Tommy Lapid: Champion of secularism in Israel

Tommy Lapid, the prominent and outspoken Israeli journalist, was the popular – and populist – champion of secularism in Israel in the first part of this decade. As a pugnacious opponent of what he saw as the disproportionate influence of ultra-orthodox Judaism on Israeli law and society, he led his centrist and socially liberal party Shinui ("Change") to its most successful election result ever in 2003. It became the third largest party, with 15 seats, securing the important cabinet post of Justice Minister, which Lapid held until he walked out of Ariel Sharon's government in December 2004 in protest at yet another state handout of funds to the ultra-orthodox sector.

"Everything I do in my life has its source in the Holocaust experience," Lapid told Eric Silver in an interview in 2003 when he was on the brink of his election success. "I am a product of that." Born Tomislav Lampel to Hungarian parents in Serbia in 1931, he saw his father, Bela, a lawyer and newspaper editor who was subsequently killed in the Mauthausen concentration camp, seized by the Gestapo. The family tombstone in the Jewish cemetery in Novi Sad contains the names of 11 of his close relatives who died in the Holocaust.

Tommy and his mother Katarina fled to Budapest under the protection of the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. But their supposedly safe house was raided by Hungarian Fascists who rounded up Jews to kill them on the banks of the Danube. Mother and son managed to escape by hiding in a public lavatory. Tommy Lapid would say that it was then that "I understood there had to be a place where nobody wants to kill Jews".

He and his mother emigrated to Israel in 1948, where Tommy went straight into Israel Defence Forces, serving as a mechanic, before studying law at Tel Aviv University and beginning to write for the Hungarian language newspaper Uj Kelet. Introduced to the founding editor of Maariv, Azriel Carlebach, he became first his personal assistant – when he took his Hebrew name, Yosef Lapid – and then an increasingly prominent journalist on the paper.

After Robert Maxwell – with whom Lapid spoke Hungarian – bought Maariv, Tommy Lapid represented the tycoon in Hungary and Yugoslavia, buying newspapers for him after the collapse of Communism, saying later that he had "no reason whatsoever to suspect him of any wrong-doings". He was appointed by Menachem Begin in 1979 to head the Israel Broadcasting Authority. But it was his subsequent polemical performances on popular and raucous television talk shows, most notably Channel One's Popolitika, which he co-hosted, that made him a celebrity commentator.

His successful 2003 election campaign was fought on a platform of military service for all – including the ultra-orthodox young exempted for religious studies – civil marriage; public transport on the Sabbath; state recognition of Reform and Conservative Judaism; repeal of inflated allowances for bigger (mostly religious) families; and abolition of the Religious Affairs Ministry.

That those elections proved to be Shinui's peak, and that it did not achieve its goals – except, it now looks temporarily, the last of these – probably testified as much to the political power of the ultra-orthodox as to any political failures of Lapid's. Nevertheless the party first split and then effectively collapsed in 2006, winning no seats in the election of that year. Lapid subsequently returned to journalism and the airwaves, presenting his own radio show. He also became chairman of the board of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and museum.

He was by no means a leftist in Israeli political terms. But on more than one occasion he drew on his own lifetime experience to denounce maltreatment of Palestinians in dramatic terms. In May 2004 he led cabinet dissent against the demolition of houses by the military in the southern Gaza town of Rafah. He subsequently denied that his remark that television pictures of an old Palestinian woman scrabbling in rubble for her medicine reminded him of his own grandmother was a reference to the Holocaust.

But when footage was shown on Israeli TV in 2006 of a woman Jewish settler hissing "whore" at her Palestinian neighbour and settler children throwing stones at Arab houses, Lapid explicitly compared such intimidation to that which he had faced as a child from anti-Semites in the years that pre-dated the Holocaust. His remarks were forceful enough for Yad Vashem to make clear that they reflected Lapid's personal view and not that of its board chairman.

Lapid had a notably happy family life. His books include two plays though he gave up as a dramatist in deference to the talent of his wife Shulamit, a successful novelist. And despite his abrasive wit, he had considerable charm. Surprised to encounter a British reporter after making a barnstorming speech to an election meeting in Herziliya in 2003, he reminisced fondly about the Fleet Street of the 1960s when he was the Maariv correspondent in London. He was a lover of music, food and drink, and argument.

Donald Macintyre

Tomislav Lampel (Yosef "Tommy" Lapid), journalist and politician: born Novi Sad, Yugoslavia 27 December 1931; director general, Israeli Broadcasting Authority 1979-84; chairman, Shinui Party 1999-2006; Minister of Justice 2003-04; married (one son, one daughter, and one daughter deceased); died Tel Aviv 1 June 2008.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Women protest at the rape and murder of Jyoti Singh
tvReview: It's a tough watch, but the details of the brutal gang rape and murder of medical student need to be shared if we want to strive for global gender equality
Life and Style
Living for the moment: Julianne Moore playing Alzheimer’s sufferer Alice
A propaganda video shows Isis forces near Tikrit
voicesAdam Walker: The Koran has violent passages, but it also has others that explicitly tells us how to interpret them
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Life and Style
love + sex
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle 0 Man United 1: Last minute strike seals precious victory
Life and Style
Tikka Masala has been overtaken by Jalfrezi as the nation's most popular curry
food + drink
Benjamin Netanyahu and his cartoon bomb – the Israeli PM shows his ‘evidence’
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Arts and Entertainment
Jeffrey Archer holds up a copy of 'Kane and Abel', a book he says was ripped-off by Bollywood
Life and Style
food + drink
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: General Processor

£7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A vacancy has arisen for a General Processor ...

Recruitment Genius: Outbound Sales Executive - B2B

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A great opportunity has arisen ...

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Associate

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time and Part time positio...

Ashdown Group: IT Manager - Salesforce / Reports / CRM - North London - NfP

£45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and reputable Not for Profit o...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers