Shulamit Aloni.
Shulamit Aloni. Photo by Tomer Appelbaum
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Shulamit Aloni, the former leader of Israel's Meretz party and Israel Prize laureate who, throughout her life, fought for equality and civil rights, died on Friday morning at age 85.

The cause of death was not disclosed, but Aloni died at her Kfar Shmaryahu home surrounded by family. She will be laid to rest at 4 P.M. on Sunday in the central Israeli town's cemetery, her family said in a statement.

Born in Tel Aviv in 1928, Aloni was a member of Hashomer Hatzair youth movement and later volunteered for the Palmach, an elite force of the Jewish underground military in pre-state Israel, fighting in the 1948 War of Independence.

Aloni was first elected to Knesset in 1965 on the ticket of Labor Alignment (Ma'arach), the predecessor of the Labor Party. On the eve of the 1974 election, Aloni defected from Labor and founded Ratz, the Movement for Civil Rights and Peace, which secured three seats in the eighth Knesset.

Aloni was appointed a minister without portfolio in Yitzhak Rabin's first government in 1974, but resigned after the National Religious Party joined the coalition. In the 1984 election, Ratz won five parliamentary seats after Peace Now members Ran Cohen – and later Yossi Sarid – joined the party.

Aloni was among the founding members of Meretz during the 12th Knesset, when Ratz formed an alliance with Mapam and Shinui in 1991. The new party won 12 seats in the Knesset election a year later. Aloni, who led the party, joined Rabin's coalition and was appointed minister of education and culture.

She served as education minister in Rabin's cabinet between 1992-1993 and as science and arts minister between 1993-1996.

Aloni retired in 1996, after Sarid was elected Meretz chairman.

In 2000, she was awarded the Israel Prize for her lifetime achievements and contribution to Israeli society, despite protests from Israel's religious establishment.

In awarding her the prize, the committee of judges praised her for being a voice for citizens, for "struggling to repair injustice and hoist the flag of equality between the different peoples and faiths in Israel."

Aloni authored six books in her lifetime, including titles about children's and women's rights. In 2008, at age 80, she published "Democracy in Shackles" (Demokratia BeAzikim), about the state of Israel's democracy. In it, she wrote, "The state is returning to the ghetto, to Orthodox Judaism, and the rule of the fundamentalist Rabbinate is only growing stronger."

She lamented that the "blooming, free and enlightened Israel that prided itself on research and progress now bows before the rabbis, Haredim and settlers, who demand everything for themselves in the name of religion."

Aloni was married for 36 years to Reuven Aloni, who helped found the Israel Lands Administration. He died in 1988. The couple lived in Kfar Shmaryahu, an upscale town not far from Tel Aviv, where they raised three children, Dror, Nimrod and Udi.

Politicians mourn 'trailblazing' Aloni

Ministers and MKs from across the political spectrum mourned Aloni's death on Friday, praising her courage and no-nonsense approach to defending civil rights.

Meretz leader Zahava Gal-On called Aloni "trailblazing" and said she would continue to inspire all Israelis who care about civil rights and equality.

"She transformed Israel into a better place to live and never stopped fighting for the values she believed in and with which she will forever be associated: peace, absolute equality irrespective of religion, gender and race," Gal-On said, adding that the Meretz party would continue to defend the rights Aloni fought for throughout her life.

Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog said that Aloni set an example for his generation. "Aloni instigated significant change in Israeli public discourse and broke down the walls that protected antiquated ways of thinking and outdated paradigms," Herzog said. "For this, as a nation, we must respect her. She will be remembered as a courageous fighter for peace, coexistence and minority rights."

Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon said Aloni made great contributions to Israeli discourse about democracy and said that despite their fundamental differences of opinion, "I always respected her determination in standing up for her views and voicing her opinion loud and clear, as well as her great concern for Israel and its future."

Ya'alon said that his debates with Aloni were always "challenging" and that he valued her modesty and integrity, and her "groundbreaking struggle for civil and women's rights, which brought about positive changes in Israel's image and character."

Former Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin also recalled not seeing eye-to-eye with Aloni, but said he respected her as a woman who "wasn't swayed by populism, but expressed her beliefs and views as they were."