Portrait: Uri Avnery

"I Don't Believe in Hopeless Situations"

Uri Avnery has been a leading figure in the Israeli peace movement for a long time. Ulrike Vestring portrays the journalist and politician - the first Israeli peace activist who officially met with Yassir Arafat

. A portrait by Ulrike Vestring

Foto: Gush Shalom
Uri Avnery

​​Uri Avnery is a journalist and author. He is also the founder and driving force of the Israeli organisation Gush Shalom ("The Peace Bloc"). In recent months Avnery could often be seen on TV – in the headquarters of the Palestinian President, Yasser Arafat. The building had already been half-destroyed by the Israeli army's bullets and shells when Avnery moved in and set up camp there, accompanied by a group of like-minded people from all over the world. He wanted to prevent the armed forces of his own nation from carrying out the Sharon administration's order - to solve "the Arafat problem" once and for all.

Last September, Uri Avnery turned 80. To mark the occasion, the Palmyra Verlag has published his latest book. Its title in German: "Ein Leben für den Frieden – Klartexte über Israel und Palästina" (A Life for Peace: Some Plain Truths about Israel and Palestine). It contains articles and speeches written between 1993 and 2003, a decade that began with the Oslo peace accords and ended with the Al Aqsa Intifada. The Palestinian uprising has now being going on for three years. Have we really moved from boundless hope to utter hopelessness in such a short period of time?

Avnery personifies the struggle for peace

Avnery's book makes one thing very clear, even to readers who are not familiar with all the details of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute: from the very beginning, this bloody political conflict has been accompanied by another and quite different struggle - for justice and peace. And Uri Avnery has not merely chronicled this enduring struggle; he also personifies it.

In 1948, the newborn State of Israel prevailed for the first time against the massed military might of the Arab nations. The Israeli victory also lives on in the collective memory of the Palestinian people; as "Nakba" – "the Catastrophe". In the same year, the Israeli war hero Uri Avnery became a fighter for peace.

In a speech given in Germany, he explained what inspired his commitment: a wound so severe that it almost killed him. Only the courage and selflessness of his fellow soldiers saved him from death on the battlefield; and even for a long time afterwards, he was in danger of dying. Since then, says Uri Avnery, his life has had "a purpose worth living for: to end this tragic war, and to bring about peace between our peoples, the Israelis and the Palestinians."

Winning the Alternative Nobel Peace Prize

In the intervening 55 years, Uri Avnery has pursued this objective as founder and publisher of a political journal, as creator of a political party and as its representative in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset. His most important achievement, however, has been the founding of Gush Shalom, The Peace Bloc; in 2001, he, his wife Rachel and the organisation itself were awarded the Right Livelihood Award (commonly known as "The Alternative Nobel Prize"). For more than two decades now, he has been working actively for Gush Shalom – agitating, writing, speaking, and spreading the word on numerous trips abroad.

Almost every year, Uri Avnery comes to Germany to receive one prize or another, in honour of his efforts to promote peace and respect for human rights; and in his acceptance speeches, he has never failed to speak the truth as he sees it. In 2002, for example, he received the Carl von Ossietzky Prize in Oldenburg, and his speech included the following statement: "All anti-Semitism is abhorrent, regardless of which Semitic people it is directed against; and the new, anti-Arab, anti-Islamic anti-Semitism is just as abhorrent as the old, anti-Jewish variety."

Uri Avnery cannot forget what happened 60 years ago in Germany, and he would not want to if he could; nonetheless, he insists, "this must not lead to a situation in which Germans feel they must abstain from any moral criticism of Israel. Indeed, such an attitude would be every bit as immoral as anti-Semitic rabble-rousing."

Uri Avnery - a citizen of the world, and yet deeply rooted in his Israeli homeland. Having spent his early childhood in the Westphalian town of Beckum, followed by a year at grammar school in Hanover (where his classmates included Rudolf Augstein, who went on to found Der Spiegel), he emigrated to Israel with his parents and siblings at the age of ten. The love he feels for Israel makes him all the more clear-sighted: again and again, he strives to make his compatriots see that only a just settlement with the Palestinians and a policy of peace with Israel's Arab neighbours can ensure that the country and its people will have a future.

He wants to share his country with the Palestinians. And maybe it's the very fact that he loves Israel so much, together with his precisely calibrated sense of justice, that enables him to encounter Palestinians with so much respect and sympathy. His personal contact to leading Palestinian politicians is further evidence of this. As early as 1982, for example, he visited Yasser Arafat in Beirut, at a time when such an action was considered treasonable for a citizen for Israel.

Taking risks for peace

At the age of 80, Uri Avnery is a slender but wiry figure, with a shock of white hair and sparkling eyes. And even now, in freezing rain or the blazing heat of summer, he still takes his place in the front line whenever Gush Shalom goes into action.

One major object of protest has been the monstrous wall currently being constructed by the Israeli government, purportedly as a means of defending the Israeli people against attack; but Avnery can also be found wherever Israeli and foreign peace activists are attempting to hinder the confiscation and devastation of Palestinian land – or risking their lives as human shields for Palestinian olive farmers, who are threatened and attacked by militant Israeli settlers.

The olive trees seem almost to embody the essence of the Israeli-Palestinian landscape; and the physical defence of these trees is what connects Uri Avnery with Sumaya Farhat-Naser, a Palestinian peace activist who is also well-known in Germany. In her books, the landscape, with its flowers and plants, is a permanent presence; and she herself harvests the olives from her own trees in her home village of Birzeit.

"Unyielding in his search for paths towards understanding"

Sumaya Farhat-Naser has written the foreword to Uri Avnery's new book. There, she describes him as "extraordinarily brave and unyielding, indeed obstinate, in his search for truth and for paths towards understanding". She concludes her foreword by describing him as "a great teacher (...) one who has shown me the other face of Israel".

To anyone who knows both of these people, these words may sound strangely academic – almost a little dry, in fact. Presumably this has something to do with the fact that although they live only a few kilometres from each other, they might as well be worlds apart, separated as they are by barbed wire fences, tanks and bomb threats. Indeed, at present, Uri Avnery and Sumaya Farhat Naser can only meet abroad: when one of them gives the laudation for the other (as in Darmstadt last year, during the presentation of the PEN Award); or just recently, at the Frankfurt Book fair, where both appeared together to mark the publication of the new book.

Ulrike Vestring

© Qantara.de 2003

Translated from the German by Patrick Lanagan

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