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"Return, return oh Shulamite, return, return!"

Memories of Seeger and Aloni

by URI AVNERY

Pete Seeger touched my life only once. But what a touch.

It was a few days before the 1967 Six-Day War. After almost three weeks of mounting tension, the war fever was nearing breaking point. I knew that the war was only days, perhaps hours, away.

Dina Dinur, the wife of the Holocaust-writer K. Zetnik, called to invite me to meet Pete Seeger. Dina, a huge woman, had for years gathered a small group of Jewish and Arab intellectuals who met regularly in her home to discuss peace.

The meeting took place in Tel Aviv’s Hilton hotel. It was sad, depressed, but also uplifting in a strange way. We were thinking about all the young men, ours and theirs, still alive and breathing, who were going to die in the next few days.

We were a group of two or three dozen people, Jews and Arabs. Pete sang for us, accompanying himself on the guitar, songs about peace, humanity, rebellion. We were all deeply stirred.

I never met Pete Seeger again. But 19 years later, out of the blue, I received a postcard from him. It said in clear handwriting: “Dear Uri Avnery – Just a note of deep thanks to you for continuing to reach out, and take action. I hope next time you are in USA my family and I can get to hear you. Pete Seeger.” Then three Chinese characters and a sketch of what seems to be a banjo.

Two days before Pete passed away, we buried Shulamit Aloni. Perhaps some of those who took part in that earlier sad meeting were present this time, too.

Shula, as we called her, was one of the few leaders of the Israeli Left who made a lasting imprint on Israeli society.

Though she was five years younger than I, we belonged to the same generation, the one which fought in the 1948 war. Our lives ran on parallel lines – lines which, as we learnt at school,  can be very close but never touch.

We were both elected to the Knesset at the same time. Before that, we were active in the same field. I was the editor of a magazine that was prominent, among other things, in the fight for human rights. She was a teacher and lawyer, already famous for defending citizen’s rights in the press and on radio.

That sounds easy, but at the time it was revolutionary. Post-1948 Israel was still a country where The State was everything, citizens were there merely to serve the state, and especially the army. The collective was everything, the individual next to nothing.

Shula was preaching the opposite: the state was there to serve its citizens. Citizens have rights that cannot be taken away or diminished. This has become part of the Israeli consensus.

However, there was a great difference between our situations. Shula came from the heart of the establishment, which hated my guts. She was born in a poor part of Tel Aviv, and when both her parents enlisted in the British army during World War II, she was sent to the youth village Ben Shemen, a center of Zionist indoctrination. One of her schoolmates was Shimon Peres. At the same time I was a member of the Irgun, in stark opposition to the Zionist leadership.

After Ben Shemen, Shula joined Kibbutz Alonim – hence her adopted family name – where she met and married Reuven, who became prominent as a senior government official in charge of judaizing Galilee.

Apart from writing articles and dealing with citizens’ complaints on the radio, she performed illegal wedding ceremonies. In Israel, weddings are the exclusive province of the Rabbinate, which does not recognize women’s equality.

In the Knesset she was a member of the ruling Labor Party (then called Mapai) and subject to strict party discipline. I was a one-man faction, free to do as I pleased. So I could do many things she couldn’t, such as submitting bills to allow to legalize abortions, to allow harvesting organs for transplantation, annulling the old British law against homosexual relations between consenting adults, and such.

I also demanded a total separation between the state and religion. Shula was known for her attacks on religious coercion concerning civil rights. Therefore I was utterly surprised when in one of our first conversations she strenuously objected to such separation. “I am a Zionist,” she said, “The only thing that unites all Jews around the world is the Jewish religion. That is why there can be no separation between the state and the  Jewish religion in Israel.”

From there on, her outlook widened from year to year. To my mind, she followed the inescapable logic of the Left.

From her original concentration on citizens’ rights, she moved to human rights in general. From there to the separation of state and synagogue. From there to feminism. From there to social justice. And, in the end, to peace and the fight against the occupation. Throughout she remained a Zionist.

This was no easy path. In early 1974, when she was elected to the Knesset again, this time as the leader of a small party, while I lost my seat, I took her in my car to a meeting in Haifa. On the way, which took about an hour, I told her that now, as a party leader, she must get active in the fight for peace. “Let’s divide the task between us,” she answered, “You deal with peace and I deal with civil rights.”

But 20 years later, Shula was already a leading voice for peace, for a Palestinian state, against the occupation.

We had another thing in common. Golda Meir hated our guts.

Shula could disregard the party line as long as the benevolent Levy Eshkol was prime minister. When he suddenly died and the scepter passed to Golda, the rules changed abruptly.

Golda had a domineering personality, and, as David Ben-Gurion once said about her, the only thing she was good at was hating. Shula, a young and good-looking woman, with unorthodox ideas, aroused her ire. In 1969 she removed Shula from the party list. In 1973, when Shula tried again, Golda showed the full force of her spite: at the very last minute she removed Shula again.

It was too late for Shula to go through the lengthy procedure of setting up a new party list. But a miracle happened. A group of feminists had prepared a list of their own, with all the necessary requirements already completed, but without a chance of passing the minimum threshold. It was an ideal combination: a leader without a list for a list without a leader.

During the last hours of the time allocated for the submission of the lists, I saw Shula struggling with a huge pile of papers, trying to bring some order to the hundreds of signatures. I helped her to do the job.

Thus the new party, now called Meretz, came into being and won three seats on its first attempt.

Her hour of glory came in 1992. Meretz won 250,667 votes and became a political force. The new Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, needed her for his new government. Shula became Minister of Education, a job she coveted.

The trouble was that the 44 seats of the Labor Party and the 12 seats of Meretz were not enough. Rabin needed a religious party to form a government.

The transition from opposition fighter to cabinet minister is not always easy. It was especially hard for Shula, who was more of a preacher than a politician. Politics – as Bismarck famously remarked – is the art of the possible, and compromise came hard to Shula.

Nonetheless, right at the beginning, when Rabin decided to expel 415 radical Islamic citizens from the country, Shula voted in favor. During the protest against this outrage, my friends and I founded Gush Shalom. Shula later admitted that her support for the expulsion was an “eclipse of the sun”.

But the main trouble was to come. Shula never believed in hiding her opinions. She was totally honest. Perhaps too honest.

As Minister of Education she dispensed her opinions freely. Too freely. Every time she said what she thought about some chapter of the Bible and such, the religious coalition partners exploded.

The climax came when she announced that in all schools, the theories of Charles Darwin would replace the Biblical creation story. That was just too much. The religious demanded that Rabin remove Shula from the education ministry. Rabin was occupied with the Oslo peace process and needed the religious parties. Shula was removed from the ministry.

At her funeral, one of her two sons, in a brilliant eulogy, hinted darkly at the “treachery” which was the hardest moment of her life. All those present understood what he meant, though he did not elaborate.

When Rabin dismissed Shula from her beloved job as Education Minister, her party colleagues did not come to her aid. Among themselves they accused her of acting foolishly. She should have known that joining a coalition with the religious parties would demand a price. If she was not ready to shut her mouth, she should not have joined in the first place.

Meretz was the creation of Shula. Party founders are generally strong personalities, with whom it is not easy to cooperate. Shula’s party colleagues conspired against her, and eventually she was replaced as party leader by Yossi Sarid, a sharp-tongued Labor Party politician who had lately joined Meretz. In the next election, Meretz crashed from 12 seats to 3.

During the last few years, she was rarely in the public eye. I never saw her at demonstrations in the occupied territories, but she lectured incessantly to anyone, anywhere, when invited.

In one of his frequent outbursts of vulgarity, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef of the Shas party said: “When Shulamit Aloni dies, there will be a feast!”

There was no feast this week. Even the Right acknowledges her contribution to Israel. The Meretz party, now with six members in the Knesset, is doing well in the polls.

The sixth chapter of the Song of Songs ends with the call: “Return, return oh Shulamite, return, return!” No chance of that. Not much chance of another Shulamit Aloni, either. They don’t make them like that anymore.

URI AVNERY is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. He is a contributor to CounterPunch’s book The Politics of Anti-Semitism.