Within the space of two weeks, Israel has bidden farewell to two of its charismatic political figures, both of whom were involved in the evolution of the state from its earliest years.
Ariel Sharon and Shulamit Aloni could not have been more different in their views or character.
Sharon, the warrior, whose military prowess made him into a folklore-type hero for those who believed Israel could only ever count on its own might and strength. Right-wing in his views, without whom there would not have been the settlement network which exists today, banned from returning to the Defense Ministry because of Sabra and Shatila, ending up as the prime minister who ironically authorized the construction of the separation barrier and the evacuation of the settlements from the Gaza Strip.
Aloni, also a warrior, in the battle for democracy, human rights and equality. Basic rights of women, of children, of the sick, which we all take for granted, would not be as strongly rooted today were it not for the pioneering work of Aloni to establish the necessary governmental and state frameworks for ensuring that these rights are upheld. This was, in many ways, a much more difficult war than the one waged by Sharon. A heroic soldier has always been idealized in Israel as typifying the new self-confident Jew, while the fight for human rights and equality has often been disparaged as being the “soft” belly of society.
Aloni’s relatively short-lived tenure as education minister was as important for the values of democracy and citizenship (which unfortunately are at this very moment being eroded by the witch-hunt against teachers and lecturers who introduce political values and ideology in their classrooms) as was Sharon’s tenure as housing minister for the establishment of settlements and civilian infrastructure beyond the Green Line.
As far as the Israel-Palestine conflict is concerned, they were complete opposites. Sharon only came round to settlement evacuation and disengagement because of the demographic realities, not because he believed in the establishment of a Palestinian state as an ideological or moral imperative. Quite the opposite, he opposed the establishment of a Palestinian state for most of his life and saw the construction of the separation barrier, forced upon him by left- and right-wing politicians alike, as the de facto establishment of a political border to which he was opposed.
Aloni was vehemently opposed to Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the denial of Palestinian political and human rights. Not because they were Palestinians but because they were human beings who deserved to share the same rights of independence, democracy and right to self-determination as the Jews, a cause for which she had fought in the Palmach and in the early years of the state.
Championing human rights, regardless of ethnic or national origin and despite the realities of conflict, was a universal value which drew on Jewish moral teachings, an idea which appears to have been alien in Sharon’s worldview.
Each began their political careers as part of the establishment (Sharon in the Likud, Aloni in the Labor Party). Due to ideological differences, both broke away to form their own political parties (Sharon established the ShlomZion party, Aloni established Ratz, the precursor to Meretz) and each was finally co-opted into government and eventually attained senior ministerial positions.
The trappings of long-term power were less important to Aloni, or so it would appear, than to Sharon, and once ousted from the leadership of Meretz she did not seek a comeback in the way that Sharon felt obligated to oust those who had ousted him.
Aloni remained true to her ideals and did not change them to suit the particular political climate of the time. She respected the ground rules of democracy more than did Sharon and although she was not totally free of political manipulations (few politicians are), her achievements in this respect were limited compared to the party political machinations of Sharon.
She was not a populist and for this reason never commanded the sort of mass grass roots support or adulation of ordinary people that Sharon succeeded in gaining among some elements in the Israeli population.
Both were totally secular in their personal lives but each called on Jewish and biblical history in their political discourses. Sharon drew strongly on biblical stories, geography and history, while Aloni drew strongly on biblical and prophetic teachings. Each believed strongly in the raison d’etre of the State of Israel, but each interpreted differently the meaning of what it means to be a Jewish and democratic atate.
Aloni was much more knowledgeable about the Bible and Jewish sources than was Sharon, but it was the latter who, despite his own lack of religion or tradition, ingratiated himself with many of the country’s religious and spiritual leaders.
Each were independent-minded, obstinate and outspoken. They both fervently believed that the policies espoused by the “other” were tantamount to national suicide and a betrayal of the values around which the state was created in the first place.
As a result, each was bitterly despised, and even hated, by their religious and ideological opponents.
Sharon was perceived as intrinsically anti-Arab, and a destroyer of peace. Aloni was perceived as an anti-religious fanatic, who supported pluralism and a secular Jewish agenda. The Left truly hated Sharon, while the Right and the religious truly hated Aloni.
But despite the antagonism that each of them managed to foment among their opponents, each was appropriately eulogized by the country’s political leaders and, with some noticeable exceptions (such as the settler population), by those who were at the opposite end of the political spectrum. It was however noticeable that not a single member of the government, not even the education minister, was present at Aloni’s funeral.
As we survey the contemporary political landscape of Israel, it is difficult to find those who have the courage of their convictions, personal charisma and the thickness of skin to promote their beliefs in the way both Sharon and Aloni did. If they were alive, they would vehemently object to any such comparison being made between them. But we just don’t have the same type of independent and bloody-minded, obstinate political leaders today, the type that is ready to stand up against the whole world for what they believe.
It is the passing of these two larger-than-life personalities which leads us to reflect on the mediocrity and lack of leadership among the contemporary political elites.
The author is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed in this article are his alone.