Good memories

Yossi Sarid is remembered as a man of the people, always willing to lend an ear or a hand, and never leaving a debt unpaid.

Yossi Sarid (photo credit: ARIK SULTAN)
Yossi Sarid
(photo credit: ARIK SULTAN)
Much has been said about Yossi Sarid – former Meretz leader, Knesset member, education minister and environmental protection minister – who died last week at the age of 75. Yet those who worked closely with him reveal less-familiar sides of the politician, dubbed “the prince of eloquence and integrity of Israeli politics.”
“As a politician, Sarid came to the Knesset to fight for his worldview, not to ingratiate himself or make friends,” says Roy Yellin, who worked with Sarid from 2000 as the politician’s Knesset spokesman and the international coordinator for Meretz. Sarid at that time was chairman of Meretz and leader of the opposition, “which is obviously one of the reasons he did not win a lot of friends in the Knesset.”
Yellin recalls an incident that involved Sarid and the defense minister and chairman of the foreign affairs committee, Yuval Steinitz: “Steinitz tried to remove Sarid from the committee because Sarid wanted to know classified information, even though he did not then have the appropriate confidentiality clearance for the subcommittee. Sarid insisted on his right to receive an answer, and in response Steinitz sent a letter to then-Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin demanding the removal of Sarid from his seat.”
Rivlin’s office, says Yellin, leaked the letter to journalist Amit Segal, who then contacted Sarid and asked for a comment.
“Yossi Sarid was not shocked,” Yellin says. “He was actually quite amused and decided to call Steinitz from his car phone, but without informing him that he was already familiar with the story of the letter of dismissal.
I was in the back seat of the car. Sarid put the phone on speaker and we could hear how, for several minutes, Steinitz was trying to defend himself, saying ‘it’s not as it seems.’ “Finally Sarid confronted Steinitz and said: ‘You think you can dismiss me?’ He emphasized each and every word. Steinitz no longer tried to defend himself and said: ‘You misunderstood me.’ Sarid replied: ‘Let me tell you something, the difficulty in understanding is not mine,’ and that ended the conversation.”
In the end, Sarid was not suspended, but was invited to the office of the IDF chief of staff, where he was given the explanations he asked for, privately.
All of Sarid’s aides agree that the home phone of the Meretz leader, minister and former Knesset member was available 24 hours a day, and the number was public for all. “He would get calls at all hours from people that were about to be thrown out of their homes or parents of students who were abused by the education system,” recalls Yellin.
“Jibril Rajoub [a Palestinian politician] once called him in the middle of the night and said: ‘Help, they’re shooting at me.’ It was during the first intifada. Although he was one of the moderate voices in the Palestinian Authority, the IDF fired at him during an operation deep inside Area C. Sarid, of course, called whoever he had to call to find out what the hell the IDF was doing shooting at him.”
Sarid also had a great sense of humor, says Yellin. “When we were coming back to Tel Aviv from Jerusalem, we used to stop at the Caravan Inn restaurant in Abu Ghosh.” The restaurant had a tragic incident in its history. In 1993, Mapai MK Chaike Grossman fell down the stairs there, slipping into a coma and later dying from her injuries. Yellin says that while Sarid liked to eat there, Mapai member and MK Haim Oron liked the place even more. Sarid had a wonderful sense of humor, Yellin remembers.
“Sarid said to Oron, ‘You have to go up the stairs carefully because they’re dangerous to Mapai members.’ This was a regular joke between them that Sarid enjoyed repeating again and again.”
Sarid, as it turns out, could also do great impersonations. “He would impersonate [former prime minister] Shimon Peres for us,” says Yellin. “He loved to impersonate him. He also had a great impersonation of [former prime minister Ariel] Sharon, as well as more junior Knesset members, who were often targets of his talents.
“There were others who were frequent objects of his criticism. Sometimes it may have been a bit uncomfortable, but it was always entertaining because he was a funny man, perhaps the funniest person I know, even if those laughs were occasionally at the expense of someone else.”
‘Didn’t like to owe a thing’ Yael Kessler was also a spokeswoman of the Meretz faction in the Knesset when Sarid was there, as well as his communications adviser at the Education Ministry.
“I worked thousands of hours alongside Sarid because the job was always 24/7,” she says.
“Working with Yossi could involve any time of the day or night. Yossi was always connected to the news. Even on his rare travels abroad, he would call in when it was time for the news broadcast.
I would hold the phone to the TV or radio, and while he was listening he would issue a reaction and demand that it be made public immediately, during the same broadcast.”
Sarid was a demanding boss, “but he practiced what he preached,” Kessler says. “He demanded of us only what he demanded of himself. He was very strict with himself and with those around him; you had to be loyal to him unreservedly.
Working with Yossi was almost like being married to him – except for the cooking and laundry. Sarid was a workaholic. He used to work nonstop even at home, and all of the time he would smoke like a chimney.”
How did Kessler get along in a smoky office? “All his team smoked.”
Hedva Vidhorn Abramovich, Sarid’s longtime office manager when he was environmental quality minister and chairman of Meretz, remembers a virtuous man.
“Sarid was a collector of ‘mitzvot’ [good deeds] at a level that nobody ever knew, because he refused to talk about it all his life. Everyone would come to him – every lowlife and wretched person of the world. Their greeting was always the same: ‘Look, I didn’t vote for you, but...’ The questions concerned all aspects of life – from arranging for a child to be in an institution, to buying a wheelchair for a disabled person or buying a musical instrument or a rabbit for a sick child.
“Sarid was a kind of social worker who was driven by his compassion. People didn’t know this about him. He piled on his thin shoulders all the hardships of the world, and the pain of people seeped into his heart. One day Sarid put a lien on his bank account, without his family knowing it, to make it possible to fly a sick child abroad because he didn’t have medical insurance.”
Abramovich continues, “The Meretz council used to convene on Balfour Street in Tel Aviv, at the Poalei Zion building, where there was a cafeteria with coffee, soda and tea. Sarid used to drink there. Once he called me urgently, at 10 o’clock at night and said ‘Hedva, you have to come right away. I drank a cup of tea at the cafeteria and I didn’t pay.’ I asked him what was so urgent and he said: ‘Don’t you see, someone makes a living from this, and I didn’t pay?’” Abramovich also talks about Sarid’s habit of chain-smoking. She said that sometimes he asked one of the waiters in the Knesset cafeteria for a single cigarette because he had run out.
“Yossi took about three cigarettes a month from him, but once a week he would send me with a new packet of cigarettes to give to the waiter, just so he didn’t owe him. Yossi didn’t like to owe anybody,” she says.
Abramovich says that Sarid personally answered every one of the thousands of letters he received from the public. “He answered all of them by hand, from a child asking about the work of an MK to people who would argue with him about his political agenda,” she says. “He could not stand having a letter unanswered for more than two days. For him, if this happened we were negligent.”
About his modesty, she says: “When we got to the Environment Ministry we were given a mobile phone. Sarid said that this was a luxury and suggested we share the phone between us so we could save money. When they wanted to give him an official car – a Volvo – he was furious and preferred a smaller Toyota.”
‘Childlike innocence’ Abramovich reveals Sarid’s love for animals.
“One day a friend of mine found a dog and brought it to Yossi’s daughter, but they already had a dog at home, and this dog didn’t get along with the new puppy.
He gave the dog to [MK] Zahava Gal-On, who then gave him to my friend. One day the dog got lost. The friend called and burst into tears, and we went with Minister Yossi Sarid on a search that lasted all night. Imagine, a cabinet minister searching all night to find a little dog.”
According to his aides, one of his favorite pastimes was to wander around the convenience stores at gas stations and buy snacks.
“He would come back to the car all excited and show us that he had bought a chocolate bar,” says Abramovich. “He had a kind of childlike innocence. One day he came and asked me for a shekel because he had found something that cost only one shekel.”
Employees say they admired him very much for his wit and command of the Hebrew language.
“He would be sitting in his room, thinking, writing and inserting the Hebrew vowels. He would create the most wonderful speeches and poems. He was so different from all the other politicians. Where are the people today who are like this man?” wonders Abramovich ■
Translated by Maya Pelleg