In my own write: Holier than thou

What kind of test for Israeli society is the Lupolianski case?

December 30, 2014 22:22
Olmert corruption trial

Olmert corruption trial. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Distinguishing what we are and what we are not responsible for... is one of the greatest problems of human existence.... we must continually assess where our responsibilities lie in the ever-changing course of events – ‘The Road Less Travelled’ by M. Scott Peck

I APPROACH this column with trepidation lest it be interpreted less as a bid to understand human complexity and more as an attempt to pass judgment; and also because the case is so painful.

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But the issue of Uri Lupolianski’s sentencing to prison for six years for bribe-taking in the corrupt Holyland residential project affair – the same sentence as meted out to former prime minister Ehud Olmert – has troubled me ever since I read an op-ed in last week’s Jerusalem Post by rabbinical judge (dayan) Shmuel Jakobovits, followed some days later by a series of very cogent readers’ letters.

Entitled “The Lupolianski case – a test for Israeli society” (December 23), the op-ed portrayed the conviction of the haredi former Jerusalem mayor – “one of the most exemplary figures in Israeli society, a paragon of hesed (lovingkindness or beneficence), humility and integrity” – as an assault on our society’s “ethical, social and educational” values and on “the essence of hesed” in Israel.

Is Jakobovits correct, and what kind of test for society is the Lupolianski case?

THERE CAN be few people in Israel today who are unfamiliar with Yad Sarah, an organization started by Lupolianski and his wife, Michal, 30 years ago in their modest Jerusalem apartment to collect and lend out medical and rehabilitative equipment to the needy and sick. From these small beginnings, Yad Sarah has grown into the largest voluntary organization in Israel, providing a wide range of free or nominal-cost services designed to make life easier for ailing, disabled and elderly people and their families.

Equally, there can be few people unaware that Lupolianski did not pocket any of the bribe money but channeled the more than NIS 2 million shekels to Yad Sarah.

Nevertheless, Judge David Rozen wrote in his sentencing that Lupolianski had been “aware of the hundreds of thousands of shekels funneled as ‘contributions’ to Yad Sarah for many years, during which he served as deputy mayor of Jerusalem, head of the Planning and Building Committee, and later on, mayor of Jerusalem.” The judge also imposed a fine of NIS 500,000 on the former mayor, who suffers from cancer.

Hundreds of volunteers called Yad Sarah headquarters in disbelief when they learned of Lupolianski’s sentence back in June of this year. On December 1, his lawyers appealed the sentence to the High Court, along with appeals by the lawyers of the other nine defendants in the case. It is speculated that the court could take anywhere from two months to a year to hand down its decision in a case of such complexity involving so many high-profile defendants.

A FRIEND who suffered a bad fall some time ago and is now back at home after surgery and hospitalization is emphatic about her sentiments for Lupolianski and against Rozen’s judgment.

“Lupolianski is the most unselfish person I’ve heard of,” she said. “I’ve had a lot of trouble this year, and I can take a shower by myself because of Yad Sarah. A lot of aids I use are their property, or things they taught me.”

What about the bribe he took? I asked her.

“I think it’s perfectly fine,” she stated, “and that the judge was ill-advised. If Lupolianski can get money out of people for this wonderful project he started, to me it doesn’t matter [how] because it was a tremendous boon to anyone who got sick in this city.”

So in this particular case, the end justifies the means? I asked.

“Yes, absolutely. What he did has enormous value. He is an angel from heaven.”

I APPRECIATE the tremendous need for hesed in society. Its value cannot be overstated, and the more good deeds that shine in a naughty world, the better. And there is no question that, as Shmuel Jakobovits wrote in his op-ed, Uri Lupolianski is a “paragon of hesed,” a man whose untiring efforts have immeasurably helped countless people in need.

He is, moreover, known to be a modest man and it seems unlikely that he took the bribe money, as has been said, in the interest of personal aggrandizement.

But was he, in this case, “an exemplary figure”? What kind of example is it to ordinary folk when a public figure accepts a bribe? He unselfishly used the money to help others, yes, but what lesson are we to learn from this as regards our own conduct – that the end justifies the means? It must have been a terrific temptation for him to accept a bribe for a charitable cause so dear to his heart, but was it an act of integrity to take it? For better or worse – we hope for better – we look to our public figures to show us the right way to behave.

Judge Rozen: “The defendant’s actions served to undermine the public’s confidence in its leaders.”

Lupolianski used the bribe money to do a good thing, but that was just one side of the deal; on the other side, the contractors and other officials who paid him gained in return his approval for a bad thing – what Haaretz termed “an environmental, architectural and planning crime against the capital and its residents.”

AS A pious Jew, one Post reader wrote, Lupolianski should have hearkened to the “overarching admonition to build a fence around the Torah” and should have “cared most strenuously that his identification with Yad Sarah not blind him to the essential justice of preventing a bribe, regardless of the beneficiary.”

Another reader pointed out “a principle of our sages that the most virtuous of humans are judged by the most minute standards,” giving the example of Moses, who was not allowed to enter the Promised Land on account of what many would regard as a minor act of disobedience, especially when set against his great achievements.

I thought of the Greek philosopher Socrates, who was wrongfully imprisoned by the authorities but refused the chance of escape because of his “social contract” with the state, which was to obey its laws.

IF THE Lupolianski case is a test for Israeli society, perhaps it is a test of whether or not even the most “angelic” individuals are subject to the law, equal in its eyes to ordinary citizens.

That said, the feeling among legal experts is that Lupolianski has the best chance of all the defendants of having his sentence commuted, perhaps even canceled, when the High Court of Appeal finally hands down its decision, partly because he did not take any of the money for himself but directed it to charity, and not least because of his failing health.

JUDGE ROZEN has been criticized for imposing such a stiff sentence on the former mayor. Among a number of possible explanations, consider this: The judge knew that Lupolianski’s lawyers would appeal his ruling, and he was reasonably sure that the High Court would show more leniency in Lupolianski’s case than with the other defendants. At the same time, he wanted in no uncertain terms to make the point that taking a bribe is always wrong. To drive this point home, he was ready to be labeled “harsh” and “cruel.”

His sentence of Lupolianski also stands as a counter to the idea that money is fungible, in effect stating that tainted funds cannot be laundered via good works.

“Israel is not Sherwood Forest,” wrote one reader to the Post’s letters column, “and the former Jerusalem mayor is not Robin Hood.”

To which one might add: And Judge Rozen is not the evil Sheriff of Nottingham.

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