age of 80-something that this affection faded and I surrendered myself to the classical music that was so important to my father.”

It’s worth noting that this country was full of people who grew up in Weimar Germany – communists and socialists and liberals and pacifists – who loathed the army and, more important, loved good music.

The quotes above are not curios. They are typical, and a product, for good or ill, of individual “conscientious objection,” outside the context of an organization or a party. Why for good? It’s quite clear: There is no other way to navigate the evil waters we are enduring without displaying some form of personal resistance. Martin Luther understood that: “Here I stand. I can do no other.”

But resistance of this kind, such as that of Avnery, also has another, ugly, side. Luther, in the statement attributed to him, continues: “So help me God. Amen.” The “I” is never alone, there is something greater hovering above. That, in my view, is the meaning of left-wing activity. Avnery has nothing above him. But he’s still young and will learn. In the meantime, it’s hard to depict the Israeli left without him.