PEOPLE OF ISRAEL: Dalia Ballas Itzik

Dalia Itzik is the only woman in Israel to have served as Speaker of the Knesset and acting president. She was recently honored with the Henrietta Szold Award by Hadassah.

Dalia Itzik 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Dalia Itzik 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
You have said that having a difficult childhood taught you to listen. Please explain
I was born in 1952 in Jerusalem, the sixth of eight children of Marcelle and Gershon Ballas who had immigrated from Iraq. Both my parents were born in Bagdad. My mother was the oldest of six children – three boys and three girls. The boys went to school, but my mother wasn’t allowed to. She couldn’t read or write, and only learned as an adult in Israel. My father came from a difficult background. He was raised in an orphanage. He couldn’t cope with the move to Israel. He never held down a job.
We were poor, but so were others. Our greatest shame was that my father was an alcoholic and everyone knew.
We all lived in a tiny apartment, about the size of a parking space for a car. There was crime on our streets, so my mother decided she couldn’t go out to work to keep us safe.
Her solution was to take in foster children for which she was paid a small amount by the welfare department. She also felt gratified that despite the situation at home, the state trusted her to bring up children, even if we slept three to a mattress. We slept 3 to a mattress.
My mother didn’t complain so neither did we.
We never wanted anyone to know how tough it was at home. My teachers never guessed, even if I never went on class trips. But if they had listened carefully, they would have known and maybe helped. It’s not only what people say, it’s what they don’t say.
You had a fast rise in public service as part of the Teachers’ Union and from there to the Municipality. How did that happen?
My older sisters dropped out of school in elementary school to go to work full-time, but I got to continue and was a good student. I did my homework on the floor—no desks back then. I became a teacher and a principal. Many school policy issues bothered me, and I became an activist. Before I knew it, I was asked to run to be the Union head. Mayor Teddy Kollek, running for re-election, phoned me and asked for my help. I pledged my support, but he said he wanted more than that. He wanted me to run on his slate. So I became a Jerusalem council woman, and from there ran successfully for the Jerusalem seat in the Knesset. I was 40.
Teddy Kollek was considered a great mayor of Jerusalem but a tough boss. How did you, a young woman, cope with him? I had good advice: either stand up to Teddy Kollek or you are finished. I told him that I wouldn’t join his team with all my voting teachers unless he promised me the role of Deputy Mayor. He knew I meant business.
That’s very very important. Also, when he once insulted me on a public platform, I didn’t let him get away with it and answered right back.
When you became a Knesset member, then minister of the Environment, minister of Industry and Trade and minister of Communications. You were married with three children at home. Many women avoid public service because they feel they will neglect their families. How did you cope?
Dalia Itzik: A woman’s life is full of time conflicts and feeling guilty. Women talk about “balance” but there is never the perfect balance.
You have to say to yourself: What I want to achieve is worth the conflict. There will be conflicts. Listen to women on the phone in the Knesset. They’re all giving instructions about what to warm up for dinner or who to pick up from soccer practice and ballet.
This isn’t going to go away. You must tell yourself over and over that what you are doing is worth doing and then go forward.
What was your favorite job?
For sure, I loved being Speaker of the Knesset.
Every day was a new challenge. And then, when President Moshe Katzav took a leave of absence in 2007 I handled the duties of the president, too. I wish other women would contend for these roles.
What are you doing now?
I have various business interests, and serve in a volunteer capacity as President of Hadassah- International Israel, a group of Israelis who think it’s time to give back to Hadassah Medical Organization whose services we’ve been using since we were born. It was obvious to my mother to give birth to me there, and I felt the same when my children were born. Jews in the Diaspora sometimes expressed their disappointment that Israelis aren’t supporting our own institutions. We’re currently raising funds for a new rehab center for soldiers and terror victims in Jerusalem, and I’m delighted that this is a local project.
What voice is in your head when you make decisions?
My late and beloved mother’s! Even as an adult, I say something or did something silly, I will say “my mother will kill me.” I still think of her as my guiding light. Many women tell me the same. I know how wise she was.
All eight of us turned out to be responsible and educated citizens, and we still love each other.
How do you view your life?
I see my family story as the story of the State of Israel. There was the opportunity for upward mobility despite all of the trials. When I received the Henrietta Szold Award, I thanked my family and friends, and Hadassah, of course because they helped me to understand that my challenges only made me stronger and more open to the challenges others were faced.
They also taught me to continually challenge myself.