Sisterhood Blog

Housecleaning Is a Dirty Business For Israel's Political Wives

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

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Ehud Barak and Nili Priel-Barak

Good help is hard to find, especially if you are the wife of a top-tier Israeli politician.

First it was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, who has had serial crises with various disgruntled former nannies and housekeepers. First, with two nannies back in 1996 and then a housekeeper last year she was vilified and mocked after they ran to both the media and to the courthouse with harrowing stories of mistreatment and unfair dismissal, laced with juicy and highly unflattering details of their private lives.

And now it is the turn of Nili Priel-Barak, the second wife of Defense Minister and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who is taking the brunt of the couple’s decision to employ an illegal worker from the Philippines to clean their house. Like many of the illegals in Israel, the worker originally came to Israel with a legal permit to work as a caregiver to the elderly, but stayed on after that permit expired, and turned to housecleaning.

The saga recently returned to the headlines after nearly a year-long hiatus. It was last December when Israel Radio first broke the story of the Defense Minister’s illegal maid and legal proceedings were initiated against the Baraks. After the lengthy hushed-up investigation, came the announcement this month that the case would be dropped for lack of evidence, supposedly because the housekeeper was impossible to locate for questioning. The flimsiness of the excuse was exposed after the same radio reporter who broke the story, Carmela Menashe, easily located the housekeeper — who is still in the country — and interviewed her. And now it looks like criminal proceedings may be back on, despite Priel-Barak’s newly declared willingness to pay a fine.

Admittedly, it is hard for the average Israeli woman — myself included — to work up much sympathy for either Sara or Nili. Neither was a particularly sympathetic public figure, even before their household help smeared them.

And yet, particularly in the case of the Baraks, it is still pretty infuriating how male politicians so quickly offload the blame and the shame of a joint decision and weakness for the good life, onto their wives, pleading ignorance of the facts. After all, aren’t household chores women’s work, and by extension, the employment of household help? After all, they’ve got much more important things to worry about.

Ridiculous. Employing a housekeeper or a nanny and the manner in which it is done is a decision of all adult members of that household. If the Barak household compromised ethics, public responsibility and national security with their decision (the illegal worker, who uses several different names, was never formally screened by the state security services and presumably could have easily spied on, poisoned or otherwise harmed the Defense Minister.)

If only one member of the household is going to shoulder the blame, it should the one who is elected by, draws their salary from, and is held accountable to the public.

And that person is not Nili.


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