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Shulamit Aloni, 1928-2014: Mother and prophet of the left

The woman who made human rights the central issue of the left’s political agenda has died at 86. Fearless and true to her values, Aloni stood up to Israel’s generals and rabbis until her very last days.

Shulamit Aloni, former Meretz leader, 1924-2014 (photo: Lisa Goldman)

Shulamit Aloni, former Meretz leader, 1924-2014 (photo: Lisa Goldman)

Shulamit Aloni, founder of leftist Meretz party, former minister of education and the legendary mother of the Israeli civil rights movement, died Friday at the age of 86. Aloni served 28 years in the Knesset. She was elected for the sixth Knesset with Labor, but later left the party and established Ratz, an avant-garde party focused on civil rights.

In 1984 Ratz became the political home of Peace Now, and in 1992 Aloni united the party with Shinui and Mapam, leading the left-wing bloc for an all-time record of 12 seats, which enabled the formation of the second Rabin government.

Aloni, who then became the new minister of education, was immediately targeted by the settlers and the ultra-Orthodox. She was forced to resign her post in 1993, following an ultimatum by Shas to Rabin. Aloni left the Knesset in 1996, but remained politically active, voicing her opinions on the occupation and human rights issues until her very last days.

For my generation of leftist Israelis born the seventies, Aloni was probably the central figure in our political development – the person you listened to in order to know where you stand on a certain issue. She was the standard bearer of an entire political community. Not Rabin, and certainly not Peres. Shula, as she was referred to, was the voice of our political conscience.

One cannot over emphasize her influence. The woman who almost single-handedly challenged all the powers of the Israeli establishment, from the generals to the rabbis, in the same fearless manner. Her statements often became the center of national controversies. Her own personal history – she was part of the generation that founded the state, and was a former member of the Palmach underground organization – or the fact that she possessed the biblical knowledge of a Yeshiva student, allowed her to stand her own ground against any politician or institution. She just couldn’t be bullied; since her departure from politics, the left always seemed a little more scared and apologetic.

While Aloni’s confrontations with the religious parties received most of the media attention in the eighties and nineties (Shas’ Ovadiah Yossef famously said that the day of her death should be celebrated), Aloni had a profound impact on the liberal revolution of the nineties. Before Aloni, the left in Israel was focused (like the rest of the political system) on security and diplomatic issues. Aloni brought not only a new agenda, but a new language and context to the political left – one which put women’s rights, LGBT rights and Palestinian rights as its central political issues.

Everything that followed, from the rise of human rights organizations to the ground-breaking decisions by the Supreme Court on those issues could not have happened without the work of Aloni and her colleagues.

For Aloni, human rights were never abstract or theoretical, but rather rooted in the local context of politics and history. Most important of all, she taught the Jewish left that one cannot speak on human rights without mentioning the Palestinian issue. Nothing could be further from Aloni’s legacy than the cynical attempt by Israeli governments to use the hard-fought achievements of the LGBT community as part of their propaganda against the Palestinians.

In the wonderful documentary on her life made by Anat Saragusti (see below, Hebrew only), Aloni, by then long retired, is seen going to checkpoints together with women of Machsom Watch, or sitting at her desk, trying to find out the fate of 500 uprooted Palestinian olive trees. Today, in the post-Oslo, post-Intifada period, there is a renewed understanding among the left that the occupation is a human and civil rights issue, rather than a diplomatic or security-oriented problem. That was Aloni’s legacy, too.

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    1. Rehmat

      Yes, she was one of the rare breed among the Zionist Harabra crowd. She had the morals to admit the truth that both Holocaust and antisemitism have become tools to defend Israeli crimes.

      Shulamit Aloni (born in 1928 in a Polish Rabbanical family) and during her youth was a member of Jewish terrorist group Hagana. In 1948 war – she took part in the capture of Jerusalem, and was captured by Jordanian forces. She has been a newspaper columnist and politician. She was Minister of Education in Yitzhak Rafael’s cabinet and later served as Communication Minister till 1996 when she retired from politics.

      Aloni is recipient of ‘Israel Prize’ and she defended Jimmy Carter for his use of word Apartheid for Zionist entity, saying – “I hate to cover up things that should be open in the sun.”

      In 2008, she said that she would be pleased if Palestinian sue Istarl Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who she termed a warmonger, in the International Court in The Hague. Other worthy of The Hague Court is former Chief of General Staff Dan Halutz, she also called him a war criminal…..


      Reply to Comment
    2. Kolumn9

      If you are correct

      Reply to Comment
      • Kolumn9

        If you are correct then she is responsible for the persistent irrelevance of the Israeli left as a factor in Israeli politics. The obsession with the Palestinians in contrast to an interest in the well-being of Israel and Israelis has pushed the Israeli left out of the Israeli mainstream. She has created a whole generation of activists who approach the problems of Israel as if they are disinterested parties that live in Berlin or New York and occasionally visit and are then surprised that no one bothers to listen to them.

        Reply to Comment
        • Danny

          Irrelevance of the left? How is it that whenever a right-winger becomes prime minister, he suddenly decides to adopt a leftist stance and subsequently is denounced as a traitor to the rightist cause?

          Could it because, as the saying goes, things you see from here, you don’t see from over there? Could it be that leftists just have better vision and more sense than their rightist colleagues?

          It’s a shame some people need to become prime minister in order to figure out simple truths that others managed to figure out all on their own – like Aloni for example.

          Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            You presume that Bibi has turned leftist while denouncing him elsewhere as a recalcitrant rightist unwilling to make any concessions. You really need to make up your mind.

            I don’t consider it a ‘leftist’ position to acknowledge that the Palestinians need to eventually be entirely excluded from Israel’s sphere of control. This is a consensus pragmatic position with some disagreements over tactics and prices, not goal. The people that think to the contrary are the extreme left and the extreme right. The extreme left believes that Palestinian ‘rights’ demand the elimination of Israel and its replacement, in the best case, with a binational state, with the worst case (aka most likely outcome) of Iraq and Syria better ignored for sake of argument. The extreme right believes that Jewish ‘rights’ demand the extension of Israeli sovereignty over all of the land of Israel.

            Shulamit Aloni with her activism has been a role model for a generation of extreme leftists for whom Palestinian ‘rights’ are paramount and of far greater import than Israeli security or the well-being of the people of Israel. These people are now mostly found working for European-sponsored organizations which have become their last and only safe haven from gruesome reality. They are loud and obnoxious (they need to be in order to justify their foreign pay) but overall have minimal influence in Israeli politics. Were she 25 years younger Shulamit Aloni would probably no longer find a party (maybe Hadash?) in the Knesset in Israel in which she would be at home with her extremist positions. Definitely not Meretz.

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          • Danny

            Netanyahu is the exception to the rule. Begin, Sharon, Olmert and Livni (even though she was never PM) are all fine examples of people who saw more from the PM’s chair than they ever did before.

            The problem with Bibi is that he is too dogmatic in his ideology to ever be able to be rational and sensible with respect to the realpolitik of the occupation.

            Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            If Netanyahu is the exception, then so was Shamir. 2/5 is an awful lot of exceptions to a theory.

            In any case, the theory of Bibi as an ideological recalcitrant rightist is problematic on many levels. He has previously withdrawn from territory, has negotiated with the Palestinians and has declared support for a Palestinian state.

            In any case, the ‘left’ as defined by Shulamit Aloni is marginal in Israel and is only kept alive by infusions of cash from Europe. That shouldn’t be too surprising since people tend to like their politicians and leaders thinking of the people’s interest first, rather than looking for ways to justify those that try to massacre them.

            Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            >Could it be that leftists just have better vision and more sense than their rightist colleagues?

            Obviously, if it was the fact, that most world’s states would have been ruled by the left. Since it is not quite so, it is safe to assume that leftists only think that they have better vision and more sense.

            Reply to Comment
    3. Kibbutznik

      Thank you Noam .
      From someone whoes generation of leftist Israelis was born in the 50’s …and who loved respected and admired her .
      Kind of ironic she died in the same year and month at the same age as Arik , the world will never forget Sharon …who will remember Shulamit ?

      Reply to Comment
      • One doesn’t have to have enduring fame to be important.

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      • IlonJ

        “…who will remember Shulamit ?”

        People like me will too. But she won’t be a fond memory. I will always group her with the likes of:

        – Benedict Arnold.
        – Quisling
        – The Vichy French
        – Lord Haw Haw
        – Tokyo Rose

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        • Oriol2

          Or perhaps Die Weisse Rose. (Sorry, I couldn’t avoid it.)

          Reply to Comment
        • William Burns

          Yitzhak Shamir, the would-be collaborator with Hitler, is a far more fitting Israeli addition to that list.

          Reply to Comment
      • M Shapiro

        Of course people never forget mass murderers do they – Hell is too good a place for the man!

        Reply to Comment
    4. The Trespasser

      Good riddance.

      >…trying to find out the fate of 500 uprooted Palestinian olive trees…

      Oh, it is simple – Arabs had stolen them to blame the Jews.

      Reply to Comment
    5. William Burns

      The Eagle That Is Forgotten

      By Nicholas Vachel Lindsay

      (John P. Altgeld)

      SLEEP softly … eagle forgotten … under the stone.
      Time has its way with you there, and the clay has its own.
      “We have buried him now,” thought your foes, and in secret rejoiced.
      They made a brave show of their mourning, their hatred unvoiced.
      They had snarled at you, barked at you, foamed at you, day after day.
      Now you were ended. They praised you … and laid you away.
      The others, that mourned you in silence and terror and truth,
      The widow bereft of her crust, and the boy without youth,
      The mocked and the scorned and the wounded, the lame and the poor,
      That should have remembered forever,… remember no more.
      Where are those lovers of yours, on what name do they call,
      The lost, that in armies wept over your funeral pall?
      They call on the names of a hundred high-valiant ones,
      A hundred white eagles have risen, the sons of your sons.
      The zeal in their wings is a zeal that your dreaming began,
      The valor that wore out your soul in the service of man.
      Sleep softly … eagle forgotten … under the stone.
      Time has its way with you there, and the clay has its own.
      Sleep on, O brave-hearted, O wise man that kindled the flame—
      To live in mankind is far more than to live in a name,
      To live in mankind, far, far more than to live in a name!—

      Reply to Comment
      • “Sleep on, O brave-hearted, O wise man that kindled the flame—
        To live in mankind is far more than to live in a name”

        Here, here! (or is it “Hear, Hear!”)

        Reply to Comment
    6. Asaph

      What does that mean she was founder of the civil rights movement in israel? What civil rights movement in Israel? How can a priveleged Ashkenazi politicans be the founder of a civil rights movement. I am not denying she was an important moral force but I don’t you should throw around statements like that.

      Reply to Comment
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