Ethics @ Work: Corrupt perception?

Even though public figures of old did display more shame at breaking ethical norms, we may ask if these norms were entirely appropriate.

A survey presented this week at the Sderot conference indicates that the majority of Israelis think corruption here is getting worse. The majority are in good company: two prestigious international indices - the Corruption Index of Transparency International and the Governance Index of the World Bank - also claim that government in Israel is going downhill. The problem with this perception is that it goes against common sense. Let's get past the vague word "corruption" and concentrate on specific phenomena. Political appointments: In recent years, Israel's comptroller has been examining upper-level appointments in certain ministries, which are logically "professional" positions yet have been dominated by allies of the minister. The ministers involved reply that the appointees have good professional standing, and that many are in positions of trust. Does anybody think this situation is worse than in the fabled days of the "red ledger," when party membership was a critical qualification for even low-level government jobs? Private benefit from public office: This is the parameter measured by Transparency International. A recent high-profile case involved certain MKs who went on fact-finding missions abroad at the expense of some private companies. Does this point to a decline in ethical values? Quite the opposite. As many of these legislators pointed out, until a few years ago this kind of trip was not against any law or regulation, and was a completely standard practice. Now these trips are subject to the approval of an ethics committee. Furthermore, it is not inherently unethical to have a powerful lobby pay to present its point, as long as reasonable standards of transparency are maintained. Does anybody think that this situation is worse than the fabled days when a leading Jewish Agency official responded to charges that an underling was lining his pockets with the biblical verse: "Don't muzzle an ox in his threshing"? In those days, fighting corruption was considered unethical punishment for the officials involved! Governance: Many Israelis were scandalized recently to learn that disciplining wayward judges is the responsibility of - other judges! It is true that the judicial system in Israel is still a throwback to the bad old days, and that sitting judges not only have a decisive role in appointing new ones, but also in disciplining current ones. But this opaque Byzantine system is quite suited to our clubby judiciary (even the Cohen decision was made public only at the discretion of the disciplinary panel, which generally keeps it discussions and judgments secret) which is accustomed to controlling far wider swathes of Israeli public life. Does anybody think this situation is worse than when the police were solely in charge of investigating police misbehavior, and when all branches of public life considered it actually unethical to "air their dirty laundry in public"? A recent president refused to honor a whistle-blower, asserting that he couldn't give a prize to a shtinker (fink). Could this happen today? Even though public figures of old did display more shame at breaking ethical norms, we may ask if these norms were entirely appropriate. Much has been made of the fact that Yitzchak Rabin resigned when it was discovered his wife had an illegal dollar account abroad, but we may ask whether this prohibition wasn't itself an example of a political elite imposing oppressive norms on the average citizen. Even then we could have asked where is the shame that should come with keeping the average Israeli imprisoned in a rigid currency regime. If indeed the violation of norms is becoming somewhat commonplace, this is only because the norms themselves have become so stringent. Institutionalized corruption is being replaced by the private kind. Now, I am absolutely, completely in favor of this continual process of raising the bar, but this is a far cry from believing that the situation is deteriorating. THIS STILL leaves the puzzle of the seemingly objective measures of Transparency International and the World Bank. I have been poring over the World Bank report and its statistical appendices to try and unravel this mystery, and a full accounting will have to wait for a forthcoming article. Right now I am convinced that the decline is a statistical artifact due to the addition of components to the indices. For example, the World Bank's six governance indicators are made up of dozens of components, and since 1996 over 20 new surveys have been conducted! My impression is that the new surveys are simply less Israel-friendly than the old ones. This doesn't mean they are less accurate; it could be that our current, lower ranking is more accurate than our more favorable 1996 standing. Still, I believe it means that the decline per se is illusory. I think the same phenomenon afflicts a number of advanced countries; the Netherlands also shows a decline in all six measures since 1998, and even squeaky-clean Singapore shows a decline in most. There is plenty of corruption in Israel, both institutionalized and freelance, and I am all in favor of efforts to root it out through increased punishment (as recently recommended by the comptroller), electoral reform (as proposed by some candidates in our current campaign), and of course an indignant public which wants to know "Where's the shame?!" Nonetheless, I can't agree with the widespread perception that this corrosive influence on our public life is getting worse. The writer is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem (, an independent institute in The Jerusalem College of Technology. He is also a rabbi.