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Have They no Shame?

Photo Credit:Zachi Evenor-www.flickr.com

For most of us immigrants, whether we be relatively new or already several decades in Israel, the decision to make our lives here was a matter of choice. The background may have been 'classical' Zionism, religious conviction, economic necessity or some other reason, but at some point we made a conscious decision to make our lives here.

Most of us also came because of shared values; because we felt that, as Jews, we would find common cause with our fellow citizens in a way that Jews in the Diaspora find more difficult. This is not to say that we expected to identify with all of the values, any more than we expected that as Israelis we would all share the same political ideology.

We arrived from a great many countries with many inherited or acquired cultural differences, and our views on what it means to be a member of society and on how to enjoy our personal rights while respecting the personal rights of others were bound to differ.

Nevertheless, a generation or two of education, whether it be through the State system or through one of the subsidiary systems, should, I feel, have produced a shared fundamental belief in what is right and what is wrong. Sadly, this is not what has happened.

Values tend to perpetuate themselves through the generations. On the political level, one still encounters the statement "My grandfather was Likud/Labor/Meretz/Haredi and so, therefore, am I," or in the football stadium "My father was Maccabi, never Hapoel, and so, therefore, am I." This doesn't bother me. These are not issues of right or wrong. There is room in this country for everyone. Where I draw the line is at the most fundamental level of basic morality.

A society cannot and will not endure if it condones and fails to enforce its laws against theft, corruption, murder, rape and other infringements of the rights of its members. The majority in just about every country know this full well and make some attempt to create a fair and moral social environment.

The crime rate fluctuates from country to country according to the success of those efforts. There is no place on earth where society has come anywhere close to 100% success. However, the absolute necessity for any attempt to achieve a modicum of progress towards this goal is impeccable leadership setting personal examples of propriety.

We are all of us human, with our frailties and our passions, and we all face temptations to stray. None of us is perfect, and most of us probably have at least one small skeleton in one small cupboard.

However, those of us who aspire to lead must be able to lead by example and must expect to be held to higher standards, somewhat closer to perfection, than the rest.

Political leaders around the world have never been immune from temptation to act immorally, and the higher the political office perhaps the greater the temptations. However, here in little Israel, the frequency with which senior politicians and others have been accused of unacceptable behaviour has left most of us with a deep sense of shame.

A president of the state, a former prime minister, a minister of finance, a minister of the interior, a chief rabbi, a judge, army generals, senior police officers, several mayors, teachers, lesser bureaucrats and others have aspired to positions of power and authority, and then abused those positions.

Acceptance of bribes, sexual harassment of employees, and use of public funds for personal gratification suggest an apparent belief that society's laws and regulations do not apply to the influential. Contrary to the norm, leading by good personal example has become something of a rarity.

What is perhaps even more disturbing is the extraordinary lack of dissonance in the minds of those abusers of power who also maintain a religious lifestyle. Not a few of those convicted of various offences in recent years are outwardly religiously orientated. Keeping mitzvoth and at the same time behaving in a manner contradictory to the fundamental precepts of one's religion would seem to require a convoluted set of values, but this doesn't seem to be the case.

Likewise, some anti-social behavior has bred a perverse justification; in the mind of certain perpetrators there is nothing wrong in accepting a bribe provided that the money is applied to a 'good cause'.

I am sure that the majority of the religious public rejects those exceptions to the norm and are as ashamed as I am of all those, both religious and secular, whose actions contravene acceptable standards of behavior. If, however, as is claimed, this country was established based on Jewish values, something has gone terribly wrong if the religious establishment is incapable of putting aside its internal petty differences and its hunger for power and influence, and is unable to condemn, clearly and unambiguously, the shameful behavior of some of its own adherents.

If anyone should be leading by example, it should be our religious leaders; perhaps then the secular majority would be encouraged to follow suit.

By Jewish values I mean keeping to basic moral standards when dealing not only with our fellow-Jews but also with our non-Jewish neighbors. Overtly expressed racial hatred specifically against Israeli Arabs, has increased dramatically, fueled by the anger and frustration following Israel's inability to bring the 'Preventive Edge' operation to a decisive conclusion.

Our civil and religious leadership has yet to take effective action to forestall these threats to the fabric of a multi-racial society.

The despicable acts of a few extremists whose distorted views on right and wrong are producing 'price tag' reprisals against innocents, as well as the corruption and other illegal acts of some of our leaders, both secular and religious, are only outdone in their perversity by the failure of certain rabbis to condemn them unequivocally.

If this is life at the top, then small wonder that the same 'ideology' trickles down to the rest of us.

Just about all of us are a little bit criminal; who among us has never paid the plumber in cash in order to cheat the state of tax revenues, and who among us has never accepted a payment in cash for some personal service? How many of us drive our cars strictly according to the traffic laws which are designed to protect the rights of all road users?

There exists throughout the land a strong sense that if it is alright for the big guys, then it is alright for everyone else.

Who is to blame for this state of affairs? I believe that the state education system neglects or deliberately avoids educating about ethical behavior. I think this system is unwilling to confront the values passed down to some children by parents whose own views of what is right and wrong are by any normal standards distorted.

I also think that a state which has always struggled for survival in the face of external threats has, perhaps naturally, encouraged an ethos of 'us against them' and a sense that whatever we feel we need to do in order to survive and thrive is acceptable.

Above all, I believe that the religious establishment in Israel has contributed to this distortion by failing to establish and strive for truly Jewish values, first and foremost amongst the religious public.

It is said that one of the positive characteristics of the Jew is his ability to laugh at himself. Perhaps so.

However, I am reminded of a scene from a play I attended some years ago. On stage, a crime boss was instructing two thugs, both of whom were wearing kippot, to go outside and murder somebody. The thugs dutifully removed their kippot, left the stage, noises offstage attested to the evil deed being done, the thugs then returned, put their kippot back on their heads and awaited further instructions.

The audience, myself included, thought this was funny and showed its appreciation with laughter and applause. With hindsight, however, it disturbs me that we were all amused by such a distortion of fundamental values.

The recent fiasco of a presidential election epitomizes just how far we have drifted away from ethical norms. Leading candidates were accused of having acted with extreme impropriety in the past. The election developed into a contest between political hacks, all of them failing to impress us with qualities of leadership.

The exception, a Nobel prize laureate, received just one single vote out of 120. Maybe there are no true leaders with clean hands to be found in the State of Israel, or else such rarities are so disgusted with the system that they avoid involvement with it.

Either way, it is depressing. The fact that other countries are not in much better shape is poor consolation; we thought that we were better than others, that we would set an example to the world. How arrogant, how wrong we were.

What will it take to get us back on track to the path we all know to be the right one? We need to look deep inside ourselves to discover what it is, and to do this soon.

■Ilan Shachar manages archaeological excavations and other projects. 

 

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Saturday, 13 August 2022

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