Politics / The Third Side of the Coin

Did journalist and peace activist Uri Avnery serve a communist agenda in his weekly news magazine Haolam Hazeh?

Retzah Bein Yedidim (Murder Between Friends: Uri Avnery, a Political Love Story), by Amnon Lord Dani Books, 290 pages, NIS 88

After I put down Amnon Lord's book, I asked myself, who are you, Uri Avnery?

Daniel Tchetchik

There is the familiar Uri Avinery from the 1950s and after. He is known as a journalist in every fiber of his being and a trailblazer in Israel's media history, owing to the weekly he founded, Haolam Hazeh. He has a place in that history alongside Gershom Schocken, who turned Haaretz into what it is, Ezriel Carlebach, the patriarch of Maariv, which was once the newspaper with the largest circulation in the country, and Dov Yudkovsky and Noah Mozes, who transformed Yedioth Ahronoth into a mass-circulation daily.

Avnery has in the past been mentioned as a candidate for the Israel Prize for journalism. He never received the honor and now, after the publication of this book, it is doubtful that he will. The book brands the mark of Cain on Avnery's forehead: He comes across not as a committed journalist, but as a committed politician who exploited journalism for his own ideological purposes.

As Lord sees it, Avnery worked as a public opinion engineer, in the service of what Lord calls IsraCommunism, a form of communism that remained detached from the Soviet revolution, and was cobbled together from the Mapam party, parts of the Maki party and parts of the Lehi group. This amalgam split up, but Avnery remained tied to his zealous ideological past, and as a leader of the Gush Shalom peace movement, he is, at the age of 87, still alive and kicking.

Lord, it bears mention, grew up as a member of Kibbutz Ein Dor; he was a leftist who took part in Peace Now rallies and solidarity demonstrations with Arabs. But as he explains, he underwent a change 10 years after the 1976 Entebbe raid. When Benjamin Netanyahu emerged as the right-wing leader of the future, he argues, leftist-oriented journalists started to publish defamatory articles about Yonatan Netanyahu, the politician's brother, who was killed while leading the successful operation to rescue hostages in Entebbe, Uganda.

"I felt alienated [from these articles], and it seemed that something really wrong was happening here - something truly vile and incomprehensible," Lord said in an interview published elsewhere with researcher Zeev Galili. "My brother was killed in the War of Attrition, and this trend of disregarding things that have a sacred, dignified side was too much for me. I realized that for a long period I had been connected to people who had an anti-Zionist viewpoint. I understood that I myself, as a true leftist, had to renounce the core of my identity." He found himself fighting what he saw as the revolutionary mentality of the Israeli left. "If we don't wipe it out, one way or another, it will wipe us out," he said.

In the eyes of Lord, who is today an editor at the right-oriented Makor Rishon-Hatzofe daily, Avnery is a symbol of such a revolutionary stance, and he set out to investigate his ideological attitude in this biography.

The mysterious Muenzenberg

In trying to uncover Avnery's ideological influences, Lord dug up Willi Muenzenberg, a mysterious German communist and a talented propagandist whose heyday of manipulating popular opinion came at the start of the 20th century. Muenzenberg used journalism, among other means, to promote his communist agenda. "He used journalistic methods in ways similar to what I did," Avnery told Lord. Of course, Avnery's phrasing seems to reverse the chronology, since it was Avnery who borrowed methods and techniques that had been developed by the German propagandist.

Avnery divulged his thoughts, desires, goals and objectives in his weekly Haolam Hazeh column "Hanadon" (In Reference To), one of the paper's most prominent features. To the column's left, there would be a survey of recent political and social events; juicy gossip was printed on the column's right side. What other print journalist outlets were reluctant to do, Avnery daringly published, brandishing the slogan "without fear, without prejudice." His political messages adhered to the outlook of the Marxist left, and his investigative reports trampled over a long, continually updated list of enemies. His most hated foes were some of the country's most powerful figures: David Ben-Gurion, Isser Harel, Teddy Kollek, Shimon Peres, Moshe Dayan. (It is regrettable that the book lacks an index and brief biographical descriptions of the many leaders it refers to. )

'My teachers'

To sketch Avnery's political profile, Lord draws mainly from statements and recollections made by Avnery himself. He relies on autobiographical fragments that are scattered in the man's writings, two interviews Lord conducted with him, and an analysis of Avnery's coverage of international events.

The results are interesting. Uri Avnery - who was born in Germany as Helmut Ostermann in 1923, but changed his name as a tribute to his brother Avner, who was killed while fighting in the British army during World War II - witnessed the rise of three political cultures: Nazism, communism and fascism. He became fascinated with "political myth, propaganda and the organization of the masses," writes Lord, and called Lenin, Stalin, Mussolini and Hitler "my teachers." Avnery's first main object of interest was Nazi Germany; after its defeat, he moved on to Russia's Communist Revolution and started to speak in pro-communist cadences.

Avnery identified with the Irgun Zvai Leumi, the prestate underground militia also known as Etzel, and though his first columns evinced sympathy for communism, they were published in the journal of the right-wing Revisionist Zionist movement. He exhibited his reporting talents for the first time during the 1948 War of Independence, when his war articles were published by Haaretz. His book "In the Fields of the Philistines" is a personal account of the war, in which he was badly wounded, and pays tribute to the Israel Defense Forces and its soldiers ("an army of the people," Avnery wrote ).

The book sold well, but Avnery "balanced" this pro-IDF paean of praise two years later, in a second book called "The Other Side of the Coin," which reverses the pro-IDF narrative and turns the Israeli hero into "a murderer, robber, rapist." (The two books were published in an English version in 2009, in a single volume called "1948: A Soldier's Tale," from Oneworld Publications. ) The second book represented a shift in orientation toward communism and away from a positive appreciation of Israel. For Lord, Avnery's flirtation with nationalism just shows that his supposed turnaround was actually an element of Muenzenbergian propaganda.

For my part, I find it hard to believe that the spirit of Muenzenberg took utter control of Avnery's work. As someone who worked as a journalist during Haolam Hazeh's peak period, and who had a personal relationship with Avnery (he asked me to write an investigative piece on the first modern political murder in Israel, that of Dutch writer Jacob Israel de Haan, who was killed in 1924 ), I had a firsthand glimpse of the lightning that flashed in Avnery's eyes whenever the weekly wrapped its hands on a big story. In those days, Avnery represented journalism at its best. Media moguls ridiculed him in public but envied him in private. His political writing was widely respected, and the weekly's investigative reports captivated the masses. Haolam Hazeh also served as a journalism school for some of today's best-known Israeli reporters.

Though he did not serve in the Palmach, Avnery fought Ben-Gurion's decision to disband the headquarters of this elite pre-state strike force during the War of Independence. Mapam leaders and Palmach commanders lobbied for the military headquarters to be left standing, and to operate in parallel with the IDF's General Staff; Ben-Gurion distrusted such requests, fearing the creation of separate militias in the young state. Mapam's political committee, a semi-military body comprised of Mapam leaders and top Palmach men, fought Ben-Gurion fiercely. Some demanded that Ben-Gurion be brought before a military tribunal due to failed management of the War of Independence.

Avnery urged Mapam leaders at the time to "oust Ben-Gurion, rebel against him, force him out of power." In his eyes, Ben-Gurion and his associates in Israel's leadership were "traitors on the home front"; they lacked the heroic caliber of the Palmach fighters. Though he didn't know it, Avnery's proposal to establish a revolutionary movement that would challenge Ben-Gurion and his associates was compatible with a secret plan harbored by Mapam's leadership.

In the end, Mapam agreed to shut down the Palmach's separate headquarters. Nonetheless, Isser Harel, who was responsible for the security forces, kept close tabs on Mapam, and several Mapam officials were dismissed after being caught hatching secret plans for revolt in the Foreign Ministry and elsewhere. At this time, Mapam was staunchly defended by Haolam Hazeh; when Mapam's own intelligence agents found a listening device in the office of the party's leader, Meir Ya'ari, Haolam Hazeh carried the exclusive photograph.

To underscore Avnery's allegiance to Mapam and the Palmach, Lord details his efforts to welcome Red Army forces to the Middle East. Israel Ber, who led Mapam's opposition to Ben-Gurion, staged discussions favorable to the Red Army in IDF training courses. Ber ended his glorious military career in an Israeli prison, convicted of spying on behalf of the country whose army he wanted to greet. During his trial, Ber referred to what he called a secret plan for "Mapam to grab power by force." High-ranking officials in Mapam, including Yigal Allon, were allegedly privy to this plan. They did not take power, but the party's leaders continued to dream.

Mapam held a military affairs seminar, and its participants discussed Israel's pro-West leanings in the Cold War, and the formation of an ideologically neutral army. Participants included military figures who later became top IDF officers, including Yitzhak Rabin and Haim Bar-Lev; in the end, such figures accepted the authority of the state's founder. Lord writes that Avnery came to distrust these Palmach and Mapam figures, regarding them as failed gods. "There was nobody there who would carry out a revolt," Lord quotes Avnery as saying.

During elections for the sixth Knesset, Avnery promoted the idea of an anti-defamation law, a cause that proved to be popular and ended up becoming his springboard to political activity. He became affiliated with various left-wing causes, including Israel's Black Panthers and the radical-left organization Matzpen. Without doubt, his activity reached its peak with the establishment of the Israeli Council for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, whose members, including Avnery, paved the way for meetings with Palestinian leaders that were held in Europe. (I disclosed these contacts in Yedioth Ahronoth, in 1976. Later, Avnery told another journalist that the disclosure caused participants on both sides to fear for their lives and go underground, but it actually conferred legitimacy to the meetings. Palestine Liberation Organization official Issam Sartawi, who was subsequently murdered, told Avnery, "If you meet that Nakdimon, tell him that one day a street in the capital of the Palestinian state will be named in his honor." )

Possibly, Avnery's intensive political activity eventually brought an end to the uniqueness and popularity of Haolam Hazeh, which was sold in 1990 and shut down three years later.

Lord's book enhances interest in this fascinating figure, and makes it clear that what might appear today to be the radical fringes of the political spectrum were not so marginal decades ago. Haolam Hazeh annoyed the establishment to such an extent that the Shin Bet security service tried to publish its own weekly as an antidote. That journal, Rimon, was lavishly funded, but its editors were no match for Avnery's professionalism.

Haolam Hazeh also vexed Avnery's mother, Hilda Ostermann, who wrote her son out of her will. "I do not leave a penny to my son Uri, who instead of taking care of me went off to visit that murderer, Yasser Arafat," she wrote. It is to be hoped that Lord's interesting book will prompt Avnery to write his autobiography, to allow readers to understand the way the journalist and peace activist views his own life and to give him the chance to explain how his beliefs evolved.

Shlomo Nakdimon is an author and journalist who writes about the history of the State of Israel.