Doctors, sporting figures, officials in the Tax Authority, leading businessmen, Knesset members, a finance minister, a prime minister. Really, given the relentless sludge of corruption allegations that has blighted Israel in recent years – some of them still open to legal contest; all too many of them proven – nothing should surprise us any more.
And yet Wednesday’s arrest of Jerusalem’s former mayor Uri Lupolianski, amid allegations that he obtained millions of shekels in “donations” for the magnificent Yad Sarah, and smaller sums for his political benefit and for a kollel run by one of his sons, in return for expediting the construction of the Holyland hilltop eyesore in southwest Jerusalem, marks a new low.
Yad Sarah is the country’s foremost volunteer organization – dedicated in large part to helping keep ailing Israelis in their own homes and out of institutions for as long as they can manage.
Working to alleviate some of the difficulties of daily life for the elderly, the infirm and the disabled, it loans out medical equipment, arranges transportation, provides emergency alarms and offers a vast range of other services to hundreds of thousands of Israelis each year. Indeed, it estimates that one in two Israeli families has used its services at one time or another.
It also provides constructive work for a small army of volunteers, many of them retired, staffing its 100-plus branches, fixing that medical equipment, giving something back to Israeli society.
Lupolianski was Yad Sarah’s charismatic founder in 1976, naming it after a grandmother who died in the Holocaust. A former IDF paramedic and school teacher, he was the smiling, tolerant, unthreatening face of haredi Judaism in Israel – a man who seemed modest, honest and decent and who, remarkably, had managed to retain that reputation through five years as Jerusalem’s mayor.
Many is the Jerusalemite who has been kicking himself or herself in the past few days as the Holyland scandal has snowballed, asking how it was that a residential development so blatantly, so ostentatiously unsuited to the gently rolling contours of our city had been allowed to proceed, when it defied and departed from all other planning norms, and why it was that we had allowed it rise when only corruption could account for its official sanction.
Many is the Jerusalemite, moved to new depths of skepticism about the propriety of most anything approved by our ostensible public servants, who has now taken to questioning the integrity of any number of other recent grandiose capital projects, including that bridge to nowhere at the entrance to our city and the obscenely under-planned, over budget and perpetually delayed light rail system.
But though all eyes have been on our returning world-traveling former prime minister Ehud Olmert, few of those who do not closely monitor the corridors of city power, I suspect, would have anticipated Lupolianski being named at the alleged heart of the scandal, even though he had chaired the relevant planning and building committee as the Holyland project was being pushed ahead over a furious chorus of locals’ objections.
Now, though, it is being reported that the state comptroller was
alerted as far back as five years ago to suspicions concerning a
curious pattern of donations to Yad Sarah that allegedly mirrored
approvals for various city construction projects.
It should be stressed that Yad Sarah on Wednesday firmly denied any
connection to the alleged corruption, and that Lupolianski also
insisted on his innocence and was reported to have cooperated fully
with his police questioners and to have provided answers to everything
he was asked.
The trouble is, reportedly, that those answers did not suffice to dispel the corruption cloud that has enveloped him.