Shulamit Aloni, Former Israeli Cabinet Minister & Palestinian Rights Advocate, Dead at 85
Shulamit Aloni, a controversial yet beloved former Israeli parliamentarian and cabinet minister known for her dogged defense of civil rights and justice for Palestinians, has died at age 85.
Haaretz reports Aloni passed away Friday morning surrounded by family at her home in Kfar Shmaryahu. The cause of her death has not been disclosed.
Born Sulamit Adler in Tel Aviv in 1928 to a seamstress mother and carpenter father both descended from Polish rabbinical families, Aloni was a member of the socialist Hashomer Hatzair Zionist youth movement. She later joined Palmach, the elite fighting force of Haganah, predecessor of the Israel Defense Forces, which engaged in militant resistance to the British occupiers of Palestine as well as terrorist attacks against British and the territory’s indigenous Arab population. During the 1948-49 war that followed Israel’s declaration of independence, Aloni was captured by Jordanian forces during the Battle for Jerusalem.
After the war, Shulamit married Reuven Aloni. The couple had three children, including future Kfar Shmaryahu Mayor Dror Aloni. She taught school and worked with child refugees while studying law, and by the late 1950s, she had joined the left-wing Mapai party, then the dominant force in Israeli politics. She was first elected to the Knesset, or Israeli parliament, in 1965 on the Labor Alignment (Ma’arach) ticket. In 1973, she left Ma’arach and formed the Ratz party. Advocating electoral reform, separation of religion and state, and human rights for all, Ratz won three Knesset seats in 1973. Throughout the 1970s, Aloni worked toward achieving a lasting peace with the Palestinians at a time of rampant PLO terrorism. During the 1982 Lebanon war, in which Israeli forces laid waste to large swathes of its war-weary northern neighbor and killed more than 17,000 innocent civilians, Aloni founded the International Center for Peace in the Middle East. In the 1984 elections, Ratz won five Knesset seats.
In 1992, Aloni helped form Meretz, a leftist, Zionist party that won 12 Knesset seats in that year’s election. Joining forces with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who had once ordered security forces to break the bones of Palestinian protesters, including children, Aloni was appointed minister of education and culture. But her outspoken stance on the separation of religion and state led to her forced resignation in 1993. Aloni also served as science and arts minister before retiring from party politics in 1996.
Aloni was incessantly critical of what she, and many international and progressive Israeli observers, considered injustice toward Palestinians. She served as a board member of Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights group that provides legal assistance to Palestinians living in Israeli-occupied territories. She also backed former US President Jimmy Carter’s assertion that Israel was an ‘apartheid’ state. In a 2007 Counterpunch article titled “Yes, There Is Apartheid in Israel”, Aloni wrote:
Jewish self-righteousness is taken for granted among ourselves to such an extent that we fail to see what’s right in front of our eyes. It’s simply inconceivable that the ultimate victims, the Jews, can carry out evil deeds. Nevertheless, the state of Israel practices its own, quite violent, form of apartheid with the native Palestinian population.
In 2008, at the age of 80, Aloni wrote the highly critical “Israel: Democracy or Ethnocracy?”, in which she asserted that “The state is returning to the ghetto, or Orthodox Judaism, and the rule of the fundamentalist rabbinate is becoming more profound.”
Aloni’s critical stance earned her much scorn among her fellow Israelis. She was predictably labeled an “anti-Semite” and “self-hating Jew” but she remained undaunted. Appearing on the independent US news program Democracy Now! in 2002, Aloni told host Amy Goodman that tarring Israel’s critics with the ‘anti-Semite’ brush is “a trick” used by Zionists and their apologists to deflect legitimate criticism.
Despite her outspoken criticism of Israeli apartheid and other crimes against Palestinians, Aloni was beloved by many across the Israeli political spectrum. In 2005, she was voted the 57th-greatest Israeli of all time in a Ynet poll. In 1998, she was the recipient of a special lifetime achievement prize of the Emil Grunzweig Human Rights Award. And in 2000, she won the Israel Prize, widely regarded as the nation’s highest honor, “for her struggle to right injustices and for raising the standard of equality.”
Even her political enemies had kind words for Aloni after her passing.
“It was impossible not to admire such a combative woman who fought for what she believed in and was prepared to pay the price,” Geula Cohen, founder of a right-wing faction that was frequently at odds with Aloni in the Knesset, told the New York Times.
Friendlier voices were even more gracious about Aloni’s life and deeds.
“She transformed Israel into a better place to live and never stopped fighting for the values she believed in with which she will forever be associated: peace, absolute equality irrespective of religion, gender and race,” Meretz Leader Zahava Gal-On told Haaretz.
“Aloni instigated significant change in Israeli public discourse and broke down the walls that protected antiquated ways of thinking and outdated paradigms,” added Labor party leader Isaac Herzog. “For this, as a nation, we must respect her. She will be remembered as a courageous fighter for peace, coexistence and minority rights.”
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