Opinion |

Uri Avnery’s ‘White General Staff’

I was 17 years old when I met Avnery, and left there like someone who had visited an enemy country, but the meeting became deeply etched in my consciousness

Uzi Baram
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Uri Avnery, Israeli writer and founder of the Gush Shalom peace movement, speaks during a interview at his home in the coastal city of Tel Aviv.
Uri Avnery, Israeli writer and founder of the Gush Shalom peace movement, speaks during a interview at his home in the coastal city of Tel Aviv.Credit: Jack Guez/ AFP
Uzi Baram

In the world where I grew up, the weekly Haolam Hazeh was considered a dangerous publication, lacking any moral inhibitions, which fought strongly and unfairly against the powerful regime. Its values were reflected in scathing, slanted front pages and scathing, raunchy back pages. I was drawn into this world as a secret reader of the newspaper, far from prying eyes, in an inside room in Greenbaum’s kiosk. I read but continued to feel hostility.

My hostile attitude to the newspaper increased when Avnery recruited me to support Shmuel Tamir during the Kastner trial, while providing support for the claims of collaboration between the pre-state Zionist leadership and the Nazis.

The alliance between Avnery and Tamir seemed to me a horrifying conspiracy at the time, in which Avnery was willing to change his religion to glorify the frustrated Herut member Tamir.

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And then something unexpected happened. Hatnuah Hameuchedet (United Movement youth group) in Jerusalem decided to conduct a public trial against Haolam Hazeh, and I was chosen to speak for the defense. Nobody, including me, imagined at the time how much I would identify with the role.

The trial centered on two series of articles published by the newspaper: “Screwing the blacks” and “What do you know about sex.” According to the indictment, the first series was designed to promote conflict among different sectors of the public, while the second clashed with the Puritan values of the time and, in the view of many in the movement, was cheap and provocative.

I was 17 years old and I made my way to the paper’s editorial offices in fear and trembling. There I met Avnery and co-editor Shalom Cohen, who equipped me with effective explanations for the purpose of the trial. I left there like someone who had visited an enemy country, but the meeting became deeply etched in my consciousness. 

In the 1950s I read an article in the newspaper – the first of a series – titled “A white General Staff.” That article stirred up my emotions, because it played on hidden feelings that disturbed me. It was the period when Ben Gurion’s “Third Kingdom of Israel” was shelved, when we were forced to withdraw from Sinai under pressure from the great powers.

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What did I find so fascinating in the articles about the “white General Staff”? Avnery assumed that there is an ordinary – red – General Staff, whose job is to prepare the military for victory in battle, any battle.
But Israel, he asserted, would not be saved in war. That’s why a white General Staff should also be established, within the army framework, to promote peace and examine ideas for establishing a Palestinian state. It would be allocated resources, and be equal to the ordinary General Staff, but its mission would be to achieve peace – peace, not just a cease-fire. 
I was so impressed by those articles that I begged my friends to read them. After reading them, we reached the conclusion that the outcast Avnery was ahead of his time.

In 1996 Uri and his wife Rachel invited me to their home and implored me to run against Ehud Barak for the leadership of the Labor Party. I told them with a smile that the quieter they kept, the better my chances would be of winning. I reminded them of the articles about the white General Staff and said that for me they were the great ray of light that burst forth from Haolam Hazeh. This pursuit of peace is Avnery’s real legacy.

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