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OBITUARIES | Yosef Lapid, 1931 - 2008

Former Israeli justice minister, gadfly, author

June 02, 2008|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Yosef "Tommy" Lapid, a Holocaust survivor and political gadfly who rose to prominence in Israel as a defender of secular Jews, died Sunday after a long battle with cancer. He was 76.

Lapid had been hospitalized in Tel Aviv last week, less than a month after lighting the torch at Israel's commemoration of Holocaust Memorial Day.

Demanding "separation of synagogue and state," the rotund, white-haired polemicist entered politics late in life to lead an obscure party to a foothold in parliament in 1999. He capitalized on middle-class ire at the welfare benefits and exemptions from military service enjoyed by Israel's ultra-Orthodox Jewish minority.

Four years later his Shinui party, whose Hebrew name means "change," improved its standing and became the second-largest bloc in the governing coalition of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Lapid was named justice minister and tried to chip away at religious-based restrictions on divorce, marriage, transportation, food preparation and commerce.

He lost the fight. In the 2005 budget, Sharon set aside $65 million in subsidies to be disbursed by a religious political party. Lapid's party voted against the budget bill, but Sharon retaliated by firing its Cabinet members and held on to power by bringing the opposition Labor Party into the government.

Voters abandoned the Shinui party in 2006, a result widely blamed on the truculence of its leader, and Lapid quit politics. Orthodox religious parties today are as influential as ever; one of them, Shas, is a member of the current government, led by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Lapid nonetheless remained a respected figure. He became chairman of the board of directors at Yad Vashem, Israel's official Holocaust memorial and museum.

"Tommy lived the Holocaust experience his entire life," Olmert, a close friend, said during Sunday's Cabinet meeting. "Tommy was a Jew in every fiber of his soul."

Lapid was born Tomislav Lempel in 1931 in a Hungarian-speaking border region of Yugoslavia. His father, a prominent lawyer and journalist, was arrested by the Nazis and died in the Mauthausen concentration camp.

Tomislav and his mother survived a fugitive's ordeal of forged identity papers, privation and narrow escapes before reaching Israel in 1948, the year of the state's creation.

He was two weeks shy of his 17th birthday. Like many new immigrants, he adopted a Hebraized version of his name -- Lapid, meaning torch.

"Everything I do is very Jewish, without being religious," he told The Times in a 2003 interview. "I live in Israel, I speak Hebrew, I served in our army. This is the only country in the world in which I will live. I will never be a refugee again."

His aversion to ultra-Orthodoxy stemmed from a devotion to the high secular culture of his lost Central European youth. He quoted Voltaire and Churchill, loved chess, wrote cookbooks and a best-selling series of travel guides, and spoke six languages.

Lapid first made a name for himself as a newspaper columnist, author and regular panelist on a screamfest-style television talk show. He called the ultra-religious "leeches" and "draft dodgers," but his sharp tongue and acerbic pen spared no one.

"I have spoken and written so many millions of words, it would be amazing if there were someone I had not gotten around to offending," he said in the 2003 interview.

He made waves as justice minister when he said an elderly Palestinian woman photographed combing through the ruins of her home, which had been destroyed by the Israeli army, reminded him of his grandmother, a Holocaust victim turned out of her home by the Nazis.

The condemnation of his remark by Israelis, including Sharon, did not move him. The army's demolitions in the Gaza Strip, he insisted, made Israelis "look like monsters in the eyes of the world."

During his life, ultra-religious Jews branded Lapid a Nazi and an anti-Semite. After he was gone, some spoke more kindly.

"He was a man whose mouth and soul were on equal ground," Arye Deri, a former leader of the Shas party, said Sunday. "You knew that what he had to say to you he would say to your face."

Lapid is survived by his wife, Shulamit, an author; a son who is a television anchor; a daughter and five grandchildren. An older daughter died in a 1984 car accident.

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boudreaux@latimes.com

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