Shulamit Aloni – A Beacon of Tolerance Amidst a Sea of Racism
Shulamit Aloni – A Beacon of Tolerance Amidst a Sea of Racism
The Death of Shulamit Aloni and the idea of a progressive Zionism
It is with sadness that I learnt of the death of Shulamit Aloni, who formed the Civil Rights Party in 1973, which then went onto form an alliance with the ‘left’ Zionist Mapam and Centre Party Shinui Meretz, in 1992.
Shulamit was leader of Meretz for many years, having previously been an MK for Mapai (Israeli Labour Party). She was a Zionist but one of the few who genuinely believed in peace. She was the last of the Magnes Zionists. Whereas Mapam, which joined Meretz, had a militaristic history and fully participated in the Nakba, and the massacre of Palestinians, Ratz genuinely had a commitment to civil rights and Aloni herself supported, for example, the refusal of soldiers to serve in the West Bank.
A feminist she fought against the oppression of women and the virulent hatred of the Orthodox for gays. She was one of the first to oppose the Occupation of The Territories. She herself wanted to see a complete separation between religion and state and when she was a member of the Rabin government in 1992, she was shunted into a minor ministerial post from being Education Minister after the National Religious Party joined Rabin’s government. It couldn’t stand a woman having responsibility for the grants that the extreme anti-Arab Yeshivahs (relilgious seminaries).
Shulamit Aloni, then education minister, talking to students in 1992.
Photo by David Rubinger/Time Life Pictures, via Getty Images
Return, Return oh Shulamit
Shulamit Aloni as a young woman with her mother.
By Uri Avnery, Gush Shalom, February 01, 2014
PETE SEEGER touched my life only once. But what a touch. It was a few days before the 1967 Six-Day War. After almost three weeks of mounting tension, the war fever was nearing breaking point. I knew that the war was only days, perhaps hours, away. Dina Dinur, the wife of the Holocaust-writer K. Zetnik, called to invite me to meet Pete Seeger. Dina, a huge woman, had for years gathered a small group of Jewish and Arab intellectuals who met regularly in her home to discuss peace.
The meeting took place in Tel Aviv’s Hilton hotel. It was sad, depressed, but also uplifting in a strange way. We were thinking about all the young men, ours and theirs, still alive and breathing, who were going to die in the next few days.
We were a group of two or three dozen people, Jews and Arabs. Pete sang for us, accompanying himself on the guitar, songs about peace, humanity, rebellion. We were all deeply stirred.
I never met Pete Seeger again. But 19 years later, out of the blue, I received a postcard from him. It said in clear handwriting: “Dear Uri Avnery – Just a note of deep thanks to you for continuing to reach out, and take action. I hope next time you are in USA my family and I can get to hear you. Pete Seeger.” Then three Chinese characters and a sketch of what seems to be a banjo.
TWO DAYS before Pete passed away, we buried Shulamit Aloni. Perhaps some of those who took part in that earlier sad meeting were present this time, too.
Shula, as we called her, was one of the few leaders of the Israeli Left who made a lasting imprint on Israeli society.
Though she was five years younger than I, we belonged to the same generation, the one which fought in the 1948 war. Our lives ran on parallel lines – lines which, as we learnt at school, can be very close but never touch.
We were both elected to the Knesset at the same time. Before that, we were active in the same field. I was the editor of a magazine that was prominent, among other things, in the fight for human rights. She was a teacher and lawyer, already famous for defending citizen’s rights in the press and on radio.
That sounds easy, but at the time it was revolutionary. Post-1948 Israel was still a country where The State was everything, citizens were there merely to serve the state, and especially the army. The collective was everything, the individual next to nothing. Shula was preaching the opposite: the state was there to serve its citizens. Citizens have rights that cannot be taken away or diminished. This has become part of the Israeli consensus.
HOWEVER, THERE was a great difference between our situations. Shula came from the heart of the establishment, which hated my guts. She was born in a poor part of Tel Aviv, and when both her parents enlisted in the British army during World War II, she was sent to the youth village Ben Shemen, a center of Zionist indoctrination. One of her schoolmates was Shimon Peres. At the same time I was a member of the Irgun, in stark opposition to the Zionist leadership.
After Ben Shemen, Shula joined Kibbutz Alonim – hence her adopted family name – where she met and married Reuven, who became prominent as a senior government official in charge of judaizing Galilee.
Apart from writing articles and dealing with citizens’ complaints on the radio, she performed illegal wedding ceremonies. In Israel, weddings are the exclusive province of the Rabbinate, which does not recognize women’s equality.
In the Knesset she was a member of the ruling Labor Party (then called Mapai) and subject to strict party discipline. I was a one-man faction, free to do as I pleased. So I could do many things she couldn’t, such as submitting bills to legalize abortions, to allow harvesting organs for transplantation, annulling the old British law against homosexual relations between consenting adults, and such.
Against religious dominion: Dozens of people demonstrate on Shabbat,
September 2009, against the lack of public transportation in Jerusalem
on Shabbat during a Meretz party protest called “Shabbat of Freedom.” Photo by Alon Hooter.
I also demanded a total separation between the state and religion. Shula was known for her attacks on religious coercion concerning civil rights. Therefore I was utterly surprised when in one of our first conversations she strenuously objected to such separation. “I am a Zionist,” she said, “The only thing that unites all Jews around the world is the Jewish religion. That is why there can be no separation between the state and the Jewish religion in Israel.”
From there on, her outlook widened from year to year. To my mind, she followed the inescapable logic of the Left. From her original concentration on citizens’ rights, she moved to human rights in general. From there to the separation of state and synagogue. From there to feminism. From there to social justice. And, in the end, to peace and the fight against the occupation. Throughout she remained a Zionist.
This was no easy path. In early 1974, when she was elected to the Knesset again, this time as the leader of a small party, while I lost my seat, I took her in my car to a meeting in Haifa. On the way, which took about an hour, I told her that now, as a party leader, she must get active in the fight for peace. “Let’s divide the task between us,” she answered, “You deal with peace and I deal with civil rights.”
But 20 years later, Shula was already a leading voice for peace, for a Palestinian state, against the occupation.
Golda Meir – the Great Hater
WE HAD another thing in common. Golda Meir hated our guts.
Shula could disregard the party line as long as the benevolent Levy Eshkol was prime minister. When he suddenly died and the scepter passed to Golda, the rules changed abruptly. Golda had a domineering personality, and, as David Ben-Gurion once said about her, the only thing she was good at was hating. Shula, a young and good-looking woman, with unorthodox ideas, aroused her ire. In 1969 she removed Shula from the party list. In 1973, when Shula tried again, Golda showed the full force of her spite: at the very last minute she removed Shula again.
It was too late for Shula to go through the lengthy procedure of setting up a new party list. But a miracle happened. A group of feminists had prepared a list of their own, with all the necessary requirements already completed, but without a chance of passing the minimum threshold. It was an ideal combination: a leader without a list for a list without a leader. During the last hours of the time allocated for the submission of the lists, I saw Shula struggling with a huge pile of papers, trying to bring some order to the hundreds of signatures. I helped her to do the job. Thus the new party, now called Meretz, came into being and won three seats on its first attempt.
HER HOUR of glory came in 1992. Meretz won 250,667 votes and became a political force. The new Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, needed her for his new government. Shula became Minister of Education, a job she coveted.
The trouble was that the 44 seats of the Labor Party and the 12 seats of Meretz were not enough. Rabin needed a religious party to form a government.
The transition from opposition fighter to cabinet minister is not always easy. It was especially hard for Shula, who was more of a preacher than a politician. Politics – as Bismarck famously remarked – is the art of the possible, and compromise came hard to Shula.
Nonetheless, right at the beginning, when Rabin decided to expel 415 radical Islamic citizens from the country, Shula voted in favor. During the protest against this outrage, my friends and I founded Gush Shalom. Shula later admitted that her support for the expulsion was an “eclipse of the sun”.
But the main trouble was to come. Shula never believed in hiding her opinions. She was totally honest. Perhaps too honest. As Minister of Education she dispensed her opinions freely. Too freely. Every time she said what she thought about some chapter of the Bible and such, the religious coalition partners exploded. The climax came when she announced that in all schools, the theories of Charles Darwin would replace the Biblical creation story. That was just too much. The religious demanded that Rabin remove Shula from the education ministry. Rabin was occupied with the Oslo peace process and needed the religious parties. Shula was removed from the ministry.
AT HER funeral, one of her two sons, in a brilliant eulogy, hinted darkly at the “treachery” which was the hardest moment of her life. All those present understood what he meant, though he did not elaborate. When Rabin dismissed Shula from her beloved job as Education Minister, her party colleagues did not come to her aid. Among themselves they accused her of acting foolishly. She should have known that joining a coalition with the religious parties would demand a price. If she was not ready to shut her mouth, she should not have joined in the first place.
Meretz was the creation of Shula. Party founders are generally strong personalities, with whom it is not easy to cooperate. Shula’s party colleagues conspired against her, and eventually she was replaced as party leader by Yossi Sarid, a sharp-tongued Labor Party politician who had lately joined Meretz. In the next election, Meretz crashed from 12 seats to three. During the last few years, she was rarely in the public eye. I never saw her at demonstrations in the occupied territories, but she lectured incessantly to anyone, anywhere, when invited.
IN ONE of his frequent outbursts of vulgarity, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef of the Shas party said: “When Shulamit Aloni dies, there will be a feast!”
There was no feast this week. Even the Right acknowledges her contribution to Israel. The Meretz party, now with six members in the Knesset, is doing well in the polls.
The sixth chapter of the Song of Songs ends with the call: “Return, return oh Shulamite, return, return!” No chance of that. Not much chance of another Shulamit Aloni, either. They don’t make them like that anymore.
Shula made us aware of civil and human rights, the inequality of women, the plight of the gay community and the darkness of the occupation. Her legacy was great, but she didn’t leave behind enough heirs.
Yossi Sarid Jan. 24, 2014
I have had no teacher in my public life except for Shulamit Aloni – she was my only teacher, our great teacher. Nothing is more painful to me than having my name tied to the story of her resignation from politics, but I won’t set history straight today. Perhaps some other time, perhaps not.
I heard a radio presenter today speaking about “the woman people loved to hate.” It’s true, many people hated her, many loved her, and nobody remained indifferent. What can be worse and more insulting to a person − especially a political person − than indifference? “Oh, just another of that ilk – how boring is this place around us, really, one big yawn.” But Shula, on the other hand, always provoked, stirred and challenged.
After a death everyone asks about legacy: What mark or message does the deceased leave behind? And then everyone immediately tries to pull that legacy toward them, as if it is a blanket that is too small to cover them all.
Not in Shula’s death. Though we part from her, we cannot part from what she bestowed upon us all, those ideas and duties that are as pertinent now as they have ever been. Who can snatch away that legacy? Who would try to usurp it? Who would dare?
Shula made us aware of civil rights for the first time, and it’s her creed that we passed onto the generations that followed. Not only the state has rights, as we were taught, and the state is not a deity, demanding sacrifice and worship. I seriously doubt today’s Education Ministry would allow tender souls to be corrupted by her civics books, which have not lost their worth.
Shula also made us aware of human rights. There are some who live among us who aren’t citizens, but are human beings nevertheless, with a full claim to inalienable rights. In a time when asylum seekers are high-handedly deported, Shula would surely have had something to ask the deporters: Aren’t you ashamed?
And Shula made us aware of inequality of women. Who but her had even thought of it as a problem? Golda Meir certainly didn’t. She held the highest office in Israel and was content at that. But Shulamit Aloni knew well that there are other women besides her, and that they still suffer egregious deprivation and discrimination.
Shula made us see that gay men and women and transgenders are people, same as everyone. Over 25 years ago she already fought to get them out of the closet of shame, fear and persecution.
Shula made us face the inherent tension between religion and state, between politics and faith. Who didn’t gape askance, or wring hands in a sigh, when hearing her demand to separate them? Yes, protecting the eminence of the state and the honor of religion, it is essential to detach the devout, to sever apart the forces that infect the country with ultra-nationalism and poison religion with zealotry. Leaving the two glued together is a recipe for disaster.
She was one of the first to make us aware of the occupation. That untold region beyond the hills of darkness, in which only a few ever bother to take an interest. The day will come when the state of occupied territories and occupying settlers will consume the state of Israel, which will then cast off the form of democracy and take the shape of apartheid.
Who but Shula could single-handedly start a movement that for decades onward would have an actual impact on the quality of living in Israel? One can picture our political landscape without other, superfluous parties, but not without Meretz, for all its ups and downs. Never letting her convictions be scattered to the wind, Shula has sown them with her spirit in every virgin soil.
And above all, “you’ve got nothing to fear.” And indeed she feared not. What she had to say she said, even when you didn’t want to listen. You may have lost out on her, but Shula won herself integrity and an inimitable image.
In recent years, when we were upset or afraid, we would talk. I would call, she would call – never to gush out personal matters but to talk and feel no better for doing so. So she always urged action − we must do something, we must protest and resist, we must at least get our voice heard; if not we, then who? And if not now, when? Many of my columns in Haaretz were written at her urging and under her inspiration.
Shulamit Aloni left behind a legacy – that much is certain. What’s uncertain is whether she left behind enough heirs. And I never forgot the big shoes I filled.