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Yossi Sarid: Rebel with a cause

The late ex-Knesset member leaves a legacy of upright leadership and a nonstop struggle to make Israel a better place

This past weekend, Yossi Sarid — the most thoroughly Israeli of this country’s leaders — passed away while watching the weekly news in which he played such a central role for so many years. Sarid — regardless of how one feels about his politics — was one of Israel’s greats. His departure heralds the loss of one of the most lucid, tenacious and principled public figures the country has ever produced — a man who came to embody the sabra in all its bewildering and marvelous complexity.

Yossi Sarid lived and breathed and fought for an ethical Israel responsible for its own destiny both externally and domestically. He was an intrepid warrior in the battle for social justice, pluralism of conscience and, above all, a secure peace between Israel and its neighbors. His vision of an enlightened Israel was a compass which guided his own career and pointed the road for those who shared his worldview. One the longest-serving of Israel’s parliamentarians (and ultimately Minister of the Environment and then Minister of Education) he never swayed from the dictates of his convictions. In his thoughts and actions, he came to embody the Israeli anti-hero who ultimately symbolized the stuff of which true heroes are made.

Sarid’s weapons — unlike those of many of his political cohorts — were not honed on the battlefield. He had at his disposal his pen (technologically-challenged until his very last day, he used any writing implement and scrap of paper available to jot down his thoughts, craft his speeches and write his columns), along with his stunning oratorical power. Yossi Sarid was a true master of the Hebrew language: one who could use the word to chide and embrace, to criticize and to create, to berate and to expose, to rally and at the same time to act. Less known beyond the confines of Israel because of his preference for using the language of the bible as an instrument for Jewish renewal in its reconstructed homeland, he nevertheless exemplified the notions of openness and tolerance on which vibrant democracies thrive.

In many respects, the unassuming Yossi Sarid was the antithesis of the magnetic public figure. He was unprepossessing and humble in the extreme. He did not have an ostentatious bone in his body (as Amos Oz said in his eulogy, “Yossi Sarid was thin when he entered the Knesset and was thin when he departed 32 years later”). He was often grumpy to the point of being off-putting. And, like so many elected officials, he had an inflated ego which translated into considerable doses of ambition and arrogance.

Sarid, however, offset these flaws with a plethora of traits that endeared him to almost anyone who came into contact with him. He was unwaveringly loyal to his family and fellow-travelers. He was as charming as he was misanthropic. He could listen as carefully as he could pontificate. He was as sensitive as he was cynical. He was as tolerant as he was uncompromising. He knew how to laugh even when he was deadly serious. And he possessed a charisma that annoyed opponents as much as it blinded followers. Above all, he was honest to a fault: his integrity guided his thoughts and his actions — often at great personal and political expense.

Endowed with a razor sharp intellect and boundless curiosity, Sarid not only was a fount of knowledge on Israeli politics (and politicians), he also knew every corner of the country and had friends in the most unlikely quarters. He was one of the few elected officials who not only preached social inclusiveness, but also acted upon these convictions (spending years in Kiryat Shmona and Margaliot in the North while traipsing to the most remote Bedouin encampments in the South and ultra-Orthodox strongholds in the center of the country).

Sarid, a product of the Mapai establishment, was also one of its most consistent critics. Although he was nurtured by key figures in the Labor party, he lashed out against the first Lebanon war and left the party when it entered into a coalition with the Likud in the 1980s (which led to a painful period of paralysis on the diplomatic front). He then went on to become a leading voice in the quest to end the occupation and to liberate Israel from the rule over another people against their will.

He was extraordinarily well-versed in the Jewish sources, but he had little patience for the orthodox monopoly on personal law: for decades he led the campaign against religious coercion. Indeed, he devoted immense efforts to fight against prejudice and discrimination directed at marginalized groups (most notably Arab citizens of Israel, the LGBT community, residents of the periphery and the urban poor). For him, civil rights incorporated not only individual liberties and minority rights, but also social security for all the citizens of the country.

At every point in his extended career, Yossi Sarid was as adept both at charting a course and at doing everything possible to bring about its realization. In the coalition as well as in the opposition, he didn’t rest for a moment. He was known for personally responding to citizen’s appeals — regardless of the questionable electoral benefit he reaped. His dedication to serving the public — in all its diversity — has become legion.

And, yes, Yossi Sarid consistently raised the ire of his political foes (as well as of some of his ideological backers). Nevertheless, he garnered the respect of even his fiercest adversaries. They fumed at his harsh words and relentless tongue-lashings; yet they still stand in awe of his fearlessness. He was, both as leader of the Meretz party, the spokesperson of the opposition and a member of the cabinet, truly formidable. Even his greatest rivals could not ignore him or dismiss his message.

Yossi Sarid, a veritable lover of Israel in its joys and sorrows, conveyed the many contradictions — as well as the moral backbone — of true Israeli leadership. In his own unique and frequently acerbic way, he embodied the Israel that was and that could be. His steady pursuit of peace and truth remain a beacon for many Israelis. He leaves a legacy of upright leadership; throughout his life he tried, by every means at his disposal, to make Israel a better place. That message is his legacy to all who really care about the future of the country and are willing to do something about it.

About the Author
Professor Naomi Chazan, former Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University, is co-director of WIPS, the Center for the Advancement of Women in the Public Sphere at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.