Democracy lessons from the Lapids

Tommy Lapid’s message that democracy isn't just rule of majority, reverberates with Knesset’s decision on MK Haneen Zoabi.

yair lapid 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
yair lapid 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
With summer fully upon us, it’s time to draw up a holiday reading list. Let me recommend Yair Lapid’s Zichronot Aharei Moti (Memories After My Death), the story of Yosef (Tommy) Lapid, the leading journalist who later headed the Shinui party and became the scourge of the haredi community. In a cute literary conceit, Yair, himself a leading journalist, has written the biography of his father as if Tommy himself was writing his autobiography from the perspective of the grave.
Given that Tommy was an avowed atheist with no belief in the afterlife, there is a certain irony in Yair imagining his father narrating his story after taking leave of this life. The book’s title too, taken from the Torah portion Aharei Mot – which discusses the purification rituals that followed the death of Aaron’s two sons, who died when they drew too close to the presence of the Lord – also shows that no matter how secular a life one lives here, the cultural associations are biblically based.
The book, written in the easy, journalistic Hebrew which marked Tommy Lapid’s own columns for Ma’ariv (which in later years were also translated and published in this paper), not only tells Lapid’s own personal story, but also provides an insight into the development of the country over the past six decades.
Born in Serbia to a Jewish but culturally assimilated family, the Holocaust, which he survived along with his mother, defined Lapid as a Jew.
From then on, Lapid’s world was defined between Jews and non-Jews, with the interests of the Jewish people always taking preference over anything else, despite his deep-seated European cultural liberalism.
This Jewish nationalistic view of life, alongside his aversion to socialism – intensified by his experience of living under Tito’s communist regime in Yugoslavia between the end of World War II and his arrival in Israel in 1948 after the War of Independence – marked out Lapid as a natural opponent of the ruling elite in the first three decades of the country’s existence.
And yet this did not stop him from progressing from being a non-Hebrew-speaking immigrant into one of the country’s leading journalists and later television stars, before then starting a political career at an age most people sink into retirement and becoming a senior cabinet minister. It’s an inspirational story, and Yair Lapid tells it well.
My favorite anecdote concerns Lapid’s military service, which Tommy, a Holocaust survivor with no Hebrew, began immediately on arrival in the country, something hard to countenance today.
Lapid worked as a mechanic in an army garage, which for some reason was also responsible for guarding an Arab prisoner from Nazareth. The officer in charge of the garage thought it was a waste of precious resources for his mechanics to be guarding a prisoner and ordered the prisoner to guard the garage (with a rifle), so that the mechanics could work. This arrangement worked well for everybody until a high-ranking officer brought his car in for repair.
But if truth be told, Lapid could be unpleasant, always on the lookout for an argument and rarely prepared to believe that the person with whom he was arguing might have a valid point of view. The book doesn’t shy away from Lapid’s confrontational and fiery temperament, although it obviously seeks to put as positive gloss as possible on his character.
The certainty with which Lapid held his opinions makes his reversal of support for Jewish settlement in the territories the more surprising. In the early days of the settlement movement, Lapid was an enthusiastic supporter and was regarded by the Likud hierarchy as a safe pair hands to head the Israel Broadcasting Authority when Menachem Begin was prime minister. There was no defining moment which turned Lapid into a sudden supporter of Palestinian statehood, but like many in the country he came to a gradual realization that if Israel wanted to remain a Jewish and democratic country, it had to end its occupation of the West Bank.
Lapid also quotes, a couple of times in the book, one of his law professors (aside from working as a journalist, he also qualified as a lawyer) warning that democracy needed the checks and balances of the court system, because democracy is not just the rule of the majority, for “61 Knesset members could always decide to arrest the other 59.”
This warning reverberated particularly true last week with the Knesset’s shameful decision to revoke three key parliamentary privileges from Balad MK Haneen Zoabi because of her provocative support for the Turkish flotilla. The Knesset should exist to preserve the freedom of expression, not muzzle it.
If Zoabi broke the law, then the Knesset’s legal adviser has the tools to take action; if not, then her parliamentary colleagues have to support her right to voice and act on her opinions.
Lapid would certainly have condemned Zoabi’s actions, and in no uncertain terms. But his message from the grave that democracy is not just a matter of a majority vote is something we need to remember every day.

The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.