Three years ago, we lost Uri Avnery, an indefatigable fighter for peace and against the perpetual state of war in which we are mired for our own comfort.
As an Israeli, Yom Kippur is always linked in my mind to the 1973 Yom Kippur War – a monument to hubris that we built with 2,222 slain soldiers, thousands of wounded and still others who bear the emotional scars to this day. All of them were sacrificed to the Molech of retaining the Sinai Peninsula, and I remember how Avnery, in his criticism of that war, contributed to shaping my worldview. And I remember how badly this warrior is missed.
He was born in Germany with the name Helmut Ostermann, and at age 10, he fled with his family to what was then called Palestine. He changed his name several times before settling on Uri.
He joined the Irgun, a pre-state underground, but left in 1941 to protest the organization’s common practice of massacring Palestinians. Avnery began developing ideas close to those of the Canaanite movement, viewing the Middle East as a “Semitic expanse” that he considered in need of liberation from imperialist control.
The 1948 War of Independence was the formative event that shaped his character. He fought in the ranks of Samson’s Foxes, then the Givati Brigade’s commando unit, and was seriously wounded toward the end of the war. Immediately afterward, he wrote a best-seller, “In the Fields of Philistia,” which described the war.
Shortly afterward, he was shocked to hear boys saying they regretted not having being able to take part in the war. Avnery responded by writing a companion book, “The Other Side of the Coin,” which described the horrors of war. This is where he first clashed with Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s dark regime, which prevented a second edition of the book from being published on the pretext of a shortage of paper.
In 1950, Avnery used his compensation payments to set up Ha’olam Hazeh, apparently the most biting newspaper ever published in Israel. It attacked Ben-Gurion’s government repeatedly, stressing its corruption and its use of the Shin Bet security service (an agency which at that time it was forbidden even to mention) to suppress Palestinian Israelis and free-thinkers.
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He exposed scandal after scandal at a time when newspapers were seen as part of the establishment. And he assailed the government’s treatment of immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa.
The paper’s offices were bombed several times by “unknown parties,” and Avnery himself was also attacked by “unknown parties” – paratroopers who were granted a special leave from the army for this purpose by Ariel Sharon, then a paratrooper commander. I was 17 at the time, and every Wednesday, I would walk for half an hour to a kiosk in Petah Tikva to buy this newspaper, which offered a different viewpoint – clear and courageous.
Avnery’s lodestar, as an editor and later as a member of Knesset, was ending Israel’s war against the Palestinians, Palestinian Israelis or anyone else. At the end of the Six-Day War in 1967, he immediately called for the establishment of a Palestinian state, which he believed would join a federation with Israel within a generation.
In 1970, he harshly attacked then-Prime Minister Golda Meir’s refusal to negotiate with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat – a refusal that led to the Yom Kippur War. In 1982, he interviewed PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat in Beirut, then besieged by Israeli troops.
Avnery was an indefatigable warrior for peace who wanted to ensure that others wouldn’t suffer what he and his generation had suffered. It’s hard to imagine how he would have responded to the Israel of 2021, with its submissive journalists who eat from the government’s hands and its incessant, eternal war that nobody ever even thinks about.
Peace be with your ashes, Uri Avnery, one of the bravest of all Israelis. If only we had listened to you more.