“During the War of Liberation in 1948, I was in the battle for the Old City of Jerusalem—and men and women, girls and boys, fought side by side,” writes civil rights veteran Shulamit Aloni. “Upon the establishment of the state we took it for granted that we would have a modern, liberal state. … Unfortunately this was not translated into action.”
Aloni grew up in a time when Israel was struggling to establish an independent state. In those revolutionary years everyone participated as equals in public affairs and in defense activities. Established religion was relegated to the outskirts of life in favor of a declaration of independence that guaranteed equality for everyone “irrespective of religion, race or sex.” Since that time, Aloni has seen a retreat from the secular liberal ideals envisioned by Israel’s founders. She sees respect for individual rights and liberty ignored, for Jews as well as Palestinians. She claims that ultraorthodox religious views are trying to impose a strict religious code of Judaism on everyone. Even the concept of equality between the sexes is under attack, particularly within marriage. Women should have more influence, not less, she claims.
Born in a poor area of Tel Aviv in 1929, Aloni developed her independent views early. Her teachers instilled in her the idea that an ideal state was one in which an individual’s rights would be honored. She joined the resistance group Haganah while fighting for her country’s independence, and fought in Jerusalem in the War of Independence. During the war, girls took on many dangerous assignments, and Aloni was taken hostage by the Jordanians.
After the war, Aloni worked with the children of immigrant families who emigrated into the new state. Studying both law and education, she became a teacher in 1948 and took her law degree at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1956.
As a lawyer, Aloni saw firsthand the struggle of the average citizen with Israel’s growing bureaucracy. She produced a radio show and wrote books to help demystify politics and complex issues on law and order. She also promoted citizens’ rights through columns she wrote for several newspapers, and through the creation of Israel’s first consumers council.
With the support of a women’s group she helped form, Aloni decided to enter the political fray by joining the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, as a Labor member in 1965. She served there in various positions until 1996.
Aloni’s time in the Knesset was stormy. She spent most of her time promoting a Bill of Rights Law, which Israel still does not have, and laws pertaining to constitutional and civil rights. In the 1970s, due to differences of opinions between herself and Golda Meir, Aloni formed her own civil rights movement, Ratz, and represented them in the Knesset. In 1992, she helped form a new organization called the Meretz Coalition, which worked to strengthen the position of the leftist parties. With unity, the left gained some power, and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin appointed Aloni minister of education and culture to help secure its support. In 1993, Aloni became minister of communication, science and arts.
Aloni often challenged the growing political strength of Orthodox religion. She railed against what she called the process of “haredization,” which she felt was eating away at the progressive, democratic and open face of society. She noted that the secular taxpayer was sustaining a massive “army” of religious (haredi) youth who did not hold jobs nor serve in the national forces. She criticized Israeli schools, which taught that the world was literally created in six days. She chastised the actions of rabbinical authorities that encouraged those Jews who refused to dismantle their settlements. As a lawyer, she performed irregular civil marriages outside the Rabbinical Courts for those who wished to avoid the religious laws.
Aloni’s outspoken opinions angered Israel’s Orthodox political and religious leadership. They called her “brusque and insolent,” “political harlot” and “Jezebel.” She was pilloried by the religious press for eating non-Kosher food, for failing to observe the Jewish Sabbath as a day solely for prayer, and for wearing dresses that showed her forearms and the calves of her legs. Once, while she was speaking at a Jewish community event in New York City in 1995, a critic jumped on stage and punched her. Recovering from the attack, she continued with her speech: “If you surrender to threats, you surrender to fascism,” she told the crowd.
Israel’s struggle to achieve peace with its Arab neighbors and the Palestinians was a recurrent part of Aloni’s life. She founded and participated in a number of pro-peace organizations, and was one of the pioneers of the International Center for Peace in the Middle East. She has joined with Palestinians, including Hanan Ashrawi, to address the sticky issue of the future of Jerusalem, “in a way which recognizes the political and human rights of all residents in the city.” Together, Israeli and Palestinian women have created The Jerusalem Center for Women.
In 1996, Shulamit Aloni withdrew from the Knesset for reasons of conscience, and from the leadership of Meretz as well. That year she received the title of Humanist of the Year, one of her many honors over the years.
Although supposedly retired, this widow, mother of three and grandmother of six, is not sitting on the sidelines. She continues to express her views through articles and speeches made both at home and abroad. Recently she published a political autobiography called I Can Do No Other.
As one of Israel’s best-known champions of human and civil rights, Aloni always had the spotlight on her when she participated in acts of resistance, including her efforts to help boycott goods produced by settlements in potentially Palestinian areas.
Dearest to her heart were the lectures she would give at Israeli universities. She wanted young people to understand that an open, democratic society is not only a fantasy harbored by the country’s founding generation. “It is an integral part of the Israeli ethos. Thus, it is our job to roll up our sleeves, to step forward and to help.”
Time Line: Israel
Post-WWI The British rule Palestine under mandate of the League of Nations (forerunner of the United Nations).
1940s The British try to keep Palestine free from Jewish refugees fleeing from Hitler’s extermination policies. Palestine Jews embark upon a program of smuggling in immigrants. Haganah and Irgun, two Jewish resistance movements, start a campaign of sabotage against the British.
1947 U.N. creates a Jewish state and an Arab state within Palestine. Jerusalem is to be an internationalized city. Israel’s founders, mostly secular liberals, create a democratic parliamentary republic. Within Israel are ultraorthodox Jews (Hasidim or Haremim) who refuse to recognize the state. Certain religious strictures, like enforcing the no-work rule on the Shabbat, are part of Israeli life.
1948 Fighting erupts between Arabs and Jews. About 20 percent of Israeli soldiers are women. The Arabs are defeated; 400,000 Arab Palestinians flee their homes. At cease-fire, Israeli forces control the major part of Palestine.
1950 The Law of Return granted citizenship to every Jewish person requesting it, providing their mother was Jewish. Jews come who are not always fleeing persecution, but because they believe in the new state’s democratic ideals.
1951–964 Law granting equal rights for women passed, but since it left all aspects of personal status, especially marriage and divorce, to the religious courts (Rabbinical Courts for Jews), family law courts may discriminate against women.
1967 Six-Day War results in Israeli victory over Egypt, Jordan and Syria and gain of additional lands. Groups of politically motivated Jews build settlements in lands considered for return to Palestinians. Clashes between settlers and Palestinians become frequent.
1973 Yom Kippur War. Initiated by Egypt, it ends in Israeli victory 18 days after it is started. Women no longer allowed to participate. More militant stands against the actions of Palestinians sought.
1978 Immigration increases from non-European countries. The majority of Israeli Jews are Sephardic, a term that now means all Jews who originally came from Arab-Islamic countries. Western democratic traditions of the founders are challenged. Within the orthodox and Sephardic communities, issues of women’s rights conflict with their ideas of women’s roles.
1987 Palestinian resentment under occupation explodes in the intifada (the “shaking off”). Demonstrations, rallies, boycotts of Israeli goods, stones thrown at Israeli armed forces.
1993 Signing of Oslo Accords gives Palestinians the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank. Israeli society is split between those who believe the only hope lies in dialogue with Arab neighbors and a secular state, and those who resist relinquishing land and control over strategic or religious sites.
1995 Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin assassinated by a man trying to stop Rabin from handing over “God-given Israeli lands” to the Palestinians.
1996 Right-wing Likud led by Binyamin Netanyahu is elected to govern. Ultraorthodox religious nationalists receive a boost in parliamentary seats. Divisions sharpen between the “doves” and the “hawks,” secular versus non-secular, Sephardic versus European Jews.
We recommend reading this text along with the text about Hanan Ashrawi.