Mama’s boy

A few months ago former cabinet minister Uzi Baram visited his 95-year-old mother Grazia in her nursing home in Givatayim. “It’s good you came. You haven’t been here for a long time,” she told her son, who had visited just two days before. Suddenly her expression changed. “Why am I so sad?” she asked him. “Maybe because you are alone for so many hours and you have no friends on this floor, maybe because you’re hard of hearing,” Baram suggested. “It’s not that,” she said. “It’s because I know this is the last place I’ll live.”

They went down to the dining room, where fluorescent lights cast a cold glow. Baram saw a tall, sturdy man of about 80 sitting in a wheelchair, in a yellow nightcap. A nurse sat down beside him and began feed him cooked cereal. Grazia Baram observed the man intensely. “I think it’s Dad,” she whispered to her son. “But Dad died more than 20 years ago,” he replied. “You’ve visited his grave many times.” “True,” she shot back, “but he always knew how to get along and I believe he’s here.”

This revealing description appears in Baram’s first book, “Ein Ahava Be’ir” (“No Love in the City”), published this week. It’s an account of two formative years in the author’s life, 1946-1948, when he was growing up in Jerusalem’s Nahalat Ahim neighborhood. Baram mixes real episodes from his boyhood with fictional passages based largely on real events. The book is also a journey in time, shifting from Baram’s frequent visits to his aged mother to distant childhood vistas. “I admit that this book is the result of a plagiaristic conception,” he says. “It’s not that I copied it from someone else, but I have to say that from the moment I got ahold of Amos Oz’s ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness’ and read it from start to finish, I told myself, ‘Uzi Baram, you are no Amos Oz but you lived in the same years, in a different [Jerusalem] neighborhood and … you were from the labor movement and he was from the Revisionists. You have something to say about that period.’ So I began to think about writing. I sat with my son Nir, who in my eyes is a true writer and not a rookie of 72, like me, who is only now publishing his first book, and consulted with him. Nir suggested that I start with Mom and go back in time, and Mom is a great heroine in the book. Her memory is going but she is also an inexhaustible font of reminiscences. At one point, for example, I refer to the affair one of the girls in our neighborhood had with a British officer; and when you ask Mom about girls who went out with Brits she tells you accurate stories.” You describe her time in the old-age home very gloomily. It’s an account of someone in constant decline.

“In regard to life there, that’s correct. It’s also true that she is not pleased with herself or the situation. She feels somewhat humiliated. My mother had a minor stroke four years ago. She has no restrictions of movement in her arms and legs. She does have a memory problem and a hearing problem, though she had that even before. But even before the stroke she said, ‘Enough, I have lived enough, done enough.’ Now she doesn’t even say that. But back then she still used to go to the Carmel Market [in Tel Aviv] to shop for herself and return by taxi to Afeka, saying the drivers were crazy about her. I would tell her, ‘Of course they’re crazy about you, they know you’re my mother.'”

Your father, Moshe Baram, a leader of Mapai, the precursor to Labor, who served as minister of labor and welfare, died years ago. Your mother is very old and you are 72. Do you think about death?

“I am not afraid of death in the least. Old age, with its insults, the dependence it creates, is very difficult. I am afraid of a situation in which I lose control. My father died of a heart attack, perhaps prematurely, and that was terrible for everyone who knew him, but still, when Ruthie [Baram’s first wife, who died of cancer] got sick despite all the advances in medicine, and she knew the end was inevitable, it was terrible.”

Generations of alienation

In the book, Baram settles scores with his father’s Ashkenazi family for lording it over his mother, who is from Aleppo, Syria. “They considered Grazia a beautiful, delicate girl, but they viewed being Sephardi as a shortcoming both innate and indelible,” Baram writes.

He recalls his first encounter with the overweening patronization of his father’s family, when he went with his mother to visit his father’s sister, his aunt Bella, in Tel Aviv. “Bella began interrogating Grazia, asking about her, her siblings and how she had met Moshe. When Grazia told her she had immigrated to Israel from Aleppo via Beirut, Bella’s expression changed and she examined Mother’s face with suspicion. ‘So you are Sephardim?’ she asked.”

A few days later, Baram relates in the book, his father’s aunt, Sonia, arrived. “The three women sat themselves down in the living room and after a series of questions that Sonia put to Mother, who replied politely but tersely, Bella launched into a conversation that shifted quickly from Hebrew to Yiddish. Mother, sitting between them as they conversed in a language she didn’t understand, grew increasingly irritated and angry. She ignored the fact that Sonia’s Hebrew was poor and that Bella enjoyed speaking to her in her mother tongue, and was certain that the entire conversation was about her. She imagined that they were criticizing her family and deriding her insufficient education. In her imagination she thought they were telling each other, in the Yiddish that she had come to despise, that ‘Moshe deserves better.'”

Did your mother speak openly about the hostility she felt from your father’s Ashkenazi family?

“Yes. My mother had the feeling that my father’s family patronized her. Even in the period when my father was in the Histadrut labor federation and was a king in Jerusalem, she claimed the Histadrut still had a different attitude toward Ashkenazim and Sephardim. She told us there were years when she would return from Mahaneh Yehuda Market carrying baskets in the heat of the day and the car of some Histadrut official she knew would pass and never stop to give her a lift. I didn’t feel this supercilious attitude, but [media figure] Yitzhak Livni, who read the book, told me, ‘Yes, that’s exactly how it was. That’s how our parents raised us.’

“I was much closer to my mother’s family than to my father’s,” Baram continues. “I look Ashkenazi but have a Mizrahi attitude. I prefer Mizrahi food and listen to Mediterranean music on the plane but I cannot say I’m a full-fledged Mizrahi. I was surrounded by Ashkenazim. Go tell the Labor Party now that Uzi Baram, in addition to all his other advantages, is also Mizrahi. It’s laughable.”

What is your take on the colossal failure of Mapai to win the support of Mizrahi voters?

“Mapai was not a traditionalist party, and the Mizrahim had a deep attachment to religion and tradition. In 1981, when Prime Minister Menachem Begin, lit the Hanukkah candles and recited the blessings, a Labor Party activist said to me, ‘[Shimon] Peres has to do the same thing.’ But if Peres had done it it would have looked fake. Mapai was controlled by large bodies like the Histadrut and the Jewish Agency where the Mizrahim didn’t have a foothold. Mapai never succeeded in penetrating the poorer neighborhoods, neither Hatikva in Tel Aviv nor Mahaneh Yehuda in Jerusalem, and that gap kept widening. The demographic changes, combined with the strengthening of the religious and the right wing factor, led to the final dissolution of the labor movement.”

Were you witness to the increasing alienation of the Mizrahim from your party over the years?

“Yes. I was director of the election rally in which Motta Gur told a Mizrahi crowd, ‘We will screw you the same way we screwed the Arabs.’ Jerusalem was a different city, more Mizrahi. Immediately after the Oslo Accords I encountered a sea of hostility in Jerusalem. Tel Aviv was a different world.”

Did Ehud Barak’s official plea for forgiveness from the country’s Mizrahim, in the name of Labor, do anything to heal the wound?

“Are you kidding? It’s not a question of forgiveness. I meet young, moderate Mizrahim, in the liberal professions, who don’t support Labor. The alienation was passed down to the second and third generations.”

So maybe Labor has racist DNA. Party old-timers and the burghers of Givatayim left when Amir Peretz, the Moroccan, became chairman.

“Racism isn’t the right term. If Peretz had run against Benjamin Netanyahu [in the election originally scheduled for March 2006] they would have voted for Peretz, but they had an ‘Ashkenazi’ alternative in Ariel Sharon’s Kadima, which enabled them to vote for a party that was not far from them ideologically and was not Labor.”

Guilt feelings

Uzi Baram learned the ins and outs of politics from his father. As a youth he went to parlor meetings in the Kurdish neighborhood of Jerusalem and in Mahaneh Yehuda – Mizrahi bastions. They welcomed him and his father warmly, but it’s unlikely that any of the people voted for Mapai. “My father always told us the story of how after the state’s establishment he and [Prime Minister David] Ben-Gurion visited the Bukharan Quarter. [Ben-Gurion] put on a Bukharan robe and told my father, ‘Listen, Moshe, you’re doing good work in this neighborhood.’ Dad replied, ‘If you get 10 percent of the votes, be grateful.’ There was definitely alienation.”

Baram wrote extensively in his book about the War of Independence, and remembers keenly the looting sprees by Jerusalem’s Jewish residents during lulls in the fighting. “With my own eyes I saw the barber unloading a huge refrigerator from a pickup truck, together with a wardrobe made of shiny brown wood, from a home in Katamon [an Arab neighborhood before 1948],” he writes. “On Hamadregot Street I saw a man I didn’t know unloading chairs, tables, wardrobes, pots, forks and knives. The rumors of the looting of the rich Arabs’ homes spread quickly through the city, and in Katamon people grabbed everything they could.” Baram describes how he and his cousin wandered through Sheikh Bader, at the time a ghost neighborhood from which the Palestinians had fled, and now the site of the Knesset building.

How did these experiences affect your political consciousness? Did writing the book make you pause and reflect on the justice of the War of Independence and the injustice done to the Palestinians?

“When my brother Menahem read the book he said he envies me because I identify so strongly with one side. It is true that from the book one understands that innocent Arabs in Deir Yassin and other places were wronged, but also that we were fighting for survival, particularly in Jerusalem. Anyone who went through the siege of Jerusalem, with all the shelling and without supply convoys, cannot say: ‘I am a representative of a generation that saw only the Nakba [the Palestinians’ term for the “catastrophe” of 1948].’ I cannot say that at that age I saw the Palestinian picture in its entirety. I was raised on the desire of the Mufti [of Jerusalem, Muhammad Amin al-Husseini] to annihilate us, on the terrible demonstrations against the Jews and on the 1947 partition plan, so the guilt feelings that accompany the book are a future projection.

“The experience of the siege of Jerusalem,” he continues, “is something you carry with you down the years. One’s life was threatened. There was no food and we went to the fields to gather what we could find to eat. My most vivid recollection from that period is of playing with children on Even Sapir Street and suddenly seeing British convoys of jeeps and armored vehicles arriving and declaring through bullhorns, ‘Curfew, don’t go outside.’ We hold out until they are about 100 meters away and then run for it. We waited for that every day; for us, curfew was a pleasure. The older I got and the more I interacted with Palestinians and with Arabs in Israel, the better I understood the intensity of the terrible blow inflicted on them in the Nakba, from which they have still not recovered.”

Your nuclear family was a hothouse for radicals. Your brothers, the journalists Haim and Menahem, a former economic adviser, are at the extreme left of the scale, and your sister Drora is a settler.

“Our home was very tolerant and pluralistic, mainly under my mother’s influence. Haim and Menahem grew up with their views, and we used to meet every Friday at 5, the only thing we had in common being soccer. When it came to politics my father would get angry, furious in fact. My mother didn’t like everyone’s ideological perversions but she accepted the situation.

“Despite the differences, my brothers, Haim especially, always supported me. When Haim covered the elections for Labor Party secretary general, he wrote in Haolam Hazeh, ‘I sat and watched the election between Micha Harish and Uzi Baram, and suddenly I felt my blood pressure rising, and then I understood that blood is not tomato juice.’ My father also helped me a great deal in that race. I am on good terms with my settler sister. I visited her in Beit El, but my brothers won’t go there.”

You stepped into your father’s political shoes. Did you go easy on each other, or was there tension and competition?

“There was tension. I remember one time when he was party head in Jerusalem and a Knesset member, and I was the secretary of Mapai’s Young Guard. On Tuesdays I was in Jerusalem. I went to party headquarters in the city and tried to get into his office, but he was in a meeting so I couldn’t go in. Years later, when I was the party secretary general, he would peek into my office and ask if he could come in. ‘No, you can’t come in.'”

Still, you followed his path. You resemble him most, of all your siblings.

“True, but we are radically different in character. He was an establishment man, and didn’t have my rebellious nature. He always toed the line. He was a public figure in the full sense of the term, more than me, and our home was open to the unemployed, to simple laborers. Across the street there would be demonstraters chanting ‘Bread and work,’ and the head of Maki [Israel Communist Party], Meir Vilner, pointed at my father’s balcony as the reason for their dire straits. If you ask me who I love more, Dad or Mom, I would say that the bond with Mom is stronger.”

Poor leadership

We meet in his rented home in Tel Aviv’s fashionable Ramat Aviv neighborhood. Baram, who looks far younger than his years, greets me in sweat pants and a green jersey. Since retiring from politics in 2001 he has been chairman of strategic communications consulting firm Master Plan, and of Club 50, which targets the over-50s in areas such as alternative medicine and pension schemes. Baram works out in the gym every day and is an inveterate watcher of sports on television. With unbridled pleasure he informs his brother Menahem, who calls during the interview, that Everton beat Arsenal in the opening match of the English soccer league.

His wife, Aviva, office manager of Policy, the political consulting firm of Boris Krasny, is far younger than Baram. His first wife, Ruth, died in 1995 after a long battle with cancer. One of the first shiva callers to the home was Ehud Barak, then a political novice who had just been appointed interior minister by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. “We were quite friendly at the time. He stayed the entire evening and lectured Ruthie’s physicians from Hadassah University Hospital in Jerusalem on the latest developments in cancer research. They were dumbfounded. I have to admit I was very impressed.”

A year later, Haim Ramon suggested to Baram that he run against Barak for the party leadership. “Today I would do it,” he says, but back then he decided – not for the first time – not to take a risk. He supported Barak, who coasted to the party chairmanship, but when Barak became prime minister in 1999 he did not offer Baram a cabinet post.

In 2001, after the failure of the Camp David conference, Barak asked the Labor Party institutions to reelect him as party leader. “In the end, the whole Central Committee voted for him,” Baram recalls, “and Uzi Baram was the only one who abstained. I will never forget how I was embraced by the masses when I left the meeting.”

What happened over the years to the vaunted Barak, whom people called a genius?

“He is a genius unto himself, not others. He is not a political leader. He is not a figure people will truly follow. Some part of him is cut off. You sit with him and make suggestions, he listens and gives the impression that he is taking it in, but there is no real follow-up, no continuity. He has fears, perhaps of losing control, and this drives him toward isolation, not partnership. I don’t know how Rabin comported himself during his first term as prime minister, though I do know that the ministers liked him very much – my father, for example, always objected to my critical opinions about Rabin. I was a minister in the second Rabin government, and it can’t be said he was easygoing – he was a true redhead – but basically he listened and shared and evaluated ministers by their performance.

“Barak, in contrast, doesn’t include others, and the Labor Party ministers were never wild about him. The only one who defends him unreservedly is [Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon. You will not hear a true, deep or persuasive defense from the likes of Fuad [Benjamin Ben-Eliezer], [Isaac] Herzog or [Avishay] Braverman. He can’t hold a team together and make it function as a unit. The quartet, or quintet or sextet, that is going to leave the party is not doing it for strictly ideological reasons. Ideology is involved, but it’s also because of failed leadership.”

So the Labor Party is about to be history?

“The Labor Party had a brief moment of grace when it elected Amir Peretz as its leader. He was elected, Peres went to Kadima, the Pensioners Party was created and Peretz should have received six Knesset seats but got 19, because he was able to get votes from other places. But from then on nothing happened. On the contrary, there was a regression, because Amir did not succeed in establishing himself as party leader, there was no surge of public support for him and his decision to become defense minister proved to be a mistake. All this hurt not only Peretz but the whole party.”

You were very close to him, an adviser, among those who recommended that he take the defense portfolio – which turned out to be a fatal mistake.

“That is so, but my mistake stemmed from an incorrect view of things and also from not anticipating the war. I served for years on the [Knesset] Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, on intelligence subcommittees and on other, more secret committees. And I think I had a good understanding of Israel’s problems. It was my firm opinion that the defense minister should not come from the army. And suddenly I had an opportunity. It’s true that the intention was to bring in perhaps Dan Meridor or Haim Ramon, who were both very involved in security affairs, but I thought that someone like Peretz, who is very smart, would see things as they were and learn the lessons. But as my father used to say, ‘Either succeed or explain.’ So why bother giving you reasons now?”

You were part of a forum of Peretz’s advisers during the Second Lebanon War, and you also supported the war. What rationale do you give yourself for the misconduct of that war?

“During the war I was no longer in real touch with Amir Peretz. Occasionally, though, I called him. Toward the end of the war, before the last battle, in which the son of [the writer] David Grossman was killed, there was a consultation about whether to launch that battle. The civilian figures, such as Dave Kimche, Benny Gaon and I were opposed, and the military ones – Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, Amos Malka – were all in favor. They said that the war must not end with the situation as it then was. A few weeks later I asked Peretz about it, and he replied, ‘Well, did you want me to listen to you when all the army men expressed the view that they did?'”

After Peretz resigned, Barak, who was in a neck-and-neck race with Ami Ayalon for the party leadership, started to court Baram in earnest, to regain his support. “You ask me if I voted for Barak? The answer is yes, but I did not give him active support. I declined to sign a declaration, for example.”

Was it a mistake to support Barak?

“Of course. I can’t tell you if the Ami Ayalon alternative would have solved the Labor Party’s problems, but after Barak’s election as party leader I was in touch with him for a long time. Once I visited him at home and there were many visits to the Defense Ministry, sometimes for private conversations, sometimes with one or two others also present. But when I looked at his performance all through this period I knew he was not the leader who would rehabilitate the Labor Party.”

What is your analysis of his huge failure?

“He does not present Labor as an alternative. Do you expect people to support the party because of a conjectured success in an attack on Iran? Do you think people will say, ‘Hey, if the defense minister succeeds in attacking Iran, or manages to get something from Iran, let’s strengthen the Labor Party’? Labor is a party with a message. Its message, which was moderate, has disappeared. Barak is also completely lacking in social-democratic ideology. He made many strategic mistakes: in regard to the Winograd Committee [which investigated the management of the Second Lebanon War], entering the government, [Avigdor] Lieberman. There was nothing more salient than what he said after the last elections – that he would stay in the opposition. He saw the failure, grasped what was at stake – and suddenly he disavows all that and announces that he is joining the government. I will not be surprised if he doesn’t run under the Labor Party banner in the next election.

“If you ask me whether the party will split, my answer is yes, it will. There are seats to be had for a Zionist left-wing party, together with Meretz. It will not always be fashionable to vote for Kadima. Kadima is already a legitimate ally for any left-wing group, but is not itself left wing. The Labor Party is not a left-wing party today, but is positioned between Kadima and Likud. That is how it comes across in the public consciousness. Ten to 13 Knesset seats are available to the Zionist left, and if an attempt is made to create a party with the quartet or quintet from Labor, plus Meretz, plus people from other sectors, it might stand a chance.”

Do you see anyone from the younger generation – Shelly Yachimovich, Ophir Pines-Paz, Isaac Herzog – as qualified to lead such a move?

“I don’t know. I am not overwhelmed by them. The unpopularity of politics as a profession is keeping people from joining.”

The latest political initiative you supported – establishing a new social-democratic party – ended in enormous failure.

“Yes, it was a huge failure. Recently I met with Haim Ramon, who understands politics. He told me, ‘Your mistake was to think that you could change reality within a month.’ In the end, not much came of the attempt: Meretz was weakened, Labor was weakened and the votes went straight to [Tzipi] Livni.”

You know Benjamin Netanyahu well. Do you think he has undergone an ideological transformation?

“Bibi is fundamentally weak. He is very impressive in a one-on-one conversation, but much less so in other forums. I was never impressed by Bibi, by the way, not as an orator and not as a persuader. There is something synthetic about him. I believe that credibility is the most powerful element in persuasion. That’s what Tzipi Livni has now, for example. I am very worried. I do not see massive political pressure of a kind that will bring about change here. I don’t see Netanyahu leading real or even cosmetic change, and if I look ahead, both demography and the right-wing religious ideology are creating a perspective which leaves the center-left with very little chance of coming to power in the years ahead. What concerns me is the right-wing thrust. I feel a lot closer to MK Ahmed Tibi [United Arab List] than to MK Michael Ben Ari [National Union].”

In the past few years, you, Ramon, Avraham Burg and Yossi Beilin have all left politics. Great things were predicted for all of you. Which of you will history remember?

“Of that group? Beilin, because he tried to blaze political trails and he did it with great persistence and more than a little skill. The fact that he did not succeed in becoming an important politician makes no difference. The issue he dealt with is a fundamental one. But when I envisage the forward course of history, I am not sure that even his name will be remembered.”

And yours?

“A little.”

Because maybe people of the Peres and Barak type, who will be remembered in the history books, were prepared to pay a price that you were never willing to pay?

“I never thought that any of them surpassed me. You know what? I guess I never wanted to go all the way.” W

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