Remembering Shulamit Aloni (1928-2014): The Conscience of Israel

Shulamit Aloni, the person who virtually single-handedly introduced human rights, civil liberties and respect for diversity into Israeli public life, passed away on January 24, at the age of 85. 

A patriot, visionary and leader, for close to 50 years she was a formidable presence on the country’s political scene. No other woman has been as innovative, no other woman has been as controversial, and no other woman has had such a transformative effect on Israeli political discourse

She started her career as a teacher, specializing in Hebrew language and biblical studies (her knowledge of the Jewish sources was prodigious; her use of Hebrew a pleasure to the ears of even her most vehement critics). With the completion of a law degree in the mid-1950s, she became increasingly concerned with civic issues, gradually forging her humanistic Israeli worldview: a mixture of deep pride in her Jewish identity and profound commitment to individual rights and social justice.

In the Israel of the 1950s and 1960s — and even more so after 1967 — Shulamit Aloni’s liberal democratic vision was nothing short of revolutionary. Aloni began to make her mark hosting a radio talk show on consumer rights and writing columns on civil and women’s rights in leading newspapers (she was a path-breaking feminist even before the term was coined). Shulamit Aloni is the only woman in Israel’s history to successfully establish a party with a durable political presence.

Unsparing in her critique of intolerance, prejudice and injustice and exceptional in her ability to lash out against their perpetrators, Aloni developed as large a cadre of antagonists as of supporters. A person of large ideas and broad strokes, she had little patience for details. Notably unsentimental, she did not suffer fools or hypocrites lightly. A fun-loving person with wide horizons, she scorned narrow-mindedness and despised opportunism on all parts of the political spectrum. Ultimately, Aloni paid the price for her lack of political guile — first losing her position as Minister of Education and then, in 1996, as the leader of Meretz, the party she founded.

During the last 18 years of her life she continued to struggle for the Israel she believed in: one that would embody the values of human decency and live up to the humanistic historical and cultural Jewish underpinnings which she held so dear. Until her death, she constituted the moral compass and provided the principled leadership that the left, which she helped to form, so sorely lacked after she retired from formal politics. Her legacy remains deeply embedded in the Israeli body politic. By designing the contours of a just Israel and doing her utmost to translate this vision into reality, she has left an indelible — and yet unrealized — imprint on this country.

For more: The Times of Israel, January 26, 2014, as “Shulamit Aloni: The Conscience of a Nation.”