The peace warrior

The Robert Slater Interview: The peace warrior.

The peace warrior (photo credit: OSAMA SILWADI / REUTERS)
The peace warrior
(photo credit: OSAMA SILWADI / REUTERS)
Uri Avnery's shock of white hair, along with his white beard and mustache, are today just as they have been for years; and so are his spunk and intensity. At 90, he looks back on those decades when he was among Israel’s most reviled public figures with a mixture of pride and disappointment – proud that the radical left that he singlehandedly founded in the early 1950s has won its biggest political argument, that the Palestinians deserve a state – but dismayed that such a state has yet to be established.
Many who once vilified Avnery today benignly label him as a colorful gadfly who took on the nation’s political establishment, lost most of his battles, but was certainly Israel’s most noisy enfant terrible.
Avnery insists that despite the lack of peace that he sought for decades, he does not feel that his life and career have been a failure. “Our constant idea going back to 1949 – that there should be a Palestinian state – has been accepted by the vast majority of Israelis and Palestinians,” he tells The Jerusalem Report, acknowledging, nevertheless, “Our huge failure was that we did not succeed in creating a political process that would lead to that state.”
From the moment he purchased the anti-establishment news weekly, Haolam Hazeh (This World), in 1950, German-born Avnery tossed brickbats at Israel’s leaders and institutions. He wanted Jews and Arabs to live side by side in states of their own, a notion that, from 1949 until the 1980s, “not even 100 people shared,” as he puts it.
Israeli politicians thought him demented, sought to marginalize him, and constantly attacked him, sometimes physically.
David Ben-Gurion, never mentioning his name, referred to Avnery’s journal as “a certain newspaper.” Haolam Hazeh’s circulation did not rise above 25,000, though Avnery contends that research showed that 150,000 people read each edition.
While the rest of the Israel media was patriotic, obeyed the military censor and toed the government line, Avnery published gossip, society news, ran cheesecake photos of naked women – and ignored the censor whenever he chose.
Not contented with trying to marginalize Avnery, he claims that the establishment tried to kill him, bombed his facilities, and passed a Knesset law that effectively tried to destroy his newspaper.
But today, Avnery seems less the radical than the saintly icon, the relic of an age when his ideas were revolutionary but now are not. We met in mid-November, in his Tel Aviv apartment in which he has lived for 60 years. Since the death of his wife, Rachel, two years ago, he has lived on his own in his dwelling near the Mediterranean. He was married to Rachel for 58 years and had no children.
“I am a Tel Avivian even though this is the ugliest city in the world,” he proclaims with a twinkle in his eye, making it hard to know if he is joking.
Not coincidentally, the one piece of evidence of his anti-establishment past is the one photo in his living room, that of him sitting with Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat. For years, Avnery sought to work out peace terms with Arafat in person, though meeting at the time with the terrorist leader could have landed him in jail.
Born Helmut Ostermann (he changed his name when he was 18) in the German town of Beckum, in Westphalia, on September 23, 1923, Avnery spent the first 10 years of his life in Hanover, but fled along with his family some six months after the rise to power of Adolf Hitler.
In November 1933, Avnery arrived in Haifa with his parents, Alfred, a banker, and Hilda, two sisters, Jenny and Ruth, and one brother, Werner (later killed while in the British Army fighting the Italians in Ethiopia in World War II). Sent from there with his family to Moshav Nahalal in the northern Galilee to learn Hebrew, Avnery watched in dismay as his father spent the1,000 English pounds he came with within a year. After that, Avnery recalls, “We were very, very poor.”
The Avnery family then moved to Tel Aviv, where Alfred and Hilda opened a laundry, in which Uri sometimes slept among the bags of dirty clothes. He stayed in high school until the age of 14, when he began working as a clerk at a lawyer’s office.
In 1938, just before his 15th birthday, Avnery joined the Irgun, the Jewish rightwing underground organization, branded a terrorist group by the British, which Menachem Begin later led. For the next four years, he distributed propaganda leaflets for the Irgun.
Today, he declares, he has subsequently learned the difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist. “A freedom fighter is on my side,” he says. “A terrorist is on the other side.”
Though leaving the Irgun was frowned upon, Avnery grew fed up with its rightwing stance and its use of terror tactics, and left the group.
Interested in writing since he was a teenager, Avnery in 1946 launched a Tel Aviv-based periodical called Bama’avak (In the Struggle), promoting a concept for the Jewish people’s future in Palestine that was diametrically opposed to the consensus among Palestinian Jews – that the Jews in Palestine were a new Hebrew nation within the Jewish people, that they belonged to the “Semitic Region” and not the Middle East, and that they were a natural ally of Arab national movements.
With the outbreak of war in 1948 Avnery served as a combat soldier in the famed Givati Brigade. He saw action in battles in southern Israel. In the last days of the war, he was shot in the stomach and spent weeks in hospital recovering. He could not eat, drink or shower. “So I had a lot of time to think about what I had seen,” he recalls.
When a friend at the Haaretz daily proposed that he file stories based on his war experiences, Avnery happily complied.
“Writing became an obsession with me,” he notes.
After the War of Independence, he turned those stories into a runaway bestseller called “Bisdoth Pleshet 1948” (“In the Fields of the Philistines 1948”).
Much to Avnery’s chagrin, the public read “Bisdoth Pleshet” as stories glorifying the army and the new nation; Avnery became a national hero. “There was not a party thrown by generals that I was not invited to,” he recalls.
To try to convince his “fans” that he had sent a pacifist message in the book and should not be regarded as a hero, he wrote a second one called “The Other Side of the Coin,” focusing on the dark side of the war – alleged atrocities and expulsions committed against the Palestinians. The second book fell flat with the public.
Hoping to keep his radical ideas alive, Avnery sensed that his only option was to found a political party or a newspaper. But taking on Ben-Gurion and the dominant Labor Party seemed a hopeless endeavor.
So, in 1950, using his army funds and royalties from his first book, Avnery bought a 15-year-old family newspaper that was both moribund and boring for 6,400 Israeli pounds. He retained the newspaper’s name, Haolam Hazeh, and set out to enliven the publication, to hammer away at the establishment, to grab attention.
Within weeks, the reading public understood that a “new boy” was in town, one that was vastly different and more intriguing. Just how different was Avnery’s newspaper from other local media? “It was,” he recalls “like the difference between Pravda and The New York Times.”
While all other Israeli newspapers, in Avnery’s view, were willing only to print the news that the government wanted, “we printed all the news that was fit to print and all the news that was unfit to print.”
It was Avnery’s dream – however unlikely it seemed – to produce a mass-circulation news weekly that was not super-patriotic and didn’t reflect a national consensus.
Haolam Hazeh produced serious political stories with an anti-establishment bent, while offering some tantalizing extras – in Avnery’s words, “gossip, naked girls and society news.”
A friend told him that the newspaper was “lean and muscular,” a description that would never apply to the other Israeli media.
Haolam Hazeh was an instant success, the one newspaper that appealed specifically to the young generation of war veterans of which Avnery was a part.
The newspaper fought the establishment in every way. For example, Avnery’s articles argued that women should not be subject to mandatory military service in the Israel Defense Forces as all they did was make coffee for commanders and were essentially irrelevant. The military censor balked, insisting that Avnery not publish such views; but when he did, the IDF banned Haolam Hazeh from army bases.
The army’s behavior, however, sparked an increase in the newspaper’s sales.
In December 1953, having arranged a date with a young woman named Rachel Gruenbaum at a coffee shop near the newspaper, Avnery waited for her; but before she showed up, several people attacked him, breaking both his hands.
He suspected that a leading politician had ordered the attack after he had excoriated war hero Ariel Sharon for launching a military operation two months earlier on the West Bank town of Qibya in which 69 Arabs were killed. But his suspicions were never proved. Rachel volunteered to spend the three weeks taking care of him while he was in hospital. “She became my wife and stayed with me for the next 58 years,” he says.
As establishment irritation against Avnery grew, he found it impossible to fund the newspaper through advertising over the next 20 years. “We were an extremely poor newspaper,” Avnery recalls.
Nevertheless, none of this distracted Avnery from assaulting the establishment.
In 1954, he obtained secret details of what came to be called “The Lavon Affair,” a failed Israeli covert action in Cairo in the summer of 1954. Despite the censor’s pleas not to publish the details, Avnery did so, albeit as a work of fiction, unprecedented for Haolam Hazeh. Avnery calls his role in uncovering the affair his proudest moment as a journalist.
When, in 1965, the government decided to enact harsh anti-press legislation aimed openly at destroying Avnery’s newspaper, he decided to run for the Knesset to gain immunity should the military censor seek to prosecute him. Forming a political party named after his newspaper, Avnery servedin the Knesset off and on from 1965 to 1981.
Avnery made over 1,000 speeches in the Knesset – a record, he says, that still holds today. But though he submitted 300 bills, he could not get one piece of legislation passed. “It was automatic,” he says. “The others just voted against me.”
By 1990, Avnery’s financial distress at Haolam Hazeh was too grim for him to continue. He sold the newspaper and it went out of business soon thereafter. He then devoted himself full-time to seeking peace with the Palestinians. In 1993, Avnery founded Gush Shalom, a peace bloc that has demonstrated frequently for the creation of a Palestinian state in all of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Appearing less despondent about the frailty of the political left today than might have been expected, Avnery suggests that making peace “is the left wing’s task for the next 90 years.” He is chagrined at how easy it would be for Israel to make peace with the Palestinians if only the will was there. “We could do it in a week, maybe even a day, as all the terms of peace are laying on the table,” he says.
The terms that he notes that the Palestinians favor are: 1) The State of Israel side by side with a Palestinian state; 2) East Jerusalem must become the capital of the Palestinian state; 3) Israel must evacuate the smaller West Bank Jewish settlements in return for retaining the large ones; 4) There will be no massive return of Palestinian refugees, perhaps something symbolic only.
Avnery is convinced that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has sought to keep the diplomatic focus on the need to prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon in order to distract the international community from helping to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Avnery is not at all worried about the possibility of Iran launching a nuclear strike on Israel. “The Iranians will have their bomb. Egypt will have a bomb later. Saudi Arabia will buy one from Pakistan. So what? There will be a so-called balance of terror,” he says.
Avnery has just completed a 1,000- page memoir that the Yedioth Ahronoth publishing house will release in a few months. And in September, friends gathered to celebrate his 90th birthday.
During our interview, Avnery shows little remorse for not having achieved more on the peace front. He wrinkles his face into a slight grin as if to say, “I did everything I could.”