Featured Post

Corruption in Israel — how it got so bad

The factors that have contributed to the unprecedented extent of rot in Israeli political life

It’s an ongoing thing in the past few years, as one scandal after another come to light, I have the same discussion with my best friend regarding corruption: Are things really worse here now than they ever were before, or are we just hearing about them more?

We debate the question repeatedly and regularly arguing the matter back and forth. He has more experience here in Israel than me and has held high governmental positions. I have always been more of an expert on the American political system. However, our discussions always ended on the same note, definitively deciding that we are not sure – until this past week. This past week, as the extent of the latest political scandals were revealed, we both concluded that the argument was over. The level of corruption here really IS much worse than ever before.

That conclusion, of course, leads me to the second and third questions we have also examined endlessly: Why does Israel seem so corrupt? and why has it seemingly gotten worse in the past few years?

I am no stranger to revelations of corruption in the Jewish/Israeli worlds, having been exposed to exploitation and dishonesty at a rather young age. At the age of 18, I became a department head in a small section of what was considered the Jewish Agency (it was actually an independent department of the World Zionist Organization). There, I viewed firsthand how a secretary who had an affair with her boss soon after become an Assistant Director. I observed numerous decisions made not on the basis what was good for the organization, but rather, on what was good for the individual making the choice. I also saw how travel plans were often made not to minimize cost, but to maximize frequent flyer mileage.

A decade later, when I worked for a related Jewish organization, I even witnessed one official submit a reimbursement form with a receipt from Home Depot for the purchase of a “screwdriver,” as an entertainment expense (as if it was a beverage). If these examples were not enough, my mother’s cousin who worked in the investigation division of the Jewish Agency would regale me with tales of the malfeasance that went on, and their inability (because of politics) to do anything to ameliorate the situation. The examples go on and on. I vowed then that I would not get involved in political life in Israel, unless I was independently wealthy, (alas a goal I have yet to achieve.)

Yet, the examples of fraud and deceit above all pale in comparison to what has come to light in the past week. The deceptions I saw initially in my youth was a case of sexual politics, something that has no doubt been going on since the court of King David, along with a multitude of cases petty misallocation of funds (e.g. so that a Shaliach would have enough mileage points to go on vacation with his or her family.) Today, we are not talking about that, but rather a whole system designed to use the government to enhance private wealth.

So, what is going on? What has happened to bring about a level of corruption that one would expect in the Third World – and not in the Jewish state, which is a member of the OECD. I believe there are two interrelated causes for this problem, the first cause being the dramatic changes that have taken place in societal values.

Until the 1980’s one’s accomplishments were the measure of a person’s status. A distinguished military career, or how many books you published, or who much you contributed to the leadership of your community were all barometers of value. However, a steady change soon followed, so much so that now the most important measure of one’s success is almost exclusively based on wealth. Under the new societal norms, the manner is which a person’s wealth is obtained is less relevant than the key factor, which is how much wealth a person has amassed.

I currently live across the street from one of the exclusive towers in Tel Aviv. Their garage exits onto our street. I am still amazed when I see some of the private cars that regularly emerge from that garage. Mercedes Benzes, Porches, and many other cars that one would never have found in the Israel of 30 years ago. In the past, even if someone could afford to buy one of these luxury vehicles, he or she would be embarrassed to be seen driving one. Today, around the corner from the garage of the exclusive tower one can find a Rolex premium show room. Is there a better way to say conspicuous consumption?

These shifts in societal values have great impact on a political system where most of its members have really never done anything else in their lives. With the exception of a few career army officers, most Israeli MKs have been politicians since their youth. Both Ehud Olmert and Avigdor Lieberman began their careers as student leaders and never really stopped being politicians from that moment forward. How were they supposed to take part in the “new Israeli dream”? The same can be said for a large swath of Israel’s political elite. In contrast to many American politicians who entered politics after a successful and often lucrative career, Israeli politicians generally enter politics in their youth. Of course most Israelis would be thrilled with the salary granted to a member of the Knesset (i.e. 38,000 shekels, more than 5 times the national mean salary). Though, let’s be honest … one can not really become rich on such a salary.

However, there is one final factor that has caused our political system to turn out to be as corrupt as it has seemingly become. The fact that Israeli politicians are not directly responsible to their voters assures a level of cronyism that guarantees corruption will run rampant. All Israeli politicians today are nominated either by one man (as is the case in Yisrael Beiteinu, Kulanu, Yesh Atid), a group of Rabbis (as in the case in Shas and Yahudut HaTorah), or by a rather small group of party activists (as is the case in all the remaining parties). No one is directly responsible to his or her voters – not to the voters of Tel Aviv, nor to the voters of Bet Shean. Rather, the only people individual Knesset members have to keep happy are the leaders of their party, or at most the political activists in the party. The same holds true for all other people appointed at the behest of a particular party.

Our system does not even produce a budget that needs to be adhered to, instead has a system where huge funds can be transferred on the say so of a small number of people. Israeli politics is a system that, by its very nature, has always been somewhat corrupt. It is a system that 40 years ago produced petty corruption, and today in a very different society creates a level of corruption that undermines the very fabric of government. It is a system which cries out to be changed. Maybe this time the corruption will be so large that change might come, but with elections just around the corner, and all the same old faces running I fear its is very unlikely to happen any time soon. Change must come, otherwise we will not need external threats to defeat us.

About the Author
Marc Schulman is the editor of Historycentral.com -- the largest history web site. He is the author a series of Multimedia History Apps as well as a recent biography of JFK. He holds a BA and MA from Columbia University, and currently lives in Tel Aviv. He is also a regular contributor to Newsweek authoring the Tel Aviv Diary. He is the publisher of an economic news App about Israel called DigitOne