Never codified or officially defined, the role of First Lady in Israel involves political campaigns, engagement in social causes, and representation of the president at ceremonies and other official occasions.
In Israel, there is no “first lady.” The closest thing to this is the spouse of the state president. The equivalent to the position of First Lady in most other countries is the prime minister’s wife, as the role of state president in Israel is one of lesser influence. In fact, during a 2018 visit by US Vice President Mike Pence, the announcer during a state ceremony introduced the prime minister’s wife as “First Lady Sara Netanyahu,” which later sparked a media outcry.
While the spouses of high-ranking officials are often looked upon with admiration for their public service efforts, Sara Netanyahu is a favorite target for slander by the Israeli public and media.
Born in 1958 in Kiryat Tivon, she is a psychologist and holds an MA from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In 1980, she married Doron Neuberger, but the two divorced 7 years later. In March 1991, she married Benjamin Netanyahu, who was then a Member of Knesset and deputy minister.
Sara Netanyahu’s public image is a negative one, to the point where even staunch Bibi supporters openly express animosity towards her. Most of the allegations she faces relate to poor human relations, and the fact that she has an unusual influence on her husband’s decisions, especially regarding senior job appointments.
To give an example, in an article published by the German newspaper Bild in 2012, Benjamin Netanyahu said that Sara convinced him to agree to the Shalit Deal with Hamas, which included the release of about 1,000 terrorists, of whom 280 were sentenced to life for carrying out and planning terrorist attacks in Israel, in exchange for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
In a different affair that made waves in the media, the Walla! News portal published audio recordings in which Sara can be heard screaming at a Netanyahu household adviser over a media report regarding her public activities. The reason for the outrage: the article failed to mention that she is a psychologist.
Netanyahu also filed many libel claims against various publications and journalists. In addition, her attitude towards household workers at the Prime Minister’s Residence is notorious for catching headlines and reaching court doors.
Just last Tuesday, Sara Netanyahu filed a civil law suit against Sylvie Gencia and Moriah Cleaning Services for breach of privacy, breach of contract and defamation, demanding compensation of NIS 200,000 (about $58,000). This is in response to a law suit against the PM’s wife for her own offensive behavior.
Gencia’s testimony is truly horrifying. In an interview on “Ofira & Berkovich” on Channel 12, she shared some of the things happening in the Netanyahu household:
“She [Sara Netanyahu] told me to kiss her feet. I was so ashamed. I have children and grandchildren. I was ashamed to speak up, I have no choice but to tell the truth. Everything is written in my journal. I would arrive in the morning and never knew when I would be leaving. Twelve hours without food, without drinking, although at one point it worked out and I got a 10-minute break. I only dealt with Sara. I have experienced humiliation, terrible things. She said I was dumb, that my hands were bloodied.”
Gencia had only good things to say about Benjamin Netanyahu, and on occasion she asked him to calm his wife down. Gencia also told News 12 that “Sara Netanyahu threatened me with an iron. She is not a healthy woman in her mind.”
Sara has already adapted the same strategy as that of her husband during the recent election campaign by claiming the allegations against her are false, and that Gencia was “planted” in her household in order to mooch money and muddy the Netanyahu name. I’m going to remind the readers that this is not the first time complaints have arisen from the Netanyahu home; allegations of salary deprivation, unfair terms of employment and use of verbal violence have reached court more than once.
This adds to a long chain of affairs that continue to taint the reputation of the unofficial First Lady of the State of Israel. It is highly unfortunate that a public figure such as her should continue to stand in a negative light of the public’s eye, especially since her husband will soon stand in court on serious allegations himself.
Sara Netanyahu has donated to lone soldiers and other important organizations like Yad Sarah, and been an advocate for Holocaust survivors. She has the influence and resources to stir change in a positive direction. If only she could stay out of media’s camera lens and outside of the courtroom.