On the deck of the SS Filippo Grimani bringing Alice Shalvi to Israel in October 1949, a group of Jewish refugees from Greece and the Balkans were singing Hebrew songs and dancing the horah, euphoric in the knowledge that they were only a day away from the Promised Land. Alice enthusiastically joined in. A group of Israeli students watched from the sidelines. She heard one of them sneer, in German, “So habt Ihr euch das vorgestellt” – that’s how you imagined it would be – and felt as if a bucket of cold water had been thrown over her.
Alice had been taught how to dance the horah by her handsome older cousin, Alex, at a Seder in her aunt’s house in Mannheim. Since the age of six, dancing a lone horah around the kitchen table singing, “Anu olim artza livnot u’lhibanot ba” (“We are going up to the Land, to build and to be built in it”), Alice had known that she would one day “go up” to Palestine, to the Land of Israel. The horah was, for Alice, the physical expression of solidarity with those pioneers who were transforming Palestine’s arid desert into an earthly paradise.
The student’s gibe was Alice’s first experience of the gap between those who had chosen to make Israel their homeland and those who had been born there. Seventy years later, she longs for a more honest, egalitarian and less corrupt society and sees Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian Territories as colonisation of the worst kind. “All peoples want to live independent of foreign rule,” says Alice, “and the sooner the Israeli government recognises that fact, the less bloodshed there will be.”
I have adored, admired and been inspired by Alice since we first met 25 years ago. Alice’s memoir, Never A Native, published this autumn, tracks her evolution as an iconoclast, a social activist and one of Israel’s prototype feminists. Now in her 90s, Professor Emerita of English literature at Hebrew University and founding chairwoman of the Israel Women’s Network, Alice’s contribution to Israeli society has been recognised with a stack of honours and awards, including the 2007 Israel Prize for Lifetime Achievement.