Yossi Sarid, Former Knesset Member and Minister, Dies at 75

'I made a name for myself as someone who is determined to swim against the stream if it's dirty,' Sarid said in 2014.

The poet and politician Yossi Sarid in 2010.
Gali Eitan

Yossi Sarid, a former minister, Knesset member, Meretz chairman and a Haaretz columnist, died of a heart attack on Friday. He was 75.

Sarid served as an MK from 1974 to 2006, first on behalf of the Labor Alignment and later on behalf of Meretz. He served as environmental protection and education minister in the governments of Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak. 

Last year, in a conversation with Haaretz readers, Sarid was asked about what he considered his greatest achievement. "It's not up to me to list, like a grocer, my achievements in the government and the Knesset," he replied. "Others will testify to [my triumphs] at my funeral, if they want. I am grateful in my heart that even when I had to compromise, my compromises weren't too rotten. All in all, I tried to keep my hands and conscious clean, and sometimes I even managed [to do so]. And after 35 years of public life, this too is an accomplishment."

Sarid was born in Rehovot in 1940. His father, Yaakov Sarid (born Sznajder) served as director general of the Education Ministry. His mother, Doba Sarid was a teacher. After completing his military service and before entering politics, Sarid was a reporter for Israel Radio and the Davar newspaper.  

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin eulogized Sarid, saying he was "one of the State of Israel's greatest parliamentarians and politicians. Sarid was a tough rival, challenging and true to his opinions. Even when his criticism was sharp and harsh, his rivals always treated him with great seriousness, even while completely differing with his words."

"Yossi Sarid was a total person, who loved in a total way and that was the way he argued, as well. Ideologically, Sarid didn't let anyone off, not even himself. 

"We, Israelis of all walks of life, have lived to benefit from his diverse activity for the state, as an education minister who showed the way, as a Member of Knesset from the people and for it, and as a special person whose clear, sharp and incisive voice will be greatly missed."

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu eulogized Sarid, saying that "Yossi Sarid was a unique voice in Israeli politics, an opinionated and sharp person. Even though we disagreed on many issues, I appreciated his loyalty to his way, his broad education and the meticulous Hebrew of his words and writings.

"He will also be remembered for being a prominent parliamentarian, a veteran member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and an education minister who sought to advance the education system in Israel," added the prime minister.  

Opposition Leader Isaac Herzog said Friday that "Yossi Sarid was an important leader of the Israeli peace camp."

"A leader, whose clear and sharp voice always expressed obstinately and fiercely, with a brave unwavering truth, which he believed with all his heart. This loud and unique voice is what brought Meretz to unforgettable achievements, and made him an education minister who left a lasting mark on the educational system and the nation as a whole. His beliefs, his writing and actions will remain a glorious legacy, which will accompany us for many years to come."

In 2014, Sarid told a Tel Aviv University student magazine that he took pride in his determination. "I was involved in legislating dozens of laws, perhaps hundreds. But my glory didn't lie in legislative work, if there is any glory in it. The Israeli law books are full of laws that aren't enforced anyway," he said. "I made a name for myself in my different positions as someone who is determined to go against the wind when it's bad, to swim against the stream if it's dirty, and is prepared to pay the price for his determination." 

In an interview with Haaretz in 2010, Sarid said that both he and his mother wanted him to become an author and a poet. "Many things have disrupted these plans," he said.

Once he completed his military service, he told his mother he intended to be a presenter for Israel Radio. "She asked me, 'Do they know?' and I said, 'no, but they will,'" he recalled in the same interview. He soon became an anchor, a reporter and editor at the radio station. 

He began paving his way into politics in the early 1960s. When he was 24, he was tapped to be the spokesman for the Mapai party, the forerunner of Labor. At the same time, he worked as a speechwriter and diplomatic adviser to Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and as an aide to Finance Minister Pinhas Sapir.

"I can't describe the significance of being the spokesman for Mapai," he stated. "I said, 'wait, you mean I will speak for all the greats – Ben Gurion and Golda and Sapir and Galili and Yigal Alon and Dayan?'"

In 1974 he was elected for the Knesset for the first time on behalf the Labor Alignment. In 1984, he quit the party and joined the Citizen's Rights Movement, which later became Meretz. In 1992 he was elected to the Knesset on behalf the party, and was appointed environmental protection minister under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.  In 1996, he replaced Shulamit Aloni as leader of Meretz, a position in which he remained until 2003. 

In 1999, he was appointed as education minister under Prime Minister Ehud Barak, but withdrew from the coalition a year later following a dispute with his deputy, Meshulam Nahari of Shas. In 2001, after Ariel Sharon became prime minister, Sarid served as opposition leader. He resigned as Meretz leader after the 2003 election, when the party managed to win only six Knesset seats.

Yossi Sarid.
Rafi Kotz

In retrospect, he regretted his last term in the Knesset, which ended in 2006. "It was wasted," he said. "I should have resigned four years earlier. I was very miserable, I felt entirely foreign there."

After that, he dedicated his time to writing books, poetry and opinion pieces and presenting a weekly radio show on Army Radio. His first book was published in 1961 and his last in 2010. His writing was full of quotes from ancient Jewish sources and employed a highly literate style. Sarid said that he read the Bible on a daily basis, but did not believe in God in the religious sense.

"I believe in something that maybe can be defined as the God in one's heart, in the heart of every human being, but not in a God who sits on high looking down on us and taking care of us and whom we bother with things trivial and weighty so that he will be good to us and arrange things for us here,"Sarid said. "I have more than enough disappointment over such a God."

Sarid's last op-ed was published in Haaretz on Friday, in which he criticized the treatment Israel gives Jewish terrorists, who receive light sentences, pardons, and even lavish burials, as in the case of Baruch Goldstein. He opened his column saying "Your Jewish terrorists come first. Their homes will not be demolished, their families will not bear the blame, because your God visits the sins of the fathers on the sons and on the third and fourth generation only if they hate him; whereas your God has mercy (from ancient texts and “Torat Hamelech”) on those thousands who love him and keep his commandments. But I want you to know that this is not my God."

Speaking with Haaretz readers last year, Sarid commented pessimistically on the state Israel is in. "Two main things keep me awake at night: the occupation of the West Bank and inequality in society, because both threaten the existence [of the state] and not just its quality. If they both continue and become more acute, it is questionable whether the future of the state is assured," he said.

"I don't have a great deal of optimism to offer my fellow man. I'm sorry about that, but I don't want to lie to myself or to you, and based on the experience I've accumulated, I have come to the conclusion, which is both despairing and encouraging: It isn't the politicians who bring about change, and mainly – it isn't them that make the critical national decision. The decisions are made for us by reality, and politicians stagger after it and pretend they are making decisions," he added.

"That is why the occupation will end sooner or later, because life's realities will decide for us. The only problem is that the reality of life here is sometime the reality of death, and a bad reality sometime has a stronger effect than a good reality," he said. "If the current situation remains, and if the internal will to change course and fundamentally change our values is not found, then Israel will become an atrophied social and political entity," he summed up.

During the last few years, Sarid suffered from a verity of ailments. These included a tumor that was removed from his head. "I'm a former politician. A champion of "formers." In this field no one can compete with me. Sometime I wonder if I'm not a "former-Yossi-Sarid," he said this year.

"I will die in the wrong battle," he wrote in a poem he penned. Last year, when he was 74, he told Tom Segev in an interview "I'm amazed each time anew that I've lived to this age. This wasn't in my plans. With my past ailments, I was sure my days were numbered. But I've lived to a ripe old age."

Sarid is survived by his wife Dorit, the daughter of the well-known pediatrician Prof. Ben Zion Werbin, three children, among them the author Yishai Sarid, and grandchildren.

The funeral will be held on Sunday at 3 P.M. at Kibbutz Givat Hashlosha.