Corruption in proportion

Against the backdrop of Remembrance Day and Independence Day, the harsh allegations of graft, kickbacks and bribery give us particular pause.

April 20, 2010 23:04
3 minute read.
Former prime minister Ehud Olmert speaks with Jeru

olmert with lopolianski 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])


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We temporarily pushed aside Holyland corruption revelations this week to celebrate our independence, having first honored those who sacrificed their lives to make sovereignty possible. But now that the collective feelings of tearful remembrance and prideful self-determination have been marked, the nation must turn once again to the sordid details of what has been dubbed by the media “the real-estate scandal of the century.”

Considered against the backdrop of Remembrance Day and Independence Day, the harsh realities of graft, kickbacks and bribery allegedly infecting the highest echelon of political leadership give us particular pause. The scandal is fueling a sense of outrage, bitterness, even betrayal. But even as we encourage the police and the state prosecution to work efficiently to expose and punish illegalities, we should resist the temptation to despair at what can sometimes seem like a gradual deterioration of morals caused by hedonism and the capitalist effects of globalization. For a start, there have arguably been worse times in Israeli history.

Already in the early 1950s, in a socialist economy tightly controlled by austerity programs, the establishment of “dollar shops” that granted privileges to those few who could obtain foreign currency from abroad sparked a heated debate on deteriorating moral standards.

In the 1960s, Mapai’s “New Guard” (Moshe Dayan, Shimon Peres, Abba Eban) launched an unsuccessful attack on the senior leadership of their own party, especially against Pinchas Lavon, then secretary-general of the all-powerful Histadrut labor federation, calling for meritocracy to replace protekzia (nepotism).

By the 1970s, the Israeli public refused to accept the way Mapai – known by that time as the Alignment – distributed political favors and economic patronage with the arrogant confidence of a traditional aristocracy.

“Kicking through a rotting door” is the way Prof. Bernard Avishai described the Likud’s 1977 election victory. Incumbent prime minister Yitzhak Rabin had been forced to step down in a mini-scandal about an illegal US dollar bank account. Housing minister and Mapai leader Avraham Ofer had committed suicide before he could be thoroughly investigated. Other key officials such as Asher Yadlin and Michael Tzur were jailed on corruption charges.

SOME CLAIM that Israeli corruption is a direct result of a revolutionary break with the past. Zionism’s founding fathers rejected the exile – which was seen as an abnormal reality of groveling powerlessness and humiliating rootlessness. The rich traditions of the Diaspora associated with this “exile mentality” were systematically uprooted and replaced with a secular socialist ethic. However, as socialism waned and was gradually replaced with capitalism, a yawning moral vacuum was all that remained.

Others claim that the problem is our inordinate dependence on the largesse of affluent Diaspora Jews. This would appear to explain why Ezer Weizman was forced to cut short his stint as president after allegedly accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts from a French textiles magnate between 1988 and 1993, and why former prime minister Ariel Sharon came under scrutiny for his connections with a South Africa-based British businessman.

Whatever the reason, the insidious effects of political corruption are devastating to any country. But for Israel, which is under constant existential threat, this is doubly so.

The decisions of political leaders have immediate life or death ramifications for the soldier on the battlefield, for the citizen of Sderot or for the potential terror victims – in short for everyone. That’s why Israelis have always had zero tolerance for any kind of political misconduct. It’s also the reason there have been relatively few cases of corruption throughout the nation’s history. After all, what politician has the gall to forsake soldiers and citizens who depend so completely on their good judgment.

Anyone who this week was exposed to the personal stories of soldiers who fell in Israel’s seven wars and countless battles, recounted by the courageous families and fellow soldiers they left behind, or who witnessed the tens of thousands who gathered at Rabin Square to honor the deceased in quiet song, or who stood singing Hatikva in one of the hundreds of ceremonies that took place around the nation, knows that the vast majority of Israelis have not lost their faith in Jewish sovereignty, with all its imperfections.

Though we should never stop aspiring to moral perfection as befits the Jewish people, failures, and yes even occasional corruption scandals, are part of the price we pay for realizing a dream.

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