Fifteen years after the murder of her husband – and at the height of recent public protests against commemorating his legacy – Yael Ze’evi, the widow of former Israeli general and minister Rehavam Ze’evi, died Friday at the age of 88. She passed away in Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer, and her funeral took place Sunday at Kibbutz Degania.
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Yael Ze’evi was born in 1928 to Rahel and Lipa Sela, pioneers who came from Babruysk (which today is in Belarus). They were among the founders of Kibbutz Degania Bet in the Jordan Valley, next to Lake Kinneret. During the War of Independence, in which her brother Binyamin was killed, she enlisted in the Yiftah Brigade of the elite pre-state Palmach strike force.
In 1950 Yael and Rehavam were married. They lived at first in Jerusalem, and then moved to Degania Bet for a few years.
Rehavam Ze’evi, known as Gandhi, was a former Israel Defense Forces general who was murdered by Palestinian terrorists 15 years ago in Jerusalem. He was tourism minister at the time.
Last year, at the ceremony marking the 14th anniversary of his murder, his widow spoke about how she met him, as a young officer, “full of personal charm and fighting spirit, and with unrealistic ideas in his pack – for example, such as establishing a Jewish state.” Yael Ze'evi recalled that Gandhi told her he wanted as many children as King Rehavam (Rehoboam, in English) had in ancient Israel. When she asked how many children the king had, he said: “Eighty-eight: Sixty girls and 28 boys, though I’m willing to be flexible as to how many of each.”
“Yael came with me from position to position that I had in the IDF all over Israel, and was the classic ‘helpmate,’” he said years later.
His wife raised their four children almost alone, while he climbed the ranks during his military career. When he left the army, he told Yael, “now I will have more time, we can raise another series [of children]" – and their fifth child was born, she said.
Yael Ze'evi also supported her husband in his controversial political career after retiring from the IDF. He founded the right-wing Moledet party in 1988, and was elected to the Knesset on its behalf.
“Gandhi particularly liked to make the impractical practical. In public discourse, too, Gandhi expressed a different voice, and dared to aspire to the most daring of goals,” his widow said about his proposal to transfer Arabs from the West Bank to Arab countries.
Such an idea, she added, “has solved in the past diplomatic disagreements in many places in the world. [It represents] a justified, moral and logical principle of ‘Jews of Arab lands to the Land of Israel, and Arabs of the Land of Israel to Arab lands.”
As to accusations that the transfer proposal was racist and delusional, she said: “Racism? That is so far from Gandhi, who loved every person for who he is. And delusional? Generally, Gandhi was pragmatic – a practical, realistic man second to none.” She also quoted him as saying: “To land a man on the moon is possible, and to separate populations is not?”
In 2001, it was Yael Ze'evi who found her husband lying bleeding after he had been shot in a Jerusalem hotel by four terrorists from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
“On the morning of my birthday, 15 years ago," she recalled, "I found the love of my life, the man I was married to for over 50 years, shot on the doorstep of the hotel room where we stayed."
In April of this year, a report by the Channel 2 investigative program “Uvda" ("Fact") revealed claims of sexual assaults and brutal intimidation tactics by Rehavam Ze’evi. Two women were quoted there as saying that Ze’evi had raped them. At least three additional women, including the veteran actress and broadcaster Rivka Michaeli, described being groped and almost raped by Ze’evi.
A number of individuals, including prominent journalists and army officers, came forward and recalled numerous incidents involving intimidation and "underworld" behavior by the murdered minister. These included putting a pistol to a reporter’s head, arranging for a bomb to be planted outside a journalist’s home and the shooting of two innocent Bedouin men, one of whom died.
In response, Yael Ze'evi said about these accusations, “these were sides [of him] that I never knew.” As to the claims by women that they were sexually attacked, she wrote in a letter to Ilana Dayan, the moderator of "Fact": “Sexual harassment and attacking women are terrible things. From the lofty height of my age, I now observe with amazement and excitement the enormous progress and increase in awareness that has occurred in this realm since I was young.”
But the program did not serve to protect women or focus properly on their struggle against sexual harassment, Ze'evi wrote: “'Fact' brings anonymous testimony about events that supposedly happened decades ago, and the man accused of them is no longer alive in order to tell what happened.”
“Your ‘investigation’ is a one-sided indictment. The pain and sorrow caused me and my family are our private matter that we are forced to deal with. The harm caused to public discourse and to the history of the State of Israel is already a public affair, and much more serious,” Ze’evi added.