The sex scandal that has not happened
The outgoing education minister has long balanced conservative politics with Tel Aviv hipness, but his recent nighttime activities may be tipping scales of public opinion in the wrong direction.
Politics, Marshall McLuhan once predicted, will eventually be replaced by imagery. "The politician will be only too happy to abdicate in favor of his image, because the image will be much more powerful than he could ever be," he said.
Up until this week, Gideon Sa'ar had a great image, one any politician would be happy to abdicate to. The incumbent education minister is one of the strongest politicians in Israel, a rising star in the Likud party and a candidate to be prime minister one day. His carefully cultivated image is of the cool (or cool-ish) but responsible amateur DJ, who hangs out at hip bars in Tel Aviv until early in the morning with his celebrity girlfriend and a crowd of friends.
On a different occasion, Marshall Mcluhan – a Canadian philosopher of communication theory, for those not in the know – once wrote, "Today man has no physical body, he is translated into information, or an image." What, then, really got Sa'ar into trouble this week: his physical body or his image?
It is safe to assume that these past few days, and probably the months preceding them, were not the best of Sa'ar's life. A letter ostensibly written by a female subordinate and sent to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu caused a whirlwind that could ultimately bring his political career to an abrupt end.
The letter, supposedly signed by an employee identified in the letter only as M.C., accuses Sa'ar of having abused his position to sleep with several subordinates in his office and describes other illicit acts allegedly performed by the minister, some of them illegal.
The real M.C. vehemently denies having written the letter or having had an affair with Sa'ar, as the letter suggests. Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein has ordered an investigation. Police are looking into whether the letter was forged and Sa'ar is claiming it is the work of political opponents trying to assassinate his character.
But the sex scandal that now threatens to envelop one of Israel's rising political stars did not come out of nowhere. Rumors about Sa'ar have been circulating for months, setting Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms ablaze with every mention of his name.
For months, the media-savvy Sa'ar – who is on super-friendly terms with not a few newspaper editors in Israel – managed to quash journalistic investigation into the rumors. But if you live in Tel Aviv, you knew. Everybody knew – or didn't know but thought they knew. In October, Haaretz reporter Yossi Klein even wrote an innuendo-filled article alluding to some of the more nefarious and unsubstantiated details of the case.
Beds, bathrooms and beyond
The truth is the truth plays only a small part in this story. Whether or not Sa'ar is guilty of illicit and/or illegal behavior is for the legal system to decide, if it chooses to pursue the matter. In the court of public opinion, those who have heard the details have already condemned him.
We are, after all, a people lacking in faith, and with good reason. Just think of what we've been through in the last decade: Moshe Katsav, the former president of the state of Israel, is serving time in prison for rape and sexual harassment; Yitzhak Mordechai, the former defense minister and transportation minister was convicted of sexual misconduct toward female subordinates; Haim Ramon, the former Interior Minister, was convicted of indecent assault for kissing a 20-year-old Israel Defense Forces soldiers against her will, and Natan Eshel, Netanyahu's former chief of staff, was accused of "upskirting," or snapping inappropriate photos of, a female employee and pled guilty to inappropriate behavior. And there are others.
Sa'ar certainly can't claim complete innocence when it comes to the change in his public image. Ever since he separated from his wife of 22 years, the recent divorcee and self-described "late bloomer" when it comes to the opposite sex has been out on the town, partying – and partying hard. Whether DJing at the posh Tel Aviv bars Hagilda and Taxidermy, going to rock concerts with his new celebrity romance, the mesmerizing Channel 1 television news anchor Geula Even, or meeting with his old friend and political foe Shelly Yachimovich, Sa'ar's behavior has been out of whack by his own standards.
From day one, Sa'ar's political career has been characterized by a cautious balance between "Tel-Aviv-ness" and "Israeli-ness": meaning, between the easygoing, progressive lifestyle that made him such a media darling and his uber-nationalistic, conservative views, so popular among periphery Likud voters who love the man but despise the liberal lifestyle. Over the years, Sa'ar managed to form a single, unique political image: the progressive conservative, the lawyer-journalist, the cool nerd. You could call him 'DJ Goody Two-Shoes.' He might even like it.
This duality between Tel Aviv and Israel, cool and uncool, conservative and liberal, has accompanied Sa'ar throughout his life. He was born in Tel Aviv in 1966 as Gideon Moshe Serchanski, the son of a teacher and a pediatrician who immigrated to Israel from Argentina. When he was an infant, his family moved to Sde Boker in the Negev, a kibbutz best known as the retirement home of David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister. Sa'ar, his parents and his two brothers lived on the kibbutz, where his father worked as the local doctor, until Sa'ar was 9, when they moved back to Tel Aviv. In Israel, it would be hard to find two places more different than the affluent, modern Tel Aviv and the rugged, remote Sde Boker. Sa'ar came to know both worlds intimately in the formative years of his life.
Perhaps as a result, he never quite fit in with the liberal crowd. The differences between him and his peers started to become apparent at the liberal Hadash high school – the first school in Israel to allow students to call teachers by their first names and not to wear uniforms. While most of his peers fit the mold of the school's famous left-wing alumni who went on to influence politics and culture, like musician Daniel Barenboim and former Labor Party MK Yael Dayan, the young Sa'ar believed in the ultra-right-wing notion of Greater Israel and supported the burgeoning settlements wholeheartedly.
Ironically, the countercultural 1960s bands he loved, like Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, were an appropriate soundtrack to his life as a right-wing rebel in a left-wing world.
During this time, he took his first step into politics, becoming the national youth coordinator for the now-defunct right-wing party Tehiya. He was prone to instigating political arguments.
A Sa'ar is born
When it was time to join the army, Sa'ar chose the highly regarded Golani infantry brigade. After he completed his mandatory service, he studied political science at Tel Aviv University. He met his ex-wife, Shelly, then a Likud activist, in his early twenties, during a right-wing rally in Tel Aviv. The two were married not long after, when Sa'ar was 24.
Shortly before the marriage, he changed his surname from Serchanski to Sa'ar.
During this time, he started working as a journalist for, of all places, Haolam Hazeh, the radical and now defunct newspaper owned and edited by the cantankerous leftist, Uri Avnery.
Avnery, the founder of the Gush Shalom peace movement, knew where Sa'ar's loyalties lay but hired him anyway, eventually giving him his own column dedicated to behind-the-scenes politics. Sa'ar, who in the meantime completed his undergraduate law degree and became a certified lawyer, went on to become the political reporter for the now defunct newspaper Hadashot – another leftist outlet best-known for uncovering the Bus 300 Affair, where members of the Shin Bet killed two captive Palestinian terrorists – and then the court reporter for the fledgling Channel 2 television station, before officially entering politics. By that time, he had a lot of friends in the press.
In 1995, Sa'ar was hired as an assistant to the attorney general. In 1999, he served as cabinet secretary in Netanyahu's first government, a role he filled for only half a year before Netanyahu lost the election to Ehud Barak. He was appointed cabinet secretary again when Ariel Sharon took the throne in 2001. In 2006, Sa'ar won the fifth spot on Likud's party list and quietly became one of its strongest members.
He was also made the chair of the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women, the first man ever to hold this position, and proposed fairly progressive bills against employers who fire pregnant women, wife beaters and animal testing.
It was then that Sa'ar first gained real media attention. The press was all over the young conservative Likud MK with the perfect family – a successful wife and two daughters – who lived the perfect Tel Avivian life: DJing in his spare time, walking his dog in flip flops to grab sandwiches on trendy Shenkin Street and proclaiming his lifelong fandom of Israeli rock icon Rami Fortis. His nightlife was a tamer version of what is on display today, although he was known – even as the education minister – to occasionally DJ student parties. Sa'ar, of course, carefully cultivated his image. He was a squeaky-clean conservative with liberal tendencies and progressive friends, a mix between Richie Cunningham from "Happy Days" and British Prime Minister David Cameron, with a dash of Ben Stein thrown in.
A controversial reformer
In 2008, he won the second spot on the party list in the Likud primaries, the first spot belonging to Netanyahu as chairman of the party. When Netanyahu's second government came together, Sa'ar was appointed education minister.
He tried to pursue education reforms, but some of his plans to increase Jewish heritage studies and encourage IDF service created controversy. His "adopt a grave" initiative, requiring high school students to "adopt" – or visit and maintain – memorials and graves of soldiers from Israel's War of Independence, was criticized as macabre and morbid. And his proposal to take Israeli students to visit Hebron prompted his former boss and editor Avnery to say, "Instead of Minister of Education, Gideon Sa'ar has become a Minister of Propaganda."
But Sa'ar remained popular. On the surface at least, he seemed to be succeeding. In a major international reading test in 2011, Israeli students scored 7th, compared to 24th in 2007. The accuracy of Israel's testing methods has since come into question (why, skeptics asked, were Arab and ultra-Orthodox Jews – 25% of Israeli students –not included in the results?).
But the common view was that Sa'ar was a good education minister and, more importantly, a properly conservative one. In the recent Likud primaries, he again won second place, behind only Netanyahu.
But that's when it all went awry.
Unbeknownst to the public and for reasons that are still unclear, Sa'ar's wife left him. Sa'ar's many friends in media helped him hide the news for a while and then bury it deep in the backs of the newspapers. It was then that the rumors about Sa'ar nighttime indulgences started to appear. Not long after that, he and Even came out as lovers.
First, there was the utter shock: Even, usually identified with the left, is seen as an opinionated journalist and news anchor, more likely to confront Sa'ar on the air than between the sheets. Then there was the unease of mixing something as demure and conservative as the Education Ministry with the glossy covers of celebrity gossip magazines promising steamy photographs and stories.
Imagine Arne Duncan, President Barack Obama's Secretary of Education, suddenly dating Jennifer Lawrence or Soledad O'Brien. Weird, right? The fresh-faced couple was spotted smooching in rock concerts and bars, walking hand in hand on the street and generally having a ball all over town. Then the mysterious M.C sent the letter and the fun was over.
It's hard to say how the incipient scandal will figure in Sa'ar's career. It might kill it or it turn out to be an insignificant, unmemorable blip in the rise of a successful leader. It still feels like this shouldn't be happening to him. "Sa'ar has been uber-calculating as a politician and unbelievably careful about everything else in his career, so how could he conceivably be so careless about his sex life?" say the skeptics. But the critics are asking why, if the letter is indeed a forgery meant to derail his political career, isn’t Sa'ar going straight to the police? They point out Moshe Katsav started as a victim, filing a complaint against a former subordinate who he claimed was harassing him before becoming a suspect himself.
No one really knows what's true and what's not at this point. It's the job of law enforcement and, assuming it's up to the task, the media, to find out. In the meantime, we, the people of Israel, should hope the whole thing is just an unfounded attempt to derail a successful politician. Because, God helps us, we can't take another government sex offender.