When the Israeli Left Did It Right

The former Meretz Knesset member will celebrate her 84th birthday this week, giving us an opportunity to yearn for the left-wing leadership that was.

Aluf Benn
Aluf Benn
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Aluf Benn
Aluf Benn

Shulamit Aloni will celebrate her 84th birthday this week, giving us an opportunity to yearn for the left-wing leadership that was, and to the kind of politics we used to have here but no longer do. Aloni's political personality conveyed a single message: war. She fought unceasingly against the country's priorities, which put the army, the settlers and the ultra-Orthodox at the top.

She didn't know the meaning of a "non-political protest" like those demonstrating on Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard. And she remained a combative and vocal member of the opposition even after she reached the peak of her political power as education minister in Yitzhak Rabin's second government, and was removed from her post due to pressure from the religious parties.

Aloni's charisma is missing today among those Israelis who oppose the conservative nationalism of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and the Shas party, as well as that of party leaders Naftali Bennett (Habayit Hayehudi ), Shelly Yacimovich (Labor ) and Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid ).

But it's not just Aloni's personality or her harsh language that has disappeared from the political arena; her political path has also disappeared. Israeli politics have become one big reconciliation meeting, an etiquette course for elected officials. Nowadays everyone is in favor and no one is opposed. The only member of the outgoing Knesset who dared to disrupt the class and challenge the existing order was Hanin Zuabi of Balad. But Zuabi has no influence over Israeli Jews, who see her as a curiosity who makes occasional television appearances, or as a punching bag for ardent right-wing politicians.

Aloni, a former member of the Palmach pre-state militia who lives in Kfar Shmaryahu, came not from the subversive margins of society but from the heart of the establishment. She was first elected to the Knesset as a member of the Labor Party precursor Mapai in 1965. Her disputes with Golda Meir left her outside the ruling party, but she didn't give up. After a few years in the political desert, she founded the Civil Rights Movement, also called the Ratz party, and returned to the Knesset as its leader after the Yom Kippur War.

During Yitzhak Shamir's tenure as premier, the left-wing parties combined to form Meretz, which set a record in 1992, under Aloni's leadership, of winning 12 seats in the Knesset - more seats than Shas has today. That success demonstrates that those who fight for their principles and refuse to dilute their messages can ultimately win at the polls.

Before her election to the Knesset, Aloni wrote a civics textbook (the title translates as "The Citizen and His Country" ), which was my first source of information about the Knesset, the cabinet and the Supreme Court. When I was in elementary school the book was taught in the public schools, an idea that seems unimaginable under the current education minister, Gideon Sa'ar. Today Aloni would certainly have been rejected as anti-Zionist and her textbook would have been removed from the classroom, if not shredded.

Like Sa'ar's good friend, Shelly Yacimovich, Aloni also hosted radio shows before she moved into politics. The similarity doesn't end there, though. Yacimovich is charismatic and likes to engage in battle no less than Aloni. But their positions are completely different. The Labor leader doesn't object to the primacy of the army, the settlers and the ultra-Orthodox when it comes to dividing up the national pie. You won't find Yacimovich aggravating the religious, or criticizing the combat ethics of the Israel Defense Forces or land theft in the territories. She is willing for Meretz have some of Labor's left-wing voters, as long as she is comfortably located in the political center.

The rightward shift of Yacimovich and Lapid, along with the dissolution of Kadima, will bring Meretz back some of the voters who abandoned it in the past decade, and it's looking like those extra votes will be enough to win Meretz more seats in the Knesset. But to what end? True, the Meretz of today is conveying the same messages as it did in Aloni's time, and it's hard to find flaws in their platform. Just the fire is missing. Meretz's "Leftists come home!" campaign seems more like an invitation to a party than an indication of a war for the home front.

The political circumstances of this election mean that Meretz has a rare chance to stand out from the pack that will be crowding around Netanyahu's expansive coalition after the election. That's what Aloni did in the Shamir era, with bells and whistles, and that's what she would be doing today if she were still involved in politics. And it's what Zahava Gal-On, the current Meretz leader, must do if she wants to create a genuine left that is not just alive, but kicking.

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