Avnery, who helped expose some of the darkest chapters in Israeli history and was a fervent opponent of the occupation, inspired generations of Israeli journalists.
By +972 Magazine Staff
Uri Avnery, one of Israel’s most prominent journalists and a seminal peace activist who was among the first Israelis to advocate for a sovereign Palestinian state, died in Tel Aviv on Monday morning. He was 94 years old.
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Born Helmut Ostermann to a bourgeois family in Beckum, Germany in 1923, Avnery’s family moved to Palestine in 1933, shortly after the Nazis came to power. They settled in Tel Aviv. Just a few years after their arrival, Avnery joined the Irgun, the pre-state right-wing Zionist militia. Too young to take part in its militant actions, which included attacks against British soldiers and Arab civilians, Avnery distributed leaflets and edited the Revisionist journal Ba-Ma’avak (“In the Struggle”).
He left the Irgun in 1942, because he was uncomfortable with its harsh anti-Arab position, and joined the Givati Brigade of the Haganah during the 1948 War. During the war he wrote dispatches from the field for Haaretz newspaper, which he later compiled into a book. Avnery was wounded twice — the second time, toward the end of the war, seriously; he spent the last months of his army service convalescing and was discharged in the summer of 1949.
Avnery initially supported the idea of one state, in which a single nation would arise as a union of Arabs and Hebrews — the latter a term he preferred over Jews, since he advocated a state for the Hebrew nation rather than the Jewish people.
During the mid-1960s, Avnery believed that the national Hebrew movement was a natural ally of the Arab nation; he advocated cooperation between the two, under a joint name. By the end of the June 1967 war, however, Avnery changed his views: He advocated the establishment of a Hebrew state alongside an Arab one, as per the 1947 UN Partition Plan.
In 1950 Avnery, together with journalist Shalom Cohen, bought the failing HaOlam HaZeh (“This World”) newspaper in 1950. As editor-in-chief, Avnery turned the paper into a dissident and anti-establishment tabloid that mixed exposés on the corruption of the ruling Mapai government (Ben Gurion’s party, which dominated Israeli politics from 1948 until 1977) with gossip pieces and photographs of nude women.
Commonly derided by Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister Ben Gurion, the paper’s editorial position was anti-militarist. It published investigative reports that exposed the government’s racist and discriminatory policies against Mizrahi Jews and other ethnic minorities, opposed the military rule that was imposed on Israel’s Arab citizens from 1948-1966, and was the first to publicize the Yemenite Children Affair.
During the years he was editor of HaOlam HaZeh, Avnery was victim of numerous physical attacks. One ended with both his arms broken. In 1975, he was seriously wounded after an assailant stabbed him on his own doorstep.
The Shin Bet, Israel’s General Security Service, saw in HaOlam HaZeh a serious threat to the state and listed Avnery as the top enemy of the government. The newspaper’s office was bombed several times, with a 1972 arson attack destroying its entire archives. At one point, the Shin Bet even published its own tabloid, Rimon, in order to discredit HaOlam HaZeh and put it out of business. Rimon would operate for only three years before shutting down.
Avnery decided to enter politics in 1965, after the Knesset passed an anti-defamation law that sought to clamp down on HaOlam HaZeh. He founded the left-wing movement Koah Hadash (New Power). After his election to the Knesset in 1969, Avnery dedicated his parliamentary activities to promoting peace with Israel’s neighbors, fighting against religious coercion by the ultra-Orthodox, and championing civil liberties. He would return to the Knesset in 1979 with the dovish Sheli party, and in 1981 was the first MK to hold up the Palestinian flag alongside the Israeli one in the Knesset plenum.
In 1982, at the height of the Israeli army’s siege on Beirut, Avnery and a group of Israeli journalists, including Anat Saragusti, met with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat in the city — one of the first times Israelis met with the Palestinian leader (Charlie Bitton and Tawfik Toubi, both members of Knesset from Israel’s communist party, met with Arafat and the PLO leadership two years prior). The meeting came almost a decade after Avnery made contact with one of Arafat’s envoys. Upon his return from Lebanon, members of the Israeli government called for Avnery to be tried for high treason. Avnery would continue to meet with Arafat in subsequent years, including in 1994, after the Palestinian leader arrived in the occupied territories under the Oslo Accords.
Avnery would eventually split off from Sheli with a group of Arab and left-wing movements to form the Progressive List for Peace, which called for equality for Israel’s Palestinian citizens and an end to the occupation. In 1993, feeling that Israeli peace groups did not take a strong enough stance against the government’s repressive measures — which included the 1992 expulsion of 415 Hamas members from the occupied territories — Avnery formed the peace group Gush Shalom. He remained the head of the movement, helping organize demonstrations against the occupation and the siege on Gaza and publishing a weekly column until his death.
From the beginning of his journalism career, mainstream Israeli opinion held that Avnery’s writing was subversive and anti-Israel. In his later years he was the subject of controversy after he published articles attacking Russian immigrants and Mizrahi Jews, accusing them of responsibility for Israel’s rightward shift.
Uri Avnery’s wife Rachel died in 2011. They were married for 58 years and chose not to have children, so that they could dedicate their lives to political struggle.