WASHINGTON: Uri Avnery, 94, who spent more than 70 years fighting for peace and reconciliation with the Palestinians, was an Israeli writer, activist, editor and member of the Knesset for ten years, died on August 20. In what appears to have been his last column, (What We Can Learn From the Nation-state Law), he attacked the Israeli parliament’s recent enactment of a “nation-state” law. That law declares that Israel is the “nation-state” of the “Jewish people,” not all of its citizens, 21% of whom are not Jewish.
It removes Arabic as one of the country’s official languages. In Avnery’s view, the law was “semi-fascist.”
Who is Uri Avnery?
Mr. Avnery was born Helmut Ostermann on Sept. 10, 1933, in Beckum, Germany. He spent his childhood in Hanover before moving with his family to British Palestine in 1933. Adolf Hitler had just come to power. Avnery was 10. His earliest political activity was with the far-right group, Irgun, a Zionist paramilitary organization, which engaged in widespread terrorism.
In a 2014 interview, he said of his activities with Irgun,
“I distributed leaflets (during a period when Irgun killed many people) and as such I bear responsibility. The Irgun planted bombs in markets in Jaffa and Haifa, which killed dozens of women and children, and I supported that.”
Uri Avnery always Optimistic
In his Hebrew language memoir, “Optimi” (“Optimistic”), Avnery wrote that his service with the Irgun taught him practical lessons for later in his career:
“We were freedom fighters. In my eyes, the British authorities were a terrorist organization. Back then, I learned that the difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist depended on your perspective.”
Three years later, he dropped out of the underground militia.
“The Irgun’s war against the Arabs bothered me a great deal. I was very much opposed to their anti-Arab line.” He explained that he believed that, just as Jews had the right to a national life, “The Arabs in the country have the same rights.”
During the War of Independence, Avnery served in the Samson’s Foxe’s commando unit. In 1948, as the war was ending, Avnery was hit by Egyptian fire. During the long nights in the hospital, he wrote in his memoirs, his worldview finally became clear;
“The war totally convinced me there’s a Palestinian people, and that peace must be forged first and foremost with them. To achieve that goal, a Palestinian nation-state had to be established.”
In this, Uri Avenary was a groundbreaker.
“During that period there weren’t even ten people in the world who believed in that, But, today, it is a global consensus. Even Netanyahu, who doesn’t think of realizing it, has been forced to say he supports it.”
From single-state to two-state
Initially, Avnery favored the idea of a single state, one in which a new people would come into being. He believed that the national Hebrew movement was a natural ally of the Arab nation. Advocating cooperation between both movements under a joint home, he says,
“This is an ideal, built on a cultural partnership of homeland and history.”
During the War of Independence, he discovered that “the vision of joint life in the country had died.” He later said,
“I was a peace activist before the war, but the war was existential–a matter of life and death.”
He spent the rest of his life calling for the creation of a Palestinian state and vigorously opposed the occupation of the West Bank and the unification of Jersulam.
Uri Avnery served in the Knesset for ten years.
Avnery edited the magazine Haolem Haseh, wrote a column for many years for Haaretz and founded the peace movement Gush Shalom. Years ago, he and his allies asked the Israeli Supreme Court to change the “nationality” entry on their identity cards from “Jewish” to “Israeli.”
The court refused, saying that there was no Israeli nation.
While in the Knesset, and for the rest of his life, he called for religious freedom in Israel and opposed its state-controlled Chief Rabbinate. Israel, he says, is the only country which calls itself a “democracy” while non-Orthodox rabbis are forbidden by law from performing weddings, conducting funerals, and presiding over conversions.
He called for civil marriage, which Israel does not have. If a Jew and non-Jew wish to marry, they must leave the country to do so.
Uri Avnery and Yaser Arafat
As the first Israeli to meet with Palestinian leader Yaser Arafat, in 1982, Avnery was reviled by Israel’s political establishment.
He wrote a book, “My Friend, The Enemy.” In 2003, during the second intifada, Avnery spent time at Arafat’s presidential compound in Ramallah , operating as a human shield, for fear that Israel might attempt to assassinate the Palestinian leader. In an interview in 2012, Avnery noted that,
“When I met Arafat in 1982, the terms were all there. The Palestinian minimum and maximum terms are the same: a Palestinian state next to Israel, comprising the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem as a capital, small exchanges of land, a symbolic solution to the refugee problem. But this lies on the table like a wilted flower.”
Slaughters in Sabra and Chatila
Robert Fisk of The Independent asked Avnery how the survivors of the Jewish Holocaust could treat the Palestinians as they had. Fisk was referencing the 1700 Palestinians slaughtered in the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps in Beirut. This war crime was committed by Israel’s Christian Phalangist allies. However, Israeli soldiers did not intervene.
Uri Avnery provided this assessment:
“I will tell you something about the Holocaust. It would be nice to believe the people who have undergone suffering have been purified by suffering. But it’s the opposite, it makes them worse. It corrupts. There is something in suffering that creates a kind of egoism…you get a moral ‘power of attorney,’ a permit to do anything you want because nothing can compare to what happened to you. This is a moral immunity which is very clearly felt in Israel. Everyone is convinced that the IDF is more humane than any other army. ‘Purity of arms’ was the slogan of the Haganah army in 1948. But it never was true at all.”
Fighting for Palestinian rights and a fair and just society, was not easy.
Shin Bet Security head Isser Harel called Avnery “Government Enemy Number One.”
His magazine, Haolem Haseh , had its editorial offices bombed on several occasions and its archives completely destroyed in an arson attack. Avnery was subject to, physical attacks. Once, an ambush, left his arms broken. In 1975, he was severely wounded after an assailant stabbed him on his own doorstep.
Recalling his meeting with Avnery in Tel Aviv, Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun, writes,
“Avnery devoted himself entirely to the struggle to achieve peace between the state of Israel and the Palestinian people in their independent state, as well, as between Israel and the Arab and Muslim world. He did not get to the end of the road and did not live to see peace come about. In the history of the state of Israel, Uri Avnery will be inscribed as a far-seeing visionary who pointed the way others failed to see.”
At the time of his death, Avnery saw no allies for peace in the current Netanyahu government:
“You can basically forget about the words ‘two-state solution.’
This current government doesn’t want a two-state solution.”
Shortly before his death, Avnery was preparing to attend a demonstration in opposition to Israel’s current retreat from democracy. He refused to be a pessimist, believing that right and justice would prevail in the end. It is said that a man is never considered a prophet in his own country. But it is likely that when future generations look back at this period, Uri Avnery will be viewed not only as prophetic but as one who kept the Jewish moral and ethical tradition alive in the midst of a withering assault upon its eternal values.
Avnery at a Hadash rally against the 2006 Lebanon War By dovblog - https://www.flickr.com/photos/13191702@N00/196144343/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3046456