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Uri Avnery: Anti-Semitism


(Avnery's acceptance speech for the Lev Kopelev prize.)
Uri Avnery

(Instead of my usual weekly article, this time I am sending my acceptance speech on receiving, together with Sari Nusseibeh, the Lev Kopelev prize. The award ceremony took place last week in Cologne, Germany.)

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The Ambassador of Palestine and the former Ambassador of Israel, (I am sorry that I am unable to greet the present Israeli Ambassador, since he did not see fit to attend,) Dear friends,

Every time I stand on German soil, I ask myself: What and where would I be now, if Adolf Hitler had never been?

Would I be standing here with Sari Nusseibeh? Would I be an Israeli at all?

I was born not far from here, in Beckum, Westphalia. My grandfather, Josef Ostermann, was the teacher of the small Jewish community there.

But my family originally came from the Rhineland. My mother once told me the name of the place, but I have forgotten it. Now there is no one left to ask.

My father, who attended the "humanist" high school where Latin was taught as the first foreign language, always maintained that we had come to Germany with Julius Ceasar. However, no archaeological proof of this has yet been uncovered.

The family was steeped in German culture. My father, an enthusiastic music-lover, adored Brahms and Beethoven. His favorite piece was the overture to Wagner's Meistersinger. No work of classic German literature was missing from our bookshelves, and I had read almost all of them before my 15th birthday.

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Father knew both parts of Goethe's Faust by heart. When he was engaged to my mother in 1913, he stipulated that before the wedding she must learn the first part of Faust by heart. Mother's condition was that my father must learn to play tennis. They both fulfilled the conditions, but a day after the wedding my mother forgot every word of Faust and my father never played tennis again.

What caused this family, the family Ostermann, to leave Germany in 1933 forever, and to go to a far-away, foreign country, the country of the Nusseibeh family?

One word: anti-Semitism.

It is true that my father had always been a Zionist. He was nine years old when the First Zionist Congress took place. The idea excited him. As a wedding gift he received a document confirming that a tree had been planted in Palestine in his name. But he never imagined that he himself would one day go there.

(A joke current at the time: "What is a Zionist? A Jew who takes the money of a second Jew in order to send a third Jew to Palestine.")

The Zionists were then a miniscule minority in the German Jewish communities. Among our relatives it was said that my father had become a Zionist only because he had a contrary disposition. (It seems to run in the family.)

Shortly after the Nazis' rise to power, my father decided to emigrate. The immediate cause was small. My father was a court-appointed receiver of bankrupt businesses. His honesty was proverbial, he was "straight as a die". One day, during a session of the court, a young lawyer cried out: "Jews like you are not needed here anymore!" My father was deeply offended, and from that moment Germany was finished for him. I still believe that a feeling of insult played a large part in the divorce between the Jews and Germany.

Where to? For a short while, Finland and the Philippines were considered. But Zionist romanticism decided the issue. We went to Palestine, and since then, the destiny of my family has been irrevocably intertwined with the destiny of the Nusseibeh family. I was then ten years old.

When my father went to Police headquarters to give notice of our departure, as required by law, the police officer exclaimed: "But Mr. Ostermann, what has entered your head? After all, you are a German like me!"


I tell this story frequently, in order to warn my Palestinian friends not to be tempted to consider the anti-Semites as their allies. On the surface it seems logical: the anti-Semites hate the Jews, the Jews are the majority in Israel, Israel oppresses the Palestinians, so the anti-Semites must be the friends of the Palestinians.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Without anti-Semitism, Zionism would never have been born. True, the Zionist myth asserts that in every generation the Jews were longing for Palestine, but any such longing was limited to prayers. As a matter of fact, throughout the centuries, the Jews made not the slightest effort to gather in Palestine.

A small example: 511 years ago, half a million Jews were expelled from Christian Spain. Most of them settled somewhere in the Muslim Ottoman empire, which received them graciously. They settled down in countries like Morocco, Bulgaria, Greece and Syria. But only a tiny handful of Rabbis settled in Palestine, then a remote corner of the Turkish Sultan's domains.

Muslims turn in prayer to Mecca, Jews turn in prayer to Jerusalem. But that has nothing to do with the Zionist idea of a Jewish state.

Modern political Zionism was clearly a reaction to the modern anti- Semitism of the national movements in Europe. It is no coincidence that the term "anti-Semitism", which was coined in Germany in 1879, was followed only a few years later by the word "Zionism", which was first used by a Vienna-born Jew, Nathan Birnbaum.

It was a response to the challenge. If he new national movements in Europe, practically without exception, do not want to have anything to do with the Jews, then the Jews must constitute themselves as a nation in the European sense and found their own state.

Where? In the land of the Bible, then called Palestine.

Thus started the historic conflict between our two peoples, the people of Sari Nusseibeh and my people, a conflict that is today - in 2003 - more vicious than ever. It began when the Zionists wanted to realize their aim, to save the Jews from Europe, and the Palestinian Arabs wanted to realize their aim, to achieve freedom and independence in their homeland, in the same little country, without having any idea of each other.

Theodor Herzl, the founder of the modern Zionist movement, wrote in his diary, after the First Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897: "In Basel I founded the Jewish State." At the time he had never been to Palestine, he had no idea who lived there. A fellow activist coined the memorable phrase: "A land without a people for a people without a land." For them, Palestine was empty, uninhabited.

But the grandfather of Sari Nusseibeh was living in Palestine at the time, together with another half million Arabs. They had no idea - and could have no idea - that somewhere in Switzerland, in a town they probably had never heard of, a meeting was taking place, whose results would change forever their own fate and the fate of their children and grandchildren, their family, their town, their village and their country.

Anti-Semitism set Zionism in motion, the Holocaust lent it tremendous moral power, even today it sends masses of Jews from Russia, Argentina and France to Israel.

The Palestinians have many enemies - but none is as dangerous as anti- Semitism. If in some Arab countries an effort is made to import this foreign anti-Semitism from Europe, it is a fateful mistake.

Sari Nusseibeh and I, two Semites who speak closely related Semitic languages, must be allies in the battle against this old-new mental disease. I believe that we are.

I want to add at once: the curse of anti-Semitism must not be abused in order to choke every criticism of my state. We Israelis want to be a people like any other people, a state like every other state, to be measured by the same moral standards as others. Yes, here, in Germany, too. No Sonderbehandlung, please.

The conflict has now been going on for more than a hundred years. On both sides, a fifth generation has been born into it, a generation whose whole mental world has been shaped by it. Fear, hatred, prejudices, stereotypes and distrust fill this world.

We are standing on the edge of an abyss, and in both peoples there are leaders who command: Forward, march!

We are here because we want to save our peoples from this abyss, because we want to show them another way.

The state of Israel exists, nobody can throw us into the sea. The Palestinian people exists, nobody can push them out into the desert. Our Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, wants to turn all of Palestine into a Jewish state. Muslim fundamentalists, like the Hamas and Jihad movements, want to include all of Palestine in a Muslim state. That is the direct route to catastrophe.

We both believe in peace and reconciliation between our two peoples. Not only do we believe in it, we work and struggle for it, each in his own way.

Together we have taken part in many actions. On New Year's eve 2001, we marched together, arm in arm, through the alleys of the Old City of Jerusalem, at the head of a large group of Muslims, Christians and Jews. But our main task is to convince our own peoples that peace and reconciliation are possible, that on both sides there is a readiness to pay the price of peace.

These are not abstract aspirations. Gush Shalom, the Israeli peace bloc to which I belong, published a peace agreement in all its details in 2001. Not long ago, Sari Nusseibeh, together with the former Israeli security service chief, Ami Ayalon, articulated the principles of a peaceful solution. Now a new group of Israeli and Palestinian politicians has worked out in Geneva the draft of a peace treaty.


The bloody confrontation that has been raging in our country for three years now is a symptom of hopelessness, frustration and despair on both sides. Of course, there can be no symmetry between occupiers and occupied, rulers and ruled. The violence of the occupation cannot be compared with the violence of the resistance. But the hopelessness and distrust on both sides is comparable, and our task is to overcome it.

We follow the age-old wisdom: Don't curse the darkness, light a candle. Together with our partners, the thousands of peace activists of both peoples, we have already lighted a lot of candles.


I am an optimist. I believe that the darkness of despair is slowly giving way to the twilight of hope, that it is getting lighter. In Israel, the conviction is gaining ground that the shedding of blood leads nowhere.

Thirty of our combat pilots refuse to follow immoral orders. The number of conscientious objectors among our soldiers is growing. The Chief-of- Staff, until recently an extreme hawk, has talked back to his superiors and declared that there is no military solution. The Geneva peace talks have had an impact, they show that there are indeed partners for peace. Parents of fallen soldiers protest publicly against the senseless sacrificing of their children.

A new wind is blowing. A new hope is emerging. We shall do everything possible to make this hope grow, in order to bring about a historic change.

As a member of Gush Shalom, I gratefully accept this award. I am especially proud that it bears the name of Lev Kopelev. All fighters for peace and human rights in Israel, Palestine and the whole world belong to an international community, for whom Lev Kopelev is a model figure.

I thank you. We shall not disappoint you.


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