The news in Israel has been focusing on two main topics in recent weeks: the upcoming elections and ongoing revelations of corruption in government circles. With regard to the elections, the news is full of intrigue and spin. Great fun to follow but I’m not sure how relevant it all is to the ultimate decision that each citizen has to make when faced with the ballot box: which party will provide the best leadership to guide the country through its many challenges?
The ongoing revelations of corruption, however, are of an entirely different nature. A number of years ago, the people of Israel were stunned when the president was charged with rape and sexual harassment of female employees. After a lengthy trial process, the man who had served our country as president went to jail like the most common of criminals. Alongside expressions of disgust that a leader of Israel would be guilty of such heinous crimes, there was also the recognition that a country which will try and convict a president based on the same standards of justice applied to the most ordinary citizen is a stable and just democracy.
A few years later, Ehud Olmert, while he was still prime minister, came under investigation for bribery and corruption. One case blossomed into several and he was convicted on a number of corruption charges and sentenced to actual and suspended sentences. One trial and several appeals are still underway but new testimony has created new levels of astonishment at the depths to which a leader would sink to accrue ever more wealth and power.
Last week, another corruption scandal surfaced, as various mayors, former and current members of Knesset and government ministers have been accused of offering and receiving kickbacks, exercising undue influence in the appointment of public officials, and various other offenses that have not yet been published. This is still an active investigation so the picture is not yet clear, but once again, political leaders are behind bars.
It would be easy to dismiss all of this as proof of the well-known adage: power corrupts! There is no question that something happens to some political leaders as they rise to the top. Maybe they become overly impressed with their own power and believe that there is no limit to what they can accomplish, regardless of who gets crushed or what lines are crossed in the process.
Maybe I’m naïve, but I expect more of my leaders. And I especially expect more from the leaders of Israel. We are living in amazing times. The very existence of the State of Israel is a miracle that our ancestors could only dream about. For centuries, our people were persecuted and expelled from country to country, hoping that one day we would have a country of our own. For nearly 2,000 years, our leadership were people of strong faith who had a deep commitment to our people. They were called upon to give advice under impossible situations and had to lobby hostile governments just to enable the Jewish community to survive. I’m sure there were unsavory characters among the Jewish people throughout our history, but they were not the leaders. The leaders were not elected nor were they paid a handsome salary. But they were entrusted with the fate of their followers and they remained faithful to their mission.
So what has happened? How is it possible that a people with centuries of experience in choosing leadership, could end up with so many corrupt individuals at its head?
I don’t have an answer as to how it happened but I believe I have an understanding as to what has happened. The existence of the State of Israel is a miracle, a gift from G-d! And its leaders should be, in essence, trustees of that miracle. They are not supermen with unusual powers or abilities. They should be talented individuals who are well suited to their positions. But if they are arrogant, if they believe that the country will rise or fall solely on the basis of their talents and as a result of their decisions, then they are missing the point.
When the nation of Israel first asked Samuel to appoint a king for them, Samuel was not pleased. G-d understood his hesitation and encouraged him to apprise the nation of the dangers of a king. “This will be the practice of the king who will rule over you. He will take your sons and appoint them as his charioteers and horsemen . . . He will seize your choice fields, vineyards, and olive groves and give them to his courtiers.. . . The day will come when you cry out because of the king whom you yourselves have chosen and the Lord will not answer you on that day.” (I Samuel 8:11-18)
A Biblical King was not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, David and Solomon accomplished amazing things for the nation and for the most part were righteous men who loved G-d and followed His ways. And Samuel’s examples are not necessarily threatening — kings as well as democratic governments draft citizens for war, assess taxes and expropriate property for the public good. It is when governments take advantage of these powers and cross the boundaries, when they dip into public funds for private use, that they become tyrants and crooks. When they no longer understand that they are public stewards of a valuable trust, the welfare of their people, that they become corrupted.
And that, I believe, is what has happened to some of the leadership of Israel. They did not start out bad. They began as young idealistic leaders who believed they could make a difference. But at some point along the way, they lost sight of their mission. Instead of serving the people, they began to seek ways that the people could serve them.
A similar analysis is applicable to political leaders in any country. But in Israel there is an added element. The leaders have not only been entrusted with the welfare of the people. They are also trustees of a land belonging to G-d (Leviticus 25:23) and of the destiny of a people chosen by G-d. G-d has given us this land in trust, to develop it and create a society that is worthy of His trust in us. When these leaders have fallen, they have not only betrayed our trust; they have betrayed the holy mission which was entrusted to them. They failed to appreciate the miracle that is Israel. They forgot that they stand before the G-d of Israel. That they are not only are responsible for the economy and security of the nation, but they are responsible to a vision of a just and faithful nation, a nation who must aspire to fulfill Isaiah’s words: A light unto the nations. (Isaiah 49:6) May our upcoming elections produce leaders worthy of the Nation of Israel and of the miracle that is the State of Israel.