Israeli Communist leader Meir Vilner dies at 84

Meir Vilner, veteran leader of the Communist Party of Israel and the last living signatory of Israel’s Independence Charter, died June 5 in Tel-Aviv at 84.

Vilner was born in Vilna, Poland (now Vilnius, Lithuania) in 1918. Shortly after emigrating to Palestine in 1938, he joined the Palestinian Communist Party (PCP).

On May 14, 1948, he participated in the proclamation ceremony of the State of Israel and co-signed Israel’s Independence Charter on behalf of the PCP. The Charter, the PCP stressed, contained a promise to help implement the UN resolutions providing for two independent states, Israel and Arab Palestine, and to uphold full equality and civil liberties for all Israeli citizens. Promises still unkept.

Vilner was among the Arab and Jewish communists who formed the Communist Party of Israel. He was elected first secretary of the party in 1965, and later its general-secretary, serving until 1993. He was a member of the CPI political bureau until 1998.

Vilner was a member of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, from 1949 to 1990.

On June 5, 1967, Vilner was the sole Jewish deputy (joined only by fellow CPI deputy Tawfiq Toubi) to speak out in the Knesset against Israel’s aggression against Egypt, Syria and Jordan. Calling that day the darkest in Israel’s history, Vilner demanded an immediate halt to the Israeli invasion. No enemy could do more damage to Israel than the Israeli government who started this war, Vilner exclaimed.

Undeterrred by catcalls and epithets from right-wing Zionist and Labor deputies, Vilner stressed that there was no other way to solve the conflict between Israel and its neighbors but mutual recognition of the national rights of Israelis and the Palestinian people, including the right of the Palestinians to self-determination and independent statehood. Soon after that speech, there was an attempt on his life, in which he was badly wounded.

Hundreds of mourners, both Jews and Arabs, attended Vilner’s funeral on June 8. Among the speakers were CPI General Secretary Issam Mahoul; Abraham Melamed, of the Israeli Communist Forum; poet Yitzhak La’or; Muhammad Barakei deputy speaker of the Knesset; Na’im el-Ashhab, representing the Palestinian People’s Party and Vilner’s eldest son, Doron.

The Israeli mass media published respectful obituaries. Almost all stressed that Vilner was the last living signer of the Independence Charter, as well as the first Knesset member to raise the idea of the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, an idea, which has now been adopted by the majority of Israeli public opinion.

Barakei said the Knesset would hold a special session commemorating Vilner whose name is engraved in golden letters in the annals of the Israeli and Palestinian peoples, in particular among fighters for peace, equal rights, social justice and socialism.

Vilner’s son Doron recalled that most of his father’s family had been murdered in the Nazi Holocaust, and that as a youngster, his father had started struggling for human rights and the working class. Doron said his father was a loving family man and noted that during the last years of his life, Vilner came to be honored by many for precisely the principles he was vilified for in his past. Often, while his father was walking in the streets of Tel-Aviv, Doron recalled, people would come up to him and say they had not agreed with him in the past, but they learned the path Vilner had always proposed had been the right one.

Following the ceremony, Vilner was laid to rest beside the grave of his beloved life companion Ita. He is survived by two sons and two grandchildren.

- Hans Lebrecht