Remembering Shulamit Aloni: The Barefoot Girl of Israeli Politics

Appreciation

haaretz

By Yossi Beilin

Published January 26, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share

It is rarely easy to point to one person responsible for landmark social change. But when it comes to human and civil rights in Israel, there was one person. It was Shulamit Aloni who passed away last week at the age of 85.

Her official resume is deceiving: She fought in the Palmach, Israel’s elite, pre-independence Jewish underground shock troops, served in the Israel Defense Forces, studied law, became a member of the Knesset representing the Labor Party at the age of 37, served 28 years in the Knesset, five of them as a cabinet minister, and was the head of the political party Meretz.

But Aloni’s real story is that of the barefoot girl who refused to bow to any dictate, who despised the establishment, who was not bound by any party rule and who would not adhere to coalition discipline. She was the one who told people the truth in their faces and was never concerned about the consequences of her directness.

Aloni made her biggest impact on Israeli society through her media appearances, including the radio show she hosted in the 1960’s, in which she discussed human rights, and in the books she wrote. She also used the Knesset and her cabinet position as a stage to express her views.

As a politician, she was far from a success story: In 1965 the ruling Labor party brought her in as a young, intelligent and good looking woman, a protégé of the Labor establishment. But when the establishment found out who Aloni really was, they sought to push her away. The party’s nominating committee left her off of Labor’s list for the Knesset in 1969 and again in 1973.

For Aloni, this was too much. In 1973, after learning she was not included on Labor’s Knesset list, she established, within hours, her own party, the Movement for Civil Rights and Peace (Ratz), which, to everyone’s surprise, won three seats in the elections. In the two following election cycles Aloni wasn’t as lucky, and her party won only one seat.

Later, Aloni’s party won three seats again. Then, before the 1992 elections, she decided to join forces with the left-wing Mapam party and with the moderate right-wing Shinui party, to present a new, unified platform calling for peace and human rights. The new party, Meretz, won 12 seats in the 1992 election, making Aloni, for the first time in her life, the leader of a mid-size party in Israel’s Knesset.

It was an artificial union that did not last long. Shinui broke off, leaving liberal Ratz and socialist Mapam alone in the joint party.

Aloni was appointed education minister in the Labor-led government of Yitzhak Rabin. But when the ultra-Orthodox politicians could not bear her remarks and policies, and raised a ruckus, Rabin gave her the boot and entrusted her thereafter with only marginal portfolios.

Aloni gave up, but carried the insult for the rest of her life. Toward the end of her tenure she lost her position as leader of the party she founded and spent her last 18 years outside of party politics, expressing her views occasionally in the press, when matters of principle came up.

But in the face of a disappointing political record, and looming much larger, there was her standing as a public figure. Shulamit Aloni became an Israeli icon. People defined themselves based on their ideological distance from her views. Aloni won the respect of her political rivals thanks to her determination and thanks to her liberal approach, which was inclusive enough to host positions very different then her own.

It is hard to understand nowadays how little discourse on issues of rights existed before Aloni brought this issue to the forefront Israeli society. Collectivism ruled – both collectivism driven by socialist reasons and that stemming from nationalistic considerations. The right and the left both viewed the individual only as a tool in their greater struggles. Any personal demand, for raising the standard of living, for education or for housing, was seen as egoistic. People were ashamed to stand up and demand their legal rights from the establishment. And when their fury could no longer be contained, some resorted, at times, to violent acts against the bureaucrat sitting behind his desk. What did not exist was a situation in which a person knows exactly what he deserves as a matter of law, asks for it from the establishment, and either receives it or appeals the decision to a higher political or legal venue.

It was Aloni who told the Israeli public that they had rights, and that they can insist on having these rights respected, because the human being stands at the center of existence even if an individual’s personal fulfillment can only be achieved through and within the boundaries of the society in which he or she lives.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • Russia's playing the "Jew card"...again.
  • "Israel should deal with this discrimination against Americans on its own merits... not simply as a bargaining chip for easy entry to the U.S." Do you agree?
  • For Moroccan Jews, the end of Passover means Mimouna. Terbhou ou Tse'dou! (good luck) How do you celebrate?
  • Calling all Marx Brothers fans!
  • What's it like to run the Palestine International Marathon as a Jew?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.