After being elected to the Knesset in 2015, MK Merav Ben-Ari quickly attracted attention for her seemingly endless energy and, more importantly, effectiveness in championing and diverting funds to the needs of students, young adults, and homeless and at-risk youth.
Indeed, Ben-Ari has always been an overachiever, in her own way. In her IDF service in the Education Corps, she became an officer (Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked was one of her soldiers) and received a citation for excellence.
At the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, where she received degrees in law and business administration, she was elected the first-ever female student union leader. In 2005, she came in first place in the reality TV show Wanted: A Leader, winning NIS 5 million, which she invested in establishing a center for at-risk youth in Netanya, and three years later she opened another center in Herzliya.
In recent weeks, however, the MK has been getting attention for an entirely different reason – her personal life.
Ben-Ari, 40, is in an unprecedented situation for an Israeli lawmaker: She’s single and pregnant for the first time, with a child she plans to raise with a close friend, Ophir, 41, who is gay. The two began the in-vitro fertilization process in 2014, before she entered politics, and they’re expecting a daughter in March.
“When I was 38, I realized time is passing and I’m still not in a serious relationship, but I didn’t want to wait anymore and decided to have a child. Unlike with men, women don’t have endless time. Although I heard [singer] Janet Jackson is pregnant for the first time now, at age 50,” she laughed.
As for the decision to have a child with a friend, as opposed to an anonymous sperm donor, Ben-Ari said she thinks it’s important for children to have a mother and a father if possible, and she didn’t think she’d be able to handle the undertaking alone.
The arrangement between her and Ophir will be as if the child “has two homes and divorced parents who are still good friends,” she said.
Reactions to Ben-Ari’s announcement, from her family and the public, have been overwhelmingly positive.
“I think everyone who has a bit of common sense realizes that for a woman who is almost 41 years old, the easiest thing I can do is travel and enjoy life and care only about myself, but what I’m saying is I want to take care of someone else. This is the least egoistic thing I can do. It’s not just about myself,” she stated.
Her decision to make her choice public was carefully thought out, Ben- Ari explained.
“I want to set an example and be a role model for other women who are successful but are worried about taking this step,” she said. “I also don’t want people telling stories, since I’m single and in the Knesset. I don’t need all the gossip. This is the truth, this is what I did, now let’s move on.”
Ben-Ari also said that having a child with a platonic partner doesn’t mean she’s given up on love.
“I still believe in relationships and families and the family unit, and I know I’ll find someone, but in the meantime, I don’t want to waste precious time, so I took this important step. The time really is precious,” she emphasized.
At 18 weeks pregnant, sipping freshly squeezed orange juice at a café near her home in Tel Aviv’s Old North, Ben- Ari showed no signs of slowing down, and already had a long list of things to accomplish in the Knesset’s winter session, beginning October 30, in the notebook she carries with her.
“My personality is my personality. If you’re already that kind of person, you’ll still act that way and try to achieve things. I’m not going to change,” Ben-Ari grinned. “I like my work; I like my party; I like what I do. Now, there’s another element involved in my life, but I am who I am.”
Plus, Ben-Ari pointed out, her maternity leave is likely to fall mostly on the Knesset’s Passover recess, so she won’t be missing much.
“I’m not going to sit around for three months and not know what’s going on! I get it when people say maternity leave is boring. As someone who likes work, I’m not going to just sit around for three months,” she added.
Ben-Ari said her friends joke that she’ll go into labor in the Knesset, and have to rely on help from MK Ahmad Tibi (Joint List), who is an obstetrician.
Still, she said she’ll “slow down,” because her daughter will be her priority.
“I think my life will change, but I can’t say how. I’ll know when it happens,” she said.
Asked about her role models for her plans to juggle motherhood and a parliamentary career, Ben-Ari cited Yesh Atid MK Karin Elharar, who has a three-year-old, and pointed out that only a handful of current female lawmakers had children after being elected to the Knesset. (Others are MK Orly Levy-Abecassis, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely – who had her second child this year – and Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel.) Most of the women who run for Knesset do so when their children are older, she said.
Since the coming months include budget debates, the most demanding time for MKs, Ben-Ari said, “It’ll be an interesting five or six months in the Knesset, but I don’t need people to make things easier for me. The one change I’m making for the upcoming session is that I’ll make sure to eat lunch. I’m going to put it in my schedule every day.”
She may struggle to find time for lunch though, as hers schedule is full, given that she is a member of seven committees and chairwoman of three subcommittees.
One of the subcommittees is on child support payments, which she called “a very hot topic that influences thousands of women.” Ben-Ari is working on a comprehensive report on the matter to encourage Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, her party’s leader, to enact reform.
The others are the Subcommittee on Homeless Youth, which she is using to ensure local authorities get funding to build shelters around the country, and the Subcommittee on Informal Education, in support of which she is organizing a conference.
Ben-Ari has celiac disease and is following up on a policy she pushed through to encourage the state to subsidize gluten-free products. In the coming months, the government is supposed to release a tender for companies that produce the products, many of which are prohibitively expensive.
The MK will keep an eye on that and other policies – like funding for atrisk youth who can’t enlist in the IDF to do national service – as the budget is debated, to ensure the items are approved.
One thing Ben-Ari doesn’t think she’ll be doing is proposing any bills based on her experience with in-vitro fertilization.
“Israel is very, very advanced when it comes to fertility treatments. The government helps a lot and it doesn’t cost a lot if you don’t need a sperm donor. I did it through a public hospital and found it to be inexpensive and accessible,” she said. “We’re better than the US and Europe on this; there’s no comparison. In Israel, the situation is excellent.”