Ethics@work: Zamir Committee a step backwards for Knesset ethics

This error was to outsource the creation of the code to outsiders.

Business ethics 88 (photo credit: )
Business ethics 88
(photo credit: )
As a person whose career is devoted to promoting organizational ethics, I wish I could praise the work being done to create a code of ethics for Knesset members. Although I do think the idea of creating an ethics code is a worthy one, unfortunately, the process is so ill-conceived and the results thus far so disappointing, that there is virtually no chance that the current process will improve governance in our legislature. Things got off to a promising start. Ethics standards expected of Knesset members have changed drastically in the almost 60 years our legislature has been in existence. It was decided that a committee should be established to create uniform standards of ethical behavior for lawmakers. However, an elementary error was made in the formation of this committee - an error that made an effective job an impossibility. This error was to outsource the creation of the code to outsiders. Stephen Covey's 1989 book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, was one of the main forces driving the trend towards creating mission statements and ethics statements for organizations. Regarding mission statements, Covey writes: "And to be effective, that statement has to come from within the bowels of the organization. Everyone should participate in a meaningful way - " not just the top strategy planners, but everyone. Once again, the involvement process is as important as the written product and is the key to its use." This principle has since been confirmed in countless organizations, by commission and omission. If everyone is involved a code will succeed; if not it will fail. An instructive Israeli example is the IDF's code of conduct, the "Spirit of the IDF." I heard a lecture by Major General Elazar Stern, who was intimately connected with the process of introducing this code. Stern explained that the first draft of the code was formulated by a small group of individuals, "the top strategy planners," also including outside experts. As a result, the code was viewed by the average soldier and commander as totally irrelevant. Only when the entire process was restarted with the involvement of all levels of IDF staff was a workable and relevant code attained. Sadly, the Knesset did not heed this well-established principle. If it had, the committee would have been made up of sitting and former Knesset members with perhaps a handful of outside experts. Instead, the opposite occurred: Of the nine members of the committee, only three are current or former Knesset members: Ruchama Avraham, Uzi Baram, and Chaim Korfu. Two are judges: Yitzchak Zamir and Yitzchak Eliasaf. Two are lawyers, one a jurist and one, Asa Kasher, a professor of ethics. Here we have the bizarre prospect of a document on ethics for legislators being dominated (five out of nine) by jurists who are experts neither in creating legislation nor in ethics. Even the chairman of the committee is not a Knesset member, but rather a former judge. Let us compare this to the ethics committee that formulated a basic code of ethics for the Israeli Psychologists Organization, a document I have cited in the past. This committee consists of six members, all of whom are practicing psychologists. The chairman, Professor Gaby Shefler, is a renowned psychologist who also made a special study of ethics. Even granting, for the sake of argument, that extensive expertise in the law is a necessity for creating an ethics code for legislators, I ask: Out of the hundreds of present and former Knesset members, who are responsible for creating our law, was it impossible to find a few who are experts in law? Are there none who are experts in ethics? It is obvious that scores of Knesset members and veterans are leading legal experts, and many are experts in ethics as well. The makeup of this committee is a classic example of the very dangerous tendency for the legal establishment to spread its hegemony over the other branches of government in Israel. A sharp warning on this trend was recently made by Professor Amnon Rubinstein, who as a former Knesset member and an expert in law and ethics would have been the ideal person to head this committee. It is impossible here to give a detailed analysis of the draft code created by this committee. Much of the code is logical and uncontroversial. But there are some sections that clearly betray the committee's makeup. For example, one provision of the draft code is to create a new position - an "Ethics Representative" of the Knesset. I personally am not partial to this suggestion, since I am always wary of creating new and cumbersome levels of supervision that impede governance, but this is just a personal inclination. Many organizations do find that an ethics officer or ombudsman can make a constructive contribution to governance. What I find inexcusable is the way this official is chosen: by a public committee of five members, whose chairperson would be by law a former judge. Why should the head of a Knesset committee charged with choosing a Knesset functionary be a judge? But the scandal has only begun. This judge is not to be chosen by the Knesset, but rather by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court! I cannot think of anything more illogical, or more damaging. The best thing that could happen to this document is what happened to the first draft of the IDF code, as described by General Stern: It will fall by the wayside to be replaced by something developed from within the Knesset and thus more relevant. At the very least, we may hope that the Knesset will wake up and modify the code so as not to allow the High Court to take a legally guaranteed role in supervising Knesset activities. I am convinced that adoption of the draft code as is would be a dangerous step backwards for Knesset ethics. The writer is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem (, an independent institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology.