Profile: Shulamit Aloni and Geula Cohen
Consummate politicians, these one-time Knesset members remain vigilant in their beliefs and as concerned about their beloved state as ever.
For more than six decades, the lives of Shulamit Aloni and Geula Cohen have been indelibly intertwined with the State of Israel, first with the establishment of the state and afterward in the continuous forging of the country’s identity.
They have lived almost parallel lives on opposing ends of Israeli politics, coming to represent diametrically opposing views within Israel.
As a young woman, Cohen was a member of the right-wing Lehi movement and was imprisoned by British authorities in 1946. Aloni served in the Hashomer Hatzair socialist Zionist movement and the Haganah. She fought to liberate the Old City of Jerusalem during the War of Independence in 1948 and was captured by Jordanian forces.
Both were teachers, and while Aloni went on to study law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Cohen has a combined master’s degree in Jewish studies, philosophy, literature and Bible from the same school. Cohen served as a Knesset member with right-wing parties in five governments; Aloni was part of seven as a left-wing Knesset member, holding five ministerial positions.
Cohen, 82, currently cohosts the popular On the Right and On the Left radio show, which covers Israeli politics and current events. Aloni, 79, lectures on human rights and citizenship at Tel Aviv University and other institutions.
Retired from public life, the women remain outspoken and opinionated. They are still sought after for their views. Neither is pleased with the state of affairs in Israel today.
The days following the shooting at the Mercaz HaRav Kook Yeshiva in March were difficult for Cohen, who believes that Israel’s future lies with the youth pouring out of yeshivas. Led by their singular belief in the Torah, Religious Zionists understand the importance of the struggle for the State of Israel, says Cohen.
“This won’t pass quietly. It is an explosive situation. It could lead to civil war,” Cohen said a few days after the incident, sitting at the big wooden table that serves as her desk in the living room of her modest Jerusalem apartment. From outside the open window, the muezzin’s call to prayer in the neighboring Arab village can be heard. “Civil war has always been the end of us.”
Cohen, widowed and the mother of two sons—one is deceased and the other, Tzahi Hanegbi, currently serves as the chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in the Knesset and has been indicted on corruption charges—has long been known for her emotional, passionate style. And the dark-haired stateswoman has never wavered from her belief in the Greater Israel.
Aloni, also a widow, still lives in the same bungalow in Kfar Shmaryahu, near Tel Aviv, where she and her husband raised their three sons. Unlike Cohen, she does not feel sympathy for Religious Zionists: Rather, she was shocked at the manner in which Mercaz HaRav Kook students verbally attacked Minister of Education Yuli Tamir when she came to visit in the aftermath of the shooting.
“The Religious Zionist movement thinks [it is] above the law,” said Aloni, whose eldest son, Dror, a retired Navy colonel, is currently the head of the Kfar Shmaryahu local council. Her middle son, Nimrod, is a well-known lecturer in humanistic education and her youngest son, Udi, is an artist.
She lives in a state of disappointment, she says, and her biggest fear as Israel celebrates its 60th anniversary is that the country is becoming a corrupt ethnocracy with total disregard for the human rights set forth in its Declaration of Independence.
“Everybody gives in to the religious parties because, in their heart, they all want the Greater Israel, they are all racists,” she said with characteristic bluntness, her mass of blond curls bobbing up and down as she talked. “After 60 years, we still don’t have a Bill of Rights. If we still have freedom of the press and freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, it is thanks to the Supreme Court of Justice.”
These two icons, among the last of their generation of politicians, were the parliamentary pioneers of their time, notes Henriette Dahan-Kalev, head of the gender studies program and lecturer in the Department of Political Science at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
“They were the first female members of Knesset who tried to make a change through the Knesset,” said Dahan-Kalev. “What they did at that time was unusual, though they were not especially feminists, particularly Geula Cohen.”
Both are consummate politicians, she says, and are still disliked by many former colleagues whom they stepped over on their way to achieving their own aspirations.
Though she no longer aspires to office, Aloni still adamantly expresses her views on government, particularly the belief that Israel’s national identity morphed drastically in 1970 when the Law of Return was changed from defining a Jew as a person who declared himself a Jew to only a person with a Jewish mother.
“That is the worst thing because now religion and nationality are one and the same,” Aloni remarked.
“I wanted freedom, equality and democracy as stated [in] the Declaration of Independence,” she explained, noting that though half the Jewish world belongs to the Reform and Conservative streams, their rabbis are not recognized by Israel’s Orthodox chief rabbinate and cannot serve as military rabbis.
She bristles at the fact that, in the next five years, some 50,000 yeshiva students will be relieved of Army duty and have their studies subsidized while the government raises the tuition at the country’s universities and carries out a “McCarthy-like hunt” for secular Israelis who received medical deferments from service.
Still, says Aloni, there is a segment within the younger generation that is trying to bring back the sense of solidarity and volunteerism that was so prominent in Israel’s early days. She points to people living cooperatively in urban communes, helping with issues that the government has failed to address—assistance for African refugees, foreign workers, single parents and the poor.
While aloni, descended from a Polish rabbinical family, is perceived as aggressively antireligious, Cohen, the daughter of Yemenite and Moroccan immigrants, respects her heritage even though she does not keep the mitzvot. She describes herself as “traditional” in her observance of the holidays.
Cohen has been closely associated with the Gush Emunim movement, which actively supports Jewish settlements in contested West Bank areas and in Gaza. In 1988, she spent two weeks living in a tent in front of then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s office to show her opposition to shifting positions during peace talks. She was also pivotal in pressuring the Knesset to allow settlers to remain in a temporary Army camp in Sebastia, near Nablus, in 1975. Two years ago, Cohen spoke out against the withdrawal from Gaza, which she calls the worse mistake Israel has ever made.
“We needed great leaders to build up this nation, but to destroy everything all we need is very small people, dwarf leaders,” she said. “I am very worried. I pray all the time for a great leader to rise up among us.”
Yet, even with this pessimism, Cohen feels a resurgence of hope every year on Independence Day.
“There have always been ups and downs in our history,” she observed. “I try to see things in a historical perspective so I don’t get hysterical.”
As education minister, Aloni was known for her strident opposition to Orthodox demands on the political system. Most recently, she made waves by defending President Jimmy Carter’s classification of Israel as an apartheid state. “The United States’s Jewish establishment’s onslaught on former President Jimmy Carter,” she wrote in an opinion piece in the daily Yedioth Ahronoth last year, “is based on him daring to tell the truth that is known to all: Through its Army, the government of Israel practices a brutal form of apartheid in the territory it occupies.”
In the same article, she noted with disgust streets designated as “for Israelis only” in the West Bank. She scoffs at what she says are attempts by politicians to frighten Israelis into accepting extreme security measures.
“They scare us all the time so we will be afraid,” Aloni expounded. “They say the Arabs want to throw us into the sea. Let’s say they want to do that, can they really do that to us with all [the defenses] we have and all our world connections?”
Though both women are disappointed in today’s leadership—Cohen for lack of vision and Aloni for a failure to respect tenets outlined in the Declaration of Independence—they point with pride to the contributions Israel has made in technology and science and the great steps women have taken in the realms of academia and private businesses.
Six decades after Israel’s creation, Cohen also looks at continuing aliya as something to celebrate, regardless of the numbers.
“These are good days,” she said. “There is aliya, however small. One oleh is worth more than 100 yordim [those who leave Israel].”
Of the two, notes Dahan-Kalev, Cohen has been the more intractable in her political positions. She still espouses an extreme view of the settlements and the Greater Land of Israel that many Israelis, out of practicality and perhaps only reluctantly, are turning away from.
Aloni has proven to be more flexible, and by speaking knowledgeably about Judaism at times has even surprised a public that used to view her as merely stubborn in her antagonism of the religious, says Dahan-Kalev.
Back in Cohen’s Jerusalem apartment, almost every inch of wall space in the living room is taken up by paintings of the city, a reflection of the central pull Jerusalem holds for her. It is only through this eternal yearning for Jerusalem that there can be hope for the Jewish state, Cohen believes.
Meanwhile, sitting on her back veranda smoking a cigarette, Aloni looks out at her garden. Her dog, a boxer, stretches out on a sunny patch of grass, looks up at her and wags her tail. What brings Aloni happiness this day is the blue sky, the shining sun and the singing birds. And there is hope, she says.
“There always has to be some hope,” she concluded. “I don’t believe the nation will lose its senses.”
Judith Sudilovsky is a freelance journalist living in Jerusalem.