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HindustanTimes Sat,19 Apr 2014

Famed Israeli pilot falls for Gandhi

Zia Haq, Hindustan Times  New Delhi, April 01, 2013
First Published: 00:04 IST(1/4/2013) | Last Updated: 02:13 IST(1/4/2013)

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

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One day, Israeli president of the time and the chief air force commander, Ezer Weizman, finally came on the phone, calling Miller a “cutie pie” and a “meidaleh” -- literally “young woman” in Yiddish, but in a patronising 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 was no “cutie pie”, but a tough nut. She successfully took her battle to the Supreme Court, paving the way for women to be frontline pilots in one of the world’s fiercest air forces.

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

They founded the Shivanandi River Lodge by the Alaknanda river, a white-water maelstrom, five hours northeast of Rishikesh.

The hills transformed Miller. She doesn’t care much about fighter planes anymore and shuns urban life for bucolic Himalayan backyards.

Successful women, for Miller, are not to be found in cockpits, but in spartan rural India. They work the fields and secure families. “Men just play cards,” she says.

Brutality against women is a city thing, she argues. Miller gave birth to her daughters —Shanti and Maya — at home. She is now helping traditional Indian midwives called “daees” to improve their skills.

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

Israel’s “kibbutzim” — rooted in a socialist movement now threatened by modernization — are collectively-owned farming estates, where profits are equally shared. They are about love of farming, toil and economic equality.

Kibbutzim started off when enterprising East 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 countryside,” Miller says. Miller is now planning to pick a new battle -- in Israeli politics.

Her goal: an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. The world’s most stubborn conflict, Miller says, could be easily solved. “I just need to take Gandhi to Israel.”

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