The Pillar of Fire That Went Before the Peace Camp

Uri Avnery, who is turning 90, wasn't just a pioneer of Israeli journalism - he mainly stands out as a statesman and prophet.

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
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Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

He’ll be 90 years old tomorrow. He is as fleet as a deer (but less than he once was); brilliant, sharp and clear (definitely no less than he once was). Barbra Streisand won’t be singing for him and Bill Clinton won’t be coming. He won’t even receive the Israel Prize for journalism. Here, they prefer to give that to television anchors and political gossips. But Uri Avnery doesn’t need all these things. He has already left his imprint, and the history minister has granted him what no momentary minister ever received.

Last week he wrote in his column: “What is there about it [poison gas] that is so special, such a red line? ... Poison gas is not a weapon of mass destruction … moreover, it is not a decisive weapon … poor Obama.”

Avnery has already been granted the best gift a person his age could receive – he is as relevant as he always was. Israel is a consumer of the media he helped create; its Hebrew contains quite a few expressions he invented; it is dealing with issues that he was the first to address; and the only diplomatic vision Israel has, if indeed it still has one, is his.

He broke the back of the propaganda model of journalism. Back in the day, before the fashion started for faculties of journalism and PR, there were two schools for aspiring journalists here: Avnery’s weekly magazine, Ha’olam Hazeh, and Army Radio. The first educated, the second corrupted. Avnery was dean of the school that educated.

You just have to recall the long line to the newspaper seller outside the intellectuals’ hangout Cafe Cassit in Tel Aviv every Tuesday evening, and the next morning at the Knesset library, to realize what an effect he had. Suffice it to remember what a war Isser Harel’s Shin Bet security service waged against him. Suffice it to recall what kind of journalism we had here in the heyday of the self-censoring “editors committee,” with the lies about Qibiyeh and the fabrications about Kafr Qasem, to understand that without Ha’olam Hazeh, we would have had no journalism here.

The weekly also played a role in Haaretz - the only real newspaper that’s left here, forged by its legendary editor Gershom Schocken - with a number of senior journalists coming from Ha’olam Hazeh to the daily.

But the history minister will not just remember Avnery the journalist and editor. First and foremost, Avnery stands out as a statesman and prophet. The fighter from the “Samson’s Foxes” unit during the War of Independence - who wrote the books “In the Fields of Philistia” and subsequently “The Other Side of the Coin” - was and is a true Zionist. His two-volume autobiography, which he is now finishing, will certainly be a true biography of the state.

Avnery was one of the first to utter the words that everyone mumbles now – “two states for two peoples.” Together with Yeshayahu Leibowitz and the radical socialist organization Matzpen, he was the pillar of fire that went before the camp. He was a detested, denounced and ostracized trailblazer who survived two assassination attempts – and Israel never kneeled before him to ask his forgiveness, or at least to say thank you.

He supported the rebellion of the striking sailors before anyone was yet talking about “social justice.” He supported the Israeli version of the Black Panthers before anyone had yet coined the phrase “ethnic demon.” He fought corruption in Labor Party forerunner Mapai, before anyone had heard about the connection between big money and government. He wrote about nightlife and celebrities, the Hebrew word for which – yeduanim – he invented, long before the celeb culture started here. He also met with Palestine Liberation Organization head Yasser Arafat in Beirut when Arafat was the enemy of the people.

How easy it is to imagine what the State of Israel would be like if it had walked in the guiding light of this prophet. How frustrating it is that Israel never heeded him. A prophet? Avnery would grimace at the word. He was never a man for high language, pathos and emotion. Rather, he is a man of words that are simple, sharp and cool. Read his analyses from decades ago or today and answer honestly, what was he wrong about?

He is still fighting, writing and protesting, imbued with optimism and enthusiasm that, to a man like me, are foreign and incomprehensible. “If we keep looking down at our feet, we will die of sorrow. Therefore, I always look up,” he once stated in a Haaretz interview.

The truth is, I am very envious of Avnery - the rich biography and enthusiastic faith of the man for whom no heir has been found, the man whom we never listened to in time, the prophet in his own city. Mazal tov.

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