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Shulamit Aloni: The conscience of a nation

Shulamit Aloni forged the contours of a just Israel as she strove to translate her liberal democratic vision into reality

Shulamit Aloni, the person who virtually single-handedly introduced human rights, civil liberties and respect for diversity into Israeli public life, passed away on Friday at the age of eighty-five. A patriot, visionary and leader, for close to fifty years she was a formidable presence on the country’s political scene. No other woman has been as innovative, no other woman has been as controversial, and no other woman has had such a transformative effect on Israeli political discourse.

Shulamit Aloni was Israeli to the core. She grew up in Tel Aviv, was educated in Ben-Shemen and completed her secondary education in Jerusalem before joining the Palmach on the eve of the creation of the state. She started her career as a teacher, specializing in Hebrew language and biblical studies (her knowledge of the Jewish sources was prodigious; her use of Hebrew a pleasure to the ears of even her most vehement critics). With the completion of a law degree in the mid-1950s, she became increasingly concerned with civic issues, gradually forging her humanistic Israeli worldview: a mixture of deep pride in her Jewish identity and profound commitment to individual rights and social justice.

Shula (as she was known to her friends and admirers) placed human beings, in all their complexity, at the center of the public universe. “A person is a person is a person”, she used to say, “…and as such deserves respect and dignity.” Equality—regardless of religion, color, gender or national origin—was the foundation of her insistence on individual and social justice, freedom from discrimination or any form of coercion, as well as her inexorable quest for peace. A true intellectual and a voracious reader, she constantly drew on ideas she discovered in Jewish and general works and in lively conversations with her wide circle of fellow travelers in Israel and abroad (which informed her written works—including the first civic studies textbook in Israel, The Citizen and His Country, and her scathing attack on religion coercion, The Arrangement: From a State of Law to a State of Religion). In the Israel of the 1950s and 1960s—and even more so after 1967—Shulamit Aloni’s liberal democratic vision was nothing short of revolutionary.

Never content to keep her thoughts to herself, Aloni began to make her mark hosting a radio talk-show on consumer rights and writing columns on civil and women’s rights in leading newspapers (she was a path-breaking feminist even before the term was coined). She first entered the Knesset on the Mapai list in 1965, serving for one term—during which she constantly upset the party hierarchy (and especially Golda Meir) because of her fierce individualism and unabashed outspokenness. Summarily ousted from her parliamentary seat in 1969, she opened the first Citizen’s Rights Bureau in the country and began to build a constituency for an open, pluralistic and humanistic Israel which led in 1973 to the creation of Ratz—the Civil Rights and Peace Movement—which she later transformed in the 1990s, together with Mapam and Shinui, into the Meretz party.

Shulamit Aloni is the only woman in Israel’s history to successfully establish a party with a durable political presence (Ratz/Meretz and Shas are the only two post-independence political lists to gain traction in the country). As a political leader Aloni was unrelenting in her pursuit of the rights of women, children, minorities and the disadvantaged. She spearheaded almost every progressive democratic cause in the country—from the quest for the separation of religion and state, the implementation of social justice for all citizens and the entrenchment of constitutional rights to a two-state solution. Inevitably, she aroused the ire of many: her passionate rationality and uncompromising dedication to the guiding principles of a free society brought her into direct confrontation not only with the religious establishment, the settler movement and the proponents of a Greater Israel, but also—and above all—with those who to her mind violated the fundamental principles of Israel’s Declaration of Independence by advocating a narrow, ethnocentric, definition of the country and its mission. Unsparing in her critique of intolerance, prejudice and injustice and exceptional in her ability to lash out against their perpetrators, Aloni developed as large a cadre of antagonists as of supporters.

Unsurprisingly, most of Shulamit Aloni’s career was spent in the opposition. In 1992, however, she succeeded in leading Meretz to its greatest political achievement to date, winning twelve seats in the Knesset and the position of junior partner in the second Rabin government. In office, Aloni and her fellow ministers embarked on carrying out some of the civil reforms they had so effectively advocated and laying the foundation for significant changes in telecommunications, Arab-Jewish relations, social equity, cultural diversity and environmental consciousness. To her, the Oslo accords and the prospect of a just and lasting peace with the Palestinians was the culmination of her years in office.

But Shulamit Aloni’s success as a visionary and a party leader also highlighted her weaknesses as a politician. She found it difficult to compromise (to her dying day berating herself for the “eclipse” that brought her to vote for the expulsion of four hundred Hamas leaders in order to expedite peace talks). A person of large ideas and broad strokes, she had little patience for details. Notably unsentimental, she did not suffer fools or hypocrites lightly. A fun-loving person with wide horizons, she scorned narrow-mindedness and despised opportunism on all parts of the political spectrum. She constantly sought out people who could promote her ideals, sometimes alienating those who had propped her up in the past. Often impulsive, by speaking her mind as was her wont, she frequently found herself in the midst of major public controversies. Given her vast political experience, she was far from adept at political intrigue. Ultimately, Aloni paid the price for her lack of political guile—first losing her position as Minister of Education and then, in 1996, as the leader of the party she founded.

Shula did not however—nor could she—disappear from the public eye. During the last eighteen years of her life she continued to struggle for the Israel she believed in: one that would embody the values of human decency and live up to the humanistic historical and cultural Jewish underpinnings which she held so dear. She lectured widely, appeared continuously in the media and was unsparing in her criticism of friend and foe alike when they deviated from the basic values of fairness, tolerance and elementary justice that were so central to the enlightened society she had so unwaveringly sought to construct in independent Israel. Until her death, she constituted the moral compass and provided the principled leadership that the left, which she helped to form, so sorely lacked after she retired from formal politics.

Shulamit Aloni is no longer with us. Her legacy remains deeply embedded in the Israeli body politic. By designing the contours of a just Israel and doing her utmost to translate this vision into reality, she has left an indelible—and yet unrealized—imprint on this country. The fact that she succeeded in leaving such an immense mark on the public fiber is testament both to her moral robustness and to her fearless personality. It is up to those who have embraced her credo to make it come to pass so that she—and the country she loved—may finally rest in peace.

About the Author
Professor Naomi Chazan, former Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University, is co-director of WIPS, the Center for the Advancement of Women in the Public Sphere at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.