Shelly Yachimovich Started Protesting at Early Age

New Labor Party Leader Has Activist's Edge and Common Touch

By Nathan Jeffay

Published October 03, 2011, issue of October 07, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

At 15, Shelly Yachimovich was expelled from school for hanging up posters denouncing the principal’s style of leadership. As the newly elected head of Israel’s Labor Party, it’s now her leadership style that is under scrutiny — and she’s up against far more than posters.

Shelly Yachimovich
Getty Images
Shelly Yachimovich

Her campaign for the party primary September 21 was marred by a string of attacks in the national media about her personality, which most memorably saw Haaretz’s economic affairs correspondent, Nehemia Shtrasler, declare that “good interpersonal relations, teamwork and telling the truth are basic requirements for political leadership, and she simply doesn’t meet any of them.”

Yachimovich, 51, was propelled to her position by thousands of Labor’s younger members who, buoyed by the summer-long cost-of-living protests, see her as the politician who can bring social change to Israel. With Labor holding just eight of the Knesset’s 120 seats, they are confident that she can revive the party from this all-time low. Older members, for their part, tended to support her opponent, Amir Peretz, former defense minister and former trade union leader.

Yet while her political creed is well known — namely, social democracy, bolstering the welfare state, and dovish foreign policy — confusion surrounds what kind of person she is and, by extension, what kind of leader she will prove to be.

“It’s almost dumbfounding how you keep reading that she’s obnoxious and no one likes her, while on the other hand there are so many people supporting her, and she has managed to work across the Knesset to pass 36 laws,” said Ono Academic College researcher Amir Paz-Fuchs, an expert on Israel’s social activists.

Yachimovich’s rise was meteoric in a party where every leader to date has a background in the military or trade unions. She has neither. And she is certainly a change from her predecessor, Ehud Barak, who left the party in January. He is known for having an extravagant lifestyle, exemplified by the $2.5 million apartment he owns in north Tel Aviv, while she is said to live in a modest apartment in the southern — more working-class — side of the city, often traveling by bicycle and enjoying such simple pleasures as running. Indeed, she made her name in the media by criticizing the business elite to which Barak was close.

When Yachimovich joined Labor in 2005 so that she could stand for the Knesset in the 2006 election — ironically recruited by her rival in the primary, Peretz — she was one of Israel’s best-known media personalities.

She was famous for her reporting and presenting on Kol Israel radio, Channel 2 television and other outlets. On occasion her broadcasts set the national agenda: In the late 1990s she reported on the situation in Southern Lebanon and strongly advocated for an end to Israel’s occupation there, spurring, many believe, the withdrawal in 2000. Yachimovich’s website states proudly that she “promoted topics she regarded as important, without portraying a facade of objectivity.”

Her critics believe that despite her move to party politics, she is still the broadcaster — setting out her ideas for others to consume, but lacking the ability to dialogue that is necessary for leadership. “She knows how to talk alone to her audience, but not to have a discourse,” said Moshe Karif, lecturer in communications at Bar-Ilan University.

It is Karif who sparked the debate about Yachimovich’s personality a year and a half ago, writing an article in Maariv titled, “The Princess and the Pea.” A veteran left-wing activist, he organized a conference in the city of Yokneam to address social issues. Yachimovich was slated to speak, but she canceled the day before, after learning that she was to share the stage with Kadima lawmaker Shlomo Molla, Yokneam Mayor Simon Alfasi and an educator. “It suddenly became clear that honors and control of the stage were the focus of her interest,” Karif wrote.

Discussing Yachimovich’s elevation to party leader, Karif told the Forward, “I think she has a lot of problems in her attitudes to people.”

Last January, Shtrasler, her colleague at Channel 2, went public with his opinions on Yachimovich. Referencing Karif’s article, he declared that “the princess has grown up and become a queen.” He had attended a discussion at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya about executive salaries, at which Yachimovich refused to give her talk until the event’s other five speakers left the stage. “Where does this haughtiness, this arrogance, this chutzpah come from?” Shtrasler asked. Yachimovich wrote a response in Haaretz accusing him of publishing “baseless gossip” and “inventing a story that never happened.” Shtrasler wrote a second column, even more biting, standing by his version of events

In contrast to Shtrasler’s assessment, associates and other former colleagues say that Yachimovich is assertive, but only as much as one would expect of any politician. They also say that she manages relationships well. “They try to picture her in the newspaper as arrogant, but she’s not,” said one of her closest friends, Yuval Elbasen, who works in the not-for-profit sector.

Elbasen said that Yachimovich is “a good listener” and gracious hostess whose Tel Aviv home is often full of friends and acquaintances. “She is the Polish mother,” he said, using the Israeli term for the stereotypical Jewish mother and speaking of her dedication to her daughter, Rama, and son, Gil, who are in high school and the army, respectively. Even relations with her ex-husband, Noam Ziv, are pleasant — so much so that her forthcoming book, “Us,” is dedicated to him.

Eran Golan, an attorney for Worker’s Hotline, a not-for-profit that defends employees’ rights, has dealt with her professionally for five years and found her “warm, caring and not snobbish or rude.”

He admits that she can be abrasive on occasion — but this is with justification and “always with people with power.” With the general public she is down to earth and helpful. For example, she brought him a pay slip from the security guard at her daughter’s school to make sure the guard wasn’t paying too much in taxes. While she has strong opinions, she knows how to judge situations and “make the right compromises,” Golan said.

In August she attracted widespread criticism on the left for telling a Haaretz interviewer that in its early days, settlement building was “a completely consensual move.” She said that she does not view it “as a sin and a crime” and thinks the suggestion that ending funding for settlements would mean more money for education has “no connection to reality.”

Shortly before the interview, Elbasen advised her to steer clear of these subjects and stick to the socioeconomic sphere in which she built her reputation. He recalls telling her, “You’ll commit suicide if you do it.” He said: “She thought about it, and the next day said: ‘It’s not okay, because I don’t want anyone to say I wasn’t honest. I would rather lose the [leadership] elections than not say something that is true.”

In a similar vein, Shalom Kital, the man who discovered her as a broadcasting talent, says that she has a “very honest, no bullshit” approach to everything. He cites the fact that she refused, after the 2009 election, to follow Barak into the right-wing coalition, despite the lure of an industry and commerce Cabinet portfolio — “a dream for her.”

Kital met her 25 years ago, when she was a behavioral science student at Ben-Gurion University and A writer for the newspaper Al HaMishmar and he was head of news at the Kol Israel radio station. “I was impressed from the first minute at this intelligent lady, with her firm advocacy for the welfare state and feminism,” he recalled. Kital gave her a job at Kol Israel, where she made her name as the presenter of the popular show “It’s All Talk,” and in 2000 she followed him to Channel 2.

In contrast to the portrayal as “princess” or “queen,” Kital insists that there are no airs or graces with Yachimovich “She’s very informal,” he said.

To some of Yachimovich’s friends, the criticism of her personality is explained in one word: “chauvinism.” Elbasen said: “For chauvinist people, with a strong woman it’s easiest to present them as the devil. Things they say about her they would never say about a man.”

And this theory isn’t limited to Yachimovich’s circles. Rina Bar-Tal, chair of the Israel Women’s Network, said that her confidence “has rubbed some people the wrong way because it doesn’t fit or fall into the model of female behavior they expect.”

Galia Golan, political scientist at the Interdisciplinary Center, agreed, saying: “There’s a tendency with women politicians to say they’re strident or stubborn. It’s something that you don’t hear with regard to men, but I?? heard it related to [former Meretz politician] Shulamit Aloni, [late Labor leader and prime minister] Golda Meir and with Yachimovich.”

Speaking to the Forward, Shtrasler rejected this analysis as “ridiculous.” He said, “Everyone who knows me knows that I criticize everybody.”

Contact Nathan Jeffay at jeffay@forward.com


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.