My Word: Dressing down or dressing the part?

The irony and symbolism of Israeli-born Benjamin Netanyahu telling German-born Labor Minister Haim Katz to change his casual shirt for the cabinet meeting.

LABOR AND Social Services Minister Haim Katz in the offending shirt. (photo credit: Courtesy)
LABOR AND Social Services Minister Haim Katz in the offending shirt.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It might not be the burning issue of the day, but it needs addressing – with the emphasis on the “dress.” Something happened at this week’s cabinet meeting – something that symbolizes both the major changes that have taken place in the country over the years and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s style, in every sense.
According to news reports later confirmed by the main protagonist, Labor and Social Services Minister Haim Katz received a dressing down from the prime minister when he turned up for the weekly meeting wearing a casual, striped polo shirt – way too casual in Netanyahu’s opinion.
“Haim, that’s not respectful,” Netanyahu reportedly told Katz, who went to his nearby home to change into a suit and returned fashionably late as it were.
This is not apparently the first close encounter – or clothes encounter – with a dress code. Ehud Olmert’s cabinet secretary Oved Yehezkel announced in 2008 that he would enforce a jacket and tie policy at cabinet meetings and in 2007, then-Knesset speaker Dalia Itzik banned jeans from the Knesset, to the dismay of many parliamentary aides if not the parliamentarians themselves. The ban was lifted by her successor, now President Reuven Rivlin, who would not allow shabby or torn jeans in the parliament but was otherwise more lenient than Itzik. Strangely, both of them thought their decision would help improve the public image of the Knesset.
In Katz’s case, however, I couldn’t help but think how far we’d come from the days when cartoonist Kariel Gardosh, aka Dosh, depicted the iconic Sabra figure Srulik as a young man wearing a kova tembel hat, biblical sandals and khaki shorts.
No cartoon figure, David Ben-Gurion also was often seen in shorts and an open-neck shirt and sandals.
When I was parliamentary reporter from the mid- to late-1990s, MK Pini Badash, a moshavnik-turned-politician and Omer local council head, was known for the trademark sandals he wore regardless of the season as he walked in the corridors of power.
There’s something homely about a minister like Haim Katz feeling comfortable enough to show up for work in informal attire – small compensation, in my opinion, for the fact that Israelis have to go to work on Sunday mornings.
There is a certain irony in the Israeli-born Netanyahu telling the German-born Katz that he is not sufficiently stuffily dressed.
Whatever happened to the Sabras and the Yekkes, as the German immigrants were once called? Role reversal or overcompensation?
If anything, Katz’s shirt – which his aide Ilan Marciano told me is not a brand name and is possibly something he picked up when he visited China – befits a minister of social affairs who entered politics via labor union activities.
“He came dressed to work, to do a job,” Marciano said when I called him.
Later I received the official, although still informal, response, in the name of the minister: “I happily accept the prime minister’s remark about the shirt. It reminds me I should ask my wife where’s the suit from our wedding 45 years ago so that I can wear it to the next cabinet meeting.”
Haim Katz, not to be confused with the sartorially more aware Transportation Minister Israel Katz, apparently takes more pride in his work rather than his appearance.
It’s true that Netanyahu is rarely seen on the job without a suit and tie. His biggest fashion faux pas, as far as I remember, was when Netanyahu and Ehud Barak both turned up for a marathon debate in the Knesset wearing identical ties. “He obviously copied me,” Netanyahu quipped, as I recall, when it was pointed out.
The prime minister needn’t have got so hot under the collar this week either: He could have made a joke of it and Katz would have got the message.
I admit that I’m better known for my commonsense than my dress sense, but I don’t think Katz was making either a political statement or a fashion statement. He was just doing what came naturally, putting comfort before social graces.
It is telling, as a colleague noted, that Israel was once famous for caricatures like Srulik whereas now it is Bar Refaeli’s face and body that are admired.
Israel is at the cutting edge of the fashion industry, but Israelis still prefer the casual look in these hot climes.
Black and white attire is compulsory for lawyers during court appearances, but otherwise, usually anything goes.
We are miles away from France’s ongoing burkini debate.
Dress codes are so lax, that the two terrorists who carried out the lethal shooting attack at Tel Aviv’s Sarona Market in June were partly identified by the fact they wore suits and looked so out of place. It’s rather pathetic that they had so little idea of whom they were setting out to kill that they couldn’t dress to blend in.
I admit that clothing needs to be appropriate to place and occasion. A meal in a restaurant is not the same as a beach party. A job interview is not a night out with friends. I find the fashion for deliberately ripped jeans funny in the funny-peculiar sense, worse than the deliberately faded jeans of my long-since faded youth.
But Katz was a cut above that at least. In fact, I’ve been to Israeli weddings where his shirt would not have been out of place.
Of course, in Israel almost everything takes on political or religious overtones. I wondered if Netanyahu’s comment didn’t indicate some political rivalry.
Incidentally, when a proudly secular middle- aged man recently told me “religious women don’t wear red,” I swiftly responded: “This religious woman wears what she wants.”
The dress codes in the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox world deserve a column in their own right. The length of sleeve or dress for a woman and the size, color and fabric of a religious man’s head covering speak volumes.
Still, the Katz case made me want to shout out to the prime minister: “The emperor has no clothes.”
We’re not all cut out of the same cloth. You can’t suit everyone.
The Talmud says Rabbi Yochanan noted that, “In my own town, my name [is sufficient]; away from home, my dress,” suggesting that clothes make a man where he is not otherwise known.
In Pirkei Avot (The Ethics of the Fathers) Shammai says: “Greet every person with a pleasant face.”
I understand that you need something to go with it, but probably the most important thing to wear is a smile.