Three great artists taught generations of Israelis the craft of personal journalism: Uri Avnery (N. 1923 in Germany as Helmut Osterman); Ephraim Kishon (N. 1924 in Hungary as Franz Hoffmann); and Dan Ben-Amotz (N. 1923 in Poland as Musia Tehilimzuger). All three invented themselves in the country to which they immigrated, and at the same time forged a synthetic Israeliness, out of thin air. The pantheon of Israeli journalism includes a large statue of Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the reviver of the Hebrew language and the first Hebrew journalist, and directly beneath it three smaller statues of Uri, Ephraim and Dan. Every Tuesday and Friday, when political magazines come off the presses, thousands of believers are invited to come and offer sacrifices of yellow cheese sandwiches, white leben (buttermilk) and hard-boiled eggs.
This morning, August 20, 2018, the last remaining member of this uniquely Israeli pantheon has gone to meet his Maker, in whose existence he did not believe.
Avnery was born in Beckum, Germany, to a middle class Jewish family. When the Nazis rose to power in 1933, the family emigrated to Mandatory Palestine. At age 15, Avnery joined the Irgun. With the outbreak of the War of Independence in 1948, he joined the Haganah and served in the Givati Brigade’s Shimshon special force. Avnery participated in dozens of battles until he was seriously wounded in the stomach and arm on December 8, 1948, at an outpost situated some 300 yards from the invading Egyptian forces in the south. The injury led to the removal of a segment of his intestines.
In 1950, Avnery used the reparation money for his injury and the residuals from his book “In the Fields of Pleshet (land of the Philistines) – 1948” and purchased a low-circulation weekly called Ha’olam Hazeh (Heb. This World). Under his helm, Ha’olam Hazeh reached a wide circulation to become both the most popular and most controversial Israeli magazine, under the banner “Without fear, without bias.”
Avnery ran the magazine for 40 years, using it as a combative, investigative magazine exposing corruption in high places, while increasing its circulation with bits of yellow journalism: sensationalism, scandals, gossip and nudes.
Avnery promoted coexistence with the Arabs in Israel and for Israel’s integration in the Middle East. His was one of the first voices in the popular media to call for the establishment of a Palestinian state. He also conducted a stubborn battle against the establishment of David Ben-Gurion, with his loyalists Moshe Dayan and Shimon Peres. He exposed nefarious affairs such as the Kafr Kassem massacre, the Yadlin affair, the Avraham Ofer affair, and the Yaakov Levinson affair. And he waged a brave war against Israel’s clandestine security services, “the mechanism of darkness,” as he put it, and against the enactment of the Defamation Law, whose purpose was to stifle the free press.
In 1965, in response to the enactment of the Defamation Law, believing that the only way he could continue to expose corruption without fear of prosecution would be to have parliamentary immunity, Avnery ran to the Knesset and won a seat. He served in the sixth and seventh Knessets.
On July 3, 1982, about a month into the Lebanon War, Avnery caused a storm when he met Yasser Arafat in the western part of besieged Beirut, and ran an interview with him – first ever in the Israeli media – which was published in Ha’olam Hazeh.
Avnery’s mother, Hilda Ostermann, disinherited him, writing in her will, “I do not leave a penny to my son Uri, who instead of taking care of me went off to visit that murderer Yasser Arafat.”
Avnery remained active in leftwing politics, becoming increasingly marginal as the years went by.