Aryeh Deri’s possible return to Israel’s Interior Ministry

A very good friend, who is a rabbi, recently summarized a teshuvah/responsum by a rabbi in a European community. The story, which has clear implications regarding Aryeh Deri, was as follows: A prosperous butcher was accused of selling some non-kosher meat in his kosher butcher shop. This allegation, which was proven to be true, led the rabbi to place the butcher and his shop in “Herem” — a communal ban — because his behavior had seriously violated public trust. As more and more people in the community shunned the butcher shop, his income declined and he and his family suffered. The butcher acknowledged his wrongdoing and pleaded for mercy. The rabbi responded with the following decision: The ban was cancelled on condition that, going forward, the man pursues any honorable economic activity except being a butcher. The message: past disgrace matters and mistrust would linger.

When the current narrow government coalition was being formed following the March 17, 2015 election and was expected to include the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox Shas party led by Aryeh Deri, Benjamin Netanyahu was pressed not to appoint Deri to head the Interior Ministry because Deri had been convicted in 2000 for bribery, fraud and breach of trust during his previous stint in that position. Deri served 22 months in jail during 2000-2002 and was in the political wilderness until October 2012, when he was again chosen as leader of Shas. He was elected to the Knesset in 2013 and 2015. Indeed, in May, 2015, when the new government was formed, Deri was not appointed by the prime minister to the prestigious and powerful Interior Ministry; rather, he was appointed as minister of the economy and minister of the development of the Negev and Galilee.

Unexpectedly, the appointment to the Economy Ministry became problematic for the prime minister due to the important role that Deri, as minister of the economy had to play in getting approval for the natural gas plan involving the development of the large Leviathan gas field. Deri refused to cooperate, a refusal that held up the gas arrangement for months. Netanyahu had repeatedly said that he strongly believes that the development of the Leviathan gas field is vital for Israel’s future economic well-being. Finally, Deri agreed to resign as minister of the economy and was appointed instead as minister of a broadened Ministry of Development of the Negev, Galilee and Periphery.

Upon Deri’s resignation, Netanyahu assumed the role of minister of the economy and took the step that allowed the gas arrangement to advance. (Its final implementation is still pending action in the courts.)

On December 24, 2015, Silvan Shalom, minister of the interior, resigned from his post and from the Knesset following an accumulating array of accusations of sexual harassment. With the post of interior minister again open, the possibility of Deri being appointed became a subject for discussion. It has lately been reported in the media that the prime minister will appoint Deri to the position. (See here and here, for example.)

The reappointment of Deri to head the Interior Ministry would, obviously, go against the wisdom of the rabbinic tshuvah/responsum discussed above regarding the disgraced butcher.

However, to make the best of what may soon be a fait accompli, one can cite another serious Judaic source that suggests a more hopeful outcome from the possible Deri reappointment. The Rambam, in writing, about a man who sinned, famously argued that the true test of atonement would be if the man refrained from sinning when he was again in the same position where he sinned initially.

While the butcher tshuvah/responsum reflects a cautious and conservative attitude that places protection of the public first, the Rambam’s test emphasizes the capacity for personal redemption.

It is likely, and would be desirable, if Deri is reappointed to interior, that there will be many “watchdogs” who will carefully examine Deri’s decisions, appointments, and use of funds for any sign of wrongdoing in his new position. Even if there is no blatant wrongdoing, a second test would apply: Will Deri use his position primarily to benefit Shas supporters and advance the narrow interests of his own party or will he serve the general public? Such “watchdog” oversight is certainly warranted, given Deri’s history and past conviction, and Deri may be extra careful in the knowledge that his actions will be assiduously monitored.

There is another factor that might lead to a positive outcome: Deri is probably well aware of the disdain in which he is held by many Israelis. Perhaps, if he returns to the Interior Ministry, he will be motivated to earn praise for his performance there in order to offset the earlier stain.

To conclude, based on the tshuvah/responsum, it would be better for Deri not to return to the Interior MInistry. Certainly, based on numerous convictions, dismissals, and resignations under a cloud, Israel has had too much corruption and abuse of power by persons in government. We should be wary. However, if Deri is reappointed, perhaps he will live up to the challenge identified by the Rambam. It would indeed be good, both for Deri and for Israel’s general public, if he surprises the cynics and skeptics among us and performs admirably if given a second chance.

About the Author
Lewis Rosen is a retired economist who has lived in Jerusalem for more than 35 years. Born and educated in the US, he worked for the Office of Economic Opportunity for two years in Washington D.C. and was on the economics faculty of York University in Toronto, Canada for 13 years. In Israel he has been involved in a wide range of business planning and economic analysis projects.