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Israel's Skeptical Generation Raised by Uri Avnery Exposed His Myths

When Uri Avnery couldn’t find a suitable word to express what he wanted to say, he invented a new one. This sometimes happened with facts that didn’t fit the idea he sought to advance

Tom Segev
Tom Segev
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Uri Avnery at the sixth Knesset's opening ceremony, 1965.
Uri Avnery at the sixth Knesset's opening ceremony, 1965.Credit: Moshe Fridan / GPO
Tom Segev
Tom Segev

The author Shlomo Zemach wrote in his diary a bit of gossip he said he heard from Miriam Eshkol: When she moved into the prime minister’s residence with her husband, Levi Eshkol, she discovered there was a standing order to purchase the latest issue of Haolam Hazeh for the home’s previous occupant, David Ben-Gurion, every Wednesday.

According to this story, Ben-Gurion would read the “filthy weekly,” as he called it, from cover to cover. There’s no telling if this anecdote is true. Uri Avnery, who died this week, liked it; the story flattered him. He believed it was true.

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Perhaps Ben-Gurion read Avnery’s publication in order to know his enemy: He apparently also read Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” and Gamal Abdel Nasser’s “The Philosophy of the Revolution.” In any event, it’s doubtful Ben-Gurion loathed anyone more than he did Avnery. The hatred was mutual, and extremely personal. Each saw in the other all that was dangerous and loathsome. They both went too far. Ben-Gurion allowed the Shin Bet security service to finance a competing weekly, and agency chief Isser Harel offered to arrest Avnery and hold him without trial, on grounds that he was a Soviet agent. Ben-Gurion told Harel he would agree as long as then-opposition leader Menachem Begin gave his consent. Harel told Begin, who hastened to inform Avnery.

I’ve wondered more than once about the veracity of this story as well. But Avnery didn’t make it up, apparently; Begin himself mentioned it in one of his Knesset speeches. It doesn’t prove the story is true, but in contradiction to the myth that Avnery cultivated, Haolam Hazeh was never in real danger. In fact, it thrived during a good time for the Israeli media, whose power grew as Ben-Gurion’s diminished.

I belong to the generation of Israelis who read Haolam Hazeh almost clandestinely, seeing it a daring act of defiance. The weekly’s scoops and opinion pieces exposed us to alternative values and planted in us critical thinking amidst waves of Zionist indoctrination and government propaganda. The weekly sowed in us skepticism, perhaps the most important component of freedom and therefore of democracy. Such was its struggle to abolish military rule of Arab communities in Israel and a series of other struggles. In that, Avnery was part of the advance guard of a courageous, combative free press that showed the way to an entire generation of journalists.

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In 1984 Haolam Hazeh was already far from important, but the coverage of the Bus 300 affair reflected its influence on the journalists who succeeded it. For that, Avnery should be remembered, together with the three great founders of Israeli journalism: Ezriel Carlebach (Maariv), Gershom Schocken (Haaretz) and Dov Yudkovsky (Yedioth Ahronoth).

I marveled at his brilliant, precise writing, ever in short, rhythmic sentences. Almost 30 years before everyone started waxing nostalgic over “the new journalism,” I discovered Avnery as a genius storyteller, forever going beyond the story of an individual to make a wider social or political point. When he couldn’t find a suitable word to express what he wanted to say, he invented a new one. This sometimes happened with facts that didn’t fit the idea he sought to advance. When he didn’t have a suitable story he invented that too. It didn’t make him an ideal teacher, but as Gershom Schocken once told me: “The fact that a story appears in Haolam Hazeh doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not true.”

Comparing Haolam Hazeh’s reports with the state documents that have been unsealed for researchers over the years shows that the weekly’s readers did not get an accurate picture either in the Kastner affair or in the Lavon affair. The currently open archives don’t justify Avnery’s terrible portrayal of Shimon Peres. The story about the abductions of Yemenite children is also far from being proved.

Haolam Hazeh was sensationalist and superficial, often unjustly malicious, on the verge of pornographic, and it did one of the worst things a magazine can do: It sucked up to its readers. Avnery sold us a sense that we represent something good and daring by the very fact of buying the magazine. In exchange, he ostensibly bestowed on us a secular, young, optimistic Israeliness, self-confident to the point of arrogance. I believe his popularity stemmed to a large degree also from his patriotism, perhaps even from the militarism he fostered. He worshiped people like Ariel Sharon and Rehavam Zeevi, seeing in them an ideal Israeliness. In the Six Day War he called for conquering the Golan Heights and as a Knesset member he voted for annexing Arab Jerusalem.

He never told us he was grooming us to vote for a party he would found. But his journalistic work was aimed almost from the start at a greater goal: Avnery dreamed of becoming a national leader and creating history. He failed, mainly because he was wrong, presumably. His idea of the “Semitic region” was baseless. Avnery was one of the first to advocate for the two-state solution, but the idea is far from realistic and Avnery remained one of the last to still believe in it. Nor did he leave a significant mark in the Knesset.

I tend to assume that to a large extent I have him to thank for the ability to apply skepticism even in my appraisal of him and my regret that his voice of peace has been silenced. Perhaps support for a thesis to explain Haolam Hazeh’s decline can also be found here: The skeptical generation that Avnery raised eventually exposed his myths as well, although they were no less decisive than those cultivated by Ben-Gurion, and perhaps precisely because of that.

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