Yossi Sarid: The Man Who Showed Israel in Its True Light

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Yossi Sarid with fellow Ratz MK Shulamit Aloni on Election Day, 1998.
Yossi Sarid with fellow Ratz MK Shulamit Aloni on Election Day, 1988. Credit: Vered Parr / IPPA

Yossi Sarid, who died Friday, hated honey-drenched eulogies. The idea that only good can be spoken of the dead was as foreign to him as all other forms of flattery. He once said that whenever he wrote or said something in praise of someone, he lived to regret it – “so I decided to write only bad of people. That way, I’m never disappointed or sorry.”

He gave this principle weekly expression in his op-eds for Haaretz over the last decade. In his biblical Hebrew, he mourned the illnesses of the country he loved – its spreading corruption, rising violence, overpowering racism and deteriorating politics, virtually stripped of the towering figures that surrounded him in the early Knessets. He mocked the leaders and those who presumed to become leaders. He exposed their nakedness. Had he received a dollar for every mask he tore off, he’d have been a millionaire.

He was very bitter – and didn’t try to hide it. He was bitter over the country’s wrong turns. He was also bitter that he never managed to make full use of his political talents. Perhaps he mourned missed opportunities, like his brief period as education minister, abruptly curtailed for political reasons.

National and personal sorrows often intertwined. His last years in politics weren’t good ones. The Meretz party he headed suffered repeated blows at the polls and became irrelevant. His table in the Knesset cafeteria, once bustling with journalists and young MKs who lapped up his stories and reveled in his wit, gradually emptied. He would sit alone, rarely making eye contact with those around him. Until he finally understood, and quit. Later, he admitted with characteristic honesty that he delayed his retirement too long, and those years of repression made him even more irritable.

Sarid was one of Israel’s greatest parliamentarians. Many laws bear his signature. But as he himself said, this wasn’t his crowning achievement: there are many laws, but few create real change. His true contribution to Israeli public life was norms, principles and standards, and the cruel mirror he held up to the public and his colleagues, which he viewed as a mission.

This was rooted in three character traits: exceptional courage, personal honesty and uncompromising integrity. He was the only one who recognized what a disaster the 1982 Lebanon War was from its very first day. His immediate, harsh criticism of the war’s stewards – then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon and then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin – made him an enemy of the people. The intensity of the hatred flung at him could have melted steel. But he was undeterred and refused to remain silent. And it didn’t take many weeks before most of the public switched to his side.

The same was true on the diplomatic front. His consistent support for ending the occupation and returning the territories was initially often viewed as treason. But Sarid was there from his first day in politics. It’s a miracle he reached 75 without being assassinated.

He was proud of polls from the 1980s that showed him as Israel’s most hated politician without compare. When Shimon Peres overtook him, he was disappointed. But perhaps this was only pretense because, ultimately, everyone wants to be loved.

If one had to choose a seminal moment in Sarid’s political career, it was his departure from the Labor Party after the 1984 election, when it formed a unity government with Likud. Sarid wasn’t willing to accept this. He was then 44, a political meteor who was widely considered a shoo-in to someday lead his party and become prime minister. But he unhesitatingly left his political home and wandered in the desert, to a tiny left-wing party called Citizens’ Rights Movement (Ratz), which later became Meretz.

He knew he was sealing his political fate and that, having pulled over onto the shoulder, he would never be able to get back on the highway and reach the summit. But his honesty, morality and integrity wouldn’t allow him to do otherwise.

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