Israel's Only Female Cabinet Secretary Dies at 93

Few attend the funeral for Yael Uzai, who served with Ben-Gurion and Eshkol in the 1960s.

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Just a handful of people showed up to the funeral this week for Yael Uzai, the only woman in Israel's history to serve as cabinet secretary.

David Ben-Gurion and Levi Eshkol, the two prime ministers she served with from 1962 to 1968, have long since passed away. So have many of the cabinet members she worked alongside those 50 years ago.

And at age 93, without children, Uzai died this week in Jerusalem alone.

“Her husband, Michael, died a few years ago," says Bahira Meshulam, former deputy cabinet secretary, who worked with Uzai in the late 1960s. "They had a very small family, some of whom lived abroad."

"It was very sad to see how few people came to the funeral," says Meshulam. "Fortunately the burial society was there to make up a prayer quorum.”

Uzai, born Kayla Nubikov in Russia in 1920, immigrated with her family to Palestine at age 5. She grew up in Tel Aviv and graduated from Gymnasia Herzliya High School. In 1938 she began working as a secretary in the office of the Jewish Mandatory police force.

Uzai moved to Jerusalem in 1940 with her husband Michael, who worked for the post office and later for the Tourism Ministry. She studied law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in the 1950s and made a career as a lawyer.

Uzai took a job with the security division of the Jewish Agency's political wing, and eventually became secretary to Moshe Sharett, then head of the security division.

Sharett is the one who persuaded Uzai to change her name, apparently having "frowned when he heard her non-Hebrew name,” according to a 1963 article in the newspaper Davar.

“I was introduced to the head of the department, Moshe Sharett, who looked at me and said, ‘Your name is Kayla? I won’t work with a secretary with a non-Hebrew name,'" Uzai told Maariv in 1962.

"He suggested the name Yael. He said he picked the name for three reasons: One, it suited me; two, he liked the name; and three, it was his daughter’s name.”

Uzai was named deputy cabinet secretary under Ze'ev Sherf, the first cabinet secretary. When Sherf retired, she served as acting cabinet secretary until the next secretary, Katriel Katz, was appointed.

In 1962, when Katz retired, Uzai was named cabinet secretary. She held the post until 1968.

“I remember how pedantic she was," recalls Meshulam. "She did everything so precisely, which required a lot of strength – everything so as not to disappoint her superiors. The work was very important to her.”

Prof. Meron Medzini, Golda Meir’s biographer and son of the Haaretz journalist Moshe Medzini, says Uzai was "devoted, loyal and, especially, she could keep a secret."

"But she had a problem," Medzini says. "The ministers, including the prime minister, were leaking things. That would drive her crazy.”

Medzini, who worked with Uzai when he was head of the Government Press Office in Jerusalem during the Six-Day War, recalls: "At every cabinet meeting she and I would face journalists and read them a statement about what was discussed. It was very general and bland. She would not reveal any secrets about what the ministers said. But she knew the reporters would accept it.”

Knowing the reporters had inside sources, Uzai never lied, Medzini explains. “She would say, ‘I don’t know,’ or ‘No comment,’ but she didn’t lie. She was a very good and fair woman.”

In 1963, an article in Maariv described Uzai as “calm, loyal and welcoming, a person whose office you could go into and pour your heart out to and feel like you were speaking to a friend.”

She was “notorious for her discretion and her modesty,” the article said.

In addition to her post as cabinet secretary, Uzai served as secretary of the Ministerial Committee on Security and as cabinet spokesperson.

The women's monthly Dvar Hapoelet wrote in 1968 that, “Despite all the pressure, we met Yael Uzai in her office quiet and balanced, wearing a sporty outfit in neutral colors, her face alert and her eyes honest and trusting.”

In the 1962 Maariv article, one of the few interviews Uzai gave during her public service career, she told journalist Efrat Arad that she believed the cabinet secretary post was "more suitable for a man."

"A woman can’t only devote herself to her work – she always has to remember her home, her husband and family,” she said.

When she retired from government work, Uzai volunteered, among other places, with a women’s academic association and with the elderly and the disabled. She was one of the founding members of the political party Shinui.

Meshulam, who had visited Uzai in the assisted living facility where she lived after retirement, said Uzai “had lots of albums and stories, and she remembered everything in detail. She kept everything, including notes."

Yael Uzai with (left to right) Yisrael Galili, Levy Eshkol and Abba Eban, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem.Credit: Government Press Office



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