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Jonathan P. Baird: A voice for peace falls silent

  • Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery (left) sits with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat during a late-night meeting inside Arafat’s compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah on May 8, 2002. Avnery and other activists had come to stay the night at Arafat’s compound in an effort to show Israeli-Palestinian solidarity. AP file



For the Monitor
Thursday, September 13, 2018

On Aug. 20, Uri Avnery, a visionary Israeli peace activist and the first prominent Israeli to call for the establishment of a Palestinian state, died in Tel Aviv. He was 94. Avnery had devoted his life both to the struggle for peace between the State of Israel and the Palestinian people and to Israel’s peaceful integration into the broader region.

Avnery died as an outlier in Israeli politics. He believed Israel needed to make concessions for peace, a view that is not currently widely held. As Israeli politics have shifted rightward and as the Orthodox parties have gained power, Avnery remained a peace advocate, an independent leftist, and a hardcore secularist.

People forget that Israel was founded by very secular idealists like Avnery. Many of the Israeli founders saw religion as a relic of the past, and they opposed giving privileges to Jews over Arabs and all other ethnic groups.

Avnery’s life story is cinema-worthy.

Born in Germany in 1923, his family fled the Nazis and moved to Palestine shortly after Hitler came to power. As a young boy, Avnery refused to give the Nazi salute at school. Although his family had been financially well-off in Germany, after the move to Palestine, Avnery grew up poor in Tel Aviv.

At the age of 15, Avnery joined the Irgun (the National Military Organization), an armed underground Jewish group that was labeled “terrorist” by the British authorities. The Irgun fought both the British and the indigenous Palestinian population.

Avnery came to have misgivings about the Irgun’s approach to the Palestinians and he broke with them in 1941. It was the beginning of his estrangement from right-wing Israeli perspectives. By the early 1940s, Avnery came to believe that Jews and Arabs had to share the common space on which they lived.

In 1948, Avnery fought in Israel’s War of Independence as part of the Givati Brigade, a branch of the Israeli Defense Force. He was wounded twice in the war.

After the 1948 war, Avnery turned to journalism, which became a lifelong pursuit. He bought a newspaper, HaOlam HaZeh or This World, which was a muckraking, anti-establishment tabloid. The paper became famous in Israel for its irreverence and its sensationalist investigative reports.

In 1965, Avnery turned politician and he got elected to the Israeli parliament, the Knesset. He served in the Knesset in two periods from 1965 to 1973 and later from 1977 to 1981.

In late 1975, he started an organization, the Israeli Council for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, in which he argued that Israel should challenge the Palestine Liberation Organization to make peace on the basis of Israeli withdrawal from the territories occupied in June 1967, the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, and carefully negotiated agreements to guarantee the security of Israel. He argued Jerusalem should be the capital of both states.

Avnery was attacked and stabbed twice after he took this peace initiative. However, that was not his greatest notoriety. He crossed front lines in Beirut during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and met with Yasser Arafat, the PLO leader. He famously played chess with Arafat during the siege of Beirut.

After the meeting with Arafat, many in Israel denounced Avnery as a traitor. Avnery was the first Israeli to meet personally with Arafat.

Avnery had been appalled by the 1982 massacre of 1,700 unarmed Palestinian and Lebanese Shiites in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camp. Israel’s allies, the Christian Lebanese Phalangist militia, committed the atrocities while the Israelis looked on and did not intervene. Both a U.N. and an Israeli commission later investigated and found that Israeli military personnel were aware a massacre was occurring but failed to take steps to stop it.

The journalist Robert Fisk interviewed Avnery at the time and asked him how Holocaust survivors could look on passively at mass murder. Avnery replied: “I will tell you something about the Holocaust. It would be nice to believe that people who have undergone suffering have been purified by suffering. But it’s the opposite; it makes them worse. It corrupts. There is something in suffering that creates a kind of egoism. Herzog (the Israeli president at the time) was speaking at the site of the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen but he spoke only about the Jews. How could he not mention that others – many others – had suffered there? Sick people, when they are in pain, cannot speak about anyone but themselves. And when such monstrous things have happened to your people, you feel nothing can be compared to it. You get a moral ‘power of attorney,’ a permit to do anything you want – because nothing can compare to what has happened to us. This is a moral immunity which is very clearly felt in Israel.”

In 1993, Avnery founded Gush Shalom, the Israeli peace movement. He opposed West Bank Jewish settlements and said “the main reason for setting up settlements is to prevent the two-state solution – the only peace solution there is.”

For the rest of his life, Avnery opposed Israel’s creeping annexation of the West Bank as well as its policies designed to make life in Gaza miserable. In one of his last articles, he disassociated himself from the Israeli army sharpshooters who were murdering unarmed Palestinian demonstrators near the Gaza border fence. He expressed shame and criticized the Israeli media for becoming a tool of the government. He wrote that if the late historian Barbara Tuchman were still alive, she could add a chapter to her book The March of Folly titled “Eyeless in Gaza.”

Many believe that all American Jews support the actions of the Bibi Netanyahu government. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are many American Jews who are utterly opposed to the corruption and racism of the Netanyahu government, just as there are a number of Israelis like Avnery who are equally repelled.

While it seems unlikely now, I expect that Israel will eventually see that uncompromising militarism is not the way to achieve peace. Avnery had the wisdom to see that genuine peace will require some compromises. His voice will be missed.

(Jonathan P. Baird lives in Wilmot and blogs at jpbaird.com.)