Tag Archives: Uri Avnery

Why I Am Angry by Uri Avnery

Uri Avnery, an Israeli peace activist, journalist and writer, began his life in Hitler’s Germany, arrived in Palestine with his family in 1933, joined the Irgun underground in 1938 to fight the British but quit after three years in protest of the Irgun’s anti-Arab attitudes and its terrorist methods. His biography is very interesting, check it out here.  I haven’t read any of his books, but pledge to correct that deficiency this year.

Uri Avnery

Uri Avnery credit – Veterans Today

Avnery wrote the following message on January 6, 2018.  I share it here in full because the history of the two branches of Jews (the Mizrahim and Ashkenazim) is currently playing out in Israel’s politics, with deep implications for the future of the region and the Palestinians. This internal division may be more consequential than the Israeli-Arab divide that dominates the news.

Why are we (humans in general) so predisposed to see our neighbors as “the other” and to cast “the other” in such disparaging terms?  What is the antithesis of “the other”?            

Why I am Angry

I AM angry with the Mizrahi elite. Very angry indeed.

Mizrah is the Hebrew word for East. Eastern Jews are those who lived for many centuries in the Islamic world. Western Jews are those who lived in Christian Europe.

The words are, of course, misnomers. Russian Jews are “Westerners”, Moroccan Jews are “Easterners”. A look at the map shows that Russia is far to the East of Morocco. It would be more accurate to call them “Northerners” and “Southerners”. Too late, now.

Westerners are generally called “Ashkenazim”, from the old Hebrew term for Germany. Easterners were usually called “Sephardim”, from the old Hebrew term for Spain. But only a small part of the Easterners are actually descended from the flourishing Jewish community in medieval Spain.

IN TODAY’S Israel, the antagonism between Mizrahim and Ashkenazim is growing stronger from year to year, with vast political and social repercussions. It is no exaggeration to see this as the determining phenomenon of current Israeli society.

Before I continue, allow me to state (once again, I am afraid) my personal part in this.

My last few years in Germany, before we fled, were spent in the shadow of the ascent of the Swastika, the last half year already under Nazi rule. I came to hate Germany and everything German. So when our ship reached the port of Jaffa, I was enthusiastic. I was just ten years old, and the Jaffa of 1933 was in every respect the exact opposite of Germany – noisy, full of exotic smells, human. I loved it.

As I learned later, most of the early Zionist “pioneers” who arrived in Arab Jaffa hated it on sight, because they identified themselves as Europeans. Among them was the founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzl himself, who did not want to go to Palestine in the first place. On his only visit here, he hated its Oriental character. He vastly preferred Patagonia (in the Argentine).

Fifteen years later, during Israel’s war of independence, I was promoted to the lofty rank of squad-leader and had the choice between new immigrant recruits from Poland or Morocco. I chose the Moroccans and was rewarded by them with my life: when I was lying wounded under fire, four of “my Moroccans” risked their lives to get me out.

It was then that I got a foretaste of things to come. Once, when we got a few precious hours of leave, some of my soldiers refused to go. “The girls in Tel Aviv don’t go out with us,” they complained, “for them we are blacks.” Their skin was just a little bit darker than ours.

I became very sensitive to this problem, when everybody else still denied its very existence. In 1954, when I was already the editor-in-chief of a news-magazine, I published a series of articles that caused a huge stir: “They (expletive) the Blacks”. Those Ashkenazim who did not hate me before, started to hate me then.

Then came the riots of “Wadi Salib”, a neighborhood in Haifa, where a policeman shot a Mizrahi. My paper was the only one in the country to defend the protesters.

A few years later the small group of Mizrahim started an unruly protest movement, expropriating the American term “Black Panthers”. I helped them. Golda Meir famously exclaimed: “They are not nice people”.

Now, many years later, a new generation has taken over. The Internal conflict dominates many aspects of our life. The Mizrahim make up about half the Jewish population of Israel, the Ashkenazim form the other half. The division has many manifestations, but people don’t like to talk about them openly.

For example, the great majority of Likud voters are Mizrahim, though the party leadership is predominantly Ashkenazi. The opposition Labor Party is almost completely Ashkenazi, though they just elected a Mizrahi leader, in the vain hope that this will help them to overcome the profound alienation of the Mizrahim.

MY OPPOSITION to the treatment of the Mizrahim was primarily a moral one. It sprang from the desire for justice. It also sprang from my dream that all of us, Ashkenazim and Mizrahim, would eventually be submerged in a common Hebrew nation. But I must confess that there was another motive, too.

I have always believed – as I believe now – that there is no future for Israel as a foreign island in the Oriental sea. My hopes go much further than just peace. I hope for Israel’s becoming an integral part of the “Semitic region” (an expression I invented long ago).

How? I have always entertained a monumental hope: that the second or third generation of Mizrahim will remember its heritage, the times when Jews were an integral part of the Muslim world. Thus they would become the bridge between the new Hebrew nation in Israel and its Palestinian neighbors, and indeed the entire Muslim world.

Being despised by the Ashkenazim as “Asiatic” and inferior, would it not have been natural for the Mizrahim to reclaim their glorious heritage, when the Jews in Iraq, Spain, Egypt and many other Muslim countries were fully integrated partners in a flourishing civilization, at a time when Europeans were mainly barbarians?

Jewish philosophers, mathematicians, poets and medical doctors were partners of that civilization, side by side with their Muslim counterparts. When the persecution and expulsion of Jews and the inquisition were facts of life in Europe, Jews (and Christians) enjoyed full rights in the Muslim world. They were accorded the status of “Peoples of the Book” (the Hebrew Bible) and fully equal, except for being exempted from army service and paying a tax instead. Anti-Jewish incidents were rare.

When all the Jews were expelled from Christian Spain, only a small minority immigrated to Amsterdam, London and Hamburg. The vast majority went to Muslim countries, from Morocco to Istanbul. Curiously enough, only a handful settled in Palestine.

HOWEVER, WHEN masses of Oriental Jews arrived in Israel, my hopes were dashed. Instead of becoming the bridge between Israel and the Arab world, they became the most ardent Arab-haters. The centuries of Muslim-Jewish culture were erased, as if they had never existed.

Why? Being despised by the “superior” Ashkenazim, the Mizrahim started to despise their own culture. They tried to become Europeans, more anti-Arab, more super-patriot, more right-wing.

(Though one Mizrahi friend once told me: We don’t want to be a bridge. A bridge is something people trample on.)

Yet no one can escape from himself. Most Mizrahim in Israel speak with an Arab accent. They love Arab music (presented as “Mediterranean” music), and have no love for Mozart and Beethoven. Their features are different from European ones. All the more reason to hate the Arabs.

The erasing of the Eastern-Jewish culture is all-encompassing. Israeli children of Eastern descent have no idea of the great writers and philosophers of their heritage. They don’t know that the Christian Crusaders who conquered the Holy Land butchered Muslims and Jews alike, and that Jews defended Jerusalem and Haifa shoulder to shoulder with their Muslim neighbors.

Rabbi Moses Maimonides – the great Rambam – is well known, but only as an important rabbi, not as the friend and personal physician of Saladin, the greatest of Muslim heroes. The many other medieval Sephardic intellectuals are hardly known at all. None of them appears on our paper money.

YET I am an optimist, in this respect also.

I believe that a new Mizrahi intelligentsia will search for its roots. That with the rise of its social status, social complexes will give way to a normal patriotism. That a fourth or fifth generation will come forward and struggle not only for equality, but also for peace and integration in the region.

As our Arab friends would say: Inshallah.

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Uri Avnery turns 90 and muses about Israel’s future

Israeli peace activist, Uri Avnery, turns 90 and shares his thoughts about the future of Israel.

Uri Avnery

Uri Avnery

On the occasion of my 90th birthday, a panel discussion of eminent historians took place in Tel Aviv’s Tsavta hall on the question: “Will Israel Exist in Another 90 Years?” There follows a slightly shortened version of my own remarks. A full video of the discussion with English translation will be published as soon as possible.

90 Years from Now

WILL ISRAEL exist in another 90 years? The very question is typical of Israel. No one would take it seriously in England or Germany, or even in other states born from immigration, like Australia or the USA. 

Yet here, people speak of “existential dangers” all the time. A Palestinian state is an existential danger. The Iranian bomb is an existential danger. Why? They will have their bomb, we have our bomb, there will be a “balance of terror”. So what?

There is something in our national character that fosters self-doubt, uncertainty. The Holocaust? Perhaps an unconscious sense of guilt? A result of eternal war, or even the reason for it?

LET ME state right from the beginning: Yes, I believe Israel will exist in 90 years. The question is: what kind of Israel? Will it be a country your great-great-great-grandsons and daughters will be proud of? A state they will want to live in?

On the day the state was founded, I was 24 years old. My comrades and I, soldiers in our new army, didn’t think the event was very important. We were preparing ourselves for the battle that was to take place that night, and the speeches of politicians in Tel-Aviv did not really interest us. We knew that if we won the war there would be a state, and if not, there would be neither a state nor us.

I am not a nostalgic person. I have no nostalgia for Israel before (the war of) 1967, as some of my colleagues here have expressed. A lot was wrong then, too. Huge amounts of Arab property were expropriated. But let’s not look back. Let’s look at Israel as it is now, and ask ourselves: where do we go from here? 

IF ISRAEL continues on its present course, there will be disaster. 

The first stage will be apartheid. It already exists in the occupied territories, and it will spread to Israel proper. The descent into the abyss will not be dramatic or precipitous, It will be gradual, almost imperceptible. 

Slowly pressure on Israel will grow. Demographics will do their work. Sometime before the 90 years are up, Israel will be compelled to grant civil rights to the Palestinians. There will be an Arab majority. Israel will be an Arab-majority state.

Some people may welcome that. But it will be the end of the Zionist dream. Zionism will become a historic episode. This state will be just another country where Jews live as a minority – those who remain here.

There are those who say: “There just is no solution”. If so, we should all obtain foreign passports.

Some dream of the so-called “one-state solution”. Well, during the last half-century, many states in which diverse nations lived together have broken apart. A partial list: the Soviet Union, Cyprus, Yugoslavia, then Serbia, Czechoslovakia, Sudan. There has not been a single instance of two nations freely uniting in one state. Not one.

I AM not afraid of any military threat. There is no real danger. In our time, no country possessing nuclear arms can be destroyed by force. We are quite able to defend ourselves. 

Rather, I am afraid of internal dangers: the implosion of our intellectual standards, the proliferation of a parasitical orthodox establishment, and especially emigration. All over the world, people are becoming more and more mobile. Families disperse. Zionism is a two-way street. If you can be a good Jew in Los Angeles as well as in Tel Aviv, why stay here?

The connection between Israel and the world’s Jews will become weaker. That is natural. We are a new nation, rooted in this country. That is the real aim. Our relations with the Diaspora will be like, say, between Australia and England.

I WANT to raise a basic question: will nationalism itself survive? 

Will it be supplanted by new collective modes of organization and ideologies? 

I think nationalism will continue to exist. In the last century, no power has succeeded in overcoming it. The internationalist Soviet Union has collapsed and left nothing behind but a rampant, racist nationalism. Communism succeeded only when it took a ride on nationalism, like in Vietnam and China. Religion succeeded when it took a hike on nationalism, like in Iran. 

Wherein lies the power of nationalism? It seems that the human being needs a sense of belonging, belonging to a certain culture, tradition, historic memories (real or invented), homeland, language. 

I SHALL pose the question in a different way: will the nation-state survive? 

In factual terms, the nation-state is an anachronism. It came into being during the last three centuries because the economic need for a large local market, the military need for an adequate army and so forth required a state the size of, say, France. But now almost all these functions have been taken over by regional blocs like the EU.

This is the reason for a curious phenomenon: while nation-states join larger unions, they themselves break up into smaller units. Scots, Corsicans, the Flemish, Catalonians, Basques, Chechnians, French Canadians and many many more are seeking independence.

Why? A Scotsman thinks that an independent Scotland can join the EU and reap all the benefits, without having to suffer English snobbery. Local nationalism trumps larger nationalism.

SO WHERE shall we be in 90 years, at the beginning of the 22th century?

In the year of my birth, 1923, an Austrian nobleman named Count Nikolaus Coudenhove-Kalergi called for a pan-European movement in order to create the United States of Europe. At the time, a few years after World War I and a few years before World War II, it sounded like a crazy utopia. Now we have the European Union.

At this moment, the United States of the World sounds like a crazy utopia, too. But there is no escape from some kind of world governance. The global economy needs it to function. Global communications make it possible. Global spying is already with us. Only an effective global authority can save our suffering planet, put an end to wars and civil wars, world-wide epidemics and hunger.

Can world governance be democratic? I certainly hope so. World communications make it possible. Your descendents will vote for a world parliament.

Will the nation-state continue to exist in this brave new world? Yes, it will. Much as nation-states do exist in today’s Europe: each with its flag, its anthem, its soccer team, its local administration.

THIS, THEN, is my optimistic vision: Israel, the nation-state of the Israeli people, closely aligned with the nation-state of the Palestinian people, will be a member of a regional Union that will include the Arab states and hopefully Turkey and Iran, as a proud member of the United States of the World.

A democratic, liberal and secular state where your descendents will be proud to proclaim: “I am an Israeli!”

Uri Avnery
November 2, 2013

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