Uri Avnery: Peace Activist, Pioneering Journalist and Inconvenient Patriot

It’s hard to convey the full scope of Avnery’s omnipresence on the Israeli scene

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
In this file photo taken on July 26, 2011, Uri Avnery, Israeli writer and founder of the Gush Shalom peace movement, speaks next to his picture with late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat
In this file photo taken on July 26, 2011, Uri Avnery, Israeli writer and founder of the Gush Shalom peace movement, speaks next to his picture with late Palestinian leader Yasser ArafatCredit: Photo by JACK GUEZ / AFP
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Uri Avnery, who died on Monday, was, first and foremost, a dissident. He “sat apart” from the mainstream, as the Latin origin of the word conveys. His core credo was anti-establishmentarianism.  He fought the system when no one else dared. He battled David Ben Gurion and authoritarian Mapai rule in the first years of Israel’s existence with the same vigor that he later combatted the nationalistic drift of Menachem Begin, Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud. He raged against the machine, no matter what.

It’s hard to convey the full scope of Avnery’s omnipresence on the Israeli scene. He was trailblazing journalist, radical politician one-man resistance movement and towering Jeremiah rolled up into one. He was part Edward Murrow, part Che Guevara, part William Randolph Hearst and part Larry Flynt. He introduced Israel to investigative journalism “without fear or favor”, as his weekly Ha’Olam Hazeh boasted, but also to sensationalist and prurient news reporting. The powerful combination, in the first decades of Israeli’s existence, left an indelible mark on the country’s history.

For most of his life, Avnery was a pariah. He was banned, ostracized and repeatedly interrogated by the authorities. He barely escaped several assassination attempts by political opponents. He was revered by a tiny sliver of the Israeli public as a brave revolutionary but reviled and detested by most others as a traitor to his people. He lived to the ripe age of 94, incisive and outspoken as ever.

Avnery was also a visionary. His views on a two-state solution and Palestinian self-determination were formed at a time when they were considered taboo, treasonous to the state and blasphemous to Zionism, decades before they were accepted by a majority of the Israeli public. He broke Israeli law when he met with Yasser Arafat in 1982; 11 years later, Rabin shook the Palestinian leader’s hand on the White House lawn.

Avnery was a freedom fighter. He fought for minorities, politically marginalized groups and the downtrodden, whatever their political affiliation. In the 1950’s, he battled the military regime imposed on Israeli Arabs at the same time he campaigned for official recognition of the members of the right-wing pre-State undergrounds, the radical Lehi and the revisionist IZL, of which he was once a member.  He championed North African Jews, waged war on the Orthodox monopoly, fought police brutality and undermined efforts to stifle free speech. For the past 50 years, he lobbied against the occupation and warned of its corrosive influence on Israeli society.

The German-born Avnery was no pacifist. He fought and was seriously wounded in the War of Independence. He wrote one of the enduring battle anthems of the 1948 campaign, entitled “The Foxes of Shimshon”. His recollections of the camaraderie and bravery of Israel’s seminal war, first printed as newspaper dispatches to Haaretz, were published in his best-selling book “In the Fields of the Philistines”, which made him into a national hero. Less than a year later, he published another book on the dirtier side of the war, entitled “The Other Side of the Coin”, which turned him into a national villain. From then on, he lived on the margins but his center of gravity relentlessly pulled Israel in his direction.

Avnery did not believe in a Jewish and democratic state. He believed in a Hebrew and democratic state. He viewed Zionism as a vehicle for an extreme makeover of Jewish Diaspora existence.  His views, once supposedly consigned to the dustbin of history, have reemerged, with a vengeance, following the recent approval of the controversial Nation State law, with its manifestations of Jewish supremacism. As always, Avnery preceded his times.

Avnery was a towering intellectual, a wily politician and an inconvenient https://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-young-israelis-in-berlin-return-home-1.5424380 patriot. In his forty years at the helm of Ha’Olam Hazeh, he taught a society steeped in collective thinking about the merits of contrarian and courageous individualism. He tutored and interned many of Israel’s foremost reporters and commentators. For the past 30 years and to his last dying day, he continued to write his incisive, damning columns, in Haaretz and elsewhere, with all the fire and brimstone of his youth.

Avnery’s memory should be cherished by the entire news industry, left and right, as well as by Israel as a whole. With his departure, Israel has lost a pioneer, and, for many, one of its last founding fathers.  

Click the alert icon to follow topics: