Israeli political corruption is our business


It’s a safe bet that most Israelis and American Jews have never heard of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute or read any of its annual assessments of challenges and dangers facing Israel and the Jewish people.

Still, that didn’t stop Ehud Olmert from tearing into the institute’s director, Avinoam Bar-Yosef, when he presented this year’s report to the Israeli Cabinet. According to Ha’aretz, the trouble started after Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann “passed a note to Olmert drawing his attention” to a passage in the report about Israel’s “ongoing corruption problem.”

"This is none of Diaspora Jewry’s business and none of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute’s business," he shouted. "On what basis do you conclude this? I haven’t been charged with anything yet; these are only suspicions. And former president [Moshe] Katsav" — whose case the report also cited — "has also yet to be indicted."

For those keeping score… in recent years, one Israeli president (Katsav) and one prime minister (Olmert) have resigned under investigation. Both sitting chief rabbis have been investigated. A finance minister (Avraham Hirschson) was indicted for, among other things, theft and money laundering.

And that’s the short list.

In a very narrow sense, some of Israel’s recent political scandals have been directly connected to Diaspora Jews: Olmert is accused of taking bribes from an American Jewish rabbi-businessman; there have also been reports that authorities are investigating whether he doubled billed American Jewish charities for his personal travel. Hirschson’s alleged misdeeds also involved American Jewish charitable dollars. And, while we’re at it, one of Ariel Sharon’s sons went to prison over crimes connected to his dealings with a wealthy Diaspora Jew on behalf of his father’s election campaign.

And what if they did not involve Diaspora Jews?

With all due respect to the prime minister of Israel, while it’s certainly true that he and Katsav deserve their day in court, the very fact that they need one is the business of American Jews — many of whom, with a great deal of encouragement from Olmert and many other Israeli leaders over the past 60-plus years — have made Israel a cornerstone of their religious, ethnic and cultural identities, and a major beneficiary of their philanthropic and political efforts.

That makes Israel’s corruption problem our problem too.

Ironically, in the same meeting, Olmert reportedly lashed out at Israeli rightists, saying that their opposition to a Palestinian state was responsible for a spike in anti-Semitism across the world.

“The phenomenon that the enlightened international community calls the occupation — as long as this situation exists, it provides an opportunity for attacking Israel.”

The issues are different, but the underlying principle is the same: What happens in Israel doesn’t stay in Israel.

Ha’aretz has a follow-up, with Bar-Yosef defending the report’s relatively short discussion of the corruption issue:

"This isn’t the first time that moral decline has appeared in the reports. It was also there a year ago and two years ago, but this time the government fell and the president resigned. Does anyone think this can be ignored?" said Bar-Yosef.

"We haven’t made the report into something politically controversial. We are a wholly apolitical body, entirely untainted by politics. Tell me, is there anything factually untrue? It’s impossible to evade the fact that the president resigned because of accusations. It’s impossible to evade the fact that the finance minister resigned because of accusations. It’s impossible to ignore the fact that the justice minister resigned because of an indictment."

Does the Jewish world regard leaders’ sex crimes differently from corruption?

"I think they see both as signs of deterioration."

Do you base yourselves on public opinion surveys?

"We held interviews with community leaders and heads of organizations. This issue is very disturbing. Very disturbing. Nowadays the entire Jewish world knows everything. Do you know how many people read Haaretz in the morning? They have Internet access. They know about every investigation. They know everything said about Katsav."

Aren’t you supposed to be dealing with anti-Semitism and the desecration of synagogues?

"The report also addresses anti-Semitism."

The timing is pretty horrible. It seems like you’re kicking someone while he’s down.

"This is when the report is written."

So Olmert brings the report to the government and you criticize him?

"It isn’t that we’re getting a gift. Sharon decided the report would be presented, because the Jewish people was a burning issue for him. We have also written about Sharon’s scandals. The test of all the papers, and this is also their strength, is that we have maintained our professional integrity. There is no argument about that."

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