Passionate, principled, provocative, and above all path breaking, Shulamit Aloni has left a greater imprint on Israeli political life and public discourse than any woman to come of age after Israel’s independence. If the country’s only female prime minister, Golda Meir, was the last of the pre-state Zionist-socialist establishment, Aloni (known to her friends as Shula) has emerged as the high priestess of individual, civil and human rights. She has dedicated her life to transforming Israel into an open, just and liberal society based on human dignity, tolerance for diversity and equality.
Born Shulamit Adler, she spent her early childhood in Tel Aviv and then, when her parents joined the British army in World War II, moved to the Ben Shemen youth village where she developed her love for the Hebrew language and for its biblical roots. She completed secondary school in the Beit ha-Kerem High School in Jerusalem and then continued her undergraduate studies at Beit ha-Kerem Teacher’s Training College (now the David Yellin Teachers’ College). She also joined the Palmah, the breeding ground of the Labor party (Mapai) elite, serving in its ranks in 1947 and 1948.
After Israel’s war of independence, armed with a teaching certificate, Aloni returned to Tel Aviv, where she began to teach, first in a school for immigrant children she helped to found in Ramle, and then in secondary schools in the Tel Aviv area. Although she specialized in teaching Jewish sources (hence her extraordinary capacity to quote lengthy biblical and Talmudic texts), she also pioneered the introduction of citizenship studies into the school curriculum (under the rather awkward title “Procedures of Government and Jurisprudence”). Her book, The Citizen and His Country, first published in 1958, went through ten editions and became the standard text for generations of Israeli secondary school students.
During the 1950s, the young Shula began to focus on what was to become her life-long pursuit: civil rights. She studied law at the Hebrew University, completing her LL.B. degree in 1955, and in 1957 launched her journalistic career as host of the popular radio program “Outside Office Hours.” An on-air citizens’ rights bureau, the program provided individuals with an opportunity to voice their grievances on government practices and to demand restitution (an idea that Aloni later developed in 1965, after her election to the Knesset, into the office of the Government Ombudsman). She also designed a special radio show for women: “Know the Law” (Hakiri et ha-Hok). Becoming a regular columnist for Yed’iot Aharonot (the country’s leading daily) and the weekly women’s magazine, La-Isha, she developed a reputation as an articulate and relentless campaigner for people’s rights.
While still in her twenties and starting what was to become a public career that has spanned almost half a century, the young, attractive, and outspoken teacher, lawyer, and publicist met and married Reuven Aloni (b. 1919), who proved a stalwart source of support throughout her career. The Alonis were among the first residents of Kefar Shemaryahu, where Aloni still lives after Reuven’s death in 1991 in the modest bungalow where they raised their three sons, Dror (b. 1953), Nimrod (b. 1956) and Ehud (b. 1959), and where her eight grandchildren are frequent visitors.
By the early 1960s Shulamit Aloni had gained the attention of the Mapai hierarchy, who decided to place her on the party slate for the 1965 parliamentary elections. In her first term in the Knesset, the only one during which she served as a Labor Party deputy, she began her persistent efforts to create a constitution for Israel that would include a bill of rights guaranteeing basic human freedoms. To promote these objectives, as a member of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee (on which she served throughout her extended parliamentary career), she formed and chaired the Basic Laws Committee in 1965. In her first term in office, while the country was still almost completely preoccupied with defense and development, Shula founded the Israel Consumer Council, which she headed during its formative years (1966–1970).
Shula Aloni’s individualism and outspokenness did not sit well with her Labor party colleagues. She quickly fell out with Golda Meir, then the party’s secretary-general, who accused her of peddling an Israeli form of “liberal bourgeois egoism.” When Aloni, as is her wont, lashed back, Golda told her that in the Labor party “we don’t know what ‘I think’ means, we only know what ‘we’ think.” By the time the 1969 elections rolled around, in the heady years after Israel’s stunning victory in the Six Day War, the two women who symbolized more than anyone else the old and new Israel were not on speaking terms. Aloni was unceremoniously dropped from the Labor party list.
Shula was not idle during her four years outside the Knesset. She set up the Bureau for Civil Rights, which dispensed legal aid and advice to citizens from all walks of life. Frequently called upon to help people confronting discrimination in the rabbinical courts, in 1970 she began organizing contractual civil marriages and encouraged couples wishing to bypass the orthodox monopoly on personal law to explore marriage possibilities outside the country. She fast became the foremost spokesperson in the struggle against religious coercion. Her book, The Arrangement: From a State of Law to a State of Religion, published in 1970, set the tone for the ongoing campaign for religious pluralism in the country.
In 1973 she finally resigned from the Labor party and established the Civil Rights and Peace Movement, known as Ratz (meaning “run” or “runner”). She gathered around her a group of lawyers, intellectuals, civil libertarians and feminists. Riding on the wave of discontent following the Yom Kippur War, her list unexpectedly garnered three seats in the Eighth Knesset, making her the only woman to date to successfully found a political party in Israel. She remained the leader of Ratz—which merged with the smaller Mapam and Shinui factions in 1992 to form the Meretz (meaning “energy”) party—until her retirement at the end of the Thirteenth Knesset in 1996.
During the twenty-five years that ensued after the establishment of Ratz, Shulamit Aloni spearheaded virtually every progressive democratic cause in the country. Guided by her vision that human rights stand at the center of modern society and must be applied equally to all citizens regardless of gender, religion, nationality, age and political persuasion, she fought relentlessly to advance the rights of children, women and minorities in Israel. She not only laid down Israel’s human rights agenda—thereby altering the content of political debate in the country—but she continues to be a source of constant innovation, being the first to promote the battle against discrimination against homosexuals and lesbians, migrant workers, the handicapped and conscientious objectors.
These positions placed Aloni and her Ratz faction squarely in the opposition, first to the Labor party (although she did serve as a Minister without Portfolio for a few months in the first Rabin government in 1974, resigning over settlement policy in the West Bank and Gaza) and, after 1977, to the Likud. Her movement, nevertheless, continued to thrive. After a poor showing in the 1977 elections, when she alone was returned to the Knesset, the party expanded steadily. Fortified by Ran Cohen of the radical Sheli list, who joined Ratz in 1981, and Yossi Sarid, who resigned from the Labor party during the Israel invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the party gained three seats in 1984 and in 1988 recorded its best independent showing, when five of its members were elected to the Knesset.
During the course of the 1980s Shulamit Aloni consolidated her progressive platform. Besides her continuous concern with issues of civil rights, the status of women and religious freedom, Aloni and her colleagues in Ratz became the spokespeople for the peace camp in Israel. She not only joined the campaign against settlement activity, but also openly advocated direct negotiations with the Palestinian Liberation Organization and withdrawal from the territories occupied by Israel in 1967. One of the founders of the International Center for Peace in the Middle East, she served as a member of its Executive Committee. In this capacity, she participated in the first meetings with representatives of the PLO held in Paris and Cairo in 1988 and in New York in 1989. During the first Palestinian intifadah (1987–1993), she emerged as one of the strongest voices decrying the expansionist policy of the Likud-led government and advocating the protection of the fundamental human and political rights of the Palestinian people.
The 1992 elections, the first time that the Meretz coalition presented a unified slate to the electorate, proved a phenomenal success for Aloni and her party. With the support of a bevy of youthful voters looking for a new voice (many of whom were graduates of the Ratz youth movement), Meretz won twelve seats in the Knesset and was asked to join the second Rabin government (1992–1995). Shulamit Aloni became Minister of Education and was accompanied by Amnon Rubinstein as Minister of Communications, Yair Tzaban as Minister of Immigrant Absorption and Yossi Sarid as Minister of the Environment.
The first year of Meretz in office was not a happy one for Shulamit Aloni. Although she was delighted with her assignment in the Education Ministry, her coalition partners from the ultra-orthodox Shas party, who could not countenance her avowed secularism, pounced on her every word. In early May, after a public spate with the spiritual leader of Shas, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, they demanded her resignation from the Ministry of Education. Aloni found herself under pressure from her fellow ministers and from the Meretz parliamentary faction which, with one notable exception, urged her to give up the Education portfolio for the sake of coalition stability. She sadly acquiesced, changing places with Amnon Rubinstein in the Ministry of Communications in early June 1993. Two months later she also became Minister of Science and Culture. Her leadership within Meretz, however, had been challenged (mostly by her impatient heir-apparent, Yossi Sarid), and she quickly lost her appetite for the internal politics of the movement she had founded.
Aloni nevertheless continued to make her mark on Israeli society. As Minister of Communications, she opened the airwaves to competition and successfully orchestrated the cellular revolution in the country. As Minister of Culture, she promoted the performing arts and guided Israel through an extraordinary period of artistic innovation (hardly surprising given the fact that she has always been a voracious reader and theater aficionado who counts most of Israel’s creative artists among her close personal friends). Most importantly, she accompanied the Oslo process from its early days, becoming one of the most vocal and consistent advocates of ending the Israeli occupation and creating a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995 affected her deeply. While Aloni continued to carry out her ministerial duties, she found herself increasingly at odds both with his replacement, Shimon Peres, and with many of the people she had recruited to Meretz. She therefore decided not to seek another term, retiring from the Knesset on the eve of the 1996 elections and distancing herself from the new Meretz leadership under the aegis of Yossi Sarid.
Aloni, however, has never left the public arena. She continues to speak out against Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights and to call for a just two-state solution. She is still considered a leading voice in the quest for the separation of religion and state in Israel. She carries immense cachet, justifiably, in feminist circles. And she is uncompromising in her ongoing effort to equip Israeli citizens with a Bill of Rights.
Her achievements have been widely recognized in Israel and abroad. She is the recipient of the Kreisky Prize for Human Rights (1985), a Decoration of Honor from the International Academy of Humanism (1996), a Certificate of Honor of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (1998) and the Israel Prize for her special contribution to Israeli society (2000). She has been awarded honorary doctorates by Hebrew Union College (1991), Kon-Kon University in South Korea (1994), the Free University of Brussels (1997) and the Weizmann Institute of Science (1999).
Since 1996 Shulamit Aloni has given courses at Ben-Gurion University, Tel Aviv University, Princeton University and the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliyyah. She still plays tennis, attends the opening nights of most new productions, travels widely throughout the world, writes extensively in the Israel press and appears regularly on radio and television, providing the most lucid voice in Israel for human rights, social justice and civil liberty.
The Citizen and His Country. Tel Aviv: 1958; Children’s Rights in Israel. Tel Aviv: 1964; The Arrangement: From a State of Law to a State of Religion. Tel Aviv: 1970; Women as Human Beings. Tel Aviv: 1976; with Idit Zertal. I Can Do No Other (Ani Lo Yekhola Aheret): A Political Biography of Shulamit Aloni. Tel Aviv, 1997.