Uri Avnery, Israeli Journalist and Peace Activist, Is Dead at 94JERUSALEM — Uri Avnery, a firebrand Israeli journalist, politician and peace activist who riled the establishment by exposing national scandals and conferring with Yasir Arafat, the father of the Palestinian cause, long before that was legal or fashionable for Israelis, died on Monday in Tel Aviv. He was 94.
His death was confirmed by the Sourasky Medical Center in Tel Aviv, his hometown, where he was admitted two weeks earlier after suffering a stroke.
An unwavering and acerbic critic of the government and a disrupter of the reigning national consensus, Mr. Avnery wrote regular opinion pieces for the liberal newspaper Haaretz up until he was hospitalized.
In what appears to have been his last column, published on Aug. 7, he attacked the Israeli Parliament’s recent enactment of a contentious nationality law, which anchors Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people and enshrines the right of national self-determination as “unique to the Jewish people,” not to all citizens. Mr. Avnery described the law as “clearly semi-fascist.”
Years ago, he wrote, he and his friends asked the Israeli Supreme Court to change the “nationality” entry on their identity cards from “Jewish” to “Israeli.” The court refused, stating that there was no Israeli nation.
In the column, he cited Israel’s 1.8 million-strong Arab minority, which makes up 21 percent of the population, as well as hundreds of thousands of European non-Jews who had immigrated from the former Soviet Union with their Jewish relatives.
“So is there an Israeli nation?” he wrote. “Of course there is. Is there a Jewish nation? Of course there isn’t.”
Gush Shalom (Hebrew for the Peace Bloc), a pressure group founded by Mr. Avnery and others in 1993, published an English-language version of the column titled “Who the Hell Are We?” The group advocates the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the territories captured by Israel in the 1967 war, and describes itself as “the hard core of the Israeli peace movement.”
President Reuven Rivlin of Israel, a veteran of the ruling conservative Likud Party, eulogized Mr. Avnery on Monday, describing him as having “a special status as an eternal oppositionist.”
In a Twitter post, Mr. Rivlin said that Mr. Avnery’s “battles for the freedom of expression paved the way for Israel as a young state.”
“We had sharp differences of opinion,” Mr. Rivlin added, “but they were dwarfed by the aspiration to build a free and strong society here.”
In his lifetime Mr. Avnery journeyed rapidly across the Zionist political spectrum. With the rise of Nazism, he had immigrated from Germany to British-mandate Palestine with his family in 1933, at the age of 10. At 15 he joined the Irgun, the right-wing underground militia, which fought both the Arabs and British forces in the struggle to establish the state of Israel.
Like Mr. Rivlin, he was inspired by Zeev Jabotinsky’s uncompromising school of Zionism. He remained in the Irgun until 1941, but became disenchanted with its methods and ideology.
By the 1948 war, when five Arab countries attacked the emerging state and Mr. Avnery fought and was wounded, his perspective had fundamentally changed.
“What in my eyes is the great success is that I and my friends raised for the first time the principle that there is a Palestinian people with whom we have to make peace at the end of the 1948 war,” he told an Israeli interviewer a few years ago, adding: “I don’t think there were 10 people in the world that believed in this. Today it is a world consensus.”
In the early 1950s Mr. Avnery and a comrade, Shalom Cohen, bought the weekly newsmagazine HaOlam Hazeh (Hebrew for This World) and turned it into a feistily independent publication at a time when party newspapers were the norm.
HaOlam Hazeh attacked the first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, and his socialist Mapai party; exposed corruption; flouted censorship rules; and, according to the National Library of Israel, “spoke out emphatically against the security services, which it felt acted in a manner unworthy of a democratic state.”
Mr. Avnery later told how as editor in chief, he exposed egregious security failures, like the 1956 massacre of civilians in the Arab-Israeli village of Kafr Qassem. HaOlam Hazeh also published sensationalist gossip and sometimes risqué pictures of nude women.
Mr. Avnery was elected to the Knesset, or Parliament, in 1965 and served two terms and part of a third, totaling a decade, as a founding member of two small left-wing parties. He resigned from the Knesset in 1981.
Having first made contact with representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1974, Mr. Avnery met Mr. Arafat in Beirut in July 1982, when it was under siege at the height of Israel’s first war in Lebanon. At the time, most Jewish Israelis reviled Mr. Arafat as an archterrorist.
The Israeli government went on to sign peace accords with Mr. Arafat and the P.L.O. in the 1990s, but the faltering peace process led to an eruption of violence in the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, in 2000. The process has never fully recovered.
Mr. Avnery became an increasingly lonely voice on Israel’s dwindling political left as the country shifted rightward. But Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Joint List of Arab parties in the Israeli Knesset, said of Mr. Avnery on Monday, “His voice, his ideas, his worldview will continue to reverberate after he’s gone.”
Mr. Avnery was born Helmut Ostermann on Sept. 10, 1923, in Beckum, Germany, to Alfred and Hilda Ostermann. He spent his childhood in Hanover before moving to British Palestine. He attended school in Tel Aviv but had to leave at 14 because of his family’s meager financial circumstances.
His only brother, Werner, was killed in 1941 fighting with the British Army in World War II. Having become Uri at some point, he also Hebraized his surname to Avnery in his brother’s memory.
A prolific writer, Mr. Avnery wrote “In the Fields of Philistia 1948: A Battle Log,” which was a critically well-received best seller. His next book, published a year later, in 1950, chronicled some uglier sides of the war, including the expulsion of Palestinians, and made him far less popular.
Later, the offices of HaOlam Hazeh would be bombed and Mr. Avnery would be attacked in the street. He sold the publication, burdened by debt, in 1989. It closed down in 1993.
He first met the woman who would become his wife, Rachel Greenboim, in the mid-1940s, when she was 14. They met again some time later, began a romance and moved in together. They married five years later to satisfy her ailing father. They had no children. Ms. Avnery died in 2011.
Partners in peace activism, the Avnerys stayed as “human shields” at the Muqata, Mr. Arafat’s headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah; Mr. Arafat believed his life was in danger while under siege by the Israeli military during the second intifada.
Mr. Avnery’s mother did not leave him a penny in her will, because, she wrote, “He did not take care of me and instead went off to visit the murderer Yasir Arafat.”
Asked if there were not periods in which Mr. Avnery was the most hated man in Israel, the Israeli historian Tom Segev told Israel’s Kann public radio on Monday: “He was a hated man and a loved man. I think if we made a list the 10 people that shaped Israeliness, he would certainly be on it.”
Mr. Segev added: “There is a generation of people who grew up with HaOlam Hazeh and learned from reading it something very, very important: the principle of skepticism. We sat in class and read HaOlam Hazeh under the table.”
Though largely unschooled, Mr. Avnery created new Hebrew words derived from the ancient language, including the now commonly used terms for spacecraft, musical, limerick and improvisation, according to the venerable Academy of the Hebrew Language.
His memoir, published in two volumes in Hebrew in 2014 and 2016, is titled “Optimistic.” His colleagues said he never lost hope.
They said he suffered his stroke as he planned to attend a demonstration led by the Druse community against the Nation-State law in Tel Aviv on Aug. 5. Drawing up to 100,000 people, it was one of the biggest Israeli protests in years.