by James M. Wall
Uri Avnery died at age 94 on August 20, 2018, two weeks after a stroke sent him to a Tel Aviv hospital.
He died too soon. Israel, Palestine, and the world, still need his passionate voice and stern guidance. We also need his Jewish presence at events like the one shown above.
In this 2003 picture, Avnery is fourth from left, standing next to Palestine President Yasir Arafat, greeting a crowd from a window in Arafat’s Ramallah, Palestine, compound.
Uri Avnery wrote his final column for publication on August 4, 2018.
He began that column by recalling a friendly discussion he once had with Ariel Sharon, one of Israel’s right-wing, long-serving prime ministers.
He told Sharon: “I am first of all an Israeli. After that I am a Jew.” To which Sharon responded heatedly: “I am first of all a Jew, and only after that an Israeli!”
That introductory anecdote took Avnery into his favorite territory, informing his Jewish readers, who read him in Hebrew in Ha’aretz, and his non-Jewish outliers who followed him religiously through his English language blog, Gush Shalom.
He was a firebrand activist who embraced his Jewishness and his national identity, even as he embraced just as vigorously, his continued struggle against Israel’s oppression of Palestinians, rooted deeply in the illegal, immoral, occupation.
In his final column, Avnery focused on a crisis in Israel arising from, he wrote, “the law that was adopted in great haste last week [July 19] by the rightist Knesset majority”, entitled, ‘Basic Law: Israel the Nation State of the Jewish People'”.
Avnery was a youthful member of the Irgun, Israel’s underground force against its British occupiers. He served his tour in the original Israeli Defense Force. He was later elected as a member of Israel’s Knesset, the country’s legislative body.
Over the 20 years of his Gush Shalom column, he drew from his personal relationships in both Israel and Palestine in what was for him a career that focused on politics and journalism, and on securing justice for Palestine.
He wrote in an open and sprightly style, about his encounters with Israeli politicians.
In one column, “That Woman”, he wrote
Ben-Gurion said about her: “The only thing Golda knows how to do is to hate!”
Golda Meir did not hate me. That would be an understatement. She detested me.
The way I speak, the way I dress, the way I look. Everything.
Once, in the middle of a speech in the Knesset (I believe it was about allowing the Beatles to appear in Israel) I interrupted myself and said: “Now I want to answer MK Golda Meir…”
“But MK Meir has not said anything!” the chairman objected.
“I am not answering an interjection,” I explained. “I am answering her grimaces!”
And indeed, Golda was grimacing, every muscle of her face proclaiming her detestation. . . .
Later in this column, Avnery wrote:
The basic fact is that Golda had from the beginning an abysmal contempt for Arabs. Like all her predecessors (except Moshe Sharett, as I have already noted) she never had any real contact with Arabs, was totally ignorant of Arab culture and despised them from the bottom of her heart.
The ease with which the Israeli army had beaten three Arab armies in 1967 amplified this contempt. Golda did not dream of giving back the Sinai peninsula to Egypt, which was a contemptible Arab state.
Returning to the recent a “state for Jews” law, as Avnery constantly noted, Israel does not have a constitution. It is ruled by its original declaration under which the Knesset passes “binding laws”. With the government in the hands of his Likud party, Benjamin Netanyahu pushed through his “state for Jews” law by a vote of 62-55, with two abstentions.
Increasingly distressed over the rightward move of Israel’s Likud party and the settlement movement, Avnery never wavered. He made clear that Israel could not survive as “a state for Jews” that renders its Arab citizens as second-class citizens.
It can also not survive as a democracy that slaughters its non-Jewish citizens, as it does consistently, and as it has done during the Gaza Friday Palestinian protests.
On April 14, Avnery wrote, “Eyeless in Gaza”, which began:
WRITE DOWN: I, Uri Avnery, soldier number 44410 of the Israel army, hereby dissociate myself from the army sharpshooters who murder unarmed demonstrators along the Gaza Strip, and from their commanders, who give them the orders, up to the commander in chief.
We don’t belong to the same army, or to the same state. We hardly belong to the same human race. . . .
During the first two Fridays, 29 unarmed people were shot dead and more than a thousand wounded by sharpshooters.
For me this is not a judicial question. It is a crime, not only against the unarmed protesters. It is also a crime against the State of Israel, against the people of Israel and against the Israeli army.
Since I was a member of that army on the day of its foundation, I think that it is also a crime against my comrades and me.
In his final column, which he entitled, “Who the Hell Are We?”, Avnery asks,
So what is new about the new law which at a first glance looks like a copy of the declaration? It contains two important omissions: the declaration spoke of a “Jewish and Democratic” state, and promised full equality between all its citizens, without regard to religion, ethnicity or sex.
All this has disappeared. No democracy. No equality. A state of the Jews, for the Jews, by the Jews.
Just imagine the impossible: Avi’s column, which ran on a regular basis in Israel, appearing just as often in the New York Times and the Washington Post.
It did not happen. How could it? Our Congress is a right wing “Israeli-occupied territory”, and our mainstream media dances to the tune of its conservative pro-Israel owners.
The picture at top is by Jamal Aruri/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images.
Thank you Jim for this. I miss Avnery’s weekly articles, and indeed Israel has stretched its luck too much by passing this Nation State Law, but they chose the best time for it when the PM has the full support of the US president. But the PM is inviting trouble, and this won’t work out that easily.
Truly sad. The voices of reason, peace and moderation are being silenced or dying out around the world. What is to come?
Thanks, Jim for this account of Uri. We never met him while in Palestine/Israel, but we heard him speak at a huge peace rally in Tel Aviv many years ago. I also read his book MY FRIEND THE ENEMY, in which he speaks of meeting with Arafat in Paris because it was illegal to do so in Israel. They became great friends after many meetings there. He defended Arafat even at times it surprised me. We will miss his voice for peace and Palestinian rights, but the group he founded, Gush Shalom will continue to speak out along with other peace and justice groups like Bat Shalom, Women in Black, Rabbis for Human Rights and others. At that peace rally in Tel Aviv, a woman held up a sign (the Hebrew was interpreted for us), which said “the occupation is killing us all.” It still is!
I, too, grieve the death of a wise man from whom I learned much.
You, are a treasure!
Uri Avnery, rest in peace. Truly one of the greats.
Next step is to collect and publish his columns. His speaking from personal experience is irreplaceable: from being a member of a terror group, of nearly dying in the Yom Kippur war, of, as you quoted, his time in parliament, and his private discussions cum debates with Israeli PMs, to being that rare zionist Israeli truly committed to justice.