Yosef (Tommy) Lapid to be interred in Tel Aviv

PM says former justice minister who lost battle with cancer "dedicated his life to the Jewish people."

olmert lapid laugh 224.8 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
olmert lapid laugh 224.8
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Yosef "Tommy" Lapid, a former justice minister and one of Israel's most influential journalists, succumbed to cancer around 5 a.m. on Sunday morning at Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv. He was 76. Lapid, who returned to journalism after quitting politics two years ago, was one of the few people in the media who consistently defended Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and castigated other journalists for their readiness to condemn the prime minister before he had his day in court. Olmert visited Lapid in the hospital last week on the same day that American financier Morris Talansky testified against him, in what was described as an emotional last meeting between old friends. The prime minister spent several hours at Lapid's bedside, aides said. Olmert, in eulogizing Lapid at Sunday's cabinet meeting, called Lapid "my best and closest friend for many years." "Tommy was a Holocaust refugee, who lived the Holocaust experience his entire life," Olmert said. "Tommy Lapid was a Jew in every fiber of his soul. We lost a precious man, a dear Jew and a friend who cannot be replaced." Since July 2006, Lapid served as chairman of the Yad Vashem Council. Despite his illness he attended the most recent Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony at Yad Vashem a month ago and lit the memorial flame. He was born Tomislav Lampel on December 27, 1931 to a Hungarian Jewish family in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia, in what is today Serbia. In 1943, his father, Dr. Bela Lampel, was taken to a concentration camp from which he never returned. He and his mother fled to Budapest and spent the war in the ghetto. Lapid celebrated his bar mitzva there in the most gruesome of circumstances. He and his mother were with a group of Jews whom the Nazis intended to kill on the banks of the Danube, but there was a sewer nearby and his mother grabbed him and hid there while the other Jews were murdered. Lapid was fond of saying that he had become a Zionist in the toilet and told how his mother broke a bottle of perfume in an attempt to improve the smell. In 1948, Lapid and his mother migrated to Israel, where he was soon inducted into the army as a technician. A lawyer by training and a journalist by inclination, his first job in journalism was with the Hungarian-language daily Uj Kelet, where he was befriended by satirist and dramatist Ephraim Kishon. It was a friendship that lasted a lifetime. Lapid later edited At, the women's magazine, and was a long time senior editorial staff member with Ma'ariv working as a columnist and foreign correspondent. From 1979-84, he was director-general of the Israel Broadcasting Authority, and later he began a weekly radio broadcast on Israel Radio's Reshet Bet under the title My Week. He subsequently served as chairman of the Cable Television Union and of the Israel Chess Association. In the 1990s, Lapid was a regular panelist together with the left-wing Amnon Dankner and the haredi Rabbi Israel Eichler on Channel 1's Popolitika, where he spent five years antagonizing the public. His raucous voice and pugnacious manner earned him the title of the Israeli Archie Bunker, to whom he bore some physical resemblance. Irked by religious coercion on the part of religious parties in the Knesset, Lapid accepted Avraham Poraz's invitation to head the secularist Shinui party, and served as a member of Knesset from 1999 to 2006. He led the party to a surprise performance in 2003 election, gathering 15 seats and securing him the post of justice minister under prime minister Ariel Sharon. Lapid was critical of haredim's low participation in the labor market, which produces a higher welfare burden for those who work, their rejection of Zionist values, and shirking of mandatory military service. Lapid, known for his irascible, off-the-cuff remarks, called haredim "barbaric primitives," "idle fanatics," "enemies of progress" and "parasites." According to Eichler, whose TV appearances in long beard and sidelocks and hassidic garb together with Lapid was a media attraction for years, the Hungarian Holocaust survivor acted out of ignorance. "He had never received a decent Jewish education," said Eichler. "He knew nothing about Yiddishkeit. For him Judaism was conflated with the endless suffering of the Jewish people, nothing more." Although he endlessly attacked the religious political machine and the religious hierarchy, according to Eichler and others who knew him well, Lapid did not hate Orthodox Jews. He was often invited by religious politicians to their family celebrations where he behaved appropriately, and wore a kippa. In an interview with The Jerusalem Post shortly after quitting Shinui in January 2006, Lapid defended his attacks against the religious population, which were often labeled by his opponents as hateful and incitement. "I have a sharp tongue and I'm very critical. I make my points in a very enthusiastic way, so it may lose some points and win some points," he said. But, he said, his style of speech should not be confused with hatred. "I do not hate the ultra-Orthodox, I am angry with them," he said. The issue, he said, was not about religion, but that its followers believe it gives them a special status. "They do not accept the rules of the game - equal work, equal pay and equal duties. They said, 'No, we have a special status in which we do not work and we do not pay taxes and we do not defend the country; you defend it for us," said Lapid. Haredi figures refrained from criticizing Lapid on Sunday. Former Shas chairman Aryeh Deri, in an interview on Army Radio, restricted himself to saying that Lapid "always said what was on his mind, which is much better than someone who is full of flattery and smooth talk in public but stabs you in the back." After leaving the political arena and returning to journalism, he not only revived his radio program, but also returned to the Popolitika format, this time on Channel 10, with the "Council of Wise Men." His radio program received the Sokolov Prize, Israel's most prestigious award for journalism. Israel Radio devoted much of Sunday's broadcasts to interviews with people whose lives had been impacted by Lapid. Most said that away from the microphone, he was a different man who laughed a lot, was a true and loyal friend, and was not nearly as egocentric as his public persona. In fact, in many respects, he was a softie - almost like the sabra - prickly on the outside and soft on the inside. MK and former broadcaster Shelly Yacimovich, to whom Lapid was a good friend and mentor despite their opposing views on many subjects, said that every meeting with Lapid was so fascinating that it was "like Luna Park," i.e. an amusement park. Lapid is survived by his wife, the well known writer Shulamit Lapid, his son, television personality Yair Lapid, daughter Meirav and grandchildren. Michal, his eldest daughter, was killed in a traffic accident in 1984. Because her birthday and Yair's were on the same date, Yair stopped celebrating his birthday after her death. Lapid will be buried Monday at noon in the Kiryat Shaul cemetery in Tel Aviv. Despite his apparent antagonism toward religion, he will have an Orthodox funeral at the request of his family where his son, Yair, is expected to recite the Kaddish mourning prayer. Matthew Wagner, Tovah Lazaroff and AP contributed to this report.