I have closely followed the careers of many Israeli politicians but I followed no one to such an extraordinary range of places as Yossi Sarid, who died of cardiac arrest on December 4 at the age of 75. I trailed Sarid to places few have been – from the nuclear facility in Dimona to the public toilets of gas stations; I breakfasted with him on top of the Hirya landfill, where he launched the Year of the Environment with president Ezer Weizman, and had lunch with him in the Jordanian capital awaiting a meeting with King Hussein.
During the period in the 1990s when I was both environment reporter and Knesset reporter – a beat I called “MKs and other animals” – I was able to observe Sarid both in the House and out of it. A raconteur, the sound of laughter could help pinpoint the table where he was sitting, holding court, in the Knesset cafeteria. But even his political enemies – and they were many – admitted that Sarid was a hardworking parliamentarian and such a talented orator that sometimes the cafeteria would empty for his plenum speeches, which MKs did not want to miss.
In September 1993, I wrote a Jerusalem Post Magazine cover story on Sarid, which I started by noting: “He’s a chain-smoking leftist with the ideal face and figure for political caricatures.”
Sarid thanked me for the article but grumbled that I shouldn’t have mentioned the smoking.
When he suffered a heart attack at age 45, he swore he “would resign from the Hypochondriacs’ Society” and give up smoking. He did neither, but recently seemed surprised he had reached his mid-70s despite the cardiac problems and a later brain tumor.
Touchingly he told me that once when he thought he was dying, his greatest fear was not death itself but what effect it would have on his children.
SARID, A former journalist, was a PR whiz kid before most Israelis knew the meaning of public relations and, as I noted in the feature: “When you peel away the glitter – the brilliant language play and gimmicky tours – his most outstanding achievement is this: Sarid has put the environment high up on the national agenda.”
Given his outspoken, left-wing views, there are probably many readers who would see this as his only saving grace.
Once a week he would leave his office, followed by journalists, most of whom had previously shown no interest in environmental issues, and go on a working tour, anywhere from picnic grounds and forests to sewage plants and recycling factories.
His journalistic background constantly shone through with pithy statements and items he made newsworthy.
“There is no such thing as a small ministry, just small people,” he frequently said of his environmental office, while never hiding his dream, briefly realized, of serving as education minister.
Most of the time he lived with his wife, Dorit, also a journalist, and three children, near Tel Aviv’s Sde Dov Airport and counted among his achievements his success in banning the night-time civilian flights which for years disturbed the residents. But he also had a soft spot for the North. Following the massacre of 18 residents in Kiryat Shmona in 1974, Sarid, then a young Labor MK, took his family to live in the northern development town for three years. “I was on the Knesset Education Committee tour of the place and I was embarrassed by all the advice and mere consolation we gave them after the attack. I wasn’t old enough to be in the Palmah or in Aliya Bet, I didn’t drain the swamps or pave the roads. So I decided that I should accomplish something and criticize from my place in Kiryat Shmona,” he explained.
Similarly, he didn’t hesitate to join residents in Sderot when the town was being particularly badly hit by rockets fired from Gaza.
He later returned to the North, maintaining a home on Moshav Margaliot. This was no mere weekend or holiday home, however. Locals recall his genuine attempts to help solve problems of those who lived far from the center of power. Despite his anti-religious image, he dedicated a synagogue and Torah scroll on the moshav.
Typically, during a visit to Jordan during Passover one year, Sarid made a big deal about noting he had asked that there be no bread on the table. He was then prominently photographed holding a box of matzot that a religious journalist had brought with him.
In both his writings as an author and columnist and in his Knesset speeches, he frequently quoted the Bible and Jewish sources, which he considered a cultural rather than religious legacy. I, like many, found his Hebrew a joy to hear but a challenge to translate, full of wordplay and biblical and literary references. I seldom agreed with his political statements, but could usually appreciate the way they were phrased.
ALTHOUGH HE gained most recognition – and most public hatred – as a Meretz politician, he started his career with Labor’s precursor Mapai, saying the move to the Citizens’ Rights Movement, the forerunner of Meretz, was for “ideological reasons.” He did not want to be with Labor when it joined a unity government with the Likud in 1984.
It was typical Sarid to stick to his political principles.
His entrance into politics was almost a coincidence.
Having studied at the Hebrew University and with an MA in political science from New York’s New School for Social Research, Sarid was looking for something to do. A chance meeting put him in touch with former Labor MK Yisrael Yeshayahu. “He asked me what I wanted to do, and I said: ‘Information, maybe to be the spokesman of Mapai.’ A few weeks later, at age 24, I was given the job.”
He entered the Knesset in 1973, one of the youngest MKs along with the Likud’s Ehud Olmert. The unlikely pair joined forces as members of the Knesset Sports Committee to launch an investigation into corruption in soccer.
Sarid learned to live with the claims that he was a publicity seeker and saw the press largely as a means to an end.
“When it comes down to dealing with journalists you have to accept the good and the bad together, with love,” he used to say. “The press has tortured me with whips and scorpions, but sometimes it has spoiled me.”
“Sarid is the most media-minded minister, without a doubt,” political commentator Hanan Kristal told me when I wrote the profile of the then-environment minister.
Wherever he went he would speak about the environmental issue at hand and the political matter of the day.
On a tour of Haifa, for example, he described hazardous materials as “completely uncontrolled and open to disasters.”
By the next question, he was discussing the need for direct talks with the PLO, pre-Oslo process.
The day Sarid took over the Environment Ministry he told journalists: “You can always ask me about two things – my family and my dog.”
The dog, a long-lived mongrel, received more publicity than the other Sarids. His wife and two sons and daughter chose to remain out of the spotlight.
“They don’t have to suffer from publicity just because I’m their father,” said Sarid, who nonetheless spoke about them all the time, whether asked or not.
Many journalists noted, but didn’t report on, the obvious burgeoning romance between Sarid’s son Yishai (now a novelist), and Rahel, the daughter of MK Yael Dayan, when the two accompanied the minister on a visit to the Ramat Gan Safari. It seemed natural that the two shy offspring of outspoken and controversial parents would find common ground. Love bloomed and the couple married, turning Sarid and Dayan into grandparents.
Not only did Sarid often mention his love for his wife and children, he also often recalled with awe his late parents, a former director-general of the Education Ministry and a teacher. For example, during a ceremony at which Sarid and the German environment minister signed a treaty of cooperation between the two countries, Sarid told his counterpart that the name Sarid means “survivor.” It was chosen by his father, born Sznajder (Yiddish for tailor), when he discovered the rest of his family had been wiped out in the Holocaust.
IN 1996, he replaced Shulamit Aloni as leader of Meretz, a position he held until 2003, when he resigned following the party’s drop in Knesset seats from 12 to six. There was no love lost between the two, however. During one interview I had with him the only question he refused to answer concerned his relationship with Aloni. We ended up talking about Toota, his dog, instead.
His brief appointment as education minister in Ehud Barak’s government in 1999 ended the following year due to a dispute with his deputy minister, Meshulam Nahari of Shas.
His tone became more strident and his anti-ultra-Orthodox slant grew ever more prominent as his political fortunes failed.
He retired from politics in 2006, later admitting he’d outstayed his usefulness in the Knesset, but as a columnist for Haaretz and a contributor to Army Radio’s The Last Word program he continued to push for a two-state solution, advocate for civil rights, criticize Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and pour scorn on the ultra-Orthodox and the Right.
Of Shas’s spiritual leader he once said: “Woe to the generation that has him as its greatest rabbinic authority.”
When Rabbi Ovadia Yosef died in 2013, by some estimates 800,000 people attended his funeral in Jerusalem.
By contrast, Sarid’s funeral at Kibbutz Givat Hashlosha this week, where he was eulogized as “a courageous, wise, stubborn and perceptive man” by writer Amos Oz, was attended by a few hundred.
What would Sarid have said of the huge difference in numbers? He would probably have dismissed it as a matter of quantity versus quality before making some word-play like “Live with it.”