The existential threat from within

Why is it that just about every institution in Israel is tainted with corruption?

JACKY MATZA 88 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Just what we needed, another major scandal, this one involving the Taxation Authority, the institution whose call can make the toughest quake in their shoes, even if they are as clean as the driven snow. What is it about this country? Why is that just about every institution is tainted with corruption: from the prime ministership, to the Knesset, to government ministries and authorities, to the police, and to local authorities, which can't pay their workers, because they've already used up the money they've been given to pay them? When will we be able to take civic pride in our country, instead of cringing with embarrassment and disappointment whenever we open our daily paper and read about the latest crushing blow to our beautiful and courageous land, delivered by one of our own? Arriving on aliya just two days before the terrorist war started in late September 2000, my husband I endured, on a daily basis and with the rest of the population, living in fear for our lives and those of our loved ones. We cried with every parent who lost a child, and with every child who lost a parent. We were full of admiration for a people that stoically carried on, as did the legendary British during the Blitz, in the face of soul-searing tragedy. We adjusted, we survived and we moved on. BUT THE existential threat eroding us from within is something else. Coming here from a country in which real democratic traditions and upright civic behavior flourish and where the tradition of falling on one's sword when found out to be wanting in legal and ethical standards is still the norm, we just don't get it. When will the people running this country realize they are no longer living in a shtetl in Eastern Europe where officials had to be bribed as a matter of survival; or in a Middle Eastern fiefdom where baksheesh was the common currency? When will people be able to achieve material reward just by working hard and honestly, and without running the risk of being called freiers - the ultimate insult? All our international spin begins and ends with the declaration that we are the only democracy in the Middle East, blithely ignoring the fact that while Israel "talks the talk" it doesn't "walk the walk." BEING A democracy is much, much more than having free elections, with every citizen having a vote. It is much more than allowing multiple parties to participate freely in those elections. It is more than having a free press, where everybody can offer his or her opinion. It is also about what happens after those elections, and how those elected by us honor our trust. It is about how those many parties act on behalf of the constituencies that helped them into power. It is about how the press deals with the issues that are important to our functioning as a fair and just country - not by pillorying any public figure not to its liking, or keeping information under wraps for years until it feels it's time to trot it out. Democracy stands on the twin pillars of full disclosure and accountability. These values are sadly lacking at all civic levels: executive, legislative and administrative. We know that, to some degree, under-the-table practices exist in every Western country. But what we have in Israel - together with an abundance of courage, caring and charity - is an equal abundance of over-the-top, aberrant civic behavior. Let's take a look at the current revelations of malfeasance in the Israel Tax Authority. I personally know two families whose health and peace of mind were seriously undermined by representatives of this body. They were subjected to extensive investigation, accompanied by harassment and humiliation. In one case, though no illegalities were found, the victims were slapped with a NIS 20,000 fine. Their lawyer recommended they pay it, or risk being targeted for the rest of their lives. In the other case, the authority demanded a huge sum in back taxes and fines. The investigation was subsequently found to be based on false information - yet the ITA refused to retract its demands completely, making ever-decreasing offers until the subjects finally stood up to them and told them they would not pay one agora. At this point the taxmen backed down. COMPARE THIS to what we read in last week's newspapers - headlines screaming of bribery and influence at the highest levels of the Tax Authority. The head of the authority is under arrest for, among other charges, arranging for businessmen's taxes to be lowered; more than a dozen others are under arrest for similar involvement. It is time we lost the destructive mantra of yihye b'seder - it will be okay - when we are faced with issues that we, the little people, feel helpless to deal with. It is not okay, and it is up to the citizens of Israel to stand up and shout out to their government: "It is not b'seder. We demand that you put in place an electoral system which will give us representatives who are directly accountable to us, the electorate. "We demand that our representatives be honest and upright. We demand that civil appointments be made fairly and based on merit. We demand that the police investigate without fear or favor. We demand that our judiciary hand out verdicts truly commensurate with the crimes involved, be they be against person, property or the fabric of society." As citizens of a beleaguered country who are constantly being asked for more and more sacrifices, this is the least we deserve. The writer is a freelance editor and expatriate Australian living in Jerusalem.