Middle Israel: Moshe Katsav and the end of Zionism

What does Rabbi Ovadia have to say as the man whose scale-tipping crowned an adulterer president?

amotz asa el 88 (photo credit: )
amotz asa el 88
(photo credit: )
Middle Israelis did not celebrate Moshe Katsav's sensational defeat of Shimon Peres in the 2000 presidential race. To us, that victory was the result of thievery, as haredi Knesset members had lied to Peres about the way they intended to vote. Peres may or may not have deserved the presidency back then, but he certainly didn't deserve to be humiliated. When we understood that a grand haredi lie not only decided that race, but did so at the expense of an aging Zionist icon, I dubbed the whole thing "the end of Zionism" - a statement Katsav later took out of context, suggesting I had referred to his own suitability for the presidency, rather than to the dubious way in which he won it. Seven years on, it is clear to me that that the Katsav presidency died in punishment because it was born in sin. Now, as the whole world stands astonished in the face of the presidency's desecration, it is also tempting to conclude that just as its emergence disgraced Zionism, so does its demise. It doesn't. SURELY, THE arrival at the presidency of a lackluster politician who, by their own admissions to police, fooled around with at least 11 female employees in different places at different times is shocking. And no hairsplitting of the sort so cynically deployed by Katsav's expensive lawyers vis-a-vis the courts will help when it comes to their client's judgment in the courts of history. The attorney-general may or may not have been right to fear that a rape charge would be impossible to prove. Yet that only leaves open the questions surrounding the frequency and extent of Katsav's misconduct. There is no debating any more, following his plea bargain, that Katsav hit on his secretaries and left the presidency prematurely, the very same presidency it took him such trickery to obtain. Yes, serious doubts now arise concerning the attorney-general's suitability for his job. Even grimmer thoughts come to mind concerning the circumstances of Menahem Mazuz's appointment by then-justice minister Tommy Lapid, Ariel Sharon's main political ally at the time, who knew he was appointing the man who would decide whether to indict Sharon for allegedly violating campaign-finance laws. And yet, disgraceful as all this clearly is, and bruising though it is for the Zionist enterprise, it nonetheless survives it. For at the end of the day, the Jewish state - through its media, legal system and non-governmental organizations - has detected an ailment in one of its limbs and treated it. This is so much more than Iran's leaders - who are gloating that the Katsav affair heralds the Jewish state's downfall - can say about their own political system. Israel, like all democracies, has its fair share of bad leaders, but the real test, once their appointments are made, is to undo them. Israel just passed one such test, for even if Katsav is not charged for all of what he did, and even if he is not punished as severely as he might have been, the fact is he has been driven from office and shamed. Now attention should turn to those who made this scandalous appointment happen in the first place. WHAT DO the Likud's leaders have to say about fielding Katsav's candidacy: that they didn't know of his conduct, or that they didn't care? If they couldn't see through their own colleague and nominee, how will they see through Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Bashar Assad or Ismail Haniyeh? And if they remained indifferent to Katsav's abuses of his secretaries, how will they treat other people's daily abuse by pushers, pimps, loan sharks, bookies, bureaucrats, regulators, inspectors and cops? Even more mind-boggling is Shas's role. What does Rabbi Ovadia Yosef have to say for himself as the man whose tipping of the scale crowned an adulterer president of the Jewish state? The cleric who made a career of pontificating to secular Israel now apparently feels so remorseful that he went out of his way to crown Shimon Peres. Fair enough, but consistency and decency, not to mention Jewish law, still demand he also assume responsibility for one of the worst cases of hilul hashem - the desecration of divinity - ever seen here. Then again, with all due respect, the sins committed in the presidential residence were not Yosef's, but Katsav's. IT WAS but a year ago last week that Katsav's secretary - wish I remembered her name - caught me on the cell phone in a school courtyard down in the Katamonim where I was enjoying, along with about a hundred other parents, our children's circus show. "President Katsav wants to discuss the Reform movement with you," said the female voice on the other end of the line. "Only in Israel," I thought to myself while surveying Shira's juggling of three red-black-and-yellow leather balls, with the Mar Elias Greek Orthodox monastery's bell tower peeking like a periscope above the horizon several miles beyond her head. It turned out Katsav was offended by my attack the previous week on his refusal to address Reform rabbis as rabbis. "As an Orthodox Jew," he said, "I cannot violate what the Orthodox rabbis instruct me, which is that the Hebrew term rav can by definition pertain only to the Orthodox." Moshe, one year on, I urge you to do what all rabbis would surely agree you must now do, and what you so stubbornly refuse to do: Repent. In standing up to Aleph and her colleagues, we the media were not out to spill your blood as you have accused, but to follow in the footsteps of Nathan the Prophet who, when witnessing abusive leadership, commanded us to side with the poor man's sheep. This is also what our Zionist ethos tells us as we derive our inspiration from Theodor Herzl, Ahad Ha'am, Ze'ev Jabotinsky and Berl Katzenelson - all of whom were journalists, and each of whom would have responded to your affair the way we have. Moshe, King David's response to Nathan was not "you're persecuting me!" but "I have sinned against God." Eventually that humble response came to define Judaism's idea of teshuva, the repentance process that begins with one's recognition of one's sin, then proceeds to remorse and finally culminates in one's changing of one's ways. You have yet to arrive at the first of these stages, and yet that is what you must do to salvage your place in history - if not as a Zionist leader then at least as an ordinary Jew. When you're next alone in a room with him, and once the two of you are through condemning Reform Judaism, even Rabbi Yosef will tell you this.