The Sabra's Lawless Legacy

By Assaf Sagiv

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srael’s sixtieth anniversary offered little cause for celebration. With the gag order imposed on the ongoing criminal investigation into Prime Minister Ehud Olmert partially lifted at day’s end, Israelis learned that their head of state is suspected, among other things, of bribery, fraud, breach of trust, and money laundering. That night, Olmert appeared before the media to proclaim his innocence, insisting that he would fight the charges leveled against him. He even expressed his willingness to resign if and when he is indicted. This episode marked a new low in Israel’s plague of public corruption: Over the past few years, a long list of officials—including a former president, finance minister, justice minister, and the head of the Income Tax Authority—have been involved in scandals both large and small. Indeed, reports of embezzlement, kickbacks, patronage appointments, and sexual harassment have become depressingly common in the Israeli media. It is no surprise, then, that according to a report issued by the Israel Democracy Institute this year, a full 90 percent of the public believes that the state is rife with corruption.
Most commentators assert that the cancer of corruption originates in the intimate association between politics and big money. No doubt, close relationships between elected officials and businessmen—as natural, and even necessary, as they may be—can have problematic ramifications. Yet this explanation paints only a partial picture of the problem. After all, the shameful conduct displayed by much of Israel’s political and financial elite largely reflects the questionable norms embraced by significant segments of the Israeli population. In an article published in Haaretz on June 12, 2008, the psychologist Yair Caspi argued as much when he said that “Ehud Olmert represents the beliefs and values that have taken root among us over the past decades... the perfect embodiment of the spirit of the times and the collective Israeli unconscious.” In describing “Olmert’s Nation,” Caspi did not mince words:
[It is] a nation that “gets by,” that worships those who are best at “getting by”: Those who successfully cut as many corners as possible; those who know how to extract the most from the system; and mainly, those who don’t get caught. And if they are caught—get away with it.... A nation of people who want to do as they please. Who have found themselves a new philosophy that permits no one to judge them.
Sadly, this collective portrait rings all too true and will be familiar to anyone who has lived in Israel for an extended period of time. But Caspi is mistaken when he speaks of a “new philosophy” taking root among Israelis. In truth, there is nothing new about this philosophy. It is as old as Israeli society itself.

While many might wish to believe otherwise, the fact is that the unruly, irresponsible, and lawless behavior that runs rampant in the Jewish state today is not a sudden detour from the path laid out by the Zionist pioneers. On the contrary, in certain respects it constitutes a natural, almost inevitable outcome of the ethos they created. What is becoming increasingly clear is that some of the rotten apples grown by Israel’s founding fathers have managed to spoil the whole barrel. Alas, even the most enthusiastic Zionists, who believe in the moral necessity of Israel’s existence and prosperity, must recognize this disturbing fact and deal with its consequences if they wish to find a cure for the disease that threatens to bring disaster upon the state so dear to their hearts.


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