A long way from Leningrad

Anastassia Michaeli has emerged as one of Israel's most controversial politicians.

Mother of eight (photo credit: Courtesy of Anastassia Michaeli )
Mother of eight
(photo credit: Courtesy of Anastassia Michaeli )
The scene began with angry words. “Shut up! Shut her up!” a balding man pleaded as a tall, striking, blond woman in a well-tailored dark suit and hot pink blouse stalked across the room, poured a glass of water and tossed it in his face before storming out.
The man smirked and wiped off his glasses with a handkerchief. “She’s crazy,” he announced.
It was not a domestic dispute, or a scene from a soap opera – but the cameras were there to catch every drop of invective, every splash of water, as the Knesset Education Committee erupted in January over the most recent antics of Anastassia Michaeli, Member of Knesset for the Yisrael Beiteinu Party.
The full glass she emptied over Labor MK Raleb Majadele – 20 years her senior and Israel’s first Muslim government minister – earned Michaeli a month-long suspension from all Knesset sessions except votes and cemented her reputation as the bad girl of Israeli politics.
The incident occurred during a committee debate over a decision by an Arab-Israeli school to take its students to a human rights march in Tel Aviv, last December. While Majadele was speaking, Michaeli interrupted him, shouting: “You were marching against the state, you were inciting.”
“Shut up!” retorted the former minister. Turning to committee chairman Alex Miller, a fellow member of Michaeli’s right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu Party, he added: “This one from your party, shut her up.
“She won’t shut me up. This is not Yisrael Beiteinu. The issue of fascism won’t stop here,” Majadele declared. “Fascism will not be allowed to take over the house.”
That was when Michaeli threw the glass of water at the stunned parliamentarian.
“He insulted me as a woman and called me a fascist,” she said afterwards. Majadele denied saying anything disparaging.
Outrageous stunts
It was the latest in a series of outrageous stunts involving Arab colleagues that have earned Michaeli a growing band of admirers on the right and increasingly vociferous criticism from those who feel she is targeting Israel’s Arab minority and dragging down the already dubious standards of Knesset behavior.
Speaking immediately after the incident, Michaeli was unrepentant.
“The time has passed when a man can publicly curse a woman, insult her, and behave violently,” she told reporters. “I will not allow anyone, even an esteemed Knesset member, to behave this way.“ But when even her own party called her behavior unacceptable, she backed down and issued an apology.
It didn’t stop there. A few days later, Ahmad Tibi, MK for the Ra’am Ta’al Party, read out an insulting poem about Michaeli from the podium during a Knesset debate and was rewarded with his own week-long suspension.
Michaeli’s stunt “was racist violence, pre-planned, and an attempt to gain political capital,” Majadele tells The Report, regretting that she had pointedly decided not to apologize personally to him. “I responded properly and morally. I have great respect for women, and I reject her claims to the contrary.”
Michaeli has a master’s degree in electronic engineering and is a former professional skier, beauty queen, fashion model and TV presenter. A star of Israel’s Russian language Channel 9, her home constituency is the large Russian-speaking community, but her raucous, headline-grabbing behavior has propelled her into the front line of public life.
Her critics regard Michaeli’s latest confrontation as part of a pattern of anti-Arab comments and legislation endorsed by several members of the Yisrael Beiteinu Party, including its chairman and founder, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. She has enthusiastically supported controversial bills backed by Lieberman, including calls for a loyalty oath for the state’s million and a half Arab citizens.
In 2007, Michaeli created a stir as a member of Israel’s Eurovision Song Contest panel, when she suggested that whoever represented the country in the song competition should not have an “Arab look.”
In June 2010, she had to be physically restrained in the Knesset from attacking Hanin Zoabi, an Arab parliamentarian who was on board the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara when nine people were killed in a raid by Israeli commandos, trying to break the naval blockade of Gaza.
“Someone who is a traitor should not be allowed to speak,” she told reporters then. “Israel is a democracy but someone who presents the positions of terror organizations should not be allowed to speak from the Knesset podium.”
More recently, she has come under fire for proposing a new law that would limit the volume of public address systems in religious buildings – a move seen as targeting the muezzin’s call to prayer from the country’s thousands of mosques.
“This is an insult to one of my religious symbols, the muezzin,” Majadele says. “She converted from Christianity to Judaism and so religion obviously isn’t important to her. But this bill would make a political conflict between Arabs and Jews into a religious conflict between Judaism and Islam.”
“After Lieberman shows Israelis every day how to destroy foreign relations, Michaeli demonstrates how to destroy domestic relations in Israel,” says Labor Party leader Shelly Yacimovich. “Her behavior is uncivilized and violent. Knesset Member Majadele is serious and solid. Michaeli’s behavior stems from racist motives which must be denounced.”
’I don’t hate anyone’
But in an exclusive interview, Michaeli denies the accusations of racism.
“I certainly don’t hate anyone and I have a lot of friends of different nationalities, among them Arabs and Druze. However, I find it difficult to accept anti-Israeli statements and actions,” she tells The Report.
Michaeli was elected to the Knesset in 2009, as the ninth member of the Yisrael Beiteinu list. Later that year, she made Israeli history by becoming the first sitting member to give birth when she bore her eighth child.
She was born Anastassia Michalevskaya in Leningrad – now St. Petersaburg – in 1975. She married Yossi Samuelson, a Latvian-born Israeli citizen, at the age of 22 and the couple immigrated to Israel in 1997. They now live in Rishon Lezion with their three daughters and five sons aged 3 to 15 years old. After arriving in Israel, Michaeli converted to Judaism and remarried Samuelson, a one-time Israeli boxing champion turned businessman, in an Orthodox wedding. Today, at age 37, she keeps a kosher home and the couple sends their children to religious schools, although Anastassia says she does not strictly observe Shabbat.
She says her tendency to confrontation goes back to her earliest memories. Her face lights up as she recalls a scene from her childhood.
“My mother, Lidya Michalevskaya, was a director of a kindergarten and a member of the Communist Party,” she says, relaxing in her tiny office in the Knesset. “She was an extremely responsible person and participated in all the party conferences, submitted all the reports on time and so on. In 1982, I started first grade and received my pin with an image of Lenin on it, like all the kids.
“One year later, during a break between classes, I was preparing an assignment I had to do when a bunch of girls approached me and suggested I repeat with them some slogans about Lenin. Since I was busy I just told them, ‘I don’t care about your Lenin.’ This little story didn’t end there. It went on and on forever. It was discussed during every parent-teacher meeting and at school morning assemblies. My mom’s position in the party was threatened and my membership in the ‘Young pioneers’ organization was postponed.
“Since then I was always involved in some kind of confrontation. I even tried to break up fights,“ she recalls, adding that her brother, Andrei, is a professional boxer.
“That’s my personality, that’s who I am,” she says.
She admits she now has real regrets about throwing what fast became Israel’s most famous glass of water.
“I’m very sorry that my children had to go through this ordeal,” she says. “I’m a public person so they have to deal with that on an everyday level. People approach them and ask questions. I wish that the kids could stay out of it. They asked why I did what I did, and supported me incredibly. Also all their friends were very supportive as well, and still I’m sad about it,” she says.
But she is adamant that she will not be described as a “fascist” and defends her stand against radical Arab politicians who, she believes, pose a threat to Israel’s vital interests.
“I find it difficult to accept anti-Israeli statements and actions. That’s why I authored an Azmi Bishara bill,” she says, referring to the former radical Knesset Member who fled the country after he was accused of spying for Hizballah. “A traitor and an enemy of Israel should not be entitled by right to a pension in this country.”
Journey into politics
Michaeli’s journey into politics began in 2006, when she was the presenter of a morning show on Channel 9 TV (partly owned by Eli Azur, who is also proprietor of The Jerusalem Report).
“My husband was the first one to tell me that I would do well as a politician,” she says. “I was working on Channel 9 at the time and didn’t even consider this option. In fact, I got mad at him for saying what he said. I’m a perfectionist in everything I do and I thought that it’s impossible to be a politician, to be deeply involved in the social sphere and to be a good mother.
“The person who, in fact, succeeded in convincing me that this was the right path for me was Yair Lapid,” she says, referring to the TV celebrity whose announcement in January that he was considering a run for the Knesset has become the talk of the day among the chattering classes.
“I received a phone call from him and we agreed to meet for coffee. I had no idea that he was going to ask me join Shinui, his father’s party. I actually asked him why he didn’t follow his own advice. I recall him saying that he wasn’t ready for it, that he was still a rookie.
“Recently, when I was already a Member of Knesset, I met Yair and I told him, ‘It’s all because of you’ and he laughed. This was long before the rumors that he would enter politics began to circulate,” she says.
“At that time I hardly understood the political scene in Israel, but soon the offers started pouring in. Political offers from different parties. My husband was very supportive and since I was not familiar with the local political scene, he decided what I should do with these opportunities.”
Her first move was to join the newly-formed Kadima Party and she ran on their list in the 2006 election under the leadership of thenprime minister Ehud Olmert. She was too far down the list to win a parliamentary seat, and her political beliefs were already directing her elsewhere.
“Even when I was in Kadima, I thought highly of Avigdor Lieberman,” she says. “I read his book ‘Nothing But The Truth’ and learned a lot from it. When I was told that I was number 44 on the Kadima list, I took a moment and thought about what I wanted, what are my goals. I wanted to make a difference and thought I should use every opportunity to achieve that.”
Ilya Levin, a Yisrael Beiteinu coordinator in Tel Aviv and an old friend, says her current party is her true home.
“In Kadima she was just a pretty face, whereas in Yisrael Beiteinu she really found her place,“ Levin says. “Ideologically, it was not a problem, because Kadima was a rather undefined body back then with people joining it from the left and from the right wings. There was not a clear ideology in Kadima.
“She is a real fighter, that’s what she is. Maybe at times she might seem too pushy, but she also knows how to pick her battles. She is constantly under attack: for being an immigrant, for having a large family, for being an attractive woman. But these attacks cannot derail her from her path,” he says.
Knesset attendance records suggest she takes her work seriously. She religiously attends committee meetings and sessions with foreign members of parliament and spends considerably more time in the building than almost anybody else.
“Politics is team work. Just like in TV – a host cannot function without a cameraman, a soundman and everybody else on the set. Likewise, a politician cannot succeed on his or her own. It’s not a game. It’s a very serious profession based on meticulous and constant everyday work,” Michaeli says.
Knesset’s hard on women
“It was only when I became an MK that I understood what kind of battle it is for a woman to be in the Knesset. It’s very demanding, especially for a woman. There are 23 women in the Knesset. Three of us have very young children now, which is a very different stage of motherhood. Sometimes I spend the night in my room on the floor and then I feel that I’m leaving my loved ones at home, and it’s very hard, even frustrating. It’s especially hard because I don’t have a cleaning lady or a babysitter. I was looking desperately for one but didn’t succeed. Some were afraid to work with that many children, others were not trustworthy. So somehow we manage by ourselves.”
“I can only agree with Winston Churchill who said that a statesman is different from a politician, since a politician only has the next elections in mind, while the statesman is thinking of future generations,” she says. “I invested a lot of energy in women-related issues, science and technology, education and the sphere of state regulation. Three of my draft bills have already become law and 66 more are works in progress.
“I’m not a member of the science and technology committee but in my opinion this issue is of utmost importance, so I attend the meetings on a regular basis. As a chairwoman of family status and rights lobby, I wrote a draft bill that would lighten the financial burden on young families and promote additional free of charge or inexpensive daycare facilities.
“I deeply love the country where I built my home and where I’m raising my children. My goal is not to pursue as many bills as possible, but to work for the benefit of our country as a team,” she says.
Michaeli’s admirers say she is not the tough, strident siren that her more outrageous actions would suggest.
“I won’t forget the night we attended a wedding and she came with four kids, while Yossi, her husband stayed in the van with another two,” recalls her friend Levin. “Then they switched. She intended to leave, but when she realized that many people were interested in talking to her, she stayed so that they wouldn’t be disappointed.
“As for the ‘glass of water’ incident, I believe that she should be more in control of herself, however, I understand perfectly where she is coming from. She and I and many people in our community have a special sensitivity for certain words, such as ‘fascist’ for example. Majadele definitely crossed a red line,” says Levin.
David Kohn, a popular Channel 9 presenter, says many people in the Russian community shared Michaeli’s outrage against Majadele.
“I believe that people do not really identify with her spilling water on Raleb Majadele, as much as they express their protest against what he had to say,” says Kohn. “He repeatedly attacks Israel, no matter what’s the occasion, and people are infuriated by these attacks. So when Anastassia threw water on him, they cheered her. I can’t say that it was a racial thing, rather an ideological one.”
Crossing the line
However, many observers of Israeli politics find her serious intentions at odds with her populist escapades. They accuse her of carefully cultivating a bad-girl personality, believing that is what her many Russianspeaking constituents in Yisrael Beiteinu want.
“What she did was a show of ultra-nationalism, so many of her voters may like her even more for that,” says Dr. Gideon Rahat, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University. “Others say that she crossed the line. This is not the first time that she’s behaving in such a non-parliamentary way.
“Sometimes you see people in South Korea or Taipei hitting each other in parliament,” says Rahat. “But this is not something you want to see. The whole idea of a parliament is to contain the conflict and to use speech to say things that are critical or provocative.”
Some suspect that Michaeli’s political instincts were honed on the Paris catwalk where she financed some of her youthful adventures rather than the august corridors of the legislature. Prof. Tamir Sheafer, head of the Hebrew University political communications program says that in just three years in the Knesset, she has achieved the kind of name recognition that other, longer-serving, members would die for.
“She is unique in that she is rather young, she looks very good and she is extremely outspoken in a way that many people find uncomfortable,” Sheafer says. “Her behavior and the language she uses toward minorities are extremely newsworthy.”
However, some of her antics have sparked a lot of negative publicity for Michaeli, some of which have spilled over to her party, which was quick to distance itself from her latest controversy. At the moment she’s a hot political property, but she may become too hot for Lieberman to handle.
“Yisrael Beiteinu’s goal is not to present itself as an extreme and non-mainstream party, but as one of the largest and most stable parties in the Knesset,” says Sheafer. “Maybe she thought that if she receives a lot of media attention, Lieberman won’t be able to force her out, but I think it was a miscalculation.”