Who we are 

Uri Avnery - Biography

Uri Avnery - peace activist, journalist, writer.

  • founding member, Gush Shalom (peace bloc), independent peace movement (1993)
  • former publisher and editor-in-chief, Haolam Hazeh news magazine (1950-1990)
  • former member of the Knesset (three terms: 1965-1969, 1969-1973, 1979-1981)
  • founding member, Israeli Council for Israeli-Palestinian Peace (1975)
  • columnist, Internet.

born: September 10, 1923, Beckum, Germany
immigration to Palestine: November 1933
spouse: Rachel Avnery, peace activist, teacher, photographer
underground: member of the Irgun, 1938-1942
army service: member of "Samson's Foxes", motorized commando unit, 1948 war, severely wounded in battle of al-Faluja, December 1948

Son of a well-established German-Jewish family, originally from the Rhine area. (Avnery jests that his family believed that they had come to Germany with Julius Ceasar, but that "no archaeological proof has yet been found".)

At left, with his family in Germany, 1930

At left, with his family in Germany, 1930

His father was a private banker in Beckum, and later on a financial adviser in Hannover, where his family lived in an upper-class neighborhood. A Zionist from an early age, his father decided, immediately upon Hitler's ascent to power in 1933, to take the family to Palestine. Avnery still experienced the first half year of the Nazi regime, as the only Jew in school, and his impressions of the last years of the Weimar republic and the beginning of the Nazi era are imprinted in his memory. He wrote a book about this (The Swastika, 1961).

Last photo in Germany, 1933

Last photo in Germany, 1933

He arrived with his family in Haifa in November 1933 and lived for half a year in Nahalal, the legendary Moshav, in order to "get acclimatized". Then his family moved to Tel-Aviv, where he has lived ever since. His father, who had come to Palestine with a so-called "capitalist" entry certificate, quickly lost the considerable capital he had brought with him, and in the following years the family lived in extreme poverty. Both father and mother had to do hard manual work in a laundry.

Avnery (he adopted a Hebrew name at the age of 18, as was usual at that time) attended elementary school first in Nahalal and then in Tel-Aviv. Because of his family's hardship, he left school after the seventh grade, at the age of 14, - forever - and earned his living in many jobs, first as a radio technician and later as a clerk in a law office.

In 1938, just before turning 15, he joined the Irgun underground (Irgun Tsvai Leumi - National Military Organization), to fight against the British colonial regime. He served for three years, but left the Irgun in protest against its anti-Arab and reactionary social attitudes and terrorist methods. He explained this in the booklet "Terrorism, the Infantile Disease of the Hebrew Revolution" (1945). His only brother, Werner, a commando in the British army, was killed in World War II in the Ethiopia campaign.

Member of Irgun underground, 1940

Member of Irgun underground, 1940

After some years of sporadic political activity, in 1946 Avnery founded the Eretz Yisrael Hatzira ("Young Palestine") movement, also known as the “Bamaavak (Struggle) group” from the name of its publication, which he edited. This group provoked an unprecedented uproar because of its contention that the Jewish community in Palestine constituted a "new Hebrew nation" within the Jewish people, and that this nation belongs to Asia and is a natural ally of the Arab national movements.

The idea of a partnership between the two national movements - the Hebrew and the Arab – became a cornerstone of Avnery's world view, and constitutes, in his view, his main contribution to Israeli thought. In September 1947, on the eve of the Israeli-Arab war, Avnery published a booklet entitled "War or Peace in the Semitic Region", which called for a radically new approach: an alliance of Hebrews and Arabs for the liberation of the "Semitic Region" (a term coined by him so as to avoid the colonialist term Middle East) from imperialism and colonialism, to create a Semitic community and common market, as a part of the emerging third world. Excerpts of the booklet were sent to the media throughout the Arab world and mentioned in some Arab newspapers, just before the start of the war.

At the outbreak of the war, Avnery joined the army (Givati brigade) and later volunteered for "Samson's Foxes", a motorized commando unit on the Egyptian front which soon became legendary. He took part in dozens of engagements, became a squad leader, and was severely wounded in the last days of the war at Iraq al-Manshiyya (the present Kiryat Gat). His life was saved by four soldiers of his squad, new immigrants from Morocco, who rescued him under murderous fire and enabled him to reach hospital in time. There, a part of his intestines was cut out.

Commando Soldier, 1948, at battle of Negba

Commando Soldier, 1948, at battle of Negba

Throughout the war, Avnery reported on the fighting and life in the combat unit. These reports, which appeared in the Haaretz evening paper, were published after the war as a book, “Bisdoth Pleshet 1948” ("In the Fields of the Philistines, 1948"), which immediately became a runaway bestseller. It is still generally recognized as the outstanding book of that war, in the tradition of Erich Maria Remarque's "All Quiet on the Western Front". Ten editions were published in quick succession and several more later on. (A new edition was published in April 1998, on the eve of Israel’s 50th anniversary.)

For a time, he was popular even within the Israeli establishment. However, when he realized that the intended pacifist message of the book was not getting through, he wrote a follow-up, “The Other Side of the Coin”, which described the dark side of the war, including atrocities and the expulsion of Palestinians. This book caused a scandal, and the authorities obstructed its printing.

In 1949, while Avnery was still in uniform, the editor of Haaretz, Gershom Shoken, invited him to join his staff as a writer of editorials. After one year Avnery quit, protesting that he was not allowed to express his opinions freely, especially about the mass expropriation of Arab lands by the Ben-Gurion government. In April 1950, together with some of his war comrades, he bought a moribund family magazine and turned it into a unique Israeli institution. He served as its Editor-in-Chief for exactly 40 years, until 1990

Editor of Haolam Hazeh, 1951, at motorcycle rally

Editor of Haolam Hazeh, 1951, at motorcycle rally

Haolam Hazeh was a combination of mass-circulation news magazine, similar in style to Time Magazine or Der Spiegel, and mouthpiece for aggressive political opposition to the establishment, with exposes of political and economic corruption and advocacy for a radically different national policy. It also created a new Hebrew style, now adopted by all Israeli media, and served as a school for many of the young men and women who became outstanding Israeli journalists. Its official slogan, which became an Israeli byword, was: "Without Fear, Without Prejudice".

Haolam Hazeh was an apparent paradox: a mass-circulation paper attacking the most sacred beliefs and myths of the masses. It overcame this contradiction by tabloid-style reports and sensationalist journalism, and had a major influence on the shaping of the minds of two generations of young Israelis. Haolam Hazeh attracted an unusually large dose of both devotion and hatred, because of its untiring opposition to the official "consensus" on nearly all issues. At the base of the controversy was Avnery's unflinching opposition to the nationalistic, theocratic “Jewish state" created by Ben-Gurion, and his advocacy of a modern, liberal state, belonging to all its citizens, irrespective of ethnic, national or religious roots.

Haolam Hazeh fought for the separation of state and religion, for human rights, the rights of the Arab minority, equality between Jews of European and Oriental descent, the adoption of a written constitution (still lacking), women’s rights, civil rights and much more. It was the first to uncover the facts of the infamous Lavon Affair (concerning an Israeli false flag operation in Egypt), as well as scores of corruption affairs. Since the early 1950's, it resolutely advocated the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel and support for the Arab struggles for independence (Egypt, Algeria, Iraq etc.)

Enemies of Avnery (such as Aharon Amir, a prominent right-wing ideologue) accused him of "poisoning" two generations of Israeli youth, turning them away from the national ethos towards an ideology of "integration in the Semitic Region". Indeed, perhaps the most important battle won by Avnery was the gradual change in Israeli national consciousness from a total denial of the very existence of a Palestinian people (Golda Meir: "There is no such thing as a Palestinian people!") towards the general recognition which made the Oslo agreement possible. This was a weekly effort that took some 40 years.

The chief of the secret service in the 50s, Issar Harel, later testified that the Ben-Gurion establishment considered Avnery and Haolam Hazeh the "Public Enemy Number 1". This may explain why attacks on Haolam Hazeh were often violent. Its editorial offices and printing facilities were bombed several times and some employees injured; Avnery was ambushed and both his arms broken after he criticized Sharon’s infamous Qibya massacre (1953). In 1975, he was the victim of an assassination attempt by a person officially declared mad. Avnery escaped with severe knife wounds to the chest.

After kidnapping attempt, 1955

After kidnapping attempt, 1955

Menachem Begin disclosed in 1977 that the chief of the secret services had asked in the late 50's for his support for putting Avnery in administrative detention (detention without trial) under emergency regulations. (Begin refused). The offices of Haolam Hazeh and its invaluable archives were completely destroyed by arson in 1972. For more than 20 years, all branches of the government and the army maintained a total economic boycott of the paper. Ben-Gurion refused even to utter the name Haolam Hazeh, always referring to it as "the certain weekly" - a term eagerly adopted by the paper as a proud nickname.

The paper introduced something new to the Israeli media: sustained public campaigns. Among others, it led the campaign against Amos Ben-Gurion, the leader's son and deputy chief of police, who was compelled to resign. It played a key role in the infamous Kastner Affair (concerning contacts with the Nazis in occupied Hungary) and the Lavon Affair (concerning an Israeli sabotage network in Egypt). It exposed the corruption affairs of Asher Yadlin, the chief of the Central Bank, Yaakov Levinson, all-powerful chief of Israel's most important bank, and the theft of archaeological artifacts by Moshe Dayan.

In 1956 he created, together with ex-Stern Group chief Natan Yellin-Mor and others, a movement called "Semitic Action", which advocated the setting up of a Palestinian state and an Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian federation. Some years later he set up the "Israeli Committee for a Free Algeria" and established contacts with the underground FLN leadership.

The most determined attempt to silence Avnery was made in 1965, when the government enacted a special press law, openly aimed mainly against his magazine. This provided the final push for starting an operation which had been on Avnery's mind for a long time: the creation of a new political party to fight for the principles advocated by Haolam Hazeh. The new party (which adopted the name of the magazine and called itself "Haolam Hazeh - New Force Movement") came into being on the eve of the 1965 elections as a citizens' volunteer movement. It astounded the establishment by winning a seat in the Knesset, at that time an unprecedented feat for a completely new party. In the 1969 elections it gained two seats.

First day in the Knesset, 1967, with Ben-Gurion

First day in the Knesset, 1967, with Ben-Gurion

During his first eight years in the Knesset, even his enemies described Avnery as one of Israel's foremost parliamentarians. He had a lasting impact on the Knesset, making more than a thousand speeches in the Knesset plenum. Many of the hundreds of his initiatives in all fields of law and administration are still being debated in the Knesset today. He was probably most popular as an abrasive critic of the establishment, causing Golda Meir to declare from the Knesset rostrum: "I am ready to mount the barricades in order to get Avnery out of the Knesset!" A book about his activities in the 120-member Knesset ("1 against 119") appeared on the eve of the 1969 elections.

On the fifth day of the Six-Day War, Avnery published an open letter to the Prime Minister, Levi Eshkol (and repeated its message in a face-to-face meeting with him), calling upon him to make a dramatic gesture and offer the Palestinian people at once the opportunity to create an independent State of Palestine in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which had just been occupied by the Israeli Army. This idea, which has been promoted by Avnery after 1948, and which he outlined in a detailed plan in 1957, became his central theme since 1967 and the subject of hundreds of his speeches and initiatives in the Knesset, where for years he was the sole voice advocating it.

To further this idea, he wrote a book in 1967 analyzing the conflict. It was published in 1968 (in English as "Israel without Zionists" and in Hebrew as "The Seventh Day War") and translated into many languages. His proposal for a "two-state solution" was attacked in 1970 by a book published in Beirut by the PLO in Arabic and French under the title "Uri Avnery and Neo-Zionism".

However, in 1974, with the beginning of the change in the PLO line, Avnery established contact with senior PLO officials. These contacts were initially secret, but Avnery reported on them to the Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin. For Arafat, the contacts were conducted by the PLO representative in London, Said Hamami, who was murdered because of this in 1978 by Palestinian extremists. In 1975, Avnery himself fell victim to an attempt of his life. The would-be assassin missed his heart by a centimeter, was caught on the spot and declared mad. He was not prosecuted.

After attempt on his life, 1975

After attempt on his life, 1975

In the summer of 1975 Avnery called for the creation of an Israeli Council for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, which was founded officially in December of that year and took over the still-secret dialogue, by this time conducted for the PLO by Issam Sartawi. The fascinating story of this dialogue, with its many ups and downs, forms the subject of Avnery's book "My Friend, the Enemy", which was also translated into several languages.

With PLO leader Isaam Sartawi, in London

With PLO leader Isaam Sartawi, in London

The contacts assumed a new dimension on July 3, 1982, when Avnery crossed the lines at the height of the battle of Beirut and publicly met the leader of the "enemy". Several cabinet members demanded that Avnery be put on trial for high treason, and the government adopted a resolution calling upon the Attorney General to open proceedings. However, the AG decided, in the end, that Avnery had not committed any crime.

Meeting Arafat in Beirut during the siege, 1982

Meeting Arafat in Beirut during the siege, 1982

Before that, in 1977, the Haolam Hazeh party had joined with several other peace groups in forming a new party, "Shelli", which won two seats in the elections of that year. Avnery returned to the Knesset in 1979, but gave up his seat in 1981, to make place for an Arab colleague. He served as chairman of the party executive, and upon its split became chairman of the newly formed Jewish-Arab "Progressive List for Peace", which won two seats in 1984. However, he did not run for the Knesset, and in 1988 left party politics for good.

With Sadat and Begin. 1979

With Sadat and Begin. 1979

Because of mounting financial difficulties he had to give up Haolam Hazeh (1990), which folded soon after.

With Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas (right), Tunis, 1989

With Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas (right), Tunis, 1989

In 1992, Avnery called for the election of Yitzhak Rabin. But after the expulsion of 415 Palestinians at the end of 1992, Avnery, together with Jewish and Arab Israelis, put up a protest tent opposite the Prime Minister's office, in which they lived for 45 days and nights, during some of which Jerusalem was covered by snow.

With Ariel Sharon, 1981

With Ariel Sharon, 1981

This experience led to the creation of Gush Shalom (Peace Bloc), which has since become the leading (and often sole) voice in Israel calling for the creation of the State of Palestine in all the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the release of all Palestinian prisoners, the dismantling of all settlements and the recognition of Jerusalem as the joint capital of both states. Since its creation, it has organized hundreds of demonstrations, mostly together with Palestinian activists, and numerous other political actions.

With Arafat on his first day in Gaza, 1994

With Arafat on his first day in Gaza, 1994

In April 1997, while leading a demonstration against the construction of a new settlement (“Har Homa") on Jebel Abu Ghneim, Avnery fainted. Two physicians, one Palestinian and one Israeli, who were taking part in the demonstration, attended him on the spot, and two ambulances, first a Palestinian and then an Israeli, rushed him to hospital, where a massive intestinal bleeding was diagnosed in time to save his life. An operation was performed near the anatomical spot where he was severely wounded in 1948, causing him to joke that he was both "wounded in war and wounded for peace."

Gush Shalom demonstration, Ras-al-Amoud, 1997

Gush Shalom demonstration, Ras-al-Amoud, 1997

Gush Shalom has initiated numerous public campaigns. Among others: - "Release All Palestinian Prisoners Now!" (1993, immediately after the signing of the Oslo Accord); - The petition "Jerusalem - Capital of the Two States!" (signed by 850 prominent personalities, including laureates of the Israel Prize, Israeli peace activists and Palestinian leaders) (1995); - A boycott on the products of the settlememts (1997); - The marking of the Green Line on the ground (1998); - Publication of the first comprehensive draft of a peace agreement (2001); - A campaign against war crimes (2002); - Organizing a "human shield" for Yasser Arafat in the Ramallah compound (the "Muqatah") to prevent his killing by Ariel Sharon (2003);

"Living shield" for Arafat at the Mukataah, 2004

"Living shield" for Arafat at the Mukataah, 2004

  • Starting the campaign against the Separation Wall/Fence (2003),
  • Publication of the brochure "Truth Against Truth", [2] which counterposes the Israeli and the Palestinian views of regional events and their historical background. Hundreds of thousands of copies in Hebrew, Arabic, English, Russian and German have been distributed. (2004).
  • Organizing the first demonstration against the Second Lebanese War, hours after its start (2006).

Demonstration at a-Ram checkpoint, 2002

Demonstration at a-Ram checkpoint, 2002

Rachel Avnery played a major part in organizing Gush Shalom actions. A former school teacher, she had adopted photography as her new profession. She joined Gush Shalom right from the beginning and had become an indispensable part of the inner core responsible for the daily running of the organization as well as for organizing actions. Like several other members, she worked full-time for the Gush without receiving remuneration of any kind. She died in May, 2011 of a liver disease.

Rachel Avnery

Rachel Avnery

Gush Shalom receives no money from foreign funds (except small peace groups in Europe) and has no salaried employees whatsoever. All its actions are conducted, and mostly paid for, by volunteers.

Since 1993, Gush Shalom has published a weekly political ad in Haaretz, widely considered as setting the agenda for the peace forces at large. Avnery writes a weekly commentary on the internet, which reaches several tens of thousands of regular readers.

Attacked by water cannon, Bil'in, 2007

Attacked by water cannon, Bil'in, 2007

PRIZES AND AWARDS

Honorary citizenship of Abu Ghosh near Jerusalem, for his part in preventing the expulsion of the villagers, awarded 12.12.53.

Erich Maria Remarque peace prize (Osnabrueck, Germany), 21.6.95.

Honorary citizenship of Kfar Kassem, Israel, for his role in exposing the war crime committed there, awarded on 31.11.96, the 40th anniversary of the massacre.

Aachen Peace Prize for "Gush Shalom with Uri Avnery”, Aachen, 1.9.97.

Kreisky Prize for Human Rights, Vienna, 22.1.98.

Lower Saxony Prize for Human Rights, awarded by Gerhard Schroeder, Bad Iburg, 11.2.98.

Palestinian Award for Human Rights, awarded by “Kanoun’, Palestinian Society for Human Eights, East Jerusalem 7.6.98.

The alternative Nobel prize (Right Livelihood Award), awarded by international jury, to "Gush Shalom, Uri and Rachel Avnery", Stockholm 7.12.01.

Carl von Ossietzky Prize (Oldenburg, Germany), 4.5.02

Lev Kopelev Prize (Cologne, Germany), together with Sari Nusseibeh, 16.11.03.

Sokolov Prize for life achievement in journalism, awarded by Tel-Aviv municipality, 6.9.04.

Mare Nostrum Prize for Human Rights (Viareggio, Italy), awarded 6.10.06.

Certificate of Appreciation from President Mahmoud Abbas "in recognition of your outstanding support and courageous solidarity with the Palestinian people", awarded in Bil'in village, 18.4.07.

Leibowitz Prize for life achievement, awarded by Yesh Gvul, the soldier’s peace movement, January 30, 2012.

“Lifetime Achievement Prize”, awarded by the Tel Aviv Journalists’ Association, Eilat, November 11, 2013.

BOOKS

Terrorism – the infantile disease of the Hebrew revolution (booklet, 1945, Hebrew).

War or peace in the Semitic region (booklet, 1947, Hebrew).

In the fields of the Philistines (1949, Hebrew, translated into Spanish and Yiddish), combat diary, outstanding bestseller (14 editions).

The other side of the coin (1950, Hebrew), war experiences. (boycotted because of description of atrocities).

The swastika (1961, Hebrew), analysis of growth of the Nazi movement and childhood memories.

Israel Without Zionists (The War of the Seventh Day) (1968, English - Macmillan USA and Britain - translated into Hebrew, French, German, Italian, Danish, Dutch, Spanish), a new view of the Israeli-Arab conflict.

1 against 119 (1969, Hebrew), speeches by Uri Avnery in the Knesset, edited by Amnon Zichroni.

My friend, the Enemy (1988,English, translated into Hebrew, French, German, Italian), a personal testimony about contacts with the PLO since 1974. German edition with a preface by Bruno Kreisky.

Lenin does not live here anymore (1991, Hebrew), about the transformation in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, with photos by Rachel Avnery. We Wear the Shirt of Nessos (1991, German), Israel after the Gulf War.

Two Peoples, Two States (1995, German), conversation with Uri Avnery, preface by Rudolf Augstein.

The Jerusalem Question (1996, German), with Azmi Bishara, conversations with Israeli and Palestinian personalities.

Chronicle of an Israeli Pacifist during the Intifada (2003, french) collected articles from October 2000 to September 2002

A life for peace (2003, German), collected articles 1993-2003.

Truth against truth (2004, brochure, Hebrew, English, Arabic, Russian, German), an unconventional view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In the Felds of the Philistines (2005, new German joint edition of "In the Felds of the Philistines" and "The Other Side of the Coin").

From Gaza to Beirut (2006, German), collected articles about the Second Lebanese War).

The Lebanese war, an Israeli accuses (2006, French), collected articles 2006.

Israeli society and the Lebanese war (2007. Arabic, Ramallah), collected articles.

Other Israel (2012, Portugese, Rio de Janeiro) collected articles.

Israel im arabischen Frühling (2013, German, Austria), collected articles.

Optimistic (2014, Hebrew, Israel) First part of the autobiography, up to 1965.

FILMS:

re: Uri Avnery, Israel, by Yair Lev, shown several times on Israeli TV

Uri Avnery, Germany, by Juergen Hobrecht, shown several times on German TV and arte.

Uri Avnery's Websites: www.Avnery-news.co.il www.gush-shalom.org www.Uri-Avnery.de Avnery@actcom.co.il