Belts Gleaming

Charles Glass

  • 1948: A Soldier’s Tale, the Bloody Road to Jerusalem by Uri Avnery, translated by Christopher Costello
    Oneworld, 398 pp, £12.99, October 2008, ISBN 978 1 85168 629 2
  • Israel’s Vicious Circle by Uri Avnery, edited by Sara Powell
    Pluto, 230 pp, £15.00, July 2008, ISBN 978 0 7453 2823 2

Uri Avnery’s two wartime memoirs, now collected as 1948: A Soldier’s Tale, were published in Hebrew in 1949 and 1950. In the first of them, In the Fields of the Philistines, the 25-year-old Avnery is an infantryman desperate for action; in the second, The Other Side of the Coin, he criticises his own ‘silly, rotten country’ for its conduct in the 1948 war. Avnery, now 85, has continued to condemn Israel’s conduct in the wars it has been fighting ever since, and a selection of his polemics appears in Israel’s Vicious Circle.

In the Fields of the Philistines is a collection of the articles Avnery sent from the southern front to Yom Yom (‘Day by Day’), the evening edition of Haaretz. His reports, which were delivered to the office in Tel Aviv by truck drivers and fellow soldiers, contravened an order that prohibited soldiers from publishing without permission, yet his superiors ‘turned a blind eye’. Indeed his brigade commander congratulated him for writing frankly about the ‘role of the infantry soldier’. In the preface to the new volume, Avnery says wistfully: ‘That’s the kind of army we were then.’ Although the books were written during and straight after Israel’s first war, they already bask in nostalgia for an army and a state that might have been.

In the Fields of the Philistines was an immediate bestseller. But when Avnery overheard two boys on a bus citing his ‘great experiences’ as a reason to join the army, he realised he’d been misunderstood. He had intended to write an anti-war book, not to glorify combat. Yet he acknowledges the pride he took in it. As he drives into Tel Aviv in his jeep straight from the front in June 1948, ‘the people on the road stare at us. We are covered in dust, our faces radiant, the machineguns pointing upwards, our cartridge belts gleaming.’ The corrective was The Other Side of the Coin: it drew on the same experiences but provided a fictionalised, and more anguished, account of them. It begins with a flashback to Avnery at Camp Jonah: ‘I am lying on the bed in my dirty clothes, reading (for the thousandth time) All Quiet on the Western Front.’ Avnery, who was born Helmut Ostermann in Germany in September 1923 and lived there until his family emigrated to Palestine ten years later, bears less resemblance to Erich Maria Remarque than to Ernst Jünger. In Storm of Steel and Copse 125: A Chronicle from the Trench Warfare of 1918, Jünger wrote about courage, comradeship, cowardice and patriotism, as Avnery did thirty years later. Like Remarque, Avnery and Jünger portrayed war from the combat soldier’s point of view. Unlike Remarque, they are both attracted to violence.

Both Jünger and Avnery had military experience before they joined their country’s army. Jünger left Germany to join the French Foreign Legion in 1913. In 1938, at the age of 14, Avnery enlisted in the Irgun (National Military Organisation), the clandestine militia that Begin would head. Three years later, a rift over what he called the group’s anti-Arab racism led him to defect to the Haganah, the Jewish People’s Army led by Ben-Gurion. (He may also have been uneasy about being part of an organisation that was attacking British soldiers in Palestine when his brother Werner had died in 1941 as a British commando in Ethiopia.) Avnery’s teenage affiliation with the Irgun inoculated him against the subsequent worship of Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister. He distrusted him and disliked the authoritarian way in which he set about transforming the Haganah into the Israel Defence Forces.

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