As Israel held its third election in a year, and the US has never been divided more virulently along partisan lines, it is inspiring to remember how two women, at opposite ends of the ideological divide in Israel, shared some elements of their history, respected each other, were good friends in spite of their differences and joined together for a higher cause. Now, too, the hope is that we overcome our divisions to unite, just as these women did.
I’m referring to Geula Cohen, who passed away on December 18, 2019, at almost 94 years old, and Shulamit Aloni, who died three years earlier.
Cohen and Aloni were fierce opponents in the political arena of the Knesset and beyond. They were both fervent Zionists, though they had different views on how one achieves the Zionist dream.
Interestingly, the one Knesset committee on which they sat together was the Committee for the Advancement of Women.
But even more significant is the Pollard story.
In the year 1988, I was present, as a journalist, at a meeting in a Knesset conference room, where they flanked Carol Pollard at the head of the table – Cohen to Carol’s right, Aloni to her left (probably coincidentally). According to Judy Siegel of The Jerusalem Post, the meeting was initiated by Cohen. There were 20 MKs present at the meeting and it was decided to form a caucus “to help Jonathan and Anne Pollard [who was severely ill] get more humane treatment in prison and, eventually, come on aliya.”
Siegel noted that Carol Pollard also met with cabinet secretary Elyakim Rubinstein, “the first time that any official representative of the government agreed to see a member of the Pollard family. He listened and was very warm as a person…” A year later, when she came again to meet with the caucus, she told Maariv that Rubinstein told her that he was certain that prime minister Yitzhak Shamir would do everything he could for the Pollards. The Knesset caucus also reportedly said in 1989 that they would work to obtain a meeting with US president George H.W. Bush to relay to him how necessary it was to lighten the Pollards’ sentences and to allow them to emigrate to Israel.
Yisrael Medad, past director of education and information resources of the Menachem Begin Heritage Center, says that the lobby was comprised of 70 MKs known as the Caucus on Behalf of Jonathan Pollard.
Cohen and Aloni – Who were these two intense women?
According to the Knesset website, Cohen joined Etzel in 1942 and a year later joined Lehi (the Stern gang); she was also an announcer on the Lehi Radio station. In 1946, she was arrested by the British and imprisoned in Bethlehem prison. She escaped from prison in 1947. Greer Faye Cashman wrote in the Post, “She was recaptured and sentenced to several years in prison for possession of a wireless transmitter and a small arsenal of ammunition… While being sentenced, she and some 30 members of family sang Hatikva... [she] escaped again a year later and hid in the village of Abu Ghosh.”
Cashman also wrote, “Geula Cohen… was born in Tel Aviv to a family of Yemenite background, and was aptly named, in that “geula” means redemption. She was among the most zealous fighters for Jewish redemption and the restoration of Israel in the ancestral biblical homeland…
“At her funeral on the Mount of Olives, President Reuven Rivlin paid tribute to her as ‘the shofar – the ram’s horn – of the Messiah, the ram’s horn of the underground movement.’ He said she was Israel’s freedom fighter in the deepest sense of the concept.”
In addition, “… one of her best friends was Shulamit Aloni, founder of the Ratz party and later leader of the left-wing Meretz party.”
Cohen had graduated from a teachers’ college, and later received an M.A. from Hebrew University, where she studied Jewish Studies, Philosophy, Literature and Bible.
She served in the Knesset from 1972 to 1994. From June 1990 until October 1991, she was Deputy Minister of Science and Technology. She founded the Uri Zvi Greenberg Heritage House in Jerusalem and in 2003 received the Israel Prize for “Lifetime Achievement and Special Contribution to Society and the State.”
SHULAMIT ALONI, who received the Israel Prize in 2000 in the same category as Cohen, had served in the Palmah in the War for Independence. She graduated a teachers’ college and had a law degree from Hebrew University. According to the Knesset website, she had been an editor and conductor of radio programs, active in the fields of education and legal aid and in 1966 founded the Israeli Council for Consumerism. She served in the Knesset from 1965 to 1996 and held many ministerial roles.
Like Cohen, Aloni also knew Jewish sources and her public comments sometimes reflected this. I remember her once urging the Knesset or the government to hurry up and make a decision on an important issue, and she used the analogy, “…even if they have to sit for seven clean days...” (A reference to the seven days a woman counts before she goes to the mikveh.) I wonder if the younger members of her party, or those in it today, would get the reference. I laughed, though, when she finished the statement with a mixed metaphor, “…till white smoke comes out” – a reference to how the Vatican announces it has decided on a new pope.
A New York Times article quoted Cohen after Aloni’s death; she said, “It was impossible not to admire such a combative woman who fought for what she believed in and was prepared to pay the price.”
Crossing the aisles for Pollard
Cohen and Aloni were not the only ones who crossed the aisles for Pollard, or for the meeting with Carol Pollard in 1988. Among those at the meeting was (Ret.) Brigadier-General Binyamin (Fouad) Ben-Eliezer, a member of the Alignment, which became the Labor Party, who in 1994 was sent by PM Yitzhak Rabin as the first minister to meet with PLO Chairman, Yasser Arafat. Also present was MK Rafael Eitan (“Raful”), founder of the Tzomet Party, former Commander of the Paratroopers Brigade and an emulated officer, who in 1968 had commanded the Israeli Commando Force that raided the Beirut Airport, MK Michael Eitan of the Likud, and MK Rabbi Eliezer Waldman, a member of Cohen’s Tehiya Party. He was one of the leaders of the reestablishment of the Jewish community in Hebron, headed a hesder yeshiva there (combining study and army service) and was one of founders of Gush Emunim and Tehiya. Waldman said, “We express our feeling to Carol, sitting with us here today… that all of us are with her. We will not leave the matter until we have Jonathan and Anne here.”
Present also was Prof. Avner-Hai Shaki, of the National Religious Party, at the time a member of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee and, in the next Knesset, the Minister of Religious Affairs. He lectured in law (including International law) at Tel Aviv University. Shaki said, “We need to offer not just friendship, but compassion and understanding.”
A column written by Julian Ungar-Sargon in 1988 commented that most of the “secular” Jewish American organizations did not want to get involved, but that there were rabbis who did, from diverse communities, such as Rabbi Aaron Soloveitchik, of the Brisk Yeshiva in Chicago and Yeshiva University in New York, and Rabbi Bernard Mandelbaum, president emeritus of the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Rabbi Soloveitchik reportedly wrote that he felt “offended by and indignant at the exaggerated stringent justice inherent in the sentence.”
There was also a statement issued by the American Section of the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists during the same time period, stating, “[T]he punishments meted out to Jonathan and Anne Pollard for their respective crimes were unduly harsh to the point of being a denial of equal protection of the law…”
Carol said to the founding members of the caucus in 1988, “I am here to consult with you and to plead with you for these two lives.” And Cohen added, “Kol yisrael arevim ze l’ze – All of Israel are responsible, one for the other.” Aloni appeared equally dedicated to working to get the Pollards released, and confirmed her commitment in a brief conversation I had with her following the meeting.
IN SPITE of their valiant efforts across the political divides, Anne Pollard was released only three and a half years after their March 4, 1987 sentencing, and Jonathan was released to parole nearly three decades later, in November 2015.
Now Jonathan’s second wife, Esther, has advanced metastatic cancer and is fighting for her life, while Jonathan cannot be with her much of the time.
According to various news reports, Israeli officials and, in America, the Orthodox Union, Agudath Israel and the Coalition for Jewish Values, have asked US President Donald Trump to lift his parole on “humanitarian grounds.” Based on his release date of November 20, 2015, Pollard’s parole conditions would end in November 2020.
Now is the time for American Jews and political figures, in both Israel and America, to cross the aisle again for the Pollards.
The writer is an award-winning theater director and the recipient of a Rockower Award for Excellence in Jewish Journalism from the American Jewish Press Association.