Former minister and diplomat Ora Namir dies at 88

Namir was environment minister during Yitzhak Rabin's government. She was also Labor and Social Welfare minister, later resigning from the Knesset to become Israel's ambassador to China and Mongolia.

July 8, 2019 02:15
Former minister and diplomat Ora Namir

Former minister and diplomat Ora Namir. (photo credit: REUVEN CASTRO)

Ora Namir, who served as environment minister and labor and social welfare minister during her 22 years in the Knesset from 1974 to 1996, died on Sunday in Tel Aviv. She was 88.

Namir will be laid to rest at 5 p.m. on Tuesday at the cemetery in Moshav Hogla in the Sharon, where she spent her childhood and youth. Following her career in the Knesset, where she was known for always speaking her mind regardless if it was politically or diplomatically correct, Namir left the political arena to take up a new post as a diplomat. She was Israel’s third ambassador to China, and the first Israeli woman appointed to the position, which she held for four years. She was concurrently ambassador to Mongolia.

A tribute to her memory was posted on the Knesset website.

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein recalled that following his release from a Soviet prison and his arrival in Israel, Namir had accompanied him and had held a release party in his honor so that he could meet political and cultural figures. “She was a great lady and a great Zionist,” he said.

President Reuven Rivlin said that Namir’s passing was “very sad indeed.” Relating to promotion of the Equal Opportunities Law in Employment, Rivlin that this had become a cornerstone in the job market.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting that when he was first elected prime minister, Namir was already Israel’s ambassador to China. He remembered going to China and meeting with then-president Jiang Zemin, who told him: “See what a good ambassador you have.”

Netanyahu commented that this was no small thing in China.

A keen lover of the arts, Namir was greatly impressed by Chinese culture in all its forms, and the Chinese were impressed by her.

Many of the friends and acquaintances she made in China maintained contact with her for many years afterward, and when Chinese dignitaries came to Israel, she was often asked to host them.

Netanyahu said that while he did not always agree with everything that Namir said “to put it mildly,” he very much admired her work and her commitment to the State of Israel.

The Labor Party published a condolence notice on its website. Labor chairman Amir Peretz, who was a parliamentary colleague and personal friend of Namir’s, said that she was an exceptional woman, had enjoyed working with her, and loved the conversations that they had together. Reflecting on legislation that Namir had initiated or helped to push through, Peretz said that all of Israel is indebted to her.

Namir took her seat in the Knesset on January 21, 1974, and over the years chaired the Education and Culture Committee, the Joint Committee on Juvenile Delinquency, the Labor and Welfare Committee, and the Subcommittee for Sport. She was also a member of several other committees.

In 1975, which was the United Nations International Year of the Woman, Yitzhak Rabin invited Namir during his first term as prime minister to head a commission of inquiry into the status of the working woman in Israel. That was the beginning of putting cracks in the glass ceiling. Namir invited some 100 women from nearly all walks of life to join her committee, working with her in a voluntary capacity. Their combined findings brought to light that even though Israeli women had been given the vote even before the establishment of the state, and there had been women in every Knesset, women were still treated as inferior in what was essentially a patriarchal society.

Based on the findings of her team, Namir made several recommendations that included equal opportunities for women in the labor force, opening all IDF ranks to women, reserving 30 slots for women in the 120-member Knesset, special grants for single mothers, and compulsory and free education for children from the age of three onward. It took several years for these recommendations to be accepted, and even longer for them to be implemented. Education is far from free, as many parents will testify.

IN 1992, Namir contested the Labor Party leadership standing against Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Yisrael Kessar. Rabin won the race, became prime minister for a second time and appointed Namir as environment minister and labor and social welfare minister. She wasn’t all that interested in the former, and her position at the Environment Ministry was shortlived. The people who served under there were frequently frustrated by her refusal to close down factory plants that emitted pollutants into the air, because she was reluctant to have people lose their jobs.

She was extremely loyal to Rabin, and when Peres became prime minister following Rabin’s assassination, she transferred her loyalty to him.

In 1995, Namir headed the Israeli delegation to the UN Conference on Women that was held in Beijing.

At one stage in the mid 1990s, it was feared that she might die. A cancerous tumor was discovered in her brain, but doctors operated successfully and she recovered relatively quickly.
Born Ora Toib in Hadera on September 1, 1930, to immigrant parents from the Ukraine who had met and married in what was then Palestine, Namir had a troubled and frequently disrupted childhood. This may have been a factor in prompting her unwavering interest in social justice, and would explain why, as an adult, she devoted her life to public service.

She joined the IDF during the War of Independence and became an officer. After the war, she went to New York to work as a secretary to both the Israeli Consulate and the Israeli delegation to the United Nations. In addition, she taught Hebrew and even managed to find time to pursue studies in English Literature and the classics at Hunter College.

Prior to going to New York, she had served as secretary to the Mapai Parliamentary Faction, and was also secretary of the Coalition Administration in the second Knesset.

In 1959 she married Mordechai Namir, who a year later was elected mayor of Tel Aviv. Mordechai – who was 33 years older than his bride – was a member of Knesset from 1951 until 1969.

As the wife of the mayor, Ora Namir became increasingly involved in community activities, and in 1967 was elected secretary-general of the Tel Aviv branch of Moetzet HaPoalot, the forerunner of Na’amat.

Namir became known as the “First Lady” of the Labor Party following the death of former prime minister Golda Meir, but whereas Meir had been no fashion plate, Namir was always elegantly dressed, and sported the same beehive hairstyle for most of her life.

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