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Shulamit Aloni -- I Cannot Imagine Israel Without Her Meretz

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David Rubinger via Getty Images
David Rubinger via Getty Images

Shulamit Aloni, who first widened civil rights consciousness among Israelis, died last Friday at 85.
Born in Tel Aviv in 1928 to immigrant Polish parents, Aloni was descended from a long line of rabbis. This was not without irony; Aloni would become a thorn in the side of the ultra-Orthodox religious-right wing in Israel, but thanks to her background, she could go one-on-one with fundamentalist rabbis when it came to religious knowledge.

Israelis first heard Aloni's distinctive voice in 1959 on the radio in Outside Working Hours, a program dealing with human rights and women's rights. She entered politics in the 1960s; in the '70s began her unceasing efforts to dialogue with the Palestinians for a peaceful settlement, eventually aligning herself with Shalom Achshav (Peace Now).

At the same time, Aloni involved herself in creating what are known as Israel's Basic Laws, more or less equivalent to a bill of rights in the country's uncodified constitution. But it isn't for her resumé, distinctive as it is, that Shulamit Aloni occupies so profound a place in the hearts and minds of Israelis like me.

The word 'Meretz' means energy in Hebrew, and Aloni's unique energy mobilized change in Israel on all human dimensions since its founding more than half a century ago. Meretz is a suitable name of the party that she formed and chaired in 1992, the alliance of Israel's three left-wing parties, including her own Ratz (the Citizen's Rights Movement she formed in 1973). My son Ron who voted for Meretz in the last elections told me (to my delight), "I cannot imagine Israel without Meretz in our Knesset." Me too.

When I was a teenager and young adult in Israel, during the '70s ad '80s, I felt about Shulamit Aloni as friends in the United States felt in the '60s about Martin Luther King, Gloria Steinem, or Robert Kennedy. In a way, Aloni combined the courage, intelligence, provocativeness, chutzpa and charisma of all three of those extraordinary leaders -- the transforming eloquence of King, the unapologetic toughness of Steinem, the intense passion of Kennedy. She was Israel's unwavering fighter for social revolution who made a profound impact on the full spectrum of civil rights -- for women, gays, Palestinians -- as well as on education, social democracy, and the peace.

Her disciple, journalist and left wing Knesset member Yossi Sarid, wrote this Sunday in Haaretz about the legacy of Shulamit Aloni, whom he described as "our fearless teacher:"

"[She] made us aware of inequality of women. Who but she had even thought of it as a problem? [Prime Minister] 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... [She] 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... She was one of the first to make us aware of the occupation...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."

Shulamit Aloni was Israel's ultimate liberal. John F. Kennedy defined a liberal as follows, himself included (in Authur Schlesinger, A Thousand Days, John F. Kennedy in the White House, p. 99):

"...someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people--their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties--someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a 'Liberal', then I'm proud to say I'm a 'Liberal'."

Like those American heroes of the 1960s, Shulamit showed me and my friends a way to be. For one thing, she was fearless. She never stopped challenging the establishment -- generals, rabbis, government ministers. She was always accessible and curious. Five years ago I found myself sitting next to her at the tiny hairdresser salon in her neighborhood Kfar Shmaryahu. Surprised and excited, I introduced myself, reminding her of a few meetings we had at education conferences in the '90s. She asked me to update her about my edtech work. We talked about the power of education technology in equalizing learning opportunities and alleviating poverty, and the fire was the same. She had not only the fire but sharp policy thoughts on how things ought to be changed.

Journalist Noam Sheifaz put it in his blog-post tribute to Aloni, "she just couldn't be bullied," -- and that's true, and a pretty fantastic role model for young ambitious women (e.g., me) in a country led by chauvinistic generals and rigid rabbis. After all, my father taught me to question everything and take care of everyone through education...

As a young woman, I didn't just feel that Aloni was speaking to me; I felt she was speaking for me, articulating my beliefs and summoning my generation to action. Although at the time of her death she had long been out of government, she never stopped speaking out against injustice and for peace, and her influence continued to be felt. And I believe it will outlive her.

Aloni committed herself to the socialist Zionist movement at a young age. She fought with the Palmach, the elite underground fighting force of Israel's independence movement, and at one point was captured by Jordanian forces. After the formation of the state of Israel in 1948, she taught school while she studied law; she married, raised three sons, wrote six books, legislated, founded political parties, served in the Knesset. She was a woman who did it all.

She was Israel's education minister (1992-93) and science minister (1993-96) in the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. As education minister, she became the instant target of the religious parties, yet in my view, she was probably the best education minister Israel has ever had. Once she left the Knesset, she continued to speak out against the Israeli occupation and on human rights issues.

In 2000, Aloni was awarded the Israel Prize, Israel's highest honor, given for a lifetime of achievements that have contributed to society and the State of Israel. The religious right went ballistic over this, but most of the nation applauded, for even those who disagreed with Aloni said of her, as the current Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon said after her death on January 24, that "her contribution to the dialogue of democracy in Israel was extremely significant. Even though there were considerable disagreements in our views on a range of topics, I always valued her determination to fight for her values and to express them loud and clear." Ya'alon added that "arguing with her was a challenge" that forced him to raise his game. "Her doctrine was always well-organized and her beliefs were sincere."

Israel's President Shimon Peres eulogized Aloni:

[She] was a fighter for peace and civil rights, and she left a mark in the struggle for women, minorities and those weakened in the society. She was a bold democratic and social fighter. She had a rare combination of sharp intellect, power, individual opinion and social sensitivity.

It's worth stopping to remember a life that was lived in dedication to each of us simply for being human. Her seminal public activities, government roles, legislation and publications can be found on the Knesset website.

Aloni changed the conversation in 20th-Century Israel. She positioned human rights as the central focus of the drive for peace, not because border security was secondary, but in the belief that security that was only about borders (e.g., Ariel Sharon's perspective) was no security at all. Instead, the rights of people and moral security were central to her and at the top of her agenda for any discussion of security issues.

Shulamit Aloni was a lioness for justice. She called it like she saw it and never stopped stalking the landscape in pursuit of righting wrongs. Every country needs more Shulamit Alonis.

Aloni's publications include these books: Children`s Rights in Israel (1964); A Citizen and His Country (first edition, 1958, tenth edition, 1986); The Arrangement: From a State of Law to a State of Religion, on Relations Between State and Religion (1970); Women as Human Beings (1976).