Baron Edmond de Rothschild, unkempt and disheveled, ran shouting through the lobby of the Dan Hotel in Tel Aviv. He was waving both hands wildly in the air: “Nous avons gangé! Nous avons gangé!” (“We have won! We have won!”).
It was the last day of the Six Day War, June 10, 1967. Edmond de Rothschild loved Israel, but he was also a banker, scion of bankers, named after his grandfather, “The Father of the Yishuv.”
Edmond had a falling-out with then finance minister Pinchas Sapir. Sapir was a brilliant man, deceptively “plain” in his manners and mannerisms, who could easily be a butt of jokes: he spoke with “w” in place of an “l.” Thus his home area in Poland, Lomza (Lomzhe in Yiddish) was pronounced “Womzhe,” etc.
He was the powerhouse of industrial development in Israel, and deserves a full column. But for today, let’s just say that Sapir lived in a modest apartment in the then backwater Kfar Saba.
Rothschild was due to fly into Israel, and Sapir – so the peacemakers arranged – would pick him up at the airport in his official car, and on to Kfar Saba for a tête-a-tête home lunch. In the words of Sapir’s assistant, Simcha Pops, there was not one chair in the small apartment that matched another. Simcha, ahead of the planned visit, went to Kfar Saba, to convince Mrs.
Sapir to let him buy a set of matching chairs in honor of a Rothschild. Simcha was ushered out of the house without additional ceremony. What had been good enough over the decades was good enough! Rothschild or no Rothschild. Period!
My question about the early prime ministers
“They were not corrupt!” was one response.
“They cared about the country,” was another.
These were some of the answers to my question: ”What is the difference between the early prime ministers and those of today?” The venue: I gave a talk to the Retried Active Persons group of the Association of Americans and Canadians in Jerusalem, into which some Britons had infiltrated. Most of the participants were old-timers, and none that I could tell from the later discussion were people of the Left. The subject was, of course, “The Early Prime Ministers of Israel,” and my opening gambit was a way of beginning with audience participation.
We are dealing with perceptions, of course. Nonetheless, if we take an objective measuring stick, they had a point. As far as I know, David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Sharett, Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir did not have wealth to bequeath their heirs. On the right, Menachem Begin lived for years in a tiny apartment in Tel Aviv, and was a true symbol of rectitude. Yitzhak Shamir was similarly a person of probity. All of them shared one attribute.
They were not wealthy. What they bequeathed would not be more than any hard-working civil servant could accumulate over a lifetime.
What did my audience mean when they said that the early prime ministers were not corrupt? That today’s are? If today’s leaders are corrupt, have they not been made to face investigation, prosecution in some instances, and often trials by our courts? Perhaps that is what they meant. Financial ill-doing.
But is that the only kind of corruption in public life?
THIS COLUMN is not concerned with this type of corruption.
It is not even referring to the cases brought against later prime ministers and even presidents.
These ugly and diseased boils have been pierced by investigation. They have been dealt with, for better or for worse, by the courts.
I am writing about values and the loss of values. I am writing about respect for the electorate. I am writing about – if not morality – a sense of modesty, a sense of proportion.
When I was studying Talmud, one of our rabbis taught us that the basis of morality is a sense of shame. Young, idealistic and untried by life, I felt morality should be positive.
“Love thy neighbor,“ rather than “Turn away from evil” just out of shame. But when the first cases of major corruption became public knowledge in the 1970s, two of the accused committed suicide. One, housing minister Avraham Ofer, maintained he was innocent but could not ”bear it any longer.”
“It” – the shame heaped upon him and reflected onto his family.
This was an object and tragic lesson that shame is a powerful force for public morality. Ofer was never prosecuted. He took his life out of shame.
There is another form of moral corruption, the corruption of power. It is that of wealthy political leaders living in luxury at the expense of – no, not of the state – at the expense of the poor of this country, at the expense of the young couples who cannot make ends meet, let alone buy an apartment.
In Yiddish, when faced by shameless behavior, we would ask, “Vu iz di shande?” (“Where is the shame?”) And there is the dreadfully dangerous corruption of national megalomania.
Does Israel really need a White House? Does this little nation of eight million need an Israeli Air Force One? Can basic laws, our makeshift constitution, be changed or abolished on a whim? Micah the Prophet of two-anda- half millennia ago lived in a small village in Judea, a kind of tiny Kfar Saba of his time. He is the one who reduced the biblical commandments to three: Be just, be kind, and walk humbly....
Moral corruption – corruption by power – bears the seeds of its own political destruction. That is the price leaders pay when they walk, not humbly, but when they stride shamelessly out of step with the modest lifestyle of the vast majority of us.
Out of step with our role in the world. Out of step with what was taught in words by a fellow- Judean centuries ago, and by example by a Polish Jew here a short generation ago.
Avraham Avi-hai has known all of Israel’s prime ministers and worked under the early ones. His doctoral thesis was a political study of David Ben-Gurion. Avihai has filled many public and academic roles, and has been a featured lecturer in most major Diaspora communities. His novel A Tale of Two Avrahams was recently released by Gefen Publishing in Israel and abroad, and is available on Amazon and Kindle.