We Miss You, Uri Avnery

Uri Avnery at his Tel Aviv home in 2013.
Daniel Bar-On

Uri Avnery, the writer, Knesset member and peace activist, died a year ago, on August 20. What would he have said about the current situation, about Netanyahu, about the elections? One thing is certain. His comments would have been original and interesting, as was always the case with him.

In his will Avnery directed that his body be cremated and his ashes scattered at sea. He once told me: “I’ve eaten fish my whole life and enjoyed it. When the time comes, it would also be fitting for the fish to enjoy me.” Now the time has come to recount how his will was complied with.

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It was a Wednesday at 9 P.M., nine days after his death. Three other friends of his and I got together. There was Osnat Har, who arranged everything and was also the one who devotedly looked after Avnery after his wife, Rachel, passed away; Gaby Lasky, Avnery’s friend and lawyer; Shlomi from the burial firm Alei Shalehet; and myself.

We arranged to meet up at the corner of Hayarkon and Gordon in Tel Aviv, near where the offices of Avnery’s weekly magazine “Ha’olam Hazeh” were located at 3 Gordon Street. That’s also where Avnery used to leave from every evening for his walk along the sea.

From the small plaza up on Hayarkon Street, we walked down the winding path that ends at the steps down to the beach. There we took off our sandals and rolled up our pants and headed toward the sea. Shlomi was carrying a cardboard box with a plastic bag inside of it. There was no urn or jar.

I was sure that he would do the work, and I was surprised when he said, “Nehemia, you scatter the ashes.” It was a shock. Me scatter Avnery’s ashes? Doesn’t it require special training?

But Shlomi didn’t wait for an answer. He handed me the box, which I held onto with awe and reverence. In the water, about four or five meters from shore, we stopped and I opened the cover of the box and began tipping it down towards the water. But then Shlomi said: “That’s too high. It will blow onto us.” What will blow onto us, I thought, Avnery?

That disturbing thought led me to bend down low towards the water and only then carefully, gradually, tip the box towards the gentle waves breaking at our feet. Avnery spilled out like a light cloud wafting over the waves with the breeze, before landing on the water and disappearing.

It took a minute, one very long minute, and when it was over, I stood up and said: “Wow, that was moving.” All of us paused and stood there in silence, staring at the waves. And then Gaby Lasky said: “The sea will never be the same sea.”

And was she right. If Avnery were with us today, he would go wild over the fact that the conflict with the Palestinians isn’t central to the election campaign, or actually even a marginal issue. After all, he had spent his entire life seeking a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, out of deep recognition that only a peace agreement ending the conflict would guarantee Israel’s existence over time.

He wasn’t only a great, constant and brave fighter for peace. He was also a person who fought government corruption (in the happy days of the Mapai party) and religious coercion – which just shows that nothing has really changed for decades. There is no peace, but government corruption and religious coercion remain.

Back in the 1950s, Avnery was preaching about the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza and the integration of Israel into the “Semitic region.” Following the Six-Day War, he was the one who coined the expression “two states for two peoples.” But he also once remarked sadly: “My ideas won over public opinion but they were defeated at the political level.”

Avnery fought with everything he had against a one-state solution, something segments of the left wing had begun to embrace. It would bring about endless civil war, he said.

He explained that the nation and the state fulfill the deep emotional need that people have to belong to a defined group that provides security and a socioeconomic safety net in times of trouble, as the tribe did in prehistoric times. “One state is a crazy, baseless idea, a utopia without a chance,” he remarked.

Even in tough times, Avnery always believed that sooner or later the two peoples would be forced to come to an agreement and to forge a peace alliance, with Jerusalem as the capital of both countries. And until then, if you happen to be walking on Gordon Beach and feel something in the water, now you’ll know what it is.