Is bald, significant lying about one’s past or future enough to disqualify an elected official? Quite coincidentally, this question has arisen the past week in the US and in Israel as well. “Coincidentally”? Perhaps in the specific timing, but hardly coincidental in the context of recent politics.
First, the straightforward facts. Aryeh Deri (former Interior Minister and unquestioned head of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox, Sephardi SHAS party) has been convicted twice of serious offenses. The first time he spent three years in jail (and by Israeli law, another seven years thereafter out of politics). The second time, relatively recently in which he reached a court-approved consent decree that he would not serve jail time but merely be put on probation, after he promised the court (not in writing) that he would no longer be directly involved in Israeli politics.
He broke his promise, and the new government – dependent on his party for its Knesset majority – just amended a Basic [“Constitutional”] Law (!) – of course, without mentioning his name – to enable a convicted criminal who does not serve actual time in jail time, to serve in the Knesset. Most legal pundits feel that the Supreme Court will not rule unconstitutional a Basic Law passed by a Knesset majority, but the Court most probably will rule that Deri himself is not fit to serve in the Knesset, based on a previous ruling some years ago as to what constitutes “moral turpitude” (kalon). But that’s not the issue I am concerned with here. My question: shouldn’t lying to the court (and the public) be enough to disqualify someone from holding elected office?
George Santos was elected in November to the U.S. Congress as a Republican representing parts of Queens and Long Island. His list of lies when campaigning for election is too long to detail here (see: https://www.timesofisrael.com/i-said-i-was-jew-ish-gop-congressman-elect-walks-back-biography-embellishments/), but suffice it to say that a few of them most likely swayed many citizens to vote for him (“Jewish grandmother”; experience on Wall Street; etc.). He has been “outed” by several media outlets, each discovering another egregious prevarication. Will he be sworn in next month as a Congressperson? Yes! He has no intention to resign – and neither is the Republican Party demanding that of him.
Despite the seeming similarity between these two cases, there is one interesting difference: Deri lied about what he would do in the future; Santos about what he did in the past. Which is worse? From a democratic standpoint, Santos’s behavior is far worse because his lies bamboozled the electorate and most probably enabled him to get elected; Deri, on the other hand, was elected by voters who knew about his promise and didn’t care – they wanted him in the Knesset and Government. However, from a moral standpoint, lying to the public – as bad as that is – doesn’t compare to lying to the court. For if that is allowed, then the entire legal system is based on quicksand, with society sinking fast.
No less an interesting question is why are such things happening? Lying in politics is as old as politics itself, but that’s always been to the public about “what I’ll do for you when elected.” The courts have not been part of this, and very rarely has someone tried to lie across-the-board about their past (too easy to catch them). My answer can be summed up in several, highly related, terms: “truthiness,” “fake news,” “post-modernism,” “virtuality,” etc. In short, contemporary society – at least the more “advanced” countries of which Israel and the U.S. are part – no longer rely on objective facts, but rather on subjective “narrative”: “mine is as good as yours.” The late (and great) U.S. Senator Patrick Moynihan once said: “You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.” Few seem to believe that anymore.
How do I know? Because the entire Republican Party is willing to go along with the Santos deceits, and a majority of Knesset members – the new Israeli government! – are eager to discard an obligation made by Deri to the country’s court system.
And if by chance someone tries to claim: “that’s just speech; it’s got to be in writing to be valid,” yesterday’s major event belies that too. The new Israeli government’s Coalition Agreement states that legislation will be passed enabling workers to refuse service to other people (e.g., homosexuals) based on the workers’ “religious beliefs”; this, when a few days ago Netanyahu explicitly stated that such legislation will not be enacted. So what’s the “truth” and which takes precedence: his speech or his signature?
The Bible’s Book of Judges (21: 25) tells of an anarchic era that took hold: “In those days there was no King in Israel; each person would do what he saw fit”: בימים ההם אין מלך בישראל איש הישר בעיניו יעשה. Unfortunately, the modern State of Israel seems to be sliding in that direction, but with an oxymoronic twist: it’s the government that’s bringing on the anarchy.