Missing Opportunities (Ideas #18)

Last week, Tommy Lapid predicted that the Knesset vote on early elections would soon be eclipsed by some big story and thus forgotten, and that the currently constituted government would continue to mismange the nation as it has done so far. While the second part of his statement may turn out to be as prophetic as the first, the Israeli political scene seems just a little dimmer.

I am reminded of a poster put up recently in certain neighborhoods. The posters depict the scales of justice balancing Ezer Weizman on one side and Aryeh Deri on the other, with the caption, "Let the People Judge." A legitimate point is being made - a critical opportunity is being lost.


Why should Aryeh Deri and his cohorts be prosecuted for things that more entrenched political elite are allowed to get away with? While one can make fine legal distinctions between the Deri and Weizman affairs, there is an ethical sloppiness in Israeli politics that constantly borders on corruption. So why, in fact, blame Shas?


When we first moved to Israel, a Shas activist tried to persuade me that one has to get one's hands dirty if one is to have a voice in Israeli politics. This line was followed by the claim that his party is less corrupt than everyone else. I somehow left this discussion feeling less than inspired. He left the discussion feeling that I was naive.

It was not much longer until I realized the popularity of the activist's perspective. All I had to do was listen to the campaign tape that he was kind enough to give to me. In it, Deri skillfully answered an array of questions most commonly asked by prospective Shas voters (like why they support territorial compromise). Pronouncedly missing was the slime issue - it obviously was not seen as being on many people's minds.

I attend a congregation populated by typical Shas constituents. During the Deri hearings, I frequently weighed whether I wanted to hear another sermon sympathizing with the long tribulations of someone who has done so much for the Jewish people. While I do not claim to know whether Deri is deserving of his sentence or not, I do know when I feel out of place. Finally, during one of the sermons, one of the congregants voiced opposition to the rabbi's pronounced support of Deri. I was glad to hear that I was not the only one who didn't wholeheartedly agree with the rabbi's position. He demonstrated his enlightened opposition by saying, how much has this shul's building fund seen from Deri? Nothing!


If I am picking on Shas, it is partly because they have more potential to benefit the nation as a whole. They are the only religious party with a progrssive social and foreign policy. They are also the only party of any stripe that has brought so many previously disenfranchized citizens into the political process. The greater the potential, however, the greater the loss of not living up to it.


I refuse to be consoled by relative ethical standards. That is not Judaism. Just as Israel should rejoice at being held accountable for atrocities that Arab states are not held accountable for, so also should religious parties rejoice in a higher standard of accountability. Simply put, a double standard should be viewed as the highest form of praise.


Contemporary Israel is very much in flux - a new type of nation is quietly taking shape. Western standards of efficiency and excellence are being adopted in more and more sectors - sloppiness is no longer accepted without question. At the same time, most young Israelis are ambivalent about the value system they have inherited - it is no longer clear what meaning is gained by being Jewish or Israeli.


There has never been another time in Israeli history, when Israelis have been as receptive to a message of ethical excellence as they are now. The political arena is what guides most secular Israelis in their view of the Jewish religion - it is viewed as Judaism in practice. Unfortunately, such a view is usually less than positive. I can only dream of what impact could be made by religious parties that uniformly lived up to their ideals.


I would like to see Shas get more funding for their school system. I would like much more to see Shas' conduct provide the rest of us with the inspiration we so badly need.