Shulamit Aloni, 1928 - 2014

She never gave up the struggle to make Israel a more cultured, just and peace-loving country.

Knesset Member Shulamit Aloni, 1966 (photo credit: GPO)
Knesset Member Shulamit Aloni, 1966
(photo credit: GPO)
In October 1991, Shulamit Aloni invited me to a personal meeting. I trembled with excitement because I knew and admired her through the media. She had been elected to the Knesset in November 1965, a month before I was born. I wondered what I could do to help that remarkable woman.
The meeting took place at the Hilton Hotel in Jerusalem and to this day I remember the taste of the toast we shared. She asked me if I would be ready to manage the Ratz (Civil Rights Movement) Knesset faction she headed. Of course, I agreed at once.
That was the beginning of three years of working closely with her, which only increased my admiration of her uncompromising commitment to the causes she championed.
When I was asked on Channel 2 TV what Aloni’s greatest achievement was, my answer was “the State of Israel.” Israel would have been a very different and much poorer place without her. Aloni brought civil rights to the country at a time when no one in political life here had a clue, when everything was seen as subordinate to the needs of the state. Labor’s Golda Meir, who became prime minister in 1969, dismissed the notion as “bourgeoisie drivel.” And as party leader, she made sure to squeeze Aloni off the Labor Knesset ticket.
In retrospect, Meir probably did the Left a huge favor. Booting Aloni out led to the establishment of the civil rights-oriented Ratz, which later morphed into today’s Meretz with its wider peace agenda.
Aloni was always ahead of her time. She married couples in civil ceremonies when this was virtually taboo and most secular Israelis saw it as a threat to the future of the Jewish people. But Aloni never sought popularity. She believed the only way to achieve change was to say exactly what she thought and to do exactly what she thought needed to be done.
Aloni did more for women’s rights in Israel than anyone else. In the first Ratz list elected to the Knesset in 1973, there were two women and a man. When Marcia Friedman raised the issue of battered women in the Knesset plenum she was greeted with laughter and derision on both sides of the House. Today, no one would dare scoff in that way.
Until Aloni’s arrival on the political scene, sexual relations between homosexuals were a punishable offense. It was Aloni who had that shameful legislation deleted from the statute books. Throughout her career, she consistently stood up in defense of gay rights.
Her actions and outspokenness won her a strong following among a growing number of Israelis who valued civil rights. She was reelected to the Knesset in 1977 and again in 1981.
I voted for the first time in 1984. It was during the heady aftermath of the Lebanon War against which I had protested as a member of Peace Now. I voted Labor, mainly because the leader of the anti-war protest was Yossi Sarid, then a Labor backbencher.
After the elections, Sarid and Mordechai Virshubski from Shinui crossed over to Ratz.
Aloni suddenly found herself at the head of a relatively large five-member faction and leader of the peace camp. She began to invest more in the struggle to end the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza as well as the ongoing fighting in Lebanon.
Shula, as we called her, hated an audience of yes-men and women. “Stop nodding in agreement,” she would say. “Your heads will fall off.” The most important thing we learned from her was never to take anything for granted, always to question – even her.
Shula hated ignorance. She was ready to conduct a conversation with anyone on any issue, as long as they made rational arguments. She was fanatical about the Hebrew language, and would always correct mistakes – always a teacher.
Perhaps her greatest attribute was her ability to keep up with the times. She kept adding new things to her agenda, and not for a minute did she think that one cause should take precedence over another.
From the mid-1980s, Shula stepped up the fight against the occupation and for peace. But that did not lead her, as it did others, to give up the struggles against religious coercion or for gay rights. She was the pride of the gay community before it dared to be proud.
Even after she retired from politics, she never stopped. She came to demonstrations against the occupation, she went on tours of the territories to see for herself, and she did not hesitate to call the occupation “apartheid.” She opposed the Second Lebanon War in 2006 and the 2008-9 Cast Lead Operation in Gaza – and criticized Meretz leaders, like Yossi Beilin, who had initially supported those military actions.
In 2010, aged 82, she came up to Jerusalem to march in a May Day parade, and she joined a protest in Tel Aviv against Haredi attempts to prevent building at the Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon because of the discovery of human bones on the site.
Besides all her public-spirited energy, Shula was a highly cultured person. She read widely, was a regular theatergoer and attended concerts. You could speak to her about almost anything and encounter a wide font of knowledge.
The last time I met her was at the theater, a play at Habima. She who so ardently emphasized strict adherence to the truth without fear, hypocrisy or masquerade, admired the work of the actors, men and women hiding behind masks, playing the parts they had been given – diametric opposites of her feisty straight-talking self.
But it must be said, Shula did not understand politics. That is, what passes for politics today – the petty profit and loss calculus, the self-serving deals, the taking of positions according to the latest opinion polls. Shula didn’t know how to identify the knife stuck in her back until it emerged rusting from her chest. We called ourselves “Shula’s camp,” but Shula never established a camp and took umbrage at the very idea that there might be one. She was so unable to play the politician that she was forced in 1993 to relinquish the most important post she ever got – minister of education – because of the ultra-Orthodox Shas’s squawking and then prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s weakness.
Shula was born Shulamit Alder in south Tel Aviv into a working-class family with Polish rabbinical roots. During World War II, with both parents serving in the British Army, she was sent to the Ben Shemen Youth Village where she formed a close friendship with President Shimon Peres and his wife Sonia.
A member of the socialist Zionist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair, she joined the Palmach strike force and in the 1948 War of Independence took part in the battle for the Old City of Jerusalem. Following the establishment of the state, she worked with child refugees and helped establish a school for immigrant children. In the early 1950s, she taught school while studying law. In 1952 she married Reuven Aloni (one of the founding directors of the Israel Lands Administration), and moved to Kfar Shmaryahu, where they had three sons, Dror, a former mayor of Kfar Shmaryahu and a headmaster, Nimrod a philosopher of education and Udi a film director.
She first came to public attention as the presenter of civil rights-oriented programs on Israel radio in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Her political career began in 1959 when she joined the Labor Alignment, then still under David Ben-Gurion. She went on to serve in several ministerial posts, including education and culture, communications, and science and arts.
Shula was a great leader, one of a kind of her time. We followed her, because most often, even after we checked, we saw that she was right. We loved her because she didn’t try to be nice or to sell us anything – except the duty never to give up the struggle to make Israel a more cultured, just and peace-loving country.
Mossi Raz, a former Meretz Knesset member (2000-2003), is the Israeli manager and partner of the East Jerusalem-based joint Israeli-Palestinian radio station ‘All for Peace’