Credit: Partners for a Progressive Israel

Shula Aloni was the most principled Israeli elected official I ever met, a champion of the downtrodden and a fearless fighter for the rights of Palestinians. So I was very delighted when she agreed to speak at Tikkun’s “Strengthening the Peace Forces” conference that we convened in Jerusalem in 1991 and a subsequent conference in 1994 which we convened at Columbia University. As the preeminent leader of the Ratz (later Meretz) political party, the primary electoral vehicle for the Israeli peace movement, Shula was perceived to be the spokesperson for all of us who sought peace and reconciliation with Palestinians.

Sadly, Shula had an understandable but, in my view, counterproductive religiophobia that led her to antagonize not only the ultra-orthodox, but also the “traditional” Israelis who, while rejecting the extremism of the ultra-orthodox, nevertheless felt a deep commitment to Judaism. In this she was completely aligned with the majority of people in the Israeli peace movement who shared her disdain for “the religious” and never made any attempt to articulate their peace and justice message in the language of the Jewish tradition, though that tradition had a wealth of peace and justice traditions upon which they could have drawn to show that reconciliation with the Palestinians and social justice for all the citizens of Israel were goals mandated by Judaism itself, and provided a foundation for a rigorous religious critique of the West Bank settlers and ultra-orthodox fundamentalists. Without this dimension, the Israeli Left (and the same could be said of most of the Americn Left) dug itself into an isolation far greater than the isolation it would have in any event generated simply by championing the rights of Palestinians and fighting for social justice for all Israeli citizens (For a different view of Meretz, read Ronit Matalon’s article praising Meretz). It should also be said that I have great respect for Meretz and for the moments that it has been one of the few Jewish voices in Israel with any kind of broad support that has been willing to stand up unequivocally for peace and justice.

Shulamit Aloni’s courage and commitment to a just and peaceful world made her an outstanding leader whose memory for us in the Network of Spiritual Progressives and Tikkun will always be a blessing. She was one of the great righteous women of Jewish history.

It’s worth reading in full the beautifully crafted memorial of Shula published by Meretz’s American support group Partners for a Progressive Israel. Here’s an excerpt from it:

Zehava Galon … called Shula a “moral compass” because she pioneered the idea that civil rights in Israel could not end up being unique to Israel with caveats and regulations based on conflict and security. Instead, Shula told Israelis that civil rights were universally defined; a country either upheld them or did not. She intuitively knew and expressed firmly that no security threat, no storied history of oppression and anti-Semitism could justify the theft of human rights from an individual. The occupation multiplied that theft by millions because Israel was accountable for every person under its control in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

She was not afraid to say that the Palestinians were being robbed of their rights and their dignity, and that that robbery was the responsibility of every Israeli. Her fearlessness and energy was so natural that she seemed to reject the idea that one should need courage to speak the truth in Israel. For her, human dignity and liberty were rights so simple and essential that they should be inscribed as basic law. And largely because of her they were.

One of the most elegant examples of Shula’s ability to explain Israel’s behavior by a universal set of standards was when she recognized parallels between Zionist self-determination and Palestinian self-determination. In August 2002, nearly two years into the Second Intifada, while the late Ariel Sharon was prime minister, Shula appeared as a guest on the radio program, Democracy Now!, speaking about the trial of the popular Palestinian political figure Marwan Barghouti. He had been charged with murder and attempted murder, based on acts committed by the al-Aksa Martyr’s Brigade, which Israel accused him of founding. In the recording of Shula’s visit to Democracy Now!, host Amy Goodman described the now iconic image of Barghouti raising his handcuffed arms above his head and yelling to reporters in Arabic, English and Hebrew, “peace will be achieved by the end of the occupation. No peace, no security with the occupation.”

To this, Shula says, “I accept every word he said.” She points out that the image of Barghouti with raised, handcuffed wrists is strikingly similar to images of Zionist freedom fighters arrested by the British prior to the founding of the state. “[This] was the same speech,” she said, ” ‘we want our freedom’.”

Shula’s demand for law, liberty and due process was as strong as her love for Israel. She expected the state’s Jewish heritage to guide just legislation, not provide an excuse for slipping out of statutory responsibility. It was this passion that drove her demand that Israelis push against the status quo. For her, this status quo was a political culture where people were willing to sacrifice ironclad democracy for first-strike capability, and thus, she pushed Israelis to always question their political positions.

I’d also like to share links to some thoughtful articles on Shulamit Aloni. In his recent article, Shulamit Aloni: The Great Woman of the Dreams, author Gideon Levy writes:

She was controversial – Golda Meir despised her at the start of her career, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef at the end – but no one disputed her honesty, determination or courage. Here was a woman, an Israeli leader, the controversy around whom revolved not wars, but rather around civil rights, the separation of state and religion, minority rights and social justice, all of them rare issues in Israel.

Aloni was the founding mother of them all: She invented Israeli enlightenment. She was the first, inspiring others and pointing the way. She did not always succeed, knowing more than a few painful failures, and late in life she became more extreme, railing at many things that she herself had helped to create. I would needle her, “You built this all,” to which she would respond indignantly, “It didn’t turn out the way we planned.”

 

Amit Schejter’s piece, Shulamit Aloni: Israel’s Most Influential Woman Politician, goes into detail on how Shulamit sacrificed her own ambition for the common good:

The changes Aloni instituted at the education ministry symbolized for many Israelis the essence of the Rabin government’s reshuffling of national priorities – introducing the criterion of fairness in allocating national resources. For many others, though particularly those on the religious right, she represented a huge threat. In response, they vilified her, they demonized her, they stalked her and pounced on every controversial utterance she made in the hope of blackening her name and driving her out her powerful position, where she was able to wield so much influence over the future of the state – and their children.

Shulamit Aloni was a revolutionary. I would argue that she had a greater influence on Israeli politics than any other woman in the history of the state. Two causes, in particular, were close to her heart and defined her agenda: individual rights and peace.

 

Yossi Sarid’s article The Legacy of Shulamit Aloni, Our Fearless Teacher states that:

Shula made us aware of civil and human rights, the inequality of women, the plight of the gay community and the darkness of the occupation. Her legacy was great, but she didn’t leave behind enough heirs.

A lot of us are left wondering, who will step up to fill in her shoes?


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