A traitor to Jerusalem?

Former Knesset speaker Dalia Itzik talks about a complicated childhood and life in politics, and reveals that since leaving the Holy City she "feels like a traitor."

Dalia Itzik in 2014 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Dalia Itzik in 2014
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
It’s almost a year since former Knesset speaker Dalia Itzik moved from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, and she still can’t get used to the idea.
One of eight siblings born in Jerusalem to illiterate Iraqi immigrant parents, Itzik, when asked where she lives, still replies automatically, “Jerusalem.”
She would never have left but for the fact that like so many other Jerusalemites whose move from the capital is influenced by their offspring, she followed her three children and four grandchildren, and is eagerly awaiting the fifth, which is on the way.
Her children, who live in areas just outside Tel Aviv, still say whenever they visit that they can’t believe that she left Jerusalem.
Itzik confesses that despite the desire to be geographically closer to her nearest and dearest, “I feel like a traitor because Jerusalem was my whole life.”
She misses the sounds, the smells and the tastes of Jerusalem, as well as the strong visibility of the three major faiths. For her, this is collectively a microcosm of Israel.
Her story, she says, mirrors the story of the state, where people who came as refugees with minimal possessions, produced offspring who became leaders in academia, in culture, in industry, in business and in politics.
Itzik’s family lived in the poorest part of the Romema neighborhood, not far from Lifta, which prior to the War of Independence had been an Arab village. Its inhabitants fled in 1948, and throughout Itzik’s childhood, it remained unpopulated.
From time to time it was infiltrated by fedayeen (Arab guerrillas) who mounted terrorist attacks, and for most of her childhood, Itzik was terrified that they would come and kill her and her family.
Her mother took whatever work was available. Her father, an alcoholic, never worked, and spent what little money there was on drink.
Much of Itzik’s childhood and that of her seven siblings was spent in dark alleys looking for their father so that they could bring him home. He often got into to scrapes when drunk, and when they found him lying somewhere on the ground, he was usually bruised and bleeding. Their mother never lost hope that she might cure him from the habit, but it was a futile dream.
ALL THE children in the family went to work at an early age. Itzik took on cleaning and babysitting from the time that she was in second grade. She could not have dreamt then that one day she would be a teacher, a deputy mayor of Jerusalem, a member of Knesset, a government minister, the first woman speaker of the Knesset and the acting president of the state. Nor could she imagine that she would one day shake hands with a prince of England or with presidents of the United States, and France as well as numerous other high ranking dignitaries from around the world.
She attributes her success primarily to two people. One is her mother, who though uneducated herself, saw to it that all her children were well educated, most with university degrees. The other is Israel’s fifth president, Yitzhak Navon, who more or less thrust her into public service and continued to encourage and advise her. “He was such a decent human being, a man of strong principles and values, but also a kind and sensitive person,” she says.
Initially a teacher by profession and one of the founders of the Katznelson School in Jerusalem, where she taught from 1973 to 1989, Itzik was cajoled into running for office in the Jerusalem Teachers’ Union, because during ideological discussions on education her colleagues were impressed with her views on what a school should be and what it should do to give its students the best of scholastic environments.
As acting chairperson of the Jerusalem Teachers’ Union, she came to Navon’s attention during his first year as education minister. He appointed her first to the plenum and subsequently the Board of Management of the Israel Broadcasting Authority. It was in this capacity that she influenced Joseph Barel, who was then director general of the IBA, to include English-language news broadcasts in the television lineup.
In retrospect, Itzik says she did this for two reasons. One was that she had a lot of English speaking neighbors who had not mastered Hebrew sufficiently to follow news broadcasts, and she thought that they deserved to know what was going on in the country. The other was that she didn’t think that Israel was putting sufficient effort into public diplomacy and she believed that news broadcasts in English would be a valuable public diplomacy tool. For the same reason, she urged Barel to expand news broadcasts in Arabic.
Itzik’s powers of persuasion and her leadership qualities became known to then-Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek, who invited her to join his election campaign and become a member of the Jerusalem City Council. Kollek had a reputation as a bulldozer, and Itzik recalls trembling on the stairs as she made her way to his office. When he offered her a high slot on his One Jerusalem election list, she refused because she wasn’t interested in having a position simply as window dressing. If she couldn’t influence change, she saw no reason to be there. Kollek was stunned by her refusal.
“Other people are begging to be on the list, and you refuse!” he roared. She explained why, and he told her that he would give her the education portfolio, and she also became deputy mayor.
Even before entering local politics, she had joined the Labor Party, much to the displeasure of her siblings, who are all politically conservative with a strong leaning to the Right.
Though long removed from the Jerusalem Municipality, Itzik still cares passionately about the city of her birth.
“All prime ministers declare that they will never allow Jerusalem to be divided again, but they don’t really do anything for the city, which is very poor and needs more funding. It’s like an open wound, and most prime ministers don’t have the courage to do anything to cure it.”
Well aware of the many controversies and problems that have seethed in Jerusalem, Itzik points out that it has been the starting point of many social and political movements.
From the Jerusalem Municipality, Itzik in 1992 took the next political step, making a bid for the 13th Knesset, in which she won a seat. Within the Labor Party she was chairperson of the legislative panel and a member of the Central Committee.
She was reelected to the Knesset several times, and over time held three ministerial portfolios: Environment, Industry and Trade, and Communications.
In November 2005, Itzik announced that she was leaving Labor for Ariel Sharon’s newly formed Kadima Party.
Strongly allied with Shimon Peres who had lost the Labor leadership to Amir Peretz in November 2005, her resignation from the Labor Party was in tandem with that of Peres and the two joined forces with Sharon. In recent months Itzik has received overtures to return to the Labor Party, but it’s no longer the Labor Party that she knew.
In May 2006, she was elected speaker of the 17th Knesset, a role which she says was the most meaningful throughout her public service career because it gave her the possibility to make changes which would improve the quality of life of the general public as well as to improve the workings and image of the Knesset. She appointed the Knesset’s first director, introduced a Knesset dress code, had the Knesset redecorated and reduced disruption of Knesset sessions by frequent use of the gavel.
As speaker, she set the weekly agenda for Knesset sessions, and as acting president in the absence of the president of the state, deputized for President Moshe Katsav during his trips abroad. When Katsav was accused of rape and was tried in the kangaroo court of the Israeli media before being tried in a court of law, he had little choice but to suspend himself.
Evidence against him had mounted and he was advised that it was in his best interests to move aside. So for six months, Itzik was acting president, performing all the duties of a president. She acquitted herself sufficiently well in this role for friends and colleagues to advise her to throw her cap into the presidential ring. She was happy to do so because she had enjoyed the role, but when she learned that Peres, who had been defeated by Katsav in the previous presidential election, wanted to run again, she bowed out, out of respect. Peres scored a victory, and Itzik, who was still speaker of the Knesset, happily welcomed him to his inauguration.
IN DECEMBER 2012, after a 20-year career as a legislator, Itzik, who was then Kadima faction chair, quit politics, saying that ego and power struggles had caused serious rifts in the Left and Center.
Her ability to influence the legislative process had diminished, she said, alluding to forecasts that Kadima might not win any seats in the next election, so she saw no point in staying, and was taking time out from public life.
That didn’t mean that she was going to vegetate. She was promptly elected to various boards of directors of companies, institutions and organizations.
In early 2014, some six months before Peres completed his seven-year tenure as president, Itzik decided that it was time to return to public life and run for the position. She was at a disadvantage, as she had been out of government circles.
Nonetheless she scored 28 of the 120 votes, winning third place in the first round of the elections. This put her far ahead of other contestants who were not MKs, but not quite far enough.
Other than her close relatives and friends, people who have admired Itzik’s verve and energy have been unaware that she has been in pain for almost three decades. In October 1988, just a week after her 36th birthday, she was getting a lift with Likud MK Micha Reiser, whose car was involved in a traffic collision. Reiser died of his injuries and Itzik was hospitalized for a long period and she has continued to suffer pain throughout the years. “It still hurts and it’s a miracle that I’m here,” she says. As a result of the accident, she has always refused to drive. “I didn’t dare,” she explains, indicating that the nightmare has never left her.
While she was still an MK, she earned a law degree at the Radzyner Law School at IDC Herzliya, where she also joined a mentoring program and still mentors students who are studying government. In a sense, she has come full circle. She started out as a teacher, and is still working as a mentor. If there’s one thing that Itzik regrets other than moving away from Jerusalem it’s that she never served in the army.
Her mother didn’t think the army was a place for girls, and Itzik was an obedient daughter. But the absence of such a chapter in her life is something that continues to haunt her.