Uri Avnery, Shaper of the Israeli Consciousness

Uri Avnery shaped my consciousness as an Israeli and as a journalist. We never spoke, but my childhood and teen years were steeped in his weekly newsmagazine HaOlam HaZeh (“This World”), the books Avnery wrote and those written about him. I can easily quote from them to this day.

Avnery wrote the most precise description of Israeli politics in his book “1 against 119: Uri Avnery in the Knesset,” which was published in 1969 and documented his work as a one-man faction, HaOlam HaZeh-Koah Hadash – against the Mapai establishment, which was then at the peak of its strength. Those were tumultuous years, beginning with the Six-Day War and continuing through the very first steps of the occupation and the settlements.

MK Uri Avnery insisted on taking on the system, participating in every Knesset session and presenting bills that had no hope of passing. One of his first was to turn the Declaration of Independence into a law. It was defeated, of course, by a coalition majority. I recalled that bill in recent weeks in connection with the debate over the nation-state law, when similar bills were presented by politicians such as opposition leader MK Tzipi Livni. Avnery realized more than four decades ago what the essence of Israeliness is and the fear of the establishment – then led by those we now call the “center left” – of adopting it into law.

In “1 against 119” Avnery wondered what the point was in maintaining the Knesset if votes were subject to party discipline. The secretaries of the various Knesset factions could just coordinate the results, he wrote, and that is the reason why the Knesset seats are empty in most sessions. The tricky idea of the “ministerial committee for legislation,” which controls the Knesset by means of the coalition majority, was invented long before Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked chaired it. But today there is no Don Quixote like Avnery to rail against it.

Uri Avnery alongside Yasser Arafat.
Uri Avnery alongside Yasser Arafat.Credit: REUTERS

He wrote about religious coercion, “which wants to turn every Sabbath into Yom Kippur and the entire country into Bnei Brak,” and about “The Floating Settlement,” as he called his chapter on the beginning of the settlements. When the police harassed the young people of Tel Aviv’s disadvantaged Hatikva neighborhood, who would drive wildly, tires screeching, through its streets on Friday nights, Avnery would go there with his parliamentary immunity and stand alongside those young people. What MK would do that today?

The book has long been out of print, and I lost my copy, but most of the political debates and struggles he described are still with us today. Perhaps the struggle of the Arab community for equality and to take an anti-Zionist stance is more strident today than it was then, at the end of the 1960s, but Avnery was there as well, among the first Jews to extend his hand to Arabic-speaking Israelis in the fight against the military government and in exposing the Kafr Qasem massacre in 1956.

Also in my childhood library was Avnery’s book on the Nazis, “The Swastika,” which led the child Helmut Ostermann from Hanover to Tel Aviv. In that book, which came out during the Eichmann trial, Avnery analyzed the soul of the German nation, which never recovered from the Thirty Years War (1618–1648), as background for the world wars. It is hard for me to judge the quality of his historical analyses. It is clear only that Avnery correctly identified the centrality of Nazism and the Holocaust to the Israeli experience, and in this he was much ahead of his time. In those days, there was more talk about the pre-state underground the Palmach and the kibbutzim, about Negba and Degania, than about Treblinka and Auschwitz, which today completely control public and political discourse.

Uri and Rachel Avnery at a Gush Shalom rally, June 2006. Credit: Moti Milrod

And there were the brilliant analyses of military actions and lengthy “man-of-the-year” profiles that Avnery wrote, as well as the racy back covers of HaOlam HaZeh, and the gossip. And of course, “Zoo Eretz,” the satirical column that began to appear after the Yom Kippur War, and to this day has no equal or heir.

Along with Avnery’s books, our library at home also contained a copy of Shalom Cohen’s book “HaOlam HaZeh.” Cohen was Avnery’s partner in the purchase of the weekly in 1950, and for two decades he was Avnery’s right-hand man in editing and politics. They fell out over the demand for rotation of the faction’s Knesset seat and went their separate ways. Cohen wrote a sharply worded memoir in which he described his ex-partner as a far-sighted genius and told fascinating stories of their journalistic struggles. But he also presented Avnery as a misogynistic womanizer who enjoyed singing Nazi songs and was obsessed with Moshe Dayan.

Avnery was a staunch warrior against the establishment, certainly during David Ben-Gurion’s terms in office, when HaOlam HaZeh fought censorship and the Shin Bet security service, which it called the “mechanism of darkness.” During the time of Golda Meir, when Avnery was a second-term MK, he became part of the establishment. Pinchas Sapir, the omnipotent finance minister and leader of the “doves” in the ruling party, used Avnery to fight Defense Minister Moshe Dayan. According to an ex-businessman who knew the secrets of Mapai very well, the Histadrut labor federation’s bodies under Sapir’s influence would advertise in HaOlam HaZeh and allow the magazine to malign Dayan every week for his womanizing, antiquities theft and arrogance.

All these tales, in the end, are dwarfed by Avnery’s greatest achievement of all – his interview with Yasser Arafat in besieged Beirut during the 1982 Lebanon war, before it was called the “first” Lebanon war. This was a consciousness-changing and ground-breaking move, which within a little more than a decade transformed Arafat from a horrific terrorist and bitter enemy into a peace partner. Avnery had an interesting relationship with Yitzhak Rabin, who signed the agreement with the Palestinians (like Rabin, Avnery detested Shimon Peres). But the spirit and the direction were created by Avnery, the first Israeli who called for reconciliation with the Palestinians, and dared be photographed with Arafat. Thus Avnery shaped the consciousness of Israel, much more than did others who bore titles more high-ranking than his.

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