Opinion

Uri Avnery Superstar

History remembers the trailblazers; now that Israel’s great warrior for peace is gone, we can see more clearly than ever just how courageous he was

In this file photo taken on July 26, 2011, Uri Avnery, Israeli writer and founder of the Gush Shalom peace movement, speaks at his home in the coastal city of Tel Aviv.
JACK GUEZ / AFP

It’s doubtful whether even Uri Avnery expected it would go like this, that news of his death would make so many waves. A very old man, who never held any official position of power, who didn’t “build” or “create,” didn’t enter into any peace agreements and didn’t send anyone to war, who was maligned for most of his life, served two and a half terms in the Knesset on behalf of a fly-by-night party 50 years ago and edited a weekly newspaper with a limited circulation, which closed over 25 years ago, has been at the center of public attention for several days now.

To really understand Israel and the Middle East - subscribe to Haaretz

Even in death Avnery managed to imbue a spirit of hope: Maybe there is a civil society in Israel, there is a value to protest, to waging a struggle without surrender, and room for an individual to exert influence, even if that person belongs to what is considered the radical left.

Decades of Sisyphean struggle, with a trunk in an old-fashioned Volvo that was always stuffed with flyers and flags, ended in a final blast of recognition and appreciation for Avnery. It turns out that he played an important role in the life of the country and in the lives of many people, perhaps even more than this not entirely modest man thought. In a country where the elderly are abandoned and the dead are forgotten, where the death of an impressive and outstanding intellectual and media personality like Yirmiyahu Yovel met with surprising, not to say infuriating, public silence, it’s encouraging to see that there’s still room for appreciating personalities like Avnery.

We remember the trailblazers, those who marked the boundaries, those who broke the consensus, the courageous ones. On the other hand, the cowards are forgotten, the middle-of-the-roaders don’t leave an impression. All the evaders, the compromisers, those who say nothing, those who toe the line, the obfuscators, the tricksters, the deceivers, the actors and the collaborators are doomed to extinction in the test of time. Decades of obedience will leave nothing behind; those who dare will win, even if only in memory. That’s an important lesson for those for whom it’s important to leave behind a legacy.

It’s a particularly important lesson for all the middle-of-the-road people in the Zionist left: Who will history remember: Avnery, or Avi Gabbay? What will you remember of Isaac Herzog? Tzipi Livni? The hope of Benny Gantz? What will remain of Yair Lapid? What remains of Shimon Peres? People who held far more senior leadership positions than Avnery could have dreamed of will be completely forgotten. Avnery will be remembered.

Will Tamar Zandberg ever get up her courage like Avnery, whom she is eulogizing so well, cross the lines and try to meet with the Hamas leadership and express solidarity with besieged Gaza? Is there even anyone else on the Zionist left who will do what Avnery did?

>> Uri Avnery, Shaper of the Israeli Consciousness ■ How Uri Avnery, the First Champion of the Two-state Solution, Laid the Foundations for Political Dissent in Israel | Analysis

That’s true of both the right and the left. In his day Avnery set the boundaries of the peace camp. Meir Kahane, on the other hand, set the boundaries of Israeli Jewish racism and hatred. Both left their mark and won’t be forgotten. One left a mark of hope, humanity and liberalness, the other a mark of ultranationalism, violence and evil, and therefore the comparison between them is difficult and infuriating – but it’s impossible to ignore the fact that both of them set boundaries, which have also been expanded.

Kahane’s racism, though ostracized at the time, has become more than politically correct; Avnery’s radical meetings with the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and talk of a two-state solution, which was once considered extreme, have become the broad consensus. Which of the two of them had more influence? Horrifyingly, Kahane won. Perhaps that will eventually be reversed.

Avnery was not radical left, as he was described. He was and remained a Zionist. Anyone who believes in the two-state solution is by definition a Zionist. Historian Ilan Pappe made an important distinction this week on the Israeli left between those who consider the 1967 occupation the mother of all sins, whose end will solve everything, and those who consider the ethnic cleansing of 1948 the original sin that was not corrected, and feel that unless that happens, there will never be peace.

Avnery belonged to the former camp, of course. He waxed nostalgic about ‘48 and fought against ‘67. His war was determined, courageous, pioneering and revolutionary. After his death, it has once again become clear to what extent.