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Return, Return oh Shulamit

By       Message Uri Avnery     Permalink
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Source: Gush Shalom

PETE SEEGER touched my life only once. But what a touch.

Musician Pete Seeger sings Amazing Grace during a concert celebrating his 90th birthday in New York May 3, 2009.
(image by REUTERS/Lucas Jackson /Landov)

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.

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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.

Left-wing politician Shulamit Aloni waves to the media in this 1993 photo. Aloni, a fiery former left-wing Israeli leader and cabinet minister who championed Palestinian and women's rights, died on Jan. 24.
(image by (Havakuk Levison/Reuters))

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.

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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."

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