When Shulamit Aloni, one of Israel’s first feminist leaders who died today at 85, presented a bill protecting women from domestic violence, some of her male fellow MKs mocked her. “Go back to the kitchen and get me a cup of coffee,” some of the men said, laughing, as they dismissed the seriousness of her work.
That was 1973. A lot has changed in Israel since then, Aloni explained as she recounted the story at a 2011 meeting of the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women. If Israeli women’s lives are in fact better than they were in 1973—and there are many indications that they are—then we have Aloni to thank for that. She never did serve her colleagues coffee, but she served them a good dose of feminist consciousness and led the way for a movement that is now in its prime.
Aloni has an impressive and inspiring record of national service. She was the first woman to serve as a cabinet minister after Golda Meir, and is tied with Tzipi Livni for the woman having served the most ministerial posts (five each). When Aloni became a minister in Yitzhak Rabin’s government in 1974, she was the only woman at the Cabinet table—thus when she later resigned, Rabin was left with no women around the table. Throughout the 1980s, there were several governments that had no female representation.
Although today there are more women Knesset members than there were back then—some 26 women in the Knesset, out of 120 parliamentarians, the largest cohort yet—still, Netanyahu still only has four women in his cabinet, out of 22 members, which is not yet a representation worth cheering for. The work that Aloni started has been taken up by some amazing women in Israel. But the mission is not over.
If it has been difficult for women to advance in Israeli politics, it is been perhaps even harder for feminist women. Golda Meir was notoriously anti-feminist, a legacy that finds expression in the fact that her leadership did not open doors for any women after her. Aloni, by contrast, was part of a group of women who, despite their sexist surroundings, were not afraid to speak out on behalf of women’s rights. One of Israel’s first feminists—along with other inspiring women such as Naomi Chazan, Alice Shalvi, Marcia Freedman, Esther Herzog and others—Aloni fought for ideas that were far from the Israeli consciousness.
It has been argued, in fact, that the women’s rights movement that swept over the western world in the 1970s nearly bypassed Israel. Israel was always too preoccupied with the Arab-Israeli conflict to pay close attention to social issues, many believe. But Aloni never gave up, and her efforts are starting to bear fruit, as the past decade has witnessed a burgeoning social justice movement in Israel. Many of the young leaders of today’s movement have spent their day eulogizing Aloni all over social media, describing her as their hero and moral guide.
Indeed, Aloni spearheaded an ideology in which feminism is a lens for social equality across all social sectors. Her work with Palestinians was informed by her feminism, and her feminism was informed by her work with Palestinians. She held on to a world view in which equality and compassion were part of the process of learning to see the “other” in society, whether that “other” was distinguished by gender, ethnicity, religion, or anything else. This is a powerful and profoundly Jewish worldview that I think is gaining momentum in today’s Israel. I would venture to say that for the supremely secular Aloni, a commitment to this kind of compassionate society was perhaps her way of living out her idea of what it means to be Jewish.
For me, as a religious Israeli feminist, I have found that this ideology, driven by a feminist desire to see and respect the other, transcends other political divides. Demarcations of left-right increasingly seem to fade amid a feminist discourse that lays out a larger vision for Israeli society. To wit, some of the most significant pieces of legislation in today’s Knesset have come from feminist legislators crossing some of those more “traditional” political fault lines. Feminists on the right and the left have found remarkable ways to collaborate on vital issues that their male counterparts do not. I think about Shulamit Aloni and about the ways in which she was so often delegitimized as “leftist” in many of the circles that I have dwelled in, and I can’t help but mourn that loss of opportunity for exploring a shared vision.
And I think that I’m not alone. I think that the ideology that Shulamit Aloni fought for is resonating with feminists across Israeli society, even in the religious world. I know that in the past election, many of my Orthodox feminist friends and colleagues voted for Meretz, a trend which I think is fascinating and worth noting. I think it speaks to the fact that Aloni’s ideology, the one that she built with the party that became Meretz, has the potential to transform all of Israeli society.
Shulamit Aloni died today, but her spirit lives on in the lives and work of so many activists across Israel, including in mine. May her memory be blessed.
Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman is the outgoing Executive Director of JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, and the award-winning author of several books on feminism and Jewish life, including (with Chaya Gorsetman), Educating in the Divine Image: Gender Issues in Orthodox Jewish Day Schools, which just won the National Jewish Book Council award in education.