Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar is one of the more personable and popular among the array of politicos in our ever-boisterous arena. He is also reputed to have been good at his job. All this propelled him to the No. 2 slot on the Likud candidates list (No. 3 in the unified ticket with Yisrael Beytenu).

Success often breeds enemies – first and foremost within the political sphere – but antagonists can also lurk in the family circle and social milieu. They can sling mud.

That is the scenario painted by sources described as “close to Sa’ar” in response to a letter that alleges he conducted inappropriate sexual relations with an office subordinate. The letter, which is only initialed, indeed appears highly suspect, especially as the only woman with the given initials in Sa’ar’s work vicinity hotly denies she wrote it.

Moreover, the operative request in that letter – that Sa’ar not be appointed to ministerial office again – speaks volumes. It imparts the impression of a vindictive motive, regardless of the facts of the matter. The letter was, additionally, accompanied by numerous SMS messages in the same vein. This smacks of an outright campaign.

We of course have no independent means of getting to the bottom of this specific imbroglio. But this case has far wider implications that ought to trouble our society.

We are a small, insular society and the influential innermost concentric circles of our society are even smaller. Any rumor is likely to spread like wildfire in these circumstances, intensifying the damage. Salacious gossip mongering is a powerful weapon.

At the heart of our concern is the ease with which reputations can be sullied. Without a direct complaint by a supposed victim, it is very hard to substantiate any innuendo.

Nonetheless, even the preliminary probe by police – an artificial term that seemingly distinguishes it from a full-blown investigation – means delving into Sa’ar’s personal affairs to some degree or another. That in itself reenergizes the titillation that in turn makes some mud stick even without proof of malfeasance.

This reality is not unknown to the attorney-general who ordered the probe. He was admittedly in a tight spot. He could not avoid investigation, but it was clear that any investigation, under whichever moniker it went, meant attendant publicity that perforce fanned the insinuations. The media hype alone offers instant reward to whoever set out to smear Sa’ar.

But our legal system is not guiltless. It was reluctant to investigate and then to prosecute the counterfeiters who produced the “Harpaz Document” that targeted then-candidate for chief of the IDF General Staff, Maj.-Gen. Yoav Galant in 2010. The foot-dragging and obfuscation lasted till the state comptroller’s involvement. To this day nobody has been tried for the forgery.

This can only encourage other would-be falsifiers. It appears that they can hurl mud with impunity and that, even if the sham is eventually exposed for what it is, their victim will not survive uninjured. Careers and personal lives can both be destroyed even without a smoking gun to corroborate the finger-pointing.

Gone are the days when even the smoking gun was ignored. Moshe Dayan, for example, proved invulnerable to relentless exposés of his womanizing and illicit dealings in archeological artifacts. People knew, but Dayan was a national hero, albeit a naughty one.

Ours is no longer the age of heroes. Fear of defamation, gross invasion of privacy and the resultant possible disgrace in the eyes of an uncharitable public can dissuade the most talented and worthy of individuals from entering the political fray.

This creates a harmful process of negative selection. As things are, only candidates with extra-thick skins dare venture into the merciless political arena. The dermatologically challenged stand to be defeated by the unbearable dread of stigma, even in the absence of an obvious transgression.

Thus the best potential leaders might be put off from running, leaving the field open only to those who had developed protective armor capable of deflecting anything.

The latter are not necessarily the best in our midst. We all pay the penalty for this collective loss.

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