I couldn’t help but chuckle as I read Uri Avnery’s recent offering, "Death of a Myth" , about the deathbed confession of Naomi Shemer regarding "Jerusalem of Gold", her song that became a second Israeli national anthem after the Six-Day War of 1967.
The Israeli public was apparently duped: Shemer had plagiarised the song from a Basque lullaby she had heard a few years earlier. Her defence was that the melody had been absorbed into her subconscious.
As, Avnery implicitly admits, no one was more fooled than he. At the time of the Six-Day War, he was a member of the Knesset and unsuccessfully tried to pass a law to have the song replace the national anthem, "Hativkah" or "The Hope".
Avnery believed that "Jerusalem of Gold" better captured the spirit of a national people than "Hativkah", which had been written half a century before the establishment of Israel. His objection to Hatikvah is that it is the "hymn of a dispersed religious ethnic community rather than the anthem of sovereign state".
Avnery, leader of the small Israeli peace movement Gush Shalom, adds: "Even worse, more than 20% of the citizens of Israel are not Jews at all, and it is not healthy that so many citizens cannot identify with the anthem and the flag of their state."
A major problem with the Hatikvah national anthem is that includes Zionist lines of longing such as the following: "As long as deep in our heart/ The soul of a Jew yearns,/ And towards the East/ An eye looks to Zion;/ Our hope is not yet lost."
"Jerusalem of Gold", or so Avnery still claims, is a more inclusive song than "Hatikvah". "I thought that if I proposed Naomi Shemer’s song as a national anthem, I might be able to build a consensus for the idea of changing the existing one."
It would be nice to believe Avnery’s account of his behaviour and motives in the late 1960s in relation to promoting this "immortal song" as he calls it. But I suspect this retrospective view of his thinking around the time of the Six-Day War is another dose of the myth-making which Shemer indulged in for most of her life.
The evidence? Let’s consider the following account of Avnery’s position – not with the benefit of nearly 40 years of personal hindsight but from a book written a few years after 1967. Fouzi el-Asmar, an Arab intellectual from Lod who was much persecuted by the Israeli authorities, was working in Tel Aviv’s leftwing media with Avnery at the time of the Six-Day War.
In his book "To Be an Arab in Israel" (unfortunately, long out of print), el-Asmar recalls the extremely fearful and tense popular atmosphere in Israel just before the outbreak of war – and the extreme change of mood that swept the country after Israel’s rapid victory over the Arab armies arrayed against it.
He also speaks of his disenchantment with leftwing Jews he once considered friends. "I was shocked again and again by meeting people whom I had known to have liberal and progressive stands", he wrote. He asked himself the following question: "What pushed them to think of peaceful solutions before the war and why have they neglected the struggle for peace now?"
His suspicion was that the positions of most of these progressive Israeli Jews had not really been driven by a sense of justice or a belief in equality and coexistence between Jews and Arabs inside Israel, but by their own fears that the country might be defeated in the war and overrun by hostile Arab armies. A public record of having sided with the Arabs, they hoped, might save them.
El-Asmar singles out Avnery for particularly harsh criticism. His shock at Avnery’s change of heart was all the greater because he admired Avnery for his outspoken criticism of the government in 1956 over the massacre by the Israeli army of 49 unarmed Arab citizens in the village of Kfar Kassem.
During the 1967 war, Avnery "was writing the editorials of the daily Daf [newspaper] which had now become totally engulfed by extreme chauvinism. In contrast to his stated position before the war, Avneri [sic] did not even call for a halt to the hostilities. Not only did he resign himself to the fact that [the war] had broken out, but in his editorials he called for a continuation of the war."
In "Death of a Myth", Avnery admits that the popular impression that the Six-Day War was a desperate war of national defence was false.
"Years later," he writes, "it became clear to historians that there had been no real danger to the state, that the neighboring countries has not intended to attack but merely to bluff, that Israel’s victory had been no miracle but the result of meticulous preparations."
But Avnery omits to tell us what he was writing at the time of the war. El-Asmar is more helpful. He quotes from an editorial written by Avnery during the fighting which has more than an echo of Israeli army chief Moshe Yaalon’s infamous remark about using extreme force to "burn" into the Palestinian and Arab consciousness the lesson that Israel can never be defeated.
"The battle cannot end at this moment," writes Avnery. "If it stops now, before a decisive position is reached, we must be aware that the casualties might be in vain, and that we have no way of being sure that the war will not break out again, after a period of calm. Right now the objective is to see that the Israeli army’s historical victory will bring true peace."
In another editorial headlined "The objective – Damascus", Avnery wrote: "This war cannot end without an action against the Syrians. We must either fight against them or receive an immediate surrender as a clear and open admission of defeat of the policy of ‘popular war of liberation’."
El-Asmar continues: "Avneri supported the annexation of East Jerusalem and voted with the parties of the National Unity Government in the Knesset on this issue, although he later withdrew from the position."
El-Asmar then tells us with particular revulsion of Avnery’s support for Shemer’s song "Jerusalem of Gold". "Avneri had been known for his opposition to the Israeli national anthem ‘Hatikvah’ as this anthem could never represent all the citizens of the country. But I never imagined the day would come when Avneri would suggest an even more chauvinistic song, ‘Jerusalem of Gold’, as an alternative."
Rather than savouring the chance to be embraced by Avnery’s proposed alternative national anthem, el-Asmar writes: "In this song, composed by Naomi Shemer, the following was said of Arab Jerusalem: ‘How did the water cisterns dry up, the market place is empty. No one visist the Holy Mount in the Old City.’
"In other words," writes el-Asmar, "a metropolis such as Jerusalem could be considered by the writer to be empty of people simply because Jews were not filling the streets."
It was not only Shemer who thought in these offensive Zionist terms. We know from his unwavering support for "Jerusalem of Gold" over many decades that Avnery thought the same.
It is fortunate for Avnery that this book, one of the few accounts of the early Israeli left written in English by an Arab citizen, has been almost impossible to obtain since it was printed in 1976.
No one should hold it against Avnery that he has changed his positions repeatedly during the nearly six decades of Israeli history. But let him not judge the confessions of Naomi Shemer until he is a prepared to make a confession or two himself.
. "Death of a Myth"
by Uri Avnery