This is a terrific piece about Zehava Galon, the new head of the Meretz party in Israel. Some of you met her a few months ago. She is almost the last hope….
I no longer know what will help, but I am going on the (formerly Meretz USA, now Partners for Progressive Israel) Israel Symposium. Read about her. Think about coming with us, Oct. 20-27th. When things look this bad, as the Chinese say, and I’m paraphrasing, it is surely a time for opportunities.–Lilly
Meretz leader Zahava Gal-On is not looking to be loved
She’s proud to be an outspoken leftist, even if it annoys politicians, settlers and army officers alike.
By Neri Livneh | Jul.12, 2012
[The following is an abbreviated version of a long article available at the Haaretz website by registration or subscription only.]
…. “It’s pretty common for people who meet me face to face to be amazed that I’m not scary and that I’m actually nice,” Gal-On told me. … [But] Gal-On apparently intends to keep “annoying” everyone. That’s who she is: an avowed leftist and secular, a fighter for human rights, an opponent of the occupation, and a supporter of social justice who opposes religious coercion.
…. There are people in the party she heads who are perceived as less annoying because they don’t insist on the whole “package”: Nitzan Horowitz focuses mainly on green issues, while Ilan Gilon, an amiable social justice activist, is perceived as being “one of the people” more than she is.
Meanwhile, Gal-On insists on firmly expressing her views on every controversial issue, and in a voice that, for some reason, really seems to bug men in particular. …
…. in 2011, Gal-On returned to the Knesset, and during that year was elected to lead Meretz: a classic leftist who sees the struggle for social justice also as a fight against the occupation, against the violation of Palestinian human rights, against continued illegal construction in the territories and excessive budgetary allotments to the ultra-Orthodox.
…. “As head of Meretz, I am putting forward a comprehensive worldview. I think the left has an opportunity; Meretz has doubled its strength in the polls. They’re talking about six seats. I think Meretz has the chance to get 10. I think leftists didn’t vote for Meretz last time because they voted for Kadima in order to stop Bibi [Netanyahu], and now they see, especially after [Shaul] Mofaz’s rotten maneuver, that Kadima is essentially a satellite party of Bibi. People who voted for Barak were disappointed, too.”
But they can also vote for Labor headed by Shelly Yacimovich.
“Not now, not after Shelly Yacimovich called Labor a centrist party and said, ‘Yes, borders are important but the state is more important.’ And I’m saying that Labor has already done more than just look a bit to the right; it’s already made a sharp turn. Besides, Labor was a partner in all of the coalitions lead by right-wing parties and Shelly Yacimovich has also said that she would not rule out being in a coalition with right-wing parties. “Therefore I see Meretz as the sole Zionist leftist party. I like to say that the left has Meretz and the left has a leader and Meretz is the leader of the left. The pre-election polls we did showed that there are a half-million people who subscribe to Meretz’s positions and this means that the public support for the left’s positions is a lot larger than its representation in the Knesset. I want to make Meretz’s list a place for fighters. Leftists who aren’t ashamed to say that they’re leftists. Fighters.”
In conversation, Gal-On is just as much a natural listener as she is a talker. She exudes empathy and has tremendous reserves of patience, which helps to explain how she survived in the political wilderness outside the Knesset, and why she makes no effort to temper her ideology in order to curry favor with the public. One source of this courage may be her tight-knit family and her very stable and supportive marriage, in addition to her wide circle of friends, and her awareness that there is life beyond politics.
She is an intelligent woman with a sense of humor, with whom it is a pleasure to discuss any subject, from buying shoes to great literature − and especially the movies, which she and her husband go to see at every opportunity. She is an avid reader, is very close to her two sons and her brother, looks after her widower father, and between the faction meetings, the long days at the Knesset, the trips to settlements and all the media interviews, she still always finds time to have her hair done.
Due to unexpected interruptions on her part and mine − which included hospital stays, political revolutions involving Netanyahu’s huge coalition, as well as the death of Gal-On’s mother − our encounters were spread out over a four-month period. … at a breakfast at the home of Shulamit Aloni on the occasion of International Women’s Day, Aloni congratulated Gal-On on being elected head of Meretz and lavishly praised her as a worthy successor….
In Aloni’s lovely garden, surrounded by several dozen rather opinionated women, Gal-On truly seemed the embodiment of the “international woman” whom the day was meant to honor. Her dedicated and tenacious activity over the years on behalf of every issue related to women’s status cannot be exaggerated.
A few days later, Gal-On’s mother passed away, so … we met was during the shivah, in Gal-On’s spacious apartment in Petah Tikva, which was mobbed with guests, including an array of political figures, some from rival parties, such as Finance Committee Moshe Gafni, with whom Gal-On frequently spars in the Knesset.
“Political differences aside, I have good relationships with most of the Knesset members,” she says.
You can be the friend of people with extreme right-wing views or with ultra-Orthodox men who won’t shake your hand?
“No, I’m friends with my friends, and most of them have views that are quite similar to mine, but I certainly can maintain a friendly relationship and courteous relations with people whose views are very different from mine.”
And where is the boundary? If a person is a racist or issues calls for violence − that doesn’t get in the way of your friendship? Is there no one you won’t speak with?
“There is. Michael Ben-Ari. I don’t speak with him or about him. When I came into the Knesset I said there is one MK about whom and with whom I won’t speak. He is worse than [the late extremist Rabbi Meir] Kahane. He is the worst product of Kahane and he managed to enter the Knesset through the front door, and this is appalling. For years, when Kahane got up to speak, other MKs left the hall, but today Ben-Ari receives legitimation. He is the worst combination of racism, messianism and someone who calls for violence.” ….
Zahava Gal-On, 56, grew up in the Petah Tikva housing project where her father still lives, but was born in Vilnius and came to Israel with her parents, Aryeh and Yaffa Schnipitzky, when she was four.
“The amazing thing is that three languages were spoken in our home − Yiddish, Polish and Russian − and I never spoke any of them until 1990, when all my cousins from Russia came and I stood there in the airport and suddenly found myself speaking Russian to them.”
When she arrived here as a child, the family lived in a transit camp: “I remember the huts, everyone there was a new immigrant, it was a real ingathering of the exiles. Everyone had the same status and spoke many languages. I remember that as a kid I spoke Romanian and Arabic. And it continued in my neighborhood in Petah Tikva, which was a neighborhood of immigrants. We were all children of immigrants. It was only when I got to the Scouts that I realized there were other groups.”
…. Her father was a plumber who worked for a subsidiary of Solel Boneh, and her mother, who recently passed away, who’d earned a master’s degree in English when still in Vilnius, was a teacher.
Gal-On: …. I grew up in an atmosphere of giving. My mother was the ‘anchor.’
“My father was in the Red Army. My mother and her family fled. …. throughout the war my mother had been carrying around his doctorate in that suitcase. My uncle became a world-renowned professor. Benjamin Nadel. He’s 93 now.”
The house in Petah Tikva was “a working-class home and also a hive of activity and mutual aid that was filled with stories of the Shoah. My deaf aunt was a seamstress and fixed all the clothes people received in care packages from America. My mother, mother-in-law and aunt all died in the past three years.” Gal-On’s “wonderful brother” was born in Israel.
Gal-On went on to be very active in the Scouts, served in the Paratroopers and right after the army married Pesah Gal-On, who had been her boyfriend since the 12th grade. By age 26, she was a mother of two sons, Yiftah and Nadav, now 32 and 30. She studied special education at Beit Berl, but never worked in the field. …. Gal-On got involved in politics through her involvement in the struggle against religious coercion. The first time she herself voted in a Knesset election, she voted for Ratz, the party that later merged with Mapam and became Meretz.
“…. when I was a mother, I was sitting with friends in Petah Tikva, and since I’ve always loved the movies, and still do, and the only cinema there was closed on Shabbat, I said: this isn’t right, why don’t we stage some kind of protest? And one of the others said: Maybe I’ll call Shulamit Aloni and see if she’ll help us.
“From then on we stood in front of the Heichal Cinema every Friday − Shulamit Aloni and I and [Meretz member] Dedi Zucker and [the late professor and activist] Boaz Moav, and afterward the demonstrations started all over the country. And then Shulamit Aloni and Boaz said to me: You’re not going to become a teacher, you have to join Ratz. And Shula offered me the position of assistant director general of Ratz.”
Gal-On was the first director of the B’tselem human rights organization that was founded by Zucker and [civil rights lawyer] Avigdor Feldman. ….
Our fourth conversation took place a few days after Mofaz decided to join Netanyahu’s coalition, not long after the uproar surrounding the crude racist statements made by some coalition MKs against refugees and migrant workers.
Don’t you sometimes wish you could be part of the majority?
“No, … Anyone who votes Meretz knows that it’s a pure vote for the left. Unlike Labor and Kadima and Yair Lapid, we announced that we do not intend to sit in Netanyahu’s coalition. Anyone who doesn’t want his vote to end up going to Netanyahu’s coalition should vote Meretz, and I also want to see that since I’ve been heading Meretz, Meretz is speaking with a clearer voice. I think that in the last years it rounded corners and dithered a bit, but today it is very clear what Meretz is saying.”
Last summer’s social protest didn’t blur the boundaries a little?
“On the contrary: There was a time when people could maybe deliberate between Labor and Meretz, but that’s over. We’re appealing to an ideological audience, not to the majority. In Meretz we have a different agenda. First of all, let me say that I have great respect for Shelly Yacimovich. I heard her say that she wants peace but that before there is peace there has to be a state here, and I’m presenting an opposite approach. I don’t think it’s possible to have a social democracy without peace. There is no social justice and equality without talking about liberty. Nor can you have occupation and democracy simultaneously, and one also has to fight against the declaration about the social protest that ‘It’s not political.’ Everything’s political: It’s all one inclusive struggle and therefore one cannot talk about social protest and justice without talking about occupation.
“The masses talked about neoliberal policy, but the main issue wasn’t mentioned. A billion and a half shekels is going to maintain the settlements, from Kiryat Arba to Tekoa. One can’t embrace settlers without also saying that we are paying the price of the settlements. If we want social justice, it will only be possible if we stop the occupation. Therefore I think that all the talk about social democracy without there being actual democracy is nonsense.”
Gal-On observes that what has been happening in recent months in regard to the refugees and migrant workers in Israel is leading to fascism.
“There’s a combination of racism, incitement and economic interests here,” she says. ….“Racism and economic interests go hand in hand. I said in the Knesset that Eli Yishai has a large skullcap and a small heart of stone. You can’t be arresting and deporting children. And we’re a nation that has experienced refugeehood. My problem isn’t just with Yishai but also with the prime minister, who lends legitimacy to all of these things.”
In your view, is Netanyahu the worst prime minister we’ve had?
“The worst prime minister ever was Ehud Olmert. Corrupt, and also got us into two unnecessary wars. He was a terrible mayor, too. In order to escape the corruption allegations he tried to create some peace spin, he was looking for a victory picture that would permeate the public consciousness.”
…. “… Bibi has been prime minister for three years and he hasn’t yet made an unnecessary war, knock on wood. Bibi doesn’t budge on the diplomatic front but he’s a lot more moderate, security-wise.”
And what is your view of the Plesner Committee’s recommendations?
“…. I’m really not that thrilled about the idea of ultra-Orthodox militias with their special demands concerning kashrut and excluding women, and I also believe that the time has come to free the ultra-Orthodox from the ignorance they are kept in by their rabbis. The rabbis are trying to keep the Haredim from attaining personal autonomy, they’re trying to deny them a higher education and the ability to integrate into the job market, so actually alternative civil service could be very good for them because it will help them integrate in the employment market. They also need to be able to study a core curriculum, of course. It’s very scary to have such a large population here whose ignorance keeps it captive to the rabbis.
“First of all, the education system has to say that it will not fund institutions that do not teach the core curriculum. I have no problem with there being schools that don’t teach that curriculum, just as I have no problems with all kinds of private schools, but if they want state funding, they need to teach the core subjects.”
…. “The violent settler public in the territories is subordinating the state to its messianic and apocalyptic ambitions. In the territories there are two systems of law: one for the superior race, which is comprised of the religious Jews, and one for all the rest − Palestinians, leftists, foreigners, journalists and anyone else who dares to butt in. The army has become the servant of the settlers and authorizes every despicable action, be it the building of illegal outposts on stolen land, the beating and abuse of Palestinians, blocking access to and destroying farmland, drying up water sources, and any other unlawful action you can think of. And it’s clear that what the settlers are doing to the Palestinians in the territories they would love to do to the secular public inside the Green Line. The ideology of being the masters isn’t applied to the Arabs alone, but to anyone who is not a part of the pure religious messianic race.
“Compensation for land thieves will lead to a Jewish apartheid state. The annexation solution will not be accepted by the international community, and will make Israel a pariah state to the whole world. The message is that there is no equality before the law and that the settlers are worth more than the other citizens of Israel. And this warning also needs to be sounded: The occupation is going to destroy the Israeli economy. The labeling of products from the settlements that’s already been announced by South Africa and Denmark is just the beginning of what will become the dark winter of the Israeli economy. We should be glad that the world still makes the distinction between Israel and the territories − a distinction that Israel itself made in its tax agreement with the European Union. But this government is blurring the boundaries, and eventually the world won’t make the distinction either, and then we’ll all really be in big trouble.”
But in his joint press conference with Mofaz in May, when the new coalition was announced, Netanyahu said he plans to pursue the peace process.
“I don’t believe in the talk about a process. We want the only possible peace: Peace on the basis of the ‘67 lines and a division of sovereignty in Jerusalem − not the imaginary peace that Netanyahu is trying to sell us. The one-state solution is a dangerous and misleading illusion. And by the way, I believe that a lot of people think the same as we do.” ….