Illustration by Eran Wolkowski/Haaretz
I went to Jerusalem last week to meet the First Lady, Sara Netanyahu. I was hoping to get to the bottom of the serious case of Sara-phobia that has overtaken the country. For a long time now, she has occupied a completely disproportionate role in the public discourse. Whenever I mention her name in conversation, my interlocutor will automatically pull out some recycled bit of derogatory gossip, always presented as having come straight from the source, and recount the story in a near-ecstatic state of excitement and without the humor typical of gossipers: “Get this, I once waited on her table, and she left without paying!” or “I swear, I was their neighbor and I could hear her shouting through the window!”
The phenomenon is familiar from the world of popular religion, in which people will attest, with utter certainty, to the miracles worked by some ordinary Joe or to having seen the Virgin Mary, and their stories quickly gain unstoppable momentum. It was with this same utter certainty that men were once accused of heresy and women of witchcraft, and the mob was not satisfied until the “guilty” parties were burned at the stake.
In “The Barber of Seville,” Rossini has the villainous Don Basilio sings the “La Calunnia” aria, about the calumny that begins as a little breeze, a whisper, a hiss, that softly enters people’s ears, heads, brains, where it spins and grows until it comes out of their mouths full-force and flies off from there, now a mighty thunder, a tempest that causes you to freeze in terror as the sound of cannon fire reverberates in the air, leaving the humiliated victim to be trampled by the masses and killed.
And then a man steps out of the masses to proclaim: I met this woman, the object of all this gossip, and I found her to be very pleasant and hospitable and unusually feminine, by Israeli standards. If I hadn’t been too shy about it, I would have told her that she was an attractive woman. The two hours in the company of this woman that everyone loves to hate flew by, as when you find yourself entranced by a good actress playing a classical role of a queen or a great woman. She played the part for me in a way that left me agape. I found Sara Netanyahu to be someone who has a major presence. Somebody for whom I would gladly trade any number of dull and self-righteous men and women from our public and political sphere.
Ever since she first appeared on the public radar nearly 20 years ago, Sara Netanyahu has been a popular target for the Israeli press.
The latest scandal to plague Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s third wife, first reported on by Amir Oren in Haaretz, involves allegations that she pocketed thousands of shekels from deposits on empty bottles that were returned, on her orders, to Jerusalem supermarkets over several years, even though the bottle deposits were state property.
Last week, State Comptroller Joseph Shapira announced his decision to turn over the bottle deposit affair, popularly known now as “bottlegate,” to Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, who will rule on whether to open a formal investigation into the matter.
Married to Netanyahu since 1991, the 56-year-old child psychologist is no stranger to scandal. Last March, she was sued for abusive behavior by the former manager of the Netanyahus’ official residence, who had previously served as her personal bodyguard. In 2010, a former housekeeper in the Netanyahu home sued her for unpaid wages and a list of other matters. Indeed, reports about Sara Netanyahu’s problematic behavior toward household help and her lavish spending habits have been circulating in the media ever since her husband’s first term in office, starting in 1996.
Does the media especially have it in for Sara Netanyahu, or have they always picked on Israeli first ladies? Both are true, says Dr. Ilan Ben Ami, Israel’s foremost expert on the wives of prime ministers. “The Israeli press has always targeted the wives of its prime ministers, but there’s no doubt that the sheer volume of allegations in the case of Sara Netanyahu is unprecedented,” he says.
(Haaretz) — Oh, Sara, Sara, Sara.
First there was your nanny way way back in 1996 - a young South African girl named Tanya Shaw, who told the press that you were a nutty clean freak, a screaming shrew and accused you of firing her on the spot for committing the sin of burning soup and of having burly security guards drag her out of the Prime Minister’s residence after examining her suitcase to make sure she hadn’t stolen anything.
You called her crazy - or at least your husband, the Prime Minister did. His office issued a statement saying the young woman “showed indications of acute instability” which was why she was “removed.” and that “the Netanyahu family regrets the au pair’s severe condition and her imagined and false claims, and will do everything possible to help in her rehabilitation.”
Then, in 2010, there was your maid Liliane Peretz, who went a step further than complaining and filed suit against you in labor court. She said that during the six years she worked for you, you shouted at her, humiliated her, overworked and underpaid her - and insisted that she change clothes during the working day to remain hygienic enough for you. Your letter to the court said her claims were “fabricated” and that Peretz received nothing but “warmth and love” from you. The battle between you was ugly - and finally resolved in 2012 with an out-of-court settlement. No one knows how much money Peretz was given to stop her attacks but one can presume she no longer feels underpaid.
In both cases, your husband’s public relations team managed to launch impressive smear campaigns against the two women - you didn’t come out of the incidents looking very good, but neither did they.
But the news that broke Wednesday - the details that leaked of the lawsuit by Meni Naphtali, who managed the Prime Minister’s residence for 20 months and who’s suing you and Prime Minister Netanyahu for a million shekels in compensation - looks like a whole new ball game.
Three strikes and you’re out?
Apparently inspired by the reunion of Destiny’s Child at the Super Bowl, Sara Netanyahu showed up at the swearing in of the 19th Knesset in a form-fitting — well actually more like skin-tight — lace dress with a see-through top.
While we all love a first lady who can part with convention, it gets a little scary when the shift in style appears to be inspired by the Real Housewives of New Jersey.
In the United States we have had some great sartorially rebellious first-wives, namely Michelle Obama and Jackie O, both of whom redefined femininity for a generation. Jackie O did it with her A-line dresses, pill box hats and pastel suits. And Michelle Obama has inspired many women with her bright colors, strong arms, and mixing of couture with J. Crew. These first ladies achieved fashion icon status because of they way they come off as elegant and graceful while also appearing modern and relevant.
The Sisterhood Digest:
• Israeli soldiers, in Haiti to assist victims of last week’s catastrophic earthquake, delivered a healthy baby, over the weekend, in a makeshift hospital that the Israel Defense Forces set up on a Port-au-Prince athletic field. The baby’s mother reportedly plans to name her newborn son “Israel.”
• As Myriad Genetics prepares to go to court to defend its right to patent two genes linked to breast cancer and ovarian cancer — genes that are most prevalent among Ashkenazic Jews — the Los Angeles Times comes out in favor of barring patents for gene sequences.
• Sara Netanyahu is being sued by a former housekeeper, who is charging that Israel’s First Lady was emotionally abusive. According to a report in the Jerusalem Post, Mrs. Netanyahu “expected [the housekeeper] to be on call 24 hours a day, and once even phoned her at 2 a.m. to reprimand her for failing to properly cover a pillow.” The Prime Minister’s office says the woman’s claims are false, and that she received warm and affectionate treatment from Mrs. Netanyahu.”