Israel Palestine  Infos

Congratulatory Address for Uri Avnery on receiving the Leibowitz  Prize.

By Ada Yonath, Nobel Prize laureate for chemistry, January 30, 2012

 

 

I was honored and happy to be invited to congratulate Uri Avnery on being awarded the Leibowitz Prize. I want to devote my address mainly to the human, cultural and intellectual aspects of the laureate, Uri Avnery, on the one side, and of Yeshayahu Leibowitz, for whom the prize is named, on the other.

 

I have known Uri Avnery for three decades as a fascinating and amazingly charismatic conversationalist, blessed with talents and a wide horizon. Yeshayahu Leibowitz was my admired teacher at the university, and also later on.

 

On the face of it, there are no more extreme opposites than these two personalities. For example, Uri Avnery ispurely secular, while Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who was known for his acid criticism of the conventional religious outlook, turned down a job with one of the world's greatest chemists, because it involved work on the Sabbath. Let me remark, by the way, that this was a blessing in disguise for Leibowitz, because this chemist, Fritz Haber, who was later awarded the Nobel Prize, was involved in the development of poison gas for chemical warfare.

 

When I tried to define for myself the similarities and differences between the two, I found it very difficult. As in other aspects of life, here, too, the similar and the different are intertwined. So I will start with a quotation and a question: About whom was this said?

 

He compels us to see with cruel clarity the decisions of principle which we have to make in our time, and which for various reasons we would have liked to shirk. He has the power of penetration, the brutal intellectual honesty, without being deterred by the paradoxes which are typical of serious thinking (Eliezer Goldman, 1953).

 

And indeed, the description fits both of them, despite the fact that Uri Avnery is an autodidact with wide horizons and Prof. Leibowitz was a scholar in natural science, medicine, philosophy and the Talmud. On the face of it, there is much similarity between the path of their studies, with a small but very significant difference. Neither of them finished elementary school. Yeshayahu Leibowitz studied with private teachers and matriculated at the age of 16, Uri Avnery, on the other hand, was living in poverty with his parents in Tel Aviv and was compelled to leave school at 14 and work for his living.

 

Independent of the level of knowledge they acquired, each of them has an amazing intellectual capacity and both are superb teachers. As mentioned before, Leibowitz was an outstanding lecturer at the university. Uri Avnery taught, guided and directed, both directly and indirectly, on the job, almost all Israeli journalists. Actually, in his capacity as editor of Haolam Hazeh magazine for 40 years, Uri Avnery established a wonderful melting pot where he formed the totality of journalistic endeavor, including the manner of journalistic reporting and investigating, choosing photos and designing the page to please the eye.e  He created a super-modern news magazine that broke with the consensus and attacked the diseases of society and the state. He developed a journalistic approach that was path-breaking and focused, relentlessly chased scoopswithout fear, without favor(the magazines motto), and invented an incisive, up-to-date Hebrew journalistic language. As a result, almost everyone who later became a media luminary had passed through thehigh school of virtual journalismthat he created.

 

Uri Avnery has written interesting, thought provoking and challenging books, in Hebrew, English and German, which have been translated into many languages, several of them with forewords by key figures like the Austrian Chancellor, Bruno Kreisky. Let me mention only some of his books, which are known to all of us:In the Fields of the Philistines, 1948,The Other Side of the Coin, “The War of the Seventh Day (Israel without Zionists)”, “My Friend, the Enemy, andLenin does not Live here Anymore” - his impressions while travelling in the former communist countries soon after the fall of the Berlin wall.  This book is illustrated with photos taken by Rachel Avnery, Uris late wife. At this point, let me make a brief mention of the couple Rachel and Uri Avnery, who lived together for several decades in harmony and mutual respect. This wondrous relationship revealed the warm and human side of Uri, who is generally considered cold, cynical, abrasive and devoid of feelings. During the last months of Rachels life, Uri did not leave her bedside even for a short time.

 

Yeshayahu Leibowitz also wrote many books and even edited the Hebrew Encyclopedia. A study of the writings of both of them discloses many common values, such as total integrity, human sensitivity, love and respect for the human being as such, disgust for war and all other forms of violence, as well as a profound knowledge of world and national history.[], side by side with a global understanding of social and political processes.

 

In spite of the differences in their outlook and personal experience, these two personalities are for me, and I am sure for you, too, giants. So I feel fortunate and grateful to you for inviting me to congratulate Uri Avnery aloud on receiving the Leibowitz Prize.

 

Before concluding, I would like to remark that officially I was invited to congratulate Uri Avnery only. However, when I heard that the grandchildren of Yeshayahu Leibowitz would be sharing the stage with me, I decided to take the opportunity to congratulate Hagit Ofran, too, on receiving the prize. I am also looking forward to hearing the words of Dr. Yanay Ofran, the head of the laboratory for Systems Biology and Functional Genomics  at  Bar-Ilan University. I first met him more than a decade ago when he was a Haaretz reporter, and still remember our long, enjoyable and challenging conversation.