Grapevine: The optimists

“The UK is not immune to the evils of antisemitism. I know that many in the Jewish community are feeling vulnerable and fearful,” said UK Home Secretary Amber Rudd.

UK HOME SECRETARY Amber Rudd (right) greets British Emunah president Hilary Pearlman. (photo credit: Courtesy)
UK HOME SECRETARY Amber Rudd (right) greets British Emunah president Hilary Pearlman.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
On the evening of the day in which 93-year-old former president and prime minister Shimon Peres suffered his stroke, another 93-year-old, Uri Avnery, was being feted at the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem. The almost ageless Avnery – who still walks straight without a cane, has a full head of white hair with matching white beard, and is the founder of the Gush Shalom peace movement and guru of left-wing activists – 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, who is slightly more than a month younger than Peres, was the co-owner and editor of the 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 some people read it from back to front, said Avnery, but most of its readers read it in its entirety. It was a 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.
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 having donated his extensive archive to the National Library, and the third was to publicize and sell his autobiography titled Optimist.
Optimism, which Avnery claims to have inherited from his father and his grandfather, is something that Avnery and Peres have in common. Each, to quote the Bard of Avon, has suffered the slings of outrageous fortune, and yet has never given way to despair. Both earned a reputation as workaholics with sharp, creative minds and both spent most of their lives as controversial figures in the eye of the storm.
Moderator for the evening was veteran journalist Dan Margalit, who started his career with HaOlam Hazeh and is currently a senior writer for Israel Hayom, whose owner Sheldon Adelson might have been displeased to hear some of the innuendos made by Margalit about a particular political figure. Among the speakers were National Library chairman David Blumberg, historian Dr. Yossi Amitai, one of the founders of the Israeli Council for Israeli-Palestinian Peace and a longtime political associate of Avnery, multifaceted media personality Yitzhak Livni, Sarit Yishai-Levi, an eighth-generation Jerusalemite, journalist, author, and stage and screen actress, and former Likud MK and education minister Gideon Sa’ar.
To anyone who may have wondered what such a staunch right-winger was doing at a tribute event for Avnery, it transpires 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 clearly and concisely.
Amitai credited Avnery with having been the first to come up with a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – something that was subsequently confirmed by Avnery himself.
Blumberg recalled that when HaOlam Hazeh was still in existence, it was put out on the library shelves together with other magazines and newspapers, and had the largest readership of all – including haredi visitors to the library.
Livni was still a teenager when he started a lifelong friendship with Avnery. When he was only 15, he used to devise crossword puzzles, and he and Avnery would put their heads together to make the puzzles more interesting.
Yishai-Levi 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 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 by themselves 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, 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 quite well, and at the end of it, 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 take a letter from him to his family in Israel.
Avnery said that he had been severely wounded in the War of Independence, and while recuperating in the hospital 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 him why, the childless 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 and is cremated, he said, it will all be over. He doesn’t believe in a next world. The book is his legacy. The political parties he founded failed. But one idea that he planted has remained – the two-state solution, the history of which he outlines in his autobiography.
■ ISRAEL AND Britain’s Jewish community have a good friend in Home Secretary Amber Rudd, who this week spoke for the first time to a Jewish community organization and pledged that the current government will never waiver in its fight against antisemitism. Rudd was speaking at the annual British Emunah gala dinner at London’s Guildhall.
“In the past few years, Europe’s Jewish community has been the target of horrific attacks in Paris, Copenhagen, Brussels and Toulouse. These outrages horrified us all, but racist and religious hate crimes are also taking place within our shores.
“The UK is not immune to the evils of antisemitism. I know that many in the Jewish community are feeling vulnerable and fearful,” said Rudd, who reassured her 350-strong audience that “this government will never waiver in its determination to fight antisemitism.”
One of the reasons that she was able to give this assurance was because “our Prime Minister Theresa May is a long-standing supporter of the Jewish community. As she said last year, ‘without its Jewish community, Britain would not be Britain.’ As home secretary for six years, our new prime minister has perhaps a better grasp of the challenge antisemitism poses to the Jewish community. She has stood resolutely beside the community. Just last year, she secured £13.4 million in government funding for security measures at Jewish schools, synagogues and communal sites,” said Rudd.
The home secretary, quoting Community Security Trust, reports said that antisemitic incidents in the UK rose by 11% in this first six months of 2016.
“The scale of antisemitic hate crime is unacceptable,” she declared.
Rudd also had high praise for the work of British Emunah and its president, Hilary Pearlman, who she said exemplify the very essence of the Jewish community in terms of education, commitment, philanthropy and making sure that no child is left behind. She endorsed the theme of this year’s dinner, which was “Believing in Israel’s Children,” and noted Emunah’s “extraordinary record of supporting disadvantaged and at-risk children in Israel.
Rudd recalled her first visit to Israel in 2012 with Conservative Friends of Israel. At that time she learned a great deal about the threats Israel faces on a daily basis, and said that this deepened her understanding. The visit was also uplifting in that participants learned about the newly established UK-Israel Tech Hub and the close collaboration between the two countries across many sectors.
Her group tested what Rudd called “Israel’s rigorous democracy” at an insightful cross-party meeting with Israeli MKs. The group also spent a day in Ramallah to talk with Palestinian politicians and businessmen. After that they went to Sderot and visited the local police station, where a collection of rocket shrapnel is kept. Rudd said she still recalled the chilling experience of looking at the remains of rockets that had been fired into the town.
Rudd was no less reassuring of Britain’s support of Israel than of its fight against antisemitism.
“Let me be clear: The UK will stand steadfastly alongside Israel,” she pledged. “When Israel is under attack, we will support its right to self-defense. We will work with Israel and the Palestinians to help bring about the lasting and peaceful two-state solution that all peoples of the region desire and deserve, and we will continue to strengthen our bilateral relationship with trade, cultural and scientific exchanges and security cooperation.”
■ GUEST OF honor this week at a reception hosted by UJA-Federation of New York and the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York at UJA’s headquarters was Dani Dayan, who recently took up his appointment as consul-general in New York. The event was presided over by UJA-Federation CEO Eric S. Goldstein and JCRC NY executive vice president and CEO Michael S. Miller.
“Israelis are the only people in the world who come to Manhattan to relax,” commented Dayan, who assured his hosts that he’d come to work and not to relax.