Yossi Sarid Was a Leftist Back When Values Meant Something

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Former left-wing leader Yossi Sarid (1940-2015).
Yossi Sarid (1940-2015). He believed in politics as a tool for advancing values, not in values as a tool for political advancement. Credit: Alon Ron

Friday marks five years since Yossi Sarid – the former cabinet member, opposition leader and Haaretz columnist – left us. The anniversary of his death will be swallowed up amid the tumult of Israeli politics, with its periodic threats of an early election and serial hurling of accusations.

Amid all this racket, it’s easy to skip over the memory of dead leftists. Still, we should devote a few minutes to Sarid, as we stand on the precipice of another election campaign and as the accompanying noise becomes nearly intolerable.

After all, it’s very easy to forget – not Sarid, but the type of politics he represented and that we seem to have lost. It’s easy to get used to things, to wallow in the ugliness as if everything was always this way. Sarid proves the opposite, which is just one reason it’s so important that he’s remembered.

I remember the first time he came into the Ratz party’s offices in 1984, with a broken leg in a cast, and told me he needed “just a small desk, that’s all.” This was the erstwhile star of the Labor Party whom Shimon Peres marked as a future chairman, meaning a chance to run for prime minister. Sarid left this promising career when the Alignment joined the unity government with Likud and the ultra-Orthodox parties, and he went into the opposition.

Sarid believed in politics as a tool for advancing values, not in values as a tool for political advancement. It’s just five years since his death and the anecdote I mentioned already seems like an ancient legend.

Since 1984, Labor went pleading and knocking on the worst doors in one government after another. A party that was once a leviathan became a beached, dying whale and today falls short of the level of plankton as its chairman, Amir Peretz, muses aloud that “maybe it was a political mistake to enter a government with Netanyahu.”

He has yet to decide. The only thing he has decided is that the mistake, if there was one, was only political and certainly had nothing to do with values. No one even bothered to get mad. There’s no point getting mad at someone you have zero expectations of.

Nor does anyone have any expectations of Peretz’s former partner, Orli Levi-Abekasis. There were years when she fought for the people who were trampled by the government’s economic policy. Now she’s comfortably ensconced in a government whose refusal to pass a budget is paralyzing the country at the height of an economic crisis and dooming hundreds of thousands of Israelis to poverty.

And then there’s Benny Gantz, who sold out his voters in return for the title of alternate prime minister and now claims that Benjamin Netanyahu lied to us, not to him. He’s kind of right, though. He may be the one who bought Netanyahu’s lie, but the contract Netanyahu violated wasn’t the one with him, but the one made with the public Gantz represented, whose votes ushered him into the Knesset. We’ve gotten so used to this that certain commentators are even applauding him.

I miss Sarid. I miss his razor-sharp Hebrew. He was a verbal virtuoso and Hebrew gracefully adapted to all his demands. I miss his vast knowledge, his mastery of detail. How could Gantz – who recently explained that “illegal outposts are illegal, period,” except for the ones he intends to authorize, period – ever compare?

I even miss our quarrels, which were always passionate, scathing and precise, like the man himself. I miss him as a friend and colleague, and also as a politician – not as a leftist, but as an elected official who felt the weight of his duty to the public in every decision he made.

I suspect that some of my friends on the right miss him, too. There, too, they remember the feeling of expecting something from your elected officials and – occasionally – receiving in return elected officials who also expect something from themselves.

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