*Haaretz published a shortened version of my interview with Labor MK Yuli Tamir. Below is the full interview.
Yuli Tamir: A Portrait of Study and Deeds.
One of my favorite debates in the Talmud revolves around the question: “Which is greater—study or deeds?”
Rabbi Tarfon answered, ‘Deeds!’ Rabbi Akiva answered, ‘Study!’ The sages responded, ‘Study is greater since studying leads to deeds.’
The principle that intellect should not be divorced from practice would not be lost on Labor MK Yuli Tamir – Israel’s former Minister of Education (2006-2009) who began her professional career as a professor of political philosophy (protégée of Isaiah Berlin) and peace activist (one of the founders of Peace Now).
Dr. Tamir’s entry into politics took place in 1995, shortly after Yitzchak Rabin’s assassination. Feeling the urgency of the historic moment, Dr. Tamir joined the Labor party with the hopes of effecting change from within the political establishment.
In 1999, Dr. Tamir was appointed by Ehud Barak as Minister of Immigrant Absorption, and in 2003 and 2006 was elected to the Knesset serving as Minister of Education as well as acting Minister of Science, Culture and Sport. Today, as a consequence of what she sees as misguided leadership, Dr. Tamir sits in opposition within the Labor party.
Dr. Tamir was recently invited by J Street to speak at the organization’s first national conference in Washington DC. After the conference, we sat down to discuss her work as a scholar, her vocation as a peace activist and her career as a politician.
Q: Dr. Tamir, lets start with your family history in Israel. Where did they come from? What were they like? Did any family member have a particular strong influence on the trajectory of your career?
Tamir: Well, I come from a very Israeli family; both my parents and grandparents were born in Israel. So we are one of the few families that has no actual roots elsewhere. In one of my early conversations with Palestinian leaders, they complained about the fact that the Palestinian People bear the price of Anti-Semitism and Jewish persecution in Europe and that Jews should go back to where they came from and fight for their acceptance there. And I said, “that’s nonsense, but anyhow I have no place to return to, you are stuck with me, so let’s talk.”
My mother’s family is a very political family. They are part of the Israeli “Mayflower”, founders of the labor movement. My grandparents were cousins of Moshe Sharet, the second Prime Minister of Israel, who he had a long and very turbulent relationship with the Labor party. But if there was one message coming from their generation to my generation, it was never get involved in politics and especially to never get involved in the politics of the Labor party. I broke the family rule, and got my share of Labor politics. It is the kind of thing one is tempted to do when one thinks that a place that is your only home is in a process of self-destruction.
Q: Growing up, how was Judaism expressed in your home? How would you characterize your own Jewish identity?
Tamir: I grew up in a very secular home, ideologically secular. The Jewish holidays were celebrated in a very Zionist and secular way, and there was absolutely no room for any religious belief. It was only when I spent some time in the US that I was introduced to a more pluralistic version of Judaism and was very attracted to it. I still regard myself as a secular person, but I have a strong Jewish-secular identity as my Judaism determines much of what I do and how I do it. Of course my Judaism is pluralist and humanistic.