Morally unqualified candidates in Jewish organizational elections

According to the rules governing elections in the United States and Israel, the answer is sometimes yes. In the upcoming elections for one Jewish organization, however, the answer is always no.

June 22, 2019 22:02
4 minute read.
The Plenary Hall during the election night for European elections at the European Parliament

A general view of the Plenary Hall during the election night for European elections at the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, May 27, 2019. (photo credit: FRANCOIS LENOIR / REUTERS)


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Should there be moral criteria for disqualifying someone from running for public office?

According to the rules governing elections in the United States and Israel, the answer is sometimes yes. In the upcoming elections for one Jewish organization, however, the answer is always no.

In many states in the US, a person who is convicted of a felony is barred from running for public office. In some states, the felony in question must be one that involves “moral turpitude” in order for the person to be prevented from running. US law defines “moral turpitude” as “an act or behavior that gravely violates the sentiment or accepted standard of the community.”

The “moral turpitude” factor is also a consideration in Israel’s legal and electoral systems. Someone convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude is barred from serving in the Knesset or the cabinet for seven years after he has completed his sentence.

There are no such grounds for disqualification in the upcoming elections that this particular Jewish movement will hold to choose delegates to its next year’s world congress.

Naturally, there are various technical criteria that a candidate or slate must meet. A candidate has to be Jewish, at least 18 years old, and a citizen or permanent resident of the US. There are fees that have to be paid, deadlines that need to be met, and gender and age requirements for certain slots.

But “there are no other current provisions in the AZM or World Zionist Organization election rules,” nor are there “any other provisions in the constitutions of AZM or WZO,” that would disqualify a candidate, AZM executive director Herbert Block confirmed to me this week.

Which means that despicable personal behavior, even the kind that involves hurting innocent people, won’t stop anybody from running.

One rabbi was a candidate on the Religious Zionist List in the 2002 and 2006 elections. A few years later, the rabbi resigned from his pulpit in Riverdale, New York, after it was alleged that he had been showering, and engaging in other inappropriate behavior, with teenage boys from his congregation.

Nothing in the AZM’s rules would prevent him from being a candidate once again.

ANOTHER CANDIDATE, a sociologist, ran on the “Friends of Labor” list. Last year, eight women came forward to say that he sexually harassed or molested them. The candidate then admitted that he had engaged in “inappropriate behavior” which “hurt” numerous women. According to the AZM’s rules, his behavior would not disqualify him.

I asked Kenneth Bob, president of Ameinu (as the Labor Zionists of America are now known), if he would be willing to consider this person for his group’s upcoming list of candidates. While emphasizing that he prefers “not to speak about individuals or hypothetical scenarios,” Bob said that “one of the criteria for candidates who appear on Ameinu’s slate for the World Zionist Congress elections should be their personal and professional behavior, not just political or organizational positions. We will do the best job we can in the run up to the elections to follow these guidelines.”

That’s reassuring, but voluntary compliance is no substitute for an official AZM regulation. Can we trust other American Jewish groups to follow Ameinu’s lead and properly police themselves?

This problem is by no means theoretical. There will be at least several candidates in the upcoming race whose actions merit especially careful scrutiny.

The president of one American Jewish organization has been the subject of multiple allegations of harassment. As matters currently stand, no evidence against him – neither the women’s testimony, nor hospital records, nor anything else – would suffice to bar him from the race.

The leader of one US Jewish organization was fined $450,000 by a Massachusetts court for refusing to repair crumbling piers that he owned in the Boston harbor. Because of his “years of neglect” – during which he ignored repeated complaints – the piers had become “dangerous” to the public, according to the state’s attorney-general. One of the city’s conservation commissioners called him “the equivalent of a slumlord.” And at least one local resident was injured as a result of the “decrepit” condition of the rotting piers, according to news reports.

Yet under the AZM’s current rules, a court’s ruling would not disqualify a “religious” slumlord from running in the upcoming election.

“Moral turpitude” is an important concept in American and Israeli public life. American Jews should take it no less seriously.

The writer is a member of the steering committee of the Committee on Ethics in Jewish Leadership, and coauthor of The Historical Dictionary of Zionism.

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