Uri (pronounced Oori, not Yuri) is a modern Hebrew name. Not a Jewish name, and definitely not diasporic, but Hebrew-Israeli: it is part of the Hebrew culture that emerged in historical Palestine at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. The protagonist of He Walked through the Fields, a classic novel in Zionist thought, written in 1947 by Moshe Shamir and later a play and a movie, is an Uri: a kibbutznik who serves in the Palmach and falls in love with an emigrant from Poland after the Holocaust. Earlier, in 1927, Rachel Bluwstein Sela, a Zionist pioneer who emigrated from Russia to Palestine during the last years of Ottoman rule and who is considered the mother of modern Hebrew poetry, wrote ‘Akara’ (‘Barren’), a poem that describes her unfulfilled desire for a child: ‘Had I son – a little boy/with black curls and clever …/Uri, I’d call him, my Uri/A short name, lucid and soft.’ The name quickly rose in popularity among Jews in Mandatory Palestine, and after 1948 in the new state of Israel. ‘Uri’ had become a synonym for the sabra, the local, brave, tanned and patriotic Jew – the ‘new Jew’.
When Helmut Ostermann, a Jewish child born in 1923 in a small town in North Rhine-Westphalia in Germany, emigrated with his family to Palestine in 1933 following the Nazis’ rise to power, he wanted, like many others at the time, to find a new name to suit his new identity. He first considered Yosef (after his grandfather), then Ariel, but finally settled on Uri. In 1941, after his brother Werner, a volunteer in the British army, died on the Eritrean front, he chose Avnery as a Hebrew-sounding surname for its resemblance to his brother’s name. And so Helmut Ostermann became Uri Avnery, the Israeli politician, journalist and peace advocate, who died on 20 August at the age of 94.
In some ways, Avnery – as the name he chose implies – is emblematic of the Zionist story. At the age of 15, as an admirer of the revisionist Zionist leader Jabotinsky, he volunteered for three years in the Irgun – the Zionist paramilitary force that used terror against Arab Palestinians and British targets. ‘I was convinced,’ he later wrote, ‘that we, like any other people, deserve a state of our own.’ In 1948, he served as a soldier in the Givati Brigade and was severely injured in fights with Egyptian forces around the Palestinian village of Iraq al-Manshiyya. A book he wrote following the war in 1949, In the Fields of the Philistines, was probably Israel’s first bestseller, reprinted ten times in its first year.
Avnery knew how to tell a story. And he soon realised he had a particularly urgent one to tell: the newborn state of Israel had fostered a militaristic society, was blind to the Palestinians, and did not want peace. In 1950, he wrote The Other Side of the Coin, which like Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front was dedicated to the horrors of war – to the looting, killing and removal of people from their houses. It was seen as defaming Israel, and the government prevented publication of a second edition. For the first time – certainly not for the last – Avnery was labelled ‘anti-Israeli’.
Yet when you read Avnery it is clear that he always felt, until the last moments of his life, that his views – his support, going back to 1949, for the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel; his belief in the need for an ‘unequivocal apology’ on the part of Israel for the Nakba, and a ‘practical solution’ to the problem of Palestinian refugees; his desire to ‘get rid of the occupation, by any possible means and as quickly as possible’ – were driven by patriotism and a desire to see Israel thrive. But throughout his career, and especially in the McCarthyist Israel of the 21st century, there was little chance the regime would accept that anyone who ran through tear gas in Palestinian demonstrations in Bil’in village – let alone Uri Avnery – was a supporter of Israel.
Between 1950 and 1993 he edited Ha-Olam Ha-Zeh (‘This World’), a sensationalist weekly with an emphasis on investigative and gossip-oriented reports about Israeli politicians and generals, but also about singers, models and other celebrities. On its back cover it had photos of naked women, quite a taboo in the Israeli media. (Avnery said the back cover was a legitimate instrument to attract a younger generation to read the front.) The magazine campaigned for the end of Israeli military rule, which with the support of David Ben-Gurion and his party Mapai (later the Labour Party), lasted for 18 years until 1966; it reported on Israeli military actions against Palestinian civilians, including the Qibya massacre in 1953 and the Kfar Qassem massacre in 1956; it published stories about the prime movers in Israel’s security apparatus, including Moshe Dayan’s theft of antiquities and his scandalous love life. More than once, the magazine’s offices were the target of attacks, including mysterious explosions. Eventually the rising popularity of the magazine pushed the head of the Shin Bet clandestinely to fund a competing weekly in the hope it would reduce Avnery’s influence. It didn’t.
In 1965 Avnery capitalised on his success by founding a political party with the same name as the magazine. He was the party’s only candidate to be elected. After his first four-year term in the Knesset, the lawyer Amnon Zikhroni published One against 119, the title only slightly exaggerating the odds Avnery faced in parliament. In the Knesset as in his journalism in the 1950s, he opposed Ben-Gurion’s policies over and over at a time when going against Ben-Gurion and his acolytes was all but unthinkable. In those early years Israel had no real opposition, and effectively no democracy.
Avnery was re-elected in 1969 (this time his party won two seats), and again in 1977, with a new party he had established, Sheli (an acronym for ‘Peace for Israel’). His focus both in parliament and in his journalism was on social struggle in Jewish-Israeli society. He fought against corruption in the establishment, supported workers’ rights (Ha-Olam Ha-Zeh covered Israel’s first strike, the Sailors’ Strike of 1951), and reported on the kidnapping of Jewish-Yemenite children, allegedly to be sold or given to rich Ashkenazi families. But he gave most of his energy to promoting peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and between Israel and the Arab region at large (the ‘Semitic space’, as he called it). In 1993, after the magazine was sold, Avnery founded Gush Shalom (‘The Peace Bloc’), an organisation whose mission is ‘to influence Israeli public opinion and lead it towards peace and conciliation with the Palestinian people’. It is still active today, though like other anti-occupation groups, it struggles to make its voice heard.
One particular example of Avnery’s commitment to the Palestinian cause stands out. In 1982, in besieged Beirut, Avnery and two colleagues from his magazine secured an exclusive interview with Yasser Arafat, the PLO leader – this at a time when Arafat was the declared enemy of the state of Israel in an ongoing war. Arguably, the interview helped to break the taboo on treating Arafat as anything more than a terrorist, and perhaps ultimately it even made it possible for Yitzhak Rabin, 11 years later, to shake his hand on the White House lawn. Avnery and Arafat met several times, including while Arafat was under siege in his headquarters in Ramallah. When Ariel Sharon, the then prime minister, announced in May 2003 that there were plans to ‘take care of Arafat’, Avnery and other activists made their way to the West Bank to sit outside Arafat’s door. Arafat survived the night, but died a year later; Avnery never hid his belief that he had been poisoned, on the orders of Sharon. In an interview with Haaretz in 2008 to mark his 85th birthday, Avnery suggested that ‘if Rabin and Arafat hadn’t been assassinated, they would have turned the Oslo Accords into a peace treaty.’
Critics on the right unsurprisingly regarded Avnery as a traitor. But he also had critics on the left, who said that he invariably came back to 1967 as the mother of all sins, when it should have been 1948, and that he couldn’t think outside the Zionist box of two separate nation-states – Israel here and Palestine there. Others, including those from the Mizrahi community, said that he had turned a blind eye to some of the discrimination in Israeli society. But he was always conscious of his own place, and his own share of responsibility for Israel’s actions. Earlier this year, reflecting in Haaretz on the violent military response to demonstrations in Gaza that ended with dozens of people killed, he wrote: ‘I am ashamed of my country, which I helped to establish and defend from its day of foundation.’
When he died, the anchorwoman Geula Even-Saar, who is married to a former minister from Netanyahu’s Likud, reported that he was eulogised by many, including President Reuven Rivlin, ‘but also by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and chairman of the Palestinian Authority, Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas], who have no problem with also eulogising terrorists.’ The message was clear. For Israel, there are ‘terrorists’ with whom no negotiation for peace can be made. Then there is Abu Mazen, who ‘eulogises’ terrorists and therefore cannot be a partner in negotiation either. Then there is Corbyn, who – in Israel as in Britain – is linked to ‘terrorists’ because he dares to criticise Israel’s policies. And finally there is Avnery, an Israeli who committed his life to the pursuit of peace with the Palestinians: surely then it is only natural that he would be praised by those who are comfortable with terrorism.
What would Avnery have said about all this? He – the German-Jewish man who championed ‘Israeli identity’ and ‘integration into the Semitic space’ but kept aloof from Israeli society with his European manners and thick German accent – would have probably said that the struggle should go on, and that one day peace and equality will prevail. His autobiography, published in Hebrew in 2014, was called Optimistic. ‘In my life’, he once said, ‘I have seen so many unexpected things happen: from the rise of Hitler to the bitter ending of General Rommel at El Alamein … If we keep on looking down, at our feet, we will die from sorrow. This is why I always look up.’