Acceptance speech – Uri and Rachel Avnery / Gush Shalom

Ours is but a small part in a world-wide struggle for peace, justice and equality between human beings and between nations, for the preservation of our planet.

Madam Speaker, Honourable Members of Parliament, Ladies and Gentlemen,

On this day, the seventh of December, exactly fifty-three years ago, I was hit in the belly by a burst of machine-gun bullets. After many months of bitter fighting, I knew that I had little chance of surviving.

It was broad daylight and I was lying in full view of the enemy machine-gun. But four of my soldiers, new immigrants from Morocco, ran up to me and under fierce fire carried me to safety. After a long and bumpy journey on a jeep, without morphine, I reached the army hospital, just in time for the doctors to operate on me and save my life.

I lay there for many days, unable to sleep or eat, connected to pipes and instruments, surrounded by soldiers in agony, some dying, some losing limbs, and thinking, thinking, thinking.

–  Thinking about my comrades, who had lost their lives or become invalids.
–  Thinking about the unseen inhabitants of the villages that my company had conquered. After all, we had often entered houses where the oven was still hot and the uneaten meal was still on the table, left behind by the families who had escaped only a few minutes before and become refugees.
–  Thinking about the tragedy of the war between these two peoples, we, the new Israelis, they, the Palestinians.

I was 25 years old and had to decide what to do with the rest of my life, a life – I felt – that had been given to me as a gift by those four young men who risked theirs to save mine.

Lying in bed, sleepless and forever thirsty, I decided that my life must have a purpose, and that the only purpose worth living for was to bring an end to this tragic war, to make peace between our peoples, the Israelis and the Palestinians. My goal became making peace, saving lives and being part of the march of humanity towards a civilized world order without war and hunger and oppression.

Since then, for 53 years, I have tried hard to live up to that commitment. I created a magazine, and as its editor, for 40 years, I battled against the demagogues preaching national and religious hatred. As a member of the Knesset for ten years. I strove for a democratic, liberal, secular, multi-ethnic, civil society in Israel, based on equality and social justice, living in close partnership with a free, sovereign State of Palestine.

I was never alone in this fight. Throughout it, I was lucky to be in the company of courageous men and women, who had embraced the cause of peace and justice. In the beginning we were few, a mere handful, but in the course of the struggle our numbers grew.

To many it seems that our cause is a labor of Sisyphus. And indeed, the disappointments on the way have been many and heart-breaking. But the victories gained are far more important.

When we set out, more than 50 years ago, there was hardly an Israeli who was ready to admit that a Palestinian people even exists, let alone that it had any rights. Only 30 years ago, Golda Meir, then Prime Minister of Israel, declared that “there is no such thing as a Palestinian people”. Today, there is hardly an Israeli who denies the existence of the Palestinian people.

When we said, 40 years ago, that there must be a State of Palestine alongside the State of Israel, it sounded mad. Today, the vast majority of Israelis believe that there will be no peace without it.

When we said, 30 years ago, that we must negotiate with the Palestinian Liberation Organization, it sounded like treason. Indeed, when I first met Yasser Arafat during the battle of Beirut, several Israeli cabinet ministers demanded that I be put on trial for high treason. Today, Israeli cabinet ministers stand in line at Yasser Arafat’s door.

When, six years ago, we coined the slogan “Jerusalem – Capital of Two States”, we were accused of breaking the national consensus. But last year, when the Israeli delegation at Camp David suggested turning over several Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem to the future Palestinian state, hardly any protest was heard in Israel.

The road in front of us is hard and dangerous. Let us not underestimate the force of hatred, fear and prejudice, bred by 120 years of conflict. But when we look back at the long road we have traveled, we can say with confidence that the end is already in sight. Dark as the night may be, we know that the dawn of a new day will come.

Nine years ago Rachel and I took part in a protest against the  decision of the Rabin government to expel 415 Islamic activists from the country. We put up a tent in Jerusalem, opposite the Prime Minister’s office, and lived there, Jews and Arabs, for 45 days and nights. It was an almost Scandinavian winter. For several days Jerusalem was covered with snow and we either shivered in the freezing cold or were choked by the open Beduin fire, and we talked about the failure of the old peace movement, which was unwilling to protest against a Labor party government.

There and then we decided to set up a new peace movement – independent, militant, uncorrupted by a craving for popularity, determined to stick to the truth even when faced with hatred. Thus Gush Shalom, the Peace Bloc, was born.

Rachel and I accept this prize first of all as a salute to the hundreds of activists of Gush Shalom: the women and men, old and young, who give their all – time, energy, money and, most important of all, their faith – to the cause of peace and justice; who go out in pouring rain and the scorching sun to demonstrate against injustice and oppression, braving the hatred and threats and violence of self-appointed patriots. They have remained true to their convictions even when despair and resignation seemed to gain the upper hand, when all around them other peace groups collapsed and gave up.

To all of these, and to all other peace activists in Israel, I send from here, this beautiful city, a message of good cheer and hope: Let us keep our heads up high, for our cause will prevail. Whatever the odds, however difficult the road, even when the forces of evil and ignorance seem to be winning – the future belongs to us, the forces of peace and conciliation, the true patriots of Israel and Palestine, two peoples, two states, but with one common future.

This prize is a tremendous encouragement to all of us. We accept it with gratitude and humility. It reminds us that ours is but a small part in a world-wide struggle for peace, justice and equality between human beings and between nations, for the preservation of our planet. It can all be summed up in one word, which both in Hebrew and in Arabic means not only peace, but also wholeness, security and wellbeing:

Shalom, Salaam.

Uri Avnery
Gush Shalom
PO Box 3322
Tel Aviv 61033