Former Mertez MK and social justice campaigner Ilan Gilon has died at the age of 65, his family announced on Sunday morning.
“The man with the biggest heart ever has died. A labor leader who advocated peace and social justice, and a great Zionist,” his family said in a statement. “We are deeply sorry as a family and also as Israelis.”
Gilon served as chair of the Meretz faction in the Knesset and as a lawmaker from 1999 to 2003, and then again from 2009 to 2021.
Gilon was born in Romania and contracted polio as a child, leaving him with some difficulty in walking. He often used a mobility scooter.
When he was 9, his family immigrated to Israel and settled in the coastal city of Ashdod.
He was an active member of youth organizations and student groups, eventually translating his desire for social change into a run for local election, becoming deputy mayor of Ashdod as a representative of the left-wing Meretz party.
In 1999 he was elected for the first of his two stints in the Knesset as a lawmaker with Meretz, quickly becoming a key figure in advocating for labor rights, children, foreign workers and the vulnerable, as well as helping countless individuals who approached him for help.
He was also a key activist in protests to improve the lives of those with disabilities, campaigning for laws to improve access to buildings as well as increasing government benefits. He not only advanced those causes at the Knesset, but often attended protests.
In 2018 he withdrew his bid for the party’s leadership, saying that medical issues kept him out of the race.
Tributes poured in for Gilon from across the political spectrum.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett praised the former Meretz lawmaker for helping those who were most in need.
“Ilan Gilon, a hard-working Knesset member who knew the Knesset, and an honest man with a huge heart, passed away this morning prematurely,” Bennett said in a statement. “He would work hard to solve individual problems of citizens who approached his office. He used to say, ‘A Knesset member should make decisions as if he were old, poor and sick, and not as if he were young, rich and healthy.’ Condolences to his family. May his memory be a blessing.”
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said that Gilon was “one of the best among us.”
“A tear for Ilan Gilon. One of the best among us, a public figure, an ideologue, straight as a ruler and smart as well as funny. They are no longer made like that. May he memory be a blessing,” Lapid tweeted.
Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz expressed his deep sorrow at the loss of a friend and party stalwart.
“Ilan is gone. A man of principles, a warrior, and most importantly, a human being, a mensch. This is also what he considered most important — to be a human being. Beloved Ilan, you have been my partner and friend for many years. I can’t believe you’ve gone,” Horowitz tweeted.
Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg, also of Meretz, said that Gilon was widely loved and campaigned for those who needed the most help.
“‘The only law that cannot be enacted is that one must be human’ — one of Ilan Gilon’s most memorable sentences, which explains how and why he was loved by everyone,” tweeted Zandberg. “He reminded us that he came into politics so that no one would have to choose between a slice of bread and medication.”
Likud lawmaker David Bitan said that although he and Gilon had ideological differences, they found common ground on a number of issues.
“I was very sorry to hear about the untimely death of former MK Ilan Gilon,” tweeted Bitan.
“Ilan was an energetic MK who stood firm in his ideological positions. Even though he came from the left, we cooperated on a lot of things and especially in the Disability Act. May his memory be a blessing,” Bitan said.
Aryeh Deri of the Shas party praised Gilon for helping those in need.
“Ilan was a man with a huge heart, a man who fought all his life for the underprivileged and needy. And he was a good man who was loved by everyone,” Deri tweeted.
“A sad morning. We have lost Ilan Gilon, a fighter for peace and social justice, a man with a huge heart and a good friend,” tweeted Joint List chair Ayman Odeh. “We will continue all the way until we achieve peace, equality and social justice. May his memory be a blessing.”
Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel said that Gilon focused on the individuals who needed help, no matter what their background was.
“I am very sorry about the passing of Ilan Gilon. A prominent MK and a man with a big heart. He saw human beings, not opinions, politics or color,” Hendel tweeted.
Gilon is survived by his wife, Yehudit, four children and his grandchildren. Funeral details have not yet been released.