It was somehow fitting that first news of Uri Avnery’s plight should reach me from one of Israel’s staunchest enemies, the Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. One legend sending sad news of another, you see, a socialist preparing to mourn a fellow socialist, sending his sympathy for the 94-year-old Israeli political philosopher. That same philosopher was once a German Jewish schoolboy, originally called Helmut Ostermann, who refused to give the Hitler salute at school, but who was, when I received Jumblatt’s message – still, just – “an indispensable mind to understand the history of fascism, a major destructive element of the 20th century”. Jumblatt’s words. Avnery, he added, also understood “the history of Zionism, another despicable apartheid theory that is an offshoot of fascism”.
Uri Avnery suffered a massive heart attack at the weekend and died on Monday morning, but he was himself a Zionist, or at least a believer in a left-wing, courageous but humble “light among the nations” Israel; the kind many of us, in our heart of hearts, would like to believe in. He was the sort of Israeli that we bleeding heart liberals go and see when we arrive in Israel because they say what we want to hear.
“Tell Jumblatt that he must break up his sentences into paragraphs,” Avnery told me when I left his Tel Aviv apartment six years ago. “He says everything in one long text and I can hardly breathe.” Lesson duly passed on to Jumblatt from a man who often wrote single sentence paragraphs, an annoying habit of tabloid journalism which does occasionally get a message across rather well.
I must admit that Uri Avnery was one of my Middle East heroes – there aren’t many – and his story is worthy of a movie, though there will be no Spielbergs to direct it: writer, journalist, leftist, veteran of the Israeli army in the country’s War of Independence – and, as he never forgot, the same war which drove 750,000 Palestinians from their home and lands. He played chess with Arafat during the 1982 siege of Beirut – be sure, this will be in the first two paragraphs of the obituaries today – and his angry but gently cynical newsletters would arrive on Friday afternoons, condemning Netanyahu for his hypocrisy and racism, Sharon for his hatred of Palestinians, missives from a book-crammed home in Tel Aviv, close to the sea but in a modest, quiet street where Avnery could ruminate and roar.