Rivkah Fishman-Duker on A Murder among Friends: Uri Avnery – A Story of Political Warfare by Amnon Lord

, April 2, 2012

Jewish Political Studies Review 23:1-2 (Spring 2011)   

Who Is Uri Avnery?

Uri Avnery, octogenarian icon of Israel’s cultural and political left, is indeed a worthy subject of a serious study. Better known in Europe than in the United States, Avnery has been active in Israel’s political scene since the late 1930s, when today’s state of Israel was under the British Mandate. A refugee from Nazi Germany whose original name was Helmut Osterman, Avnery joined the Jewish underground force of the Irgun Zvai Leumi, headed by Menachem Begin. He left the Irgun in 1941 and later served with distinction as part of an elite unit in the south, whose anthem he wrote, and was wounded during Israel’s War of Independence (1948).  

From 1950 to 1990, Avnery was owner and editor of the popular and influential weekly magazine Ha’olam Hazeh (This World). He served two inconsecutive terms in the Knesset, 1965-1974 and 1979-1981, representing small leftist factions. Throughout those decades he wrote numerous op-eds for Haaretz and Der Spiegel, Hebrew fiction, and political works, and founded and disbanded a variety of cultural and political groups. His best-known work in English, Israel without Zionists, which appeared in 1968, is a translation of his essays calling for a major change in Israel’s raison d’être, namely, as a Jewish state, thus bringing about peace with the Arabs.

Avnery achieved international fame and notoriety during the First Lebanon War when, on 3 July 1982, he visited PLO leader Yasir Arafat in his bunker in Beirut, which was then under siege by the Israel Defense Forces. This photographed and publicized meeting, which constituted an illegal act for Israelis at the time, broke the taboo on encounters with Arafat. Indeed, Avnery met with leading PLO representatives, usually in Europe, from the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and the past decade. In 2002, he joined various European and Israeli leftists in Arafat’s besieged headquarters in Ramallah. Since 1993, Avnery heads Gush Shalom (Peace Bloc), a fringe group that he founded that promotes boycotts of products of Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank).

Amnon Lord, author of A Murder among Friends, is an editor and contributor to the Zionist Hebrew weekly Makor Rishon. A seasoned journalist, literary and film critic, and author, Lord is a master of Hebrew language and style and an erudite observer of the Israeli left (in which he once was an active participant). In his critique in Hebrew, The Israeli Left: From Socialism to Nihilism,[1] which documents the ongoing influence of Stalinist trends on Israel’s left, Lord devotes a chapter to Avnery. In A Murder among Friends, however, Lord goes further and presents two major theses about him.  

First, according to Lord, Uri Avnery is and was the key figure of the Israeli left and has been consistently antiestablishment and anti-Zionist. More unsettling, however, is Lord’s contention that Avnery’s views meticulously converge with those of the former Soviet Union and its later Marxist offshoots. Lord proves his thesis through the use of interviews with Avnery and others, such as Barbara Taufer, who served as Austrian prime minister Bruno Kreisky’s personal representative in Israel during the 1970s and 1980s, and a careful reading and analysis of the corpus of Avnery’s writings, the press, archives, and other sources.  

 

The Importance of Uri Avnery

The ubiquitous and seemingly ageless Uri Avnery has been a player on Israel’s political stage mainly through his magazine, writings, appearances on television and radio and at public functions and demonstrations, and long-term contacts with establishment figures, such as the late military and political leaders Yigal Allon and Yitzhak Rabin. According to Lord, Ha’olam Hazeh effectively served as an intravenous tube dripping Avnery’s anti-Zionist, anti-Jewish, and pro-Arab ideas slowly but surely into the circulatory system of several generations of Israeli readers. Moreover, numerous journalists and media personalities began their careers as reporters for the weekly and continued to spread these ideas in the mass media. This steady flow of articles, op-eds, and meetings with Israel’s political and cultural elite gradually and substantively changed the attitudes and positions of Israel’s Labor Party and prepared the ground for support for a Palestinian state under the leadership of Yasir Arafat’s PLO. Avnery was assisted in accomplishing this transformation by his longtime friend Kreisky.

According to Lord, the lively pages of Ha’olam Hazeh were a welcome relief from the puritanical tone and dull content of the party-controlled newspapers of the 1950s and 1960s. It featured scandals; gossip about politicians, Tel Aviv bohemians, and celebrities; and boasted risqué covers, along with Avnery’s antiestablishment, anti-Zionist line. Lord vividly recreates the eras of Prime Ministers Ben-Gurion and Eshkol, when there was no television (until 1968, and then only one government channel), only state radio, and of course, no internet. Foreign newspapers were expensive and late in arriving, and travel was a privilege of the very rich and well connected.  Ha’olam Hazeh was the equivalent of being elsewhere, away from the pressures and problems of the young, struggling state and its purposeful, patriotic atmosphere. From the 1970s, Avnery’s weekly openly advocated recognition and negotiations with the PLO.

In addition, Avnery founded several movements in succession to promote his favorite causes. Among them was a group called Semitic Action, inspired by a brand of Israeli nativism that denies Jewish peoplehood and calls for severing ties with Diaspora Jewry, the so-called Canaanite idea.  Subsequently the League against Religious Coercion targeted the religious establishment, which controlled marriage, divorce, and public observance of the Sabbath and Jewish holidays.  Eschewing David Ben-Gurion’s Western and American orientation, Avnery preferred a more leftist, European, social-democratic slant and maintained connections in the German-speaking countries, where his articles appeared frequently. To further the goal of rapprochement with the Arabs – which, in his view, would result from an end to Israel’s Zionist and Jewish character – he established the Council for Israeli-Palestinian Peace in 1975.

These ideas and the different groups’ activities and demonstrations were covered extensively in Ha’olam Hazeh. Avnery’s magazine, Lord points out, adeptly and deliberately avoided any association with a particular political party (except when he ran for the Knesset on his own ticket). By steering clear of the communists, who often promoted similar goals, and by cultivating an independent persona, Avnery’s program attracted many among the entertainment, media, business, academic, and military elites who were tired of the Labor Party’s ethos and its dominant position in society. In the 1980s, with the ascendance of the right-wing Likud, the Labor political elite drew closer to Avnery’s positions. Giving examples of Avnery’s modus operandi, Lord aptly compares him to the legendary propagandist Willi Muenzenberg of the Comintern who, in the 1930s, masterfully recruited the support of Western intellectuals and celebrities for Stalinist policies by making use of the media, front groups, demonstrations, and petitions.

From the late 1960s, Uri Avnery’s ongoing efforts at legitimizing Arafat and the PLO and playing down their terrorism and its aims gave the European left and the socialists, especially Kreisky, an authentic Israeli stamp of approval to welcome Arafat and espouse Palestinian statehood under PLO leadership. Avnery became indispensable in achieving Kreisky’s goal of moving Israel in that direction. Lord proves that Kreisky’s representative in Israel, the vivacious and stunning Barbara Taufer (who later converted to Judaism and settled in Israel), met frequently with Avnery. He regularly provided her with up-to-date reports on the political, security, and cultural situation in Israel, which were sent through the diplomatic pouch so as to evade the Israeli authorities.

Taufer and Kreisky set up the illegal meetings between Avnery and major PLO figures, among them Issam Sartawi, in the late 1970s. When Sartawi, however, declared that he was ready to repudiate the Palestinian “armed struggle” and advocate negotiations with Israel in a speech to be delivered at the Socialist International in Portugal in 1983, he was murdered by a member of a splinter terrorist group with Arafat’s approval. While Kreisky never forgave him, Avnery continued to support and believe in Arafat’s leadership. Hence the title of the book, A Murder among Friends.

By showcasing the importance of Uri Avnery in transforming the climate of opinion in Israel, Amnon Lord interprets the road to recognition of Arafat and the PLO taken by Labor’s Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin, which led to the Oslo Accords in 1993, differently from Yoram Hazony[2] and from Kenneth Levin.[3] According to Hazony, Labor’s rejection of Ben-Gurion’s ideological legacy and support for a Jewish state resulted from the influence of academics and intellectuals educated at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in the 1950s and 1960s. Hazony describes the impact of professors such as Judah Magnes, Martin Buber, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Jacob Talmon, and others who had reservations about Jewish political power and statehood. The Jewish State notes Uri Avnery only once as conducting a smear campaign against Ben-Gurion during the Lavon affair in the 1960s.

In contrast, Levin, who refers to Hazony extensively, portrays the road to Oslo as part of a historical predicament dating from the Emancipation and Western societies’ rejection of the Jews, even if they assimilated into the majority. Levin argues that Jewish self-hatred and the adverse psychological condition of a besieged people made Jews attribute their ostracism to their own faults rather than to the anti-Semitic cultural and political environment of modern times. Levin does not refer to Avnery at all.

Unlike Hazony or Levin, Amnon Lord grew up on a kibbutz, was educated in Israel, and worked in its media. His book displays an insider’s grasp and a more thorough knowledge of the nuances and workings of Israel’s history, society, and political culture than either Hazony’s or Levin’s studies. While Lord neither deals with nor refutes these earlier assessments, A Murder among Friends offers an important, hitherto missing part of the answer to the questions of how the Labor Party made a 180-degree turn from its previous anti-PLO, anti-Arafat policy and why this was accepted by many Israelis. Lord convincingly demonstrates that the ideas and persona of Uri Avnery, which consistently penetrated large swaths of society; his connections with leading Israeli military, political, and cultural figures; and his international ties, were a decisive factor in bringing about Israel’s recognition of the PLO.   

 

Uri Avnery and the Party Line

Lord’s attention to Avnery’s prominence notwithstanding, the major breakthrough of A Murder among Friends is its well-argued contention that throughout his career, Avnery’s views were in sync with the Soviet party line. His fealty to that line includes initial support for Jewish statehood and the conduct of the War of Independence, antagonism toward Ben-Gurion and the Mapai (Labor) Party, hostility toward America, support for Egyptian dictator Gamel Abdel Nasser, and later for Arafat and the PLO.  Moreover, Avnery did not protest against the paranoid Stalin’s anti-Semitic policies of the 1950s, such as the murder of Yiddish cultural figures, the Doctors’ Plot, and the Prague trials in which prominent Jewish members of Czechoslovakia’s Communist Party were accused of disloyalty and Zionism and executed.  Similarly, Avnery was silent on official discrimination against Soviet Jewry and the breaking of relations with Israel in 1967 in the wake of Israel’s victory over its Soviet-supplied Arab enemies.  

Lord’s assertion of Avnery’s consistent following of the Soviet party line essentially contradicts most Israeli assessments of Avnery, which describe him as an independent, antiestablishment maverick. According to Lord, Avnery carefully cultivated that image while actually going along with Soviet policies; hence the occasional deviation from the Soviet consensus, such as support for the invasion of Syrian territory during the Six Day War. The book points out that during the 1950s and 1960s, hostility toward Ben-Gurion, Labor Zionism, and its dominant cultural ethos characterized both official Soviet policy and the party line of the communists and the socialist Mapam faction in Israel. Avnery never missed an opportunity to castigate Ben-Gurion and accuse him of antidemocratic measures. This negative attitude toward Israel’s first prime minister also was typical of members of the right-wing Revisionists and their prestate underground movements such as Lehi (Stern group) and the Irgun, to which Avnery had belonged.

Lord shows that Avnery’s attention to issues that had little to do with the USSR also stemmed in part from his extreme animosity toward Ben-Gurion and the ruling establishment. For example, the trial of Mapai’s Israel Kastner, accused of collaboration with the Nazis in Hungary, was featured extensively in Ha’olam Hazeh in 1955. This coverage transformed the charges against Kastner into a condemnation of Ben-Gurion and the Mapai establishment during the Shoah. Likewise, Avnery’s above-described founding of splinter groups espousing nativist culture or opposing religious coercion focused on issues that conflicted with Ben-Gurion’s positions.

In addition to the Soviet opposition to Mapai and Ben-Gurion, Avnery followed the party line on international issues including accusations of Western imperialism and colonialism. His support of Egypt’s Nasser mirrored that of Nasser’s Soviet backers. Today it is difficult to imagine the charisma of Gamel Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s military dictator from 1953 to 1970, who played such a prominent role in the emergence of the Third World bloc, and whose alleged neutrality supported by Soviet arms, diplomacy, and occasional intervention was accompanied by extreme pan-Arabism and virulent anti-Israeli, anti-Western, and anti-Semitic attitudes. Only after Israel dealt Nasser’s Egypt a humiliating defeat in 1967, despite Soviet support, did Uri Avnery find a new hero, Yasir Arafat. He was backed by leftist circles in Europe, particularly by Kreisky and by the Soviet Union. 

Bruno Kreisky, along with other European socialists, was close to the USSR because of ties that dated from the Nazi era, common anti-Americanism, and the fear of Soviet power and possible takeover of noncommunist European countries. Lord proves that Kreisky served as the link between Avnery and Palestinian leaders. He clearly shows how, with tacit Soviet approval, the Kreisky-Avnery partnership flourished during the 1970s and 1980s, paving the way for giving Arafat respectability, recognition, and legitimacy, first in the international arena and later in Israel. The enhancement of Arafat outlasted both Kreisky and the collapse of the Soviet empire. It led to the Oslo Accords and to creation of the Arafat-led Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Gaza. According to Lord, although, even today, Avnery is loyal to the Palestinian cause, his anti-Zionism has been surpassed by Israelis such as Ilan Pappe.

Lord leaves the reader with unstated and unanswered questions, such as: was Avnery a Soviet agent of influence, like Kreisky, or perhaps a fellow traveler or “useful idiot”? Why did Avnery maintain his friendship with Arafat after the murder of Sartawi and the continuation of terrorism during the 1990s and after the Camp David summit in July 2000? Why was he apologetic and craven toward his Arab interlocutors? How would Avnery, the secular leftist, relate to an Islamist Palestine and how does he really envision the future of Israel?

 

Conclusion

A Murder among Friends is very detailed and replete with quotations from interviews and primary sources. The interviews with Avnery and with Barbara Taufer lend this study a unique perspective. Its depictions of particular episodes, such as the Kastner trial and its aftermath and the panicky reactions of American Jewry to the military encirclement of Israel in May 1967, are riveting. While the book requires better and more accurate documentation, a chronology of major world and local events, and a glossary of the leading personalities, the work’s breadth and scope – the entire history of the state of Israel through the eyes of Uri Avnery – are daunting. A Murder among Friends is a fascinating read and a must for anyone attempting to understand the left and Israel’s current predicament. It should be translated into English.

 

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Notes

[1] Tel Aviv: Tammuz, 2000.

[2] The Jewish State: The Struggle for Israel’s Soul (New York: Basic Books, 2000).

[3]  The Oslo Syndrome: Delusions of a People under Siege (Hanover, NH: Smith & Kraus, 2005).

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RIVKAH FISHMAN-DUKER is lecturer in Jewish history at the Rothberg International School, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Rivkah Fishman-Duker

Rivkah Fishman-Duker is a Lecturer Emerita in Ancient Jewish History at the Rothberg International School of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem.