In September 2016, on the evening of the day in which 93-year-old former president and prime minister Shimon Peres suffered his debilitating stroke, another 93-year-old, Uri Avnery, was being feted at the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem. The almost ageless Avnery – who at that advanced age still walked straight without a cane – had retained a full head of white hair with a matching white beard.
Avnery, founder of the Gush Shalom peace movement and guru of left-wing activists, continued writing a regular weekly column for Ha’aretz, in addition to writing for his organization’s website, until his final days. He also continued participating in peace demonstrations, where he was usually the keynote speaker.
Avnery suffered a stroke in the second week of August this year, and died at Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv on Sunday, three weeks prior to his 95th birthday. His final column for Ha’aretz was published the week of his collapse. At the National Library event two years earlier, he bounded up the steps to the stage when it was his turn to speak, after having heard a number of people speak about him.
Avnery, had been a co-owner and editor of the long defunct controversial weekly magazine HaOlam HaZeh (“This World”), half of which was devoted to exposing political corruption with first-rate, in-depth investigative reporting, and the other to gossip about socialites and celebrities. Some people read it front-to-back, and others read it back-to-front, said Avnery, but most of its readers read it in its entirety. It was never a moneymaker, because there was a political boycott on advertising in it, and it was therefore an expensive publication for any reader to buy. As a result, it was passed from hand to hand.
Founded in 1937 by Uri Kesari, the magazine was originally called Tesha BaErev (“Nine in the Evening”) and was renamed HaOlam HaZeh in 1946. Avnery, together with Shalom Cohen and two other investors, purchased it in 1950 after Avnery spent a year writing for Ha’aretz. The two others soon dropped out and left Avnery and Cohen to produce what could only be described as a publication devoted to sensationalism. The gossip in the back half of the magazine was always titillating, but even more riveting was the serious, in-depth journalism in the front half which dealt with the most talked-about issues of the day. Avnery brought a fresh, aggressive style of journalism to Israel. Almost every journalist who worked for him sooner or later became a star elsewhere.
Avnery was born in Germany, and came to the land of Israel when he was 10. He retained the German characteristic of being a stickler for detail. He firmly believed that it was the detail that made the story interesting, and he inculcated this belief in his writers.
At some stage in the 1950s, Avnery, using his publication as a platform, began advocating for the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, long before the two-state solution became part of the political jargon. He served in the sixth, seventh and ninth Knesset sessions, naming his party after his publication. His tenure in the ninth Knesset was for only two years, and he left in 1981.
There was a threefold reason for the event honoring Avnery. The first was the celebration of his birthday on September 10. The second was to express appreciation for his donation of his extensive archive to the National Library, and the third was to publicize and sell his autobiography, titled Optimist.
Optimism, which Avnery claimed to have inherited from his father and grandfather, is something that Avnery and Peres had in common. Each, to quote the Bard of Avon, suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and yet never gave way to despair. Both earned reputations as workaholics with sharp, creative minds and both were regarded for much of their lives as controversial figures in the eye of the storm.
Moderator for the evening at the National Library was veteran journalist Dan Margalit, who started his career with HaOlam HaZeh. Former Likud MK and education minister Gideon Sa’ar was among the speakers.
To anyone who may have wondered what such a staunch right-winger was doing at a tribute event for Avnery, it so happens that when Sa’ar was a university student of political science before he studied law, he worked as a journalist for HaOlam HaZeh, where Avnery taught him the economy of words and how to state facts concisely.
Well-known journalist actress and author Sarit Yishai-Levi, who was also present at the National Library event, recalled that she had shown up at the offices of HaOlam HaZeh and told Avnery that she wanted to write, to which his response had been, “So write!”
He gave her an assignment on which she worked laboriously, and he then reduced her report to 150 words. Both Margalit and Yishai-Levi spoke of how reporters were also taught to do layout, and of how Avnery made it a rule not to publish a story without a photo.
“He revolutionized journalism in Israel,” said Margalit.
In July 1982, during Operation Peace for the Galilee, Yishai-Levi accompanied Avnery and photographer Anat Saragusti to Beirut, where they had a landmark meeting with PLO leader Yasser Arafat. Initially, Yishai-Levi was not privy to the plans for the meeting, but she saw Avnery and Saragusti constantly going off on their own, and had the mistaken impression that there was a romance brewing between them. In fact, they were making arrangements with Arafat’s contact people, and didn’t let her in on the secret until everything was finalized.
Avnery then gave her the option of going with them or staying put. It was a very difficult decision for her because she was the single mother of a small girl, and at that time it was also illegal for Israelis to meet with terrorists, but it was too exciting an opportunity to miss.
Contrary to expectations, Arafat turned out to be quite charming during the meeting. Avnery explained that Saragusti was the photographer and that Yishai-Levi was the reporter who would interview him. The interview went off well, and at is conclusion Arafat asked whether there was anything else he could do for them. Yishai-Levi, summoning all her Israeli chutzpah, asked to meet with Aharon Ahiaz, an Israeli pilot in PLO captivity. Avnery and Arafat’s people looked at her in shock, but Arafat agreed. His people said no, but Arafat overruled them. They were allowed to interview and photograph Ahiaz and even pass on a letter from him to his family in Israel.
Avnery, Saragusti and Yishai-Levi remained close friends throughout the years.
It was difficult to believe that this same Uri Avnery had been a member of the Irgun as a teenager. But he was not the only Israeli to change horses in mid-stream. Opposition leader Tzipi Livni moved from the right to the center, if not exactly to the left, and National Infrastructure Minister Yuval Steinitz was a leftist before he became a staunch Likudnik. And they were not the only ones who abandoned one ideology for another.
If Avnery had not been severely wounded in the War of Independence, he might never have met with Arafat, and Avnery’s mother would not have disinherited him as a result. While recuperating in the hospital from his war wounds, he had plenty of time to think and reached the conclusion that there would never be peace until the Palestinians had a state of their own – something for which he had been working ever since.
Avnery’s book has some very revealing passages that surprised even Margalit, who thought that he knew Avnery well.
When he asked the childless Avnery why he wanted to write his autobiography, Avnery replied that everyone who writes an autobiography is somewhat of a megalomaniac who wants to leave a legacy of some sort. When he dies, he said, it will all be over.
A secularist who was opposed to the influence of the religious authorities in politics, people’s lives and in many respects the fate of the nation, Avnery said he didn’t believe in a next world. The book is his legacy, he said. The political parties he founded failed. But one idea that he planted has remained – the two-state solution – the history of which he outlined in his autobiography.
On the day that he was hospitalized following his stroke, Ha’aretz ran a quarter page declaration featuring the names of people opposed to the Nation-State Law. Avnery’s name was among them.
It is difficult to imagine an Israel without his voice of protest – the voice of the warrior for peace.
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