SHULAMIT ALONI, a grandmother with bright, golden curls and a penchant for heavy jewelry, does not look like the kind of woman to spark a political crisis.
But with ultra-orthodox religious leaders heaping curses on her head, her appointment as Education Minister in Yitzhak Rabin's new Israeli government has torpedoed his efforts to broaden his ruling coalition.
Outspokenly secular and forthright in her support of a Palestinian state, Ms. Aloni is no stranger to controversy. The United Torah Judaism Party is refusing to join Mr. Rabin's Cabinet unless he fires Aloni, but she says she is determined to hang on.
"The Education Ministry has become a symbol of what kind of Israel we are going to be ... a symbol of a new era, bringing back the real values of an open, creative society," she said in a recent interview . "I thought it a great challenge."
The challenge has been fierce ever since she took office last week from the outgoing National Religious Party minister and pledged to teach children a more pluralistic approach to Judaism. One ultra-orthodox newspaper likened the education of children under her care to the murder of 1.5 million Jewish children during the Holocaust. One rabbi questioned whether - with Aloni in the Cabinet - synagogue-goers should continue to recite the traditional prayer for the welfare of the state and its leaders.
Aloni says she was surprised to have been cast as the wicked witch, but it didn't surprise others. For more than 30 years she has fought against orthodox religious control of Israeli society. Her new post gives her powerful leverage to continue the struggle. Rabin uncomfortable
Her Cabinet seat will also offer Aloni the opportunity to press Rabin on the peace process, which the prime minister will not always find comfortable. Indeed, he did all he could to try to tempt the right-wing Tsomet Party into his government, to act as a counterweight to the influence of her Meretz coalition.
Aloni's crusade for Palestinian human and political rights is not a popular one in Israel, but nobody doubts her courage. In 1965, for example, when Israel's founding Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion was arranging his succession, the young Turks of the Labor Party such as Moshe Dayan and Shimon Peres opposed his plans. But only Aloni would argue publicly against the grand old man of Israeli politics, recalls a colleague.
Leaving the Labor Party in 1973, Aloni moved left to found the Citizens' Rights Movement (CRM), which she used from the start to defend Israelis' civil rights against religious coercion. This year, the CRM merged with two other center-left groups to form Meretz, and Aloni led its successful election campaign to become the third-largest force in the Knesset (parliament), after Labor and Likud, with 13 seats.
Aloni is excited about joining the Labor-led government. "I think that more than ever it's in our hands to decide our future," she says. But at the same time, she warns that the Middle East peace talks, which US Secretary of State James Baker III is currently trying to restart on a regional tour, will be hard.
The battle that ultra-orthodox leaders are waging to unseat her is, perhaps, a taste of the problems ahead. Aloni has no ambitions to change the way children are taught in religious schools, whether private or public, because the Education Minister has little authority over them. But she will be blowing fresh air through the corridors of the state secular schools, where she says the former Likud government allowed rabbis undue influence.
"The problem is whether Jewish culture is the Jewish religion, full stop, which means the rituals, prayers, believing that the Almighty gave us the Torah," she says. "To me, in 3,000 years of culture, we have so many different approaches, and everyone in this big culture has the right to build his own library." A new sacrifice
Aloni also intends to change the political message that she feels Bible classes have carried. The story of Abraham's readiness to sacrifice his son Isaac, for example, has been used "to teach our children the feeling of being a victim, and to justify being a victim, and the need to be ready to become a victim," she says. "I say you can teach it in a completely different way, by showing that the great faith Abraham had in his new God meant that this is going to be the God who does not want human sacrifice ."
In the same way, she says, the emphasis put on the Holocaust in Israeli schools serves a negative purpose. "For political reasons," she says,"the Likud manipulated people's fears, because then it is easier to say that the whole world is against us, and it's easier to ask people to sacrifice their lives and their well-being for the great idea of holding on to [the expansionist Likud philosophy of] Greater Israel for ever."
Aloni herself has always favored a territorial compromise with the Palestinians, and indeed is the first Israeli Cabinet minister to refer openly to "occupied territories," rather than "administered territories," or "the territories."
"You cannot simply say `the territories' and ignore the people there," she says. "This is the way of hypocrisy, and I am known for one thing in this country - some like it and some dislike it - I hate hypocrisy."