Her Empathy Touched Everyone: Rachel – OpEd


I had the unqualified blessing of living with Rachel Avnery for 58 years. Last Saturday I took leave of her body. She was as beautiful in death as she was in life. I could not take my eyes off her face.

I am writing this to help myself accept the unacceptable. I beg your indulgence.

If a human being can be summed up in one word, hers was: empathy.

She had an uncanny ability to sense the emotions of others. A blessing and a curse. If someone was unhappy, so was she. No one could hide their innermost feelings from her.

Her empathy touched everyone she met. Even in her last months, her nurses were soon telling her their life stories.

Once we went to see a film set in a small Slovak town during the Holocaust. A solitary old woman did not understand what was happening when the Jews were summoned for deportation to the death camps; neighbors had to help her to the assembly point.

We arrived late and found seats in the dark. When the lights came on at the end, Menachem Begin got up in front of us. His eyes, red from weeping, locked with Rachel’s. Oblivious to everybody around, Begin walked straight up to her, took her head in his hands and kissed her on the brow.

In many respects we complemented each other. I tend to abstract thought, she to emotional intelligence. Her wisdom came from life. I am withdrawn, she reached out to people, though she valued her privacy. I am an optimist, she was a pessimist. In every situation, I sense the opportunities, she saw the dangers. I rise in the morning happy, ready for another day’s adventures, she got up late, knowing the day would be bad.

Our backgrounds were very similar – born in Germany to Jewish bourgeois intellectual families, who believed in justice, freedom and equality, coupled with a profound sense of duty. Rachel had all these in abundance, and more. She had an almost fanatical sense of justice.

The first words Rachel ever spoke, when her family had fled the Gestapo to Capri, were “mare schon”, Italian for sea, German for beautiful.

She never read nor wrote German, but learned the language perfectly from speaking with her parents – she even corrected my German grammar.

Rachel, alas, lacked Prussian punctuality. It was a constant source of friction between us. I feel physically ill if I am not on time, Rachel was always, but always, late.

Three times I met her for the first time.

In 1945, I founded a group to propagate the idea of a new Hebrew nation, integral to the Semitic region like the Arabs. Too poor to rent an office, we met at members’ homes.

At one such meeting, a 14-year-old girl, the daughter of the landlord, came in to listen. I noticed fleetingly that she was beautiful.

Five years later I met her again when I was running a popular magazine aimed at revolutionizing everything, including advertising: girls instead of the usual dull text.

We needed a pretty girl for an ad, but there were no professional models in the new state. One of our editors ran a theater group. He introduced me to a member called Rachel.

We took some pictures by the sea, and I took her home on my motorcycle. We fell off in the sand and just laughed.

The third time was at the same experimental theater. There she appeared again, and at some point she tried to guess my age, pledging a kiss for every year she was wrong. She guessed I was five years younger than I was, and we made a date for settling the account.

We continued to date on and off. Once I was to meet her at midnight in a cafe. When I did not arrive, she went to look for me. She found a crowd outside my office, and was told I was in hospital. Some soldiers had attacked me and broken all my fingers.

I was helpless. Rachel offered to help me out for a few days. They lasted 58 years.

We found that living together suited us. Since we despised religious weddings (there being no civil marriage), we lived happily in sin for five years. Then her father fell seriously ill. To set his mind at rest, we married in a hurry, in the private apartment of a rabbi. We borrowed the witnesses and the congregation from another wedding, and the ring from the rabbi’s wife.

That was the last time either of us wore a ring.

For 58 years, she inspected every word I published. That was not easy. Rachel had strict principles, and stuck to them. She covered some of my pages in red ink. Sometimes we had bitter arguments, but in the end, one of us usually conceded – generally me. On the rare occasions we could not agree, I wrote what I felt like (and more than once regretted it).

She struck out all personal attacks she considered unjust. Exaggerations. Every weakness of logic – she would spot contradictions that had escaped me. She improved my Hebrew. But mostly she added the magic word “almost”.

I tend to generalize. “All Israelis know”, “Politicians are cynical” – she would change that to “Almost all Israelis “, “Most politicians” We joked that she was sprinkling “almost”s on my articles as a cook sprinkles salt on food.

She never wrote an article herself. Nor gave interviews. To such requests she would respond: “What did I marry a spokesman for?”

But her real talents lay elsewhere. She was the ultimate teacher, a calling she pursued for 28 long years.

This happened quite unplanned, after she was sent on an army course for teachers.

Before the course finished, she was practically kidnapped by an elementary school principal. Long before she received her teacher’s certificate, she was a legend. Parents with connections pulled strings to get their children into her class. There was a joke that mothers planned their pregnancies so that the child would be 6 years old when Rachel taught the first grade. (She agreed to teach only the first and second grade, as the last chance of shaping a child’s character.)

Her pupils included the children of illustrious artists and men of letters. Recently, a middle aged man called to us in the street “Teacher Rachel, I was your pupil in first grade! I owe you everything!”

How did she do it? By treating children as human beings and nurturing their self-respect. If a boy couldn’t read, she put him in charge of tidiness in the classroom. If a girl was rejected by prettier classmates, she would be the good fairy in a play. She drew satisfaction from seeing them open up like flowers in the sun. She spent hours explaining to backward parents their children’s needs.

During the school holidays, her children were raring to get back to class.

She had a purpose: to instill human values.

There was the story about Abraham and the burial site for Sarah. Ephron the Hittite refuses money. Abraham insists on paying. After a long and beautiful exchange, Ephron winds it up: “The land is worth four hundred shekels of silver. What is that betwixt me and thee?” (Genesis 23). Rachel told the children that this is still the Bedouin way of doing business, leading up to the deal in a civilized manner.

After the lesson, Rachel asked the teacher of the parallel class how she explained this episode to her pupils. “I told them that this is typical Arab hypocrisy! They are all born liars! If he wanted money, why didn’t he say so directly?”

I like to think that all of Rachel’s children – or almost all of them – have turned out as better human beings.

I followed her experiments in education closely, and she my journalistic and political exploits. Basically we were attempting the same: she to educate individuals, I the public at large.

After 28 years, Rachel felt that she had lost her edge. She did not believe a teacher should continue after their eagerness has been blunted.

The final push came when I crossed the lines in Beirut in 1982 and met Yasser Arafat. It was a world sensation. With me were two young women on my editorial staff: a correspondent and a photographer. Rachel felt left out of one of the most exciting events in my life, and decided to change direction.

Without telling me, she took a course in photography. Weekslater, pictures of an event were laid before me. I chosethe best – which just happened to be hers. The secret was out. She became an enthusiastic photographer, with a remarkable creative talent – always focused on people.

In early 1993, when Yitzhak Rabin deported 215 Islamic activists across the Lebanese border, protest tents were erected opposite his office. We camped out for 45 wintry days and nights. Rachel, the only woman who was there the whole time, struck up a beautiful friendship with the most extreme Islamic sheikh, Ra’ed Salah. He really respected her. They joked together.

In these tents, we founded Gush Shalom. For her, the injustice done to the Palestinians was intolerable.

She was the photographer at all our events. She took pictures of hundreds of demonstrations, rushing around, taking shots in front and behind, sometimes in clouds of tear gas – despite her doctor’s warnings. Twice she collapsed in the burning sun, crossing harsh terrain to protest against the Wall.

When the Gush needed a financial manager, she volunteered. Although it was completely against her nature, she became a meticulous administrator, with a Prussian sense of duty, working on the kitchen table late into the night. She much preferred her unofficial function – maintaining human contact with activists, listening to their problems. She was the soul of the movement.

She could be very abrasive, too. Far from being a starry- eyed do-gooder, she detested liars, hypocrites and people who did wrong.

She never liked Ariel Sharon, even during the years when we visited each other’s homes to talk about the 1973 War.

Lili Sharon loved her, Arik liked her too. There is a photo of him spoon-feeding her with his favorite dish (food was unimportant for her). Rachel did not let me show anyone the picture. After the 1982 Lebanon invasion, we broke contact.

Once, Sharon’s confidant, Dov Weisglas, whom she could notforgive his nasty remarks about the Palestinians, spotted me in a restaurant, came over and shook my hand. But Rachel left his hand dangling in the air. Embarrassing.

When she liked people, she showed it. She liked Yasser Arafat, and he liked her. We went to see him many times in Tunis and later in Palestine, and he treated her with utmost courtesy, allowing her to take pictures of him at any time, showering her with presents. Once he gave her a necklace and insisted on putting it on her himself. With his poor eyesight, he fumbled for a long time. It was a wonderful sight, but his official photographer did not react. Rachel was furious.

When we served as a human shield for the besieged Palestinian President, Arafat kissed her on the brow and led her by the hand to the entrance.

Few people knew that she carried an incurable disease – Hepatitis C. It lay like a sleeping leopard at her doorstep. She knew that it could wake up any minute and devour her.

The unexplained infection was discovered more than 20 years ago. Every doctor’s appointment could have meant a death sentence. She collapsed five months ago. There were many signs of this approaching, which I ignored but she clearly saw.

During these five months, I spent every minute with her. Every new day was like a precious gift for me, though she was inexorably sinking. We both knew, but pretended that everything was going to be alright.

She had no pains, but increasing difficulty eating, remembering, and, towards the end, speaking. It was heart- rending to see her struggling for words. For two days she was in a coma, and then she slipped away unconsciously and painlessly.

She had insisted that nothing be done to prolong her life artificially. It was a terrible moment when I asked the doctors to stop their efforts and let her die.

In accordance with her wishes, her body was cremated, against Jewish tradition. Her ashes were scattered on the Tel Aviv seashore, opposite the window where she had spent so much time gazing out. So the words of William Wordsworth, which she loved and often repeated, do not strictly apply:

“But she is in her grave, and oh, The difference to me.”

Once, in a moment of weakness exploited by a film-maker, she complained that I had never said “I love you”. True enough: I find these three words incurably banal, devalued by Hollywood kitsch. They certainly are not adequate for my feelings towards her – she had become a part of me.

When she was fading, I whispered “I love you”. I don’t know if she heard.

After she died, I sat for an hour with my eyes fixed on her face”. She was beautiful.

A German friend sent me a saying which I find strangely comforting. It translates as:

“Don’t be sad that she left you, Be glad that she was with you for so many years.”

Uri Avnery

Uri Avnery is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. Avnery sat in the Knesset from 1965-74 and 1979-81 and was the owner of HaOlam HaZeh, an Israeli news magazine, from 1950 until it closed in 1993. He is famous for crossing the lines during the Battle of Beirut to meet Yassir Arafat on 3 July 1982, the first time the Palestinian leader ever met with an Israeli. Avnery is the author of several books about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including 1948: A Soldier’s Tale, the Bloody Road to Jerusalem (2008); Israel’s Vicious Circle (2008); and My Friend, the Enemy (1986).

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