The Lupolianski case – a test for Israeli society

Hesed is hesed is hesed.

Yad Sarah lends out medical equipment (photo credit: YAD SARAH, COURTESY)
Yad Sarah lends out medical equipment
(photo credit: YAD SARAH, COURTESY)
An event of seismic proportions has come to pass with the sentencing to prison of one of the most exemplary figures in Israeli society, paragon of hesed (often rendered “loving-kindness” or “beneficence”), humility and integrity, founder of Yad Sarah and former Jerusalem mayor, Uri Lupolianski, for receiving bribery in the form of donations given to Yad Sarah.
We were shaken for a moment, but the shock and trauma tend to fade – we tell ourselves, “it’s sad, but a bribe is a bribe is a bribe” – and we move on. Many of us, however, believe not only that the sentence is inappropriate considering the enormous debt that the state itself owes to this great man, whose purely voluntary hesed has reached literally national dimensions, but, even more importantly, that the conviction itself is fundamentally flawed, with profound negative ethical, social and educational ramifications for Israeli society as a whole.
The organizers of the Sderot Conference for Society, especially CEO Shai Ben-Yaishe, are to be highly commended for immediately understanding the issue and arranging a special session at the conference to raise public awareness about it. Mr. Ben- Yaishe told me: “You are right. We must do something to defend the essence of hesed in Israel.” To understand what this means, we will have to penetrate a fog of superficial premises.
But first, a brief personal note: For nearly 25 years, I have been involved in haredi (ultra-Orthodox) public policy studies and in intellectual, leadership dialogue with all segments of Israeli society, in search of a modus vivendi within the State of Israel. I have maintained that the ideological chasm between the Torah and secular elites in Israel is so unbreachable that we need to re-organize as two autonomous Jewish communities, while remaining united on a federal level – like two rooms in one home. Ideologically, I have insisted, our only common denominators are our widely-shared commitment to the physical existence of the Jewish people and the basic solidarity of brothers to each other.
But the Lupolianski case has shown me for the first time, much to my delight, that most of us have something else in common: a commitment to a culture of pure hesed among our people (a phenomenon explained by the fact that this has been a part of our DNA ever since our first forefather Abraham raised the banner of pure hesed even before his discovery of monotheistic faith, and long before we received the Torah.) Returning to the subject at hand, Shimon Shiffer, political correspondent for Yediot Aharonot, cut to the heart of the matter. Following Lupolianski’s sentence, he wrote: “If there is one case that will undermine public confidence in the judicial system...
this is the case. The sentence compels us to protest against the judge... because he fails to understand where we live, where we come from and where we are going as a society. The reasoning behind Judge Rozen’s decision to send Lupolianski to prison for six years despite not having taken a single agora for himself – is that the money served to enhance his standing within his community. This is an outrageous explanation,” says Shiffer. “It was not personal glory that motivated Lupolianski, but an endless desire to help others – Jews and Arabs, old and young.”
Reading the actual ruling makes clear that there is no basis for the premise that donations made to Yad Sarah constituted bribes given to Lupolianski other than the aforementioned circumstantial reasoning alone: since Rabbi Lupolianski’s stature and standing grow the more that Yad Sarah grows, such donations must certainly have been accepted to that end! Beyond that, the judge states explicitly in his ruling that no preferential treatment in Lupolianski’s handling of the Holyland project had been shown, and that the contributions were given directly to Yad Sarah, with full transparency, through the usual channels, accompanied by ordinary philanthropic declarations of intent.
LET US compare, then, the words of Judge Rozen with those of the late Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv – the greatest halachic authority in Israel at the time. Rabbi Elyashiv instructed Rabbi Lupolianski to decline any offer of a reduced sentence that would involve admitting to the crime of taking bribery, saying: “There must not be a precedent that pure charity may be considered bribery in Israel!” Wherein lies the difference between Rabbi Elyashiv’s thinking and that of Judge Rozen? Rabbi Elyashiv recognized that there are in our world, and certainly in our Jewish world, genuine people of hesed, whose every effort, even when it reaches national levels, is truly for the sake of pure hesed.
Hesed is hesed is hesed. Judge Rozen, on the other hand, knows of no such phenomenon. It is entirely clear to him (for to convict and punish a man requires certainty) that even the greatest person of hesed acts essentially for the sake of self-aggrandizement.
And that is why the judge had no qualms about throwing into prison one of the most exemplary members of our society. For if, in fact, Lupoliansky’s true concern is only to boost his own reputation, then there is no true hesed here, no shining example, no actual righteousness! And I ask: Is this the culture we want to foster in our Jewish state, a culture of egocentrism? And is this the kind of polity we want to promote in Israel – one that tramples those who do hesed, teaches cynicism and deters both potential charity donors and honest politicians who wish to further organizations of genuine hesed? Another comparison will take us a step further.
An earlier mayor of Jerusalem, the mythical Teddy Kollek, raised large sums of money for a museum, a sports stadium (which even bears his name!) and the many Jerusalem Foundation projects. Are we to assume that none of Kollek’s many donors had businesses in Jerusalem in need of municipal permits? Would it not, in fact, be safer to assume that there were even explicit quid pro quo agreements? Is this bribery? No. This is not bribery. On the contrary, this is the proper role of a public official: to weigh public interests against one another, to consider their respective costs and benefits for the public and to act for the greater public good, in good faith and according to his best understanding.
So, again, wherein lies the difference? Does Yad Sarah, the hesed organization, not serve the public interest, but rather only the private interests of Rabbi Lupolianski?! It is important to note, then, that there is a glaring need for the establishment of clear guidelines on the proper relationship between public officials and charitable institutions and their donors, in a law or in a binding ethical code, to be drafted by legal and rabbinical experts, ethicists, social scientists and thinkers, in consultation with experienced politicians and people of hesed, from across the spectrum.
Only thus will we avoid future depravities in the name of the law, under the rubric of “bribery.”
And only thus will we enshrine in the norms of the Jewish state a positive and supportive culture of government and justice in relation to the foundational values of charity and hesed, to which, I submit, we all in truth subscribe.
Based on a presentation at the Sderot Conference for Society.
The author was ordained a dayan (rabbinical judge) at the Harry Fischel Institute in Jerusalem. He is the founder and dean of the The Harav Lord Jakobovits Torah Institute of Contemporary Issues (JICI).
Translated with assistance from Shmuel Sermoneta- Gertel.