An Israeli woman I call friend

An aspect of Israel that goes largely unnoticed is that the fiercest critics of its policies are Israelis themselves. Alice Miller is one such Israeli.

Miller felt one sandwich short of a picnic when she wasn’t allowed to be a fighter pilot, despite being a member of the Israeli air force. She wanted to scramble war jets.

One day, Israeli president Ezer Weizman, the commander of the air force and a combat pilot himself, finally came on the phone, calling Miller a “cutie pie” – a “meidaleh”, literally “young woman” in Yiddish, but in a patronizing way.

In Israel, women couldn’t be combat pilots, he said, quite simply, because they were women. Therefore, Miller had better stayed home.

Weizman was mistaken. Miller wasn’t a “cutie pie”, but a tough nut. She sued, successfully, the Israel Defence Forces in the Supreme Court for not allowing women to take the air force pilot-training exams on grounds of gender, paving the way for them to serve as frontline pilots in one of the world’s most sophisticated air forces.

Why should only men get to be fighter pilots? Miller asked. The top court agreed. In Israel, military service is compulsory for both men and women, with women making up a third of the conscripts.

Two decades on, Miller shifted base to India, settling down in Shivanandi, a small hamlet in the craggy Himalayas, after falling in love and marrying her Indian rafting coach, Shalabh Gahlaut.

The Gahlauts founded the Shivanandi River Lodge by the Alaknanda river, a white-water maelstrom, five hours northeast of Rishikesh on the Badrinath highway in Uttarakhand. “It is some kind of a higher calling,” Miller tells HT.

As life stories go, Miller underwent a transformation. She doesn’t care much about fighter planes these days. She abhors urban life, adores bucolic backyards and, of course, the Himalayas.

A successful woman, for Miller, is not to be found in cockpits, but in Himalayan villages. They work hard in the fields and raise decent families. “Men just play cards,” she says.

Women are better off in rural India, she argues. Miller gave birth to both her daughters — Shanti and Maya – at home. She is now helping traditional Indian midwives called “daees” to improve their skills.

Miller’s Gandhian and distinctly leftist predilections stem from her rural roots: she is a “kibbutznik” from Hukok, near Israel’s Sea of Galilee.

Famed Israeli “kibbutzim” — borne out of a socialist, utopian movement now threatened by modernization — are collectively-owned farms, where profits are equally shared. They are about love of farming, toil and economic equality.

Kibbutzim started off when enterprising Eastern European Jews, 1910 onwards, moved to the Ottoman-ruled Jordan Valley and began building egalitarian, agrarian communities.

“I don’t think many Indians realize what they have got – a strikingly beautiful country,” Miller says.

Miller is now planning to pick a new battle by joining Israeli politics. Her goal: an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. War in Israel is hyped up, she says. “You don’t feel the conflict until you turn on the television or begin serving in the military.”

The world’s most stubborn conflict, Miller says, could be easily solved. “You need just one Gandhi. I want to take Gandhi to Israel.”

Alice Miller, 41, lives a bucolic life in a Himalayan hamlet, swears by the mountains and hates being in cities.

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