Shulamit Aloni was the first lady of Israel, the first lady of the remains of its liberalism and openness. She took part in shaping the state, but was one of the few figures in its history to do so other than by means of rivers of blood. Not a celebrated general with a chestful of medals, not the “exterminator of terror,” neither conqueror nor settler, yet still an Israeli hero – a civilian hero, for a change.
- Farewell to a True Leader on Israel's Left
- The Legacy of Shulamit Aloni
- Ronit Matalon / The Case for Meretz
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.”
And still, many Israelis owe her their rights and their standing – consumers; gay, lesbian and transgender individuals; Arabs and Jews; men and, above all, women – and perhaps they are not aware of this.
We bonded over the occupation. We played tennis together at the Sonesta Hotel in occupied Taba, in the period when her husband, Reuven, was head of the Israeli occupation administration in Sinai. On the tennis court, a good place for discerning personal character, she was arrow-straight and devoid of the desire to win at any cost.
The Aloni I knew was not only a woman of principle, but also had a lust for life. One time, when we had a lunch date, she brought me to a Whitman ice-cream shop for “American waffles,” topped with mountains of ice cream, whipped cream and a Maraschino cherry. You only live once, she said at the time, and Aloni lived a full, rich life. She enjoyed art and culture, had a thing for designer clothing and drove a trendy red jeep – yet was still a warrior for justice.
Lacking any cynicism, Aloni quit government coalitions and positions when necessary and was one of the most humble, least egotistic politicians I have known. At a time when most of her colleagues – including the most righteous among them – worried about their reputations and receiving proper credit, Aloni cared only about the issues themselves.
She was the third angle of the triangle of Sonia and Shimon Peres at the Ben-Shemen Youth Village, sharing a tent with the couple – how their paths diverged since that time.
She was Israeli (and Zionist) to the bone, a great patriot. When we walked together one time through the alleys of Cairo, I begged her not to talk aloud in Hebrew – even then, it was dangerous for Israelis in Egypt – and she didn’t heed me, nearly shouting in Hebrew. When necessary, and even when not, Aloni always said what she thought, and thought what she said.
Now she has successors – one works for gay rights, another battles the occupation, while this one sees to women’s rights and that one to minority rights, one fights the religious establishment and another champions freedom of expression – but not one of them encompasses what she encompassed. One brave woman flying so very many flags. Perhaps that is the reason the Zionist left that remains is a weak, stuttering, apologetic left.
She was the great woman of the dreams, in the title of the Yehoshua Kenaz novel: the dream of an egalitarian, secular, democratic and just society.
She was the great woman of the disappointment: Most of her dreams did not come true. Israel became a worse place – racist, ultranationalist, occupying, theocratic and bullying, its democracy and equality in tatters.
Precisely the opposite of everything she preached. Was she ahead of her time? Absolutely not. She came at exactly the right time, but perhaps she left too soon. It’s Israel that drew back from her, and with horrifying steps.