Special Interview Israel at the Crossroads

Israeli society is at a turning point where its fate is hanging in the balance. It can descend into European-style fascism if the present tensions and divisiveness continue to fester, or it can become a truly democratic society if the Zionist ideals of the nation’s founders are implemented.

Knesset member Shulamit Aloni, leader of the Civil Rights Movement (CRM), who expressed this view, does not mince words. For more than 20 years she has been in the forefront of the fight for civil rights and a free, democratic, pluralistic society devoid of religious constraints and nationalist extremism. But now she says, actually warns, that Israel will not be able to survive if it is not a just and democratic society.

“A lot depends on whatever happens in the Labor Party,” Aloni asserted in an interview here with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “There are forces in Labor that pull the party to the extreme right and toward the politics of the mob. The Labor Party must veer away from populism and stop being apologetic … (T)he Israeli public is ripe for that.”

Aloni, who was in New York to attend a conference at the United Nations on international economy, said that her own party is likely to increase its representation in the Knesset in the next election from its present four members to six. “We will be ready to support those elements in Labor that shun the influence of the right, the sober elements,” she said.

THE SEEDS OF FASCISM

According to Aloni, the seeds of fascism in Israel have been growing steadily in the last decade, especially since the Likud and its leader, Menachem Begin, came to power in 1977. “Israeli society is now divided between an irrational, nationalistic, religious right, with messianic racist attitudes toward the Arabs, and an extreme, anti-Zionist left that blames Israel for all evils,” she explained. “In the middle are the Likud and Labor, with the rightist elements in the Likud and the leftist elements in Labor pulling to the extreme fringes.”

She identified the extreme right as the Kach and Tehiya Parties and the Gush Emunim movement, and the extreme left as the Hadash (Communist) Party and the Progressive List for Peace.

CRITICAL OF AMERICAN JEWRY

Aloni sharply criticized the role of American Jewry in influencing events in Israel. Her criticism was especially directed at the liberal and progressive elements of American Jewry who have lost hope that Israel can become a progressive nation and say that they are “fed up with Israel.” Instead of taking this negative approach, these Jews should come forward and raise their voices about whatever is wrong with Israeli society, she argued.

“American Jews should stop viewing Israel as the Church or the Vatican of the Jewish people,” she declared. “They must understand that in order to survive, Israel must be a pluralistic society, with freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and the due process of law. If American Jews view Israel as their Vatican, then forget about democracy.”

The outspoken Aloni was also critical of the American Jewish leadership. “I don’t know who elected them as leaders of American Jews,” she said. “They are happy to come to Israel and rub elbows with important people. They’re supporting Israel, and I’m for it, but they should raise their voices and denounce discrimination against minorities and religious coercion in Israel, and support the underwriting of a constitution and a bill of rights in Israel.”

RELIGIOUS COERCION DETERS ALIVA

Aloni asserted that religious coercion in Israel is a major deterrence to Reform and Conservative American Jews who want to come and live in Israel. “Moreover,” she said, “why should Russian Jews want to come to Israel? Many of them are mixed couples who will not be recognized as Jews by Israel’s Orthodox rabbis. Their children will not be able to marry Jews, and they will be identified in official documents as goyim.”

A lawyer by profession, Aloni has been using her expertise to fight the religious establishment in Israel by creating new alternatives for those who do not want to use the religious authorities in matters such as marriage and divorce. “As a result of the cruelty and extremism of the rabbinical courts in Israel, many Israelis have lately decided to ignore the religious establishment,” she said.

According to Aloni, hundreds of Israelis, including her own son Udi, have recently married by signing “marriage covenants under the law of contracts.” Many could be married by the rabbinical courts, but out of conviction and protest against religious coercion couples have elected to be married by a lawyer rather than a rabbi, she said.

For many in Israel, Aloni is an admired leader. Many others, however, especially those in the religious establishment and the right, view here as an “enemy.” For years, Aloni has been fighting religious intolerance. In recent years, she has become a victim of that phenomenon.

A TARGET OF INTOLERANCE

“I have been getting a lot of threatening letters and telephone calls,” Aloni disclosed. “I have been threatened with mutilation and rape. Maybe because I am a woman, many of the letters include sexual references and curses. People call my home in the middle of the night, warning me and my family.

“Am I afraid? Maybe, some times. But I am not going to stop. I am not going to give up. I am optimistic. I believe there is a vitality in Israeli society, a desire to be better, because otherwise we will be destroyed.”

She paused for a moment and then added: “I don’t believe in a society that lives on its army, on religion and contributions. That is Iran. I believe in a Zionist, free, just and democratic Israel.”

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