Life & Culture

Israel’s former First Lady Lihi Lapid: ‘When I get to politics, each word can be dangerous’


Lihi Lapid

She’s a mother of two with a thriving career, catapulted into the role of political spouse when her centre-left husband came to power after years of controversy-riven right-wing rule. Not Victoria Starmer, but Lihi Lapid, who spent a brief period as Israel’s first lady in 2022.

Starmer will be hoping her husband’s stint as PM is longer than Yair Lapid’s (he is now leader of the opposition), but Lapid offers reassurance that she doesn’t have to become a public figure overnight.

“As with everything, you want your partner to be there with you to help,” she says. “When it’s such a demanding job it’s just helpful at home to have a lot of support. Sometimes the support can be inside the house, emotional support – it doesn’t need to be out there.”

As a well-known writer, Lapid was broadly comfortable in the public eye, but she has become more cautious. “In the last five years, things in Israel have become frightening and now they are definitely so,” she says. “So I can’t be quiet, but I’m trying not to say the wrong things. When I talk about women’s issues, I talk quickly. When I get to politics, each word can be dangerous.”

We are speaking about her new novel, On Her Own. A bestseller in Israel, it’s a page-turner about Nina, a teenager escaping a predatory man, who finds herself sheltering with an elderly dementia sufferer who mistakes her for her American granddaughter. If the plot sounds convoluted, at heart it’s a beautiful, heartfelt meditation about Israel’s immigrant society, with a large portion focused on Itamar, an Israeli abroad yearning for home.

Is there a particular pull for Israeli expats? “I think so,” she says. “Israel is isolated in the Middle East. Not a lot of young people are going to work in Egypt on their start-up. So you need to fly away and usually it’s far. And we grew up with this notion that you can’t leave Israel, whatever you do, you need to stay here.”

Itamar tells himself he is relocating temporarily and laments how American his children are becoming. This, says Lapid, is a common feeling; she wrote the book thinking of her brother, then living in California. “So many families have someone far away.”

October 7 has prompted stories of Israelis returning. Lapid says it’s welcome and she hopes new Jews will come, but it is bittersweet. “I hope one day they’ll do it because it’s very good here – so good that many people want to be here.”

On Her Own follows a series of other books, including the bestselling Woman of Valor, but is Lapid’s first to be translated into English by a mainstream publisher. It should have been a moment of triumph with a New York launch. But HarperCollins was unable to arrange a book signing.

“For two months we couldn’t find any store in Manhattan willing to do it. I think they were afraid of demonstrations,” she explains. “I can understand and I’m super sad, not about me, but about the fact that’s the situation with Jews, with Israelis in the world.”

She spoke instead to a Jewish audience in Palo Alto that has been left reeling by the antisemitism their kids have experienced since October 7. “It’s very difficult,” she reflects. She thinks recent events have bonded Israel and the diaspora. “For many years Israelis said we don’t need anyone else. Now is the first time I really feel how important it is for Israelis to have support from people outside Israel, from Jews outside Israel. That connection is becoming stronger from both sides.”

Lapid started as a photojournalist and became known for her writing well before her husband entered the political fray. She’s also an activist, particularly for disability rights, sparked by the fact that the couple’s adult daughter is autistic. Her achievements include creating Tel Aviv’s first kindergarten for children with special needs.

By nature, she is a fighter. “I’m a very involved person. My mother is like that, my sister is, it’s an involved family,” she says. “There are people that when someone says the situation’s bad, they say that’s life. I’m saying no, we can change it,” she says. “That’s the fire in me, when I’m fighting for people with disabilities or for women’s rights. I can’t see something broken and not try to fix it.”

She has become a regular voice at the Saturday night demonstrations in Tel Aviv, opposing the current government and calling for the hostages to be returned. “At the beginning, I just wanted to shout, ‘Bring the girls back. It could be me, it could be my daughter. It could be you. It could be your daughter.’” Nine months on, she is still raising her voice.

“People are tired. And so sometimes, I watch the news. I see there’s a demonstration of the parents. I get up and stand there next to them, for their voices to continue to be heard.” She believes a deal will be on offer but fears the current Israeli leadership may not take it. “I’m trying to be optimistic.”

Like every Israeli, this is personal. The morning we speak, a friend’s daughter has been injured in Gaza; she will recover, but the spectre of war and loss is front of mind. The book culminates on Yom Hazikaron, memorial day, as Itamar and his mother remember the brother who died serving Israel.

“For us, a soldier is our son or our daughter,” she says. “I hope that when people outside of Israel read the book, they feel a little of what it is to be an Israeli mum.”

Like many, she has been staggered by the silence over Israeli women being subject to sexual violence. “My heart is broken from the fact that after October 7, still, the world doesn’t understand that really we are at risk,” she says. “The response was horrible and heartbreaking.”

She thinks waking up the world is difficult because people outside Israel have a fixed perception of Israel. “It’s hard for them to realise we are sometimes the injured. Humanity thinks in stories and David and Goliath will forever be one of the main stories. David is a small and smart and good and beautiful, and Goliath is bad and ugly and evil and strong. We think about Israel as David always, and the world sees us as Goliath. That’s a very difficult story to change.”

Her book largely avoids politics or the Middle East conflict. Instead, it came from her own experience as a mother. With her parents ageing, she started wondering what it would be like if her child emigrated. “We usually talk about what we owe our kids and suddenly there’s a question. Can I ask my son to stay and live close to me just because he’s my son?”

The spark for Nina’s character came to Lapid after her experiences helping in a shelter for young women overcoming difficult situations. “I asked, how does a good girl get here? What makes them end up in in a shelter?”

Lapid grew up in Arad, and knows about life in a desert town where even the bright lights of Tel Aviv seem unattainable, as is Nina’s reality. Controversially, she gives voice to Nina’s abuser; a choice even her publisher questioned. But she lived with the character for too long not to give him voice. “I don’t know a lot of evil guys, but I know each one is telling himself a story that he is a good person – that he wants to save his family, that he didn’t have any other choice. I wanted to spotlight that.”

On Her Own is being adapted for television in Israel, with Lapid co-writing. “I’m suddenly at the bottom,” she says delightedly. It’s enough to keep her busy, along with campaigning and supporting her husband’s efforts. As someone so passionate and eloquent, I wonder, would she run for office?

“No, no, no,” she laughs. “I see how difficult it is. It’s really interesting to be next to him, because I see the power. You can change things, do wonderful things. That’s one side and the other is how much hate and lies and trolling there is. I see both sides.”

As, no doubt, will Victoria Starmer.

On Her Own is published by HarperVia, an imprint of HarperCollins

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