Snapshot from the Netanyahu family album: Maid in Caesaria
Last week Israel's first lady arrived at court to testify in the lawsuit brought by her former housekeeper.
Sara Netanyahu, the prime minister’s wife, is smiling toothily as she strides to the courtroom for a hearing about the lawsuit brought by her former maid and cleaner, Lillian Peretz. At the back, a young woman is looking at Netanyahu. With arms crossed and mouth shut, she looks like a schoolgirl during class as she wears body-hugging jeans, flip-flops and a jersey. The total cost of her attire probably doesn’t come to that of the cuff links on Netanyahu’s jacket.
Netanyahu, for her part, appears to be caught up in a live TV appearance: excellently made-up, her lashes very long, her cheeks bright and puffed. She wears solid white-cream-beige colors, and sports two gold chains around her neck. Here hang family ties in the form of two silhouettes of boys, in gold, and a wedding ring. She is positively shining and glittering with cleanliness. The young woman in red, the citizen for whom this trial is a waste of the judges’ time, looks faded. This is Netanyahu’s time to look her best, to be calm. (Ironically, Peretz wore a black dress showing cleavage, as though playing into the hands of the woman who chose attire that projects purity.)
“We weren’t the strong, controlling people in the house,” Netanyahu said about Peretz’s status as a cleaning woman in their Caesarea residence, inadvertently revealing a major farce. It turns out that Peretz was not submissive or quiescent, and that from her point of view Netanyahu did her no favors by paying her a monthly salary of NIS 2,000 at the beginning of 2004 without keeping an orderly work log.
Moreover, Peretz called her kapara − a slang term of endearment, told Netanyahu about her troubles, and reveled in their friendship. Netanyahu, who it emerges was only pretending to be friends with Peretz, noted that she had tried to avoid the maid’s company, and added a fairly personal detail about Peretz’s husband to reinforce her claim that she did not want the intimacy.
“A cruel, targeted assassination, the likes of which have never been seen before” − that is the party line coming from the Netanyahus’ lawyers in relation to Peretz. They have no mercy for Peretz or the Hebrew language. They are not advocates of “keeping things in proportion,” as they claim. Their cliches are hollow.
Sara Netanyahu’s suffering could have been avoided if she had paid Peretz on time. Peretz worked for Sara Netanyahu for six years before filing suit for NIS 374,000, for alleged unpaid wages and severance pay. Peretz also claims that she was not paid national insurance or transportation costs. Earlier this year Netanyahu counterattacked with a libel suit of almost twice that amount. What about Peretz’s suffering?
It is possible, as another witness testified, that Peretz hoped to become a tenured employee in the Prime Minister’s Office and receive a government pension. Is that a groundless hope?
Is it unacceptable?
Netanyahu is depicting Peretz as a folksy version of Mrs. Danvers, the darkly dominant housekeeper in Alfred Hitchcock’s version of Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca.” But even if Peretz is hooked on the adrenaline that this suit provides, and even if she stuck it out for six years because she gained emotional and social dividends from being a friend of “Sara kapara,” Netanyahu bears a public responsibility to respect workers’ rights. She has no mandate for revenge in the form of a huge lawsuit. She needs to retract her libel suit and stop portraying herself, and her husband, as victims (even if in the current version they are being presented as affable and generous patsies who clean up before the maid arrives).
Netanyahu is not doing a favor to the person who cleans her house. And the cleaner is not doing her a favor or supposed to be nourished by her attentiveness. It’s time to replace the Israeli discourse about labor relations in the home, too, and certainly in Netanyahu’s home: from a discourse of “favors,” “generosity” and “gifts to the maid,” to a discourse of rights. Was Netanyahu sociable to another cleaning woman in the Caesarea house, who also sued for her rights, and whom she paid NIS 20,000 in an out-of-court settlement in February 2010? We do not know what their relations were. What we do know is that Sara Netanyahu did not pay on time and reached a settlement.
Taken in the Haifa District Labor Court on July 15, the occasion for this photograph, however flattering to Netanyahu’s glowing face, should never have arisen. As the woman in red probably knows, when you enter the courtroom, control truly passes into the hands of others.