Uri Avnery, the Israeli activist-journalist who famously played chess with the Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat, died in Tel Aviv on August 20, at the age of 94. It was a natural death, perhaps too natural for someone who lived an extraordinary life marked by extraordinary events. For those who do not know him, Uri Avnery was the most vocal critic of Israel's Palestine policies within the country. In that, he was relentless and unwavering. He never strayed off this course despite the unsavoury epithets—“Nazi” or a “self-hating Jew”—that he was awarded by the Zionist mainstream for his work, or the more oppressive methods of reprisal adopted to silence him including assassination attempts and sedition charges.
To understand the true extent of his resilience, just imagine a journalist in Myanmar trying to uncover truths about the Army's ethnic cleansing project against the Rohingya minority. Or, an activist in China confronting the government for its detention of ethnic Uighurs and other minority Muslims in large internment camps. Both will be risking unjust imprisonment. Avnery did all of that—only he did that for far longer than possibly any other and against far greater risks, which makes him a truly exemplary journalist and activist of our time.
In a way, Uri Avnery's life is entwined with the history of Israel. It's a storyline about sufferings, wars, mistakes and gaffes, but also about an unflinching courage to fight back against the waves of hatred in an apartheid state and instead promote love, generosity and conciliation.
Born in Germany in 1923 as Helmut Ostermann, the son of a baker, Avnery and his family escaped to Palestine, then under UK mandate, when the Nazis came to power in 1933. As Jewish opposition to British rule grew along with Arab opposition to Jewish immigration, the young Avnery in 1938 joined the Irgun, a terrorist organisation associated with Zionism. Later, he would regret this decision. In the war that led to Israel's foundation in 1948, he was wounded twice.
This is the part of his life, one can assume, that Uri Avnery would have liked to forget, for it marked a stark contrast with his later life. But it also makes him human. As is with any human being, it is only through his exposure to life's myriad challenges, the not-so-bright moments and lapses in judgement that Uri Avnery finally came to realise the ultimate goal of his life: promoting peace between Israel and Palestine.
By then, he had come to the view that Jews and Arabs had to share the common space that they lived in—with a focus on the commonness of their Semitic identity. Avnery would go back and forth to polish his peace solution, moving into politics to affect policy change and publishing articles and magazines to advocate greater accommodation with the Palestinians, but the one theory that he would stick to throughout the rest of his life was that no peace was possible without an independent Palestinian state. His impassioned activism in support of this theory made him one of the most authentic voices of the Israeli left.
Several incidents remain the hallmarks of Avnery's life. The most notable of them was, of course, his meeting with Yassir Arafat, the father of the Palestinian cause. He met with him on July 3, 1982, as the first Israeli to do so, having crossed the battle-lines into West Beirut at the height of Israel's devastating siege of the Lebanese capital. For this, he was widely denounced as a “traitor” in Israel. Even his own mother disinherited him. But Avnery was undeterred by these setbacks. It was just one of the many sacrifices that he had to make as a peace campaigner.
In 1993, he founded Gush Shalom which was the first Israeli organisation to campaign for a boycott of goods produced in the Jewish settlements in West Bank. Avnery said that every settlement was “a landmine on the road to peace” and “the main reason for setting up settlements is to prevent the two-state solution—the only peace solution there is.” A decade later, in 2003, he travelled with other Israeli activists to Arafat's besieged West Bank compound to act as a “human shield”, as Israel suppressed a new Palestinian uprising.
To his credit, he also wrote a number of books including My Friend, the Enemy (1986), A Soldier's Tale, the Bloody Road to Jerusalem (2008), and Israel's Vicious Circle (2008).
In the twilight years of his life, Avnery found himself increasingly isolated as the Israeli society in general grew more radical because of the decades-old anti-Palestine campaign. But he continued his fight nonetheless. He placed his love for humanity above all else, and denounced ethno-religious bias which he believed shouldn't be the moral foundation for a state. In what appears to have been his last column, titled “Who the Hell Are We?” and published on August 4, he recalled a conversation with Ariel Sharon in which he had told him that “I am first of all an Israeli. After that I am a Jew.”
To that, the late Israeli prime minister responded heatedly: “I am first of all a Jew, and only after that an Israeli!”
“That may look like an abstract debate,” Avnery went on to write. “But in reality, this is the question that lies at the heart of all our basic problems. It is the core of the crisis which is now rending Israel apart.” Uri Avnery never disowned his own Israeli/Jewish identity per se, despite the country's history of violence and manipulation, but never accepted it either in the way that most Israelis today do. He waded through its mud and blood — only to show that this is how it may have begun, but it doesn't have to be how it ends.
It is this extraordinary courage to speak truth to power and do the right thing, even if it meant challenging the reigning national consensus of his country, that makes Uri Avnery a guiding light for journalists and activists in today's world.
Badiuzzaman Bay is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.