Who is Uri Avnery, and Why Does He Matter?

By Aryeh Tepper
Friday, February 4, 2011

Jerusalem's decision in the early 1990's to admit Yasir Arafat and his fellow thugs into the heart of the land of Israel proved to be one of the country's major political blunders, paid for in the coin of a five-year terror war that traumatized Israeli society and transformed the dream of Israeli-Palestinian peace into an extended nightmare.  How did it happen? According to Amnon Lord, an Israeli editor and journalist who supported the Oslo accords until buses stared blowing up in Israeli cities in 1996, a large part of the answer lies in the little-known but immense influence of Israel's revolutionary Left—and in particular of one "major player in Israeli history."   

Lord first delineated his thesis in a book, The Israeli Left: From Socialism to Nihilism (Hebrew, 2002), based largely on his own political journey.  In that work's final chapter, he turned his attention to Uri Avnery (born 1923), a one-time journalist, publisher, and member of the Knesset, and a full-time agitator and cultural icon. Now, in Murder among Friends (Hebrew), whose subtitle is "Uri Avnery: A Story of Political Warfare," Lord picks up where he left off. It is a curious book, intermittently marked by a personal affection for Avnery that may stem from Lord's immersion as a child and young man in the same radical fever swamps he now regards with abhorrence.   But there is no mistaking the abhorrence.

Avnery is celebrated in Israel and around the world as a brave "peace activist" and champion of human rights, and has won numerous awards in recognition of his efforts as, among other things, the founder of Gush Shalom ("The Peace Bloc").  He is no less widely admired as an independent thinker who for many decades has been fearlessly telling truth to power.  In Lord's meticulous telling, Avnery emerges as someone else entirely—a man consumed by hatreds who for much of his lifetime was channeling, and peddling, Soviet propaganda.   

In following the arc of Avnery's career, Lord focuses in particular on his early years. Before the founding of the state in 1948, the young Avnery oscillated between the radical Right and radical Left. The connecting thread was his contempt for liberal democracy, to which, he was writing as early as 1941, he preferred both the Communist and the Nazi alternatives. (His evident blindness to the Nazis' genocidal anti-Semitism would re-emerge in his latter-day embrace of Arafat and the PLO.) After the Soviet Union emerged victorious in World War II, he fully adopted its perspective.

He wasn't alone in this respect. As incredible as it may sound today, 20 percent of the members of Israel's first Knesset, most of them in the Mapam party, openly identified with Stalin. When Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion excluded Israeli Communists from his government, they repaid him by organizing a militant underground that planned, at different stages, to mount a coup and to open the gates of Israel's north to a hoped-for invasion by the Red Army.

As much as Avnery hated "bourgeois" democracy, Lord shows, he hated Judaism, and the two were linked in his mind. Together with other talented members of his generation, he dreamed of overturning the traditional foundations of Jewish identity and fashioning a progressive Hebrew-speaking nation that would connect with and lead the forces of "anti-imperialism" throughout the Middle East. (Ben-Gurion's countervailing response to this dream was to root Israel in its biblical past and align it with the Western powers.) Although Avnery fought and was seriously injured in Israel's War of Independence, he was fighting for a very different ideal. After 1948, his hatred for Judaism morphed seamlessly into hatred for the Jewish state.

What propelled him into notoriety and won him a much wider audience was Ha'olam Hazeh ("This World"), an anti-establishment weekly tabloid that he began to publish in 1950. Ha'olam Hazeh appealed equally to a mass audience and to intellectuals by dint of its clear prose, sensational scoops, and, perhaps most importantly, the (semi)nude women who appeared on the last page.  It was also, according to Lord, a front.  Studiously avoiding Communist language, and seminally influenced by the journalistic methods of the legendary propagandist Willi Münzenberg, Ha'olam Hazeh succeeded in influencing a generation of young, progressive intellectuals by simultaneously stirring their dissatisfaction with Israeli politics and society and appealing to their inchoate moral ardor.

In this connection, one of Avnery's chief accomplishments was the sympathy he succeeded in drumming up, already in the 1950's, for Palestinian statehood.  His approach was mostly negative. Years before there were any "occupied territories," he incessantly compared Israel with Nazi Germany, demonizing the Jewish state in language that would later become commonplace in the United Nations and on the "progressive" Left everywhere. By the 1980s, as a member of the Knesset, he would become the first Israeli to meet with Arafat—this, at the very moment the Israeli army was laying siege to Beirut where the inventor of modern terrorism was holed up. His tireless efforts to convince the Israeli public that the cause of the PLO was the cause of human rights carried the day in the Oslo accords sealed in Washington in September 1993. When Arafat triumphantly returned to Gaza in 1994, he invited Avnery to the celebrations.

Murder among Friends is flawed in a number of ways:  there is no table of contents, Lord sometimes follows obsessively the trail of stories that contribute little or nothing to the narrative, and the connections he draws among events are sometimes less than convincing. Overall, though, the book is most helpful in tracing the twisted roots of an aspect of Israeli political culture that cries out to be confronted and unmasked, not least by those elements of the responsible Left whose good name it tarnishes.

For there is, after all, a liberal Zionist Left—represented by, among others, the eminent jurist Ruth Gavison and the academic and former politician Amnon Rubinstein—that is fully and uncompromisingly committed to Israel's democratic and Jewish future. There is also a non-Zionist Left, represented by the academic and polemicist Yehouda Shenhav, whose multiculturalist arguments, however questionable, are at least motivated by genuine sympathy for those relegated to Israel's margins.

By contrast, the revolutionary Left represented by Uri Avnery and others like him has contributed nothing but venom and spilled blood, while deliberately and consciously aiding and abetting some of the most murderous enemies of the Jewish people.

You can find this online at: http://www.jidaily.com/avnery

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