Uri Orbach recalled for his sharp wit and uncommon sincerity

Popular minister’s passing sparks flood of fond memories of one of Knesset’s most beloved personalities

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Uri Orbach votes in the Jewish Home primary on November 13, 2012. (photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
Uri Orbach votes in the Jewish Home primary on November 13, 2012. (photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

It was only at his death that folk singer Arik Einstein’s centrality to modern Israeli culture and sensibilities became clear. It was only in his passing that the vast bonds of affection for the Sephardi spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef were reified in the hundreds of thousands of Israelis, including many non-Sephardim, who attended his funeral.

Pensioners Affairs Minister Uri Orbach’s passing on Monday carried with it a similarly telling outpouring.

Politicians from across the political spectrum recalled his devotion to the land of Israel – Orbach was an opponent of territorial withdrawals from the earliest days of the Oslo peace process – and his groundbreaking work as a religiously observant journalist in a largely secular profession.

But these prepared statements from cabinet ministers and lawmakers shed little light on the 54-year-old father of four. It was at the lower levels of Israel’s political class, among aides, journalists and activists outside the narrow elite that puts out press releases where the most telling memories were vividly relived on Monday.

“I invited Uri to my wedding,” recalled a Knesset employee who asked not to be named. “He told me he couldn’t make it because his son’s wedding was the day before.”

The employee worked as an aide for a competing party to Orbach’s Jewish Home, so it was unlikely the popular lawmaker and well-known former journalist could glean any political benefit from attending the wedding.

But it was that very fact that vexed him. “He was so worried I would think he was just giving me an excuse not to come,” the aide recalled, “that he brought me an invitation to his son’s wedding as proof of where he’d been.”

It was an incident the Knesset aide never forgot, and is of a type with the memories that surfaced in conversations and Facebook posts after news of Orbach’s death became public on Monday afternoon. That kindness and sympathetic instinct did not diminish as Orbach’s acclaim as a journalist grew or, in his last years, as his political standing won him a seat at the cabinet table.

Many also recalled his honesty.

In September 2012, political reporter Tal Schneider wrote about tensions between Likud and Jewish Home that came to the fore when Sara Netanyahu, wife of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, asked then-MK Orbach not to support “those who are hostile to the Likud” – a reference to Orbach’s support for Naftali Bennett’s leadership of his party. Schneider wrote at the time that Orbach was embarrassed about the incident when reached for comment, and found the need to personally criticize or contradict his opponents distasteful.

But despite his discomfort he told Schneider after their conversation that as a matter of principle he does not speak “off-the-record,” she recalled on Monday. “He said I can quote anything he’d said, as long as I didn’t distort it.”

There was little doubt on Monday that his religiosity formed an important part of the personality so admired by his friends, colleagues and acquaintances.

One non-religious Knesset aide recalled Monday that Orbach used to chastise secularist politicians who voted to cut the generous child benefits the state offered to large, primarily ultra-Orthodox families.

“He used to ask, ‘Why are you cutting subsidies to religious families?'” the aide recalled. “‘Where do you think secular Israelis come from? There will be fewer of you, not them,’ he would say.”

His was a sense of humor that cut through the raw emotions such sectoral clashes over public funds often generated in the Knesset. “He could tell the secular public that they depended on the religious, but in a way that also told the religious their own kids were joining the secular public,” the aide said.

In a statement from center-left Zionist Union leaders Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni, Orbach, a decidedly right-wing ideologue, was praised not only for bringing “wit and humor into the plenum,” but for this ability to “unite and connect all the streams of Zionism and all Israelis.”

Channel 2 anchor Sivan Rahav-Meir posted to Facebook a page from the children’s book “I promise,” penned by Orbach. On the page was a poem: “We reach Heaven / after 120 years / the poor / and the rich alike. / There they don’t ask / if you bought houses / and streets, / there the main thing / is that you collected good deeds.”

כשהילדים יחזרו מהגן צריך להגיד להם שהוא נפטר. (מתוך "מבטיח, בלי נדר" / אורי אורבך)

Posted by ‎סיון רהב מאיר – Sivan Rahav Meir‎ on Monday, February 16, 2015

“When the children get home from kindergarten,” Rahav-Meir wrote simply, “we have to tell them he has passed.”

In an official statement, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remembered Orbach for his accomplishments as a “minister in the government of Israel, author, journalist, intellectual, Jewish patriot,” and praised his “knowledge and wisdom.”

But there was a moment in the prime minister’s Monday statement when the overwrought epitaphs gave way to a simple sentiment, proffering from the summit of Israeli politics the feelings shared by those below: “I have never met someone who knew him and didn’t like him,” Netanyahu said.

The Israeli political class was stung by the loss on Monday not of a cabinet minister, but of a man who would go out of his way to avoid offending a junior aide in a competing party, an ex-journalist who didn’t believe in “off the record,” a polemicist and advocate who brought to the most fraught issues on the national agenda the sincerity and guilelessness of the children’s books he authored.

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