Yoel Collick
Yoel Collick

How the start-up nation became a nation of suckers

Protests against Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, 2020: preaching to the converted

The pervasive cynicism among Israelis towards their political class is not only a sad reality of modern Israel; it has become self-defeating and destructive.

That Israelis are weary and cynical about their politicians has become so well-known it is scarcely commented on. Political misdemeanours, cronyism or shady pasts fail to elicit the seismic shocks one might hope for in an accountable democracy. In fact, these sagas, even if widely acknowledged, hardly register on the political barometer.

While we have a sitting Prime Minister defending himself in court against charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, the matter is no longer a fight for public opinion. Those who care, predominantly among the political opposition, already care; and those who don’t, don’t. And there are many who don’t.

Other government ministers are also facing criminal indictments. Interior Minister and Shas party chairman, Aryeh Deri, having already spent time in prison for corruption, is set to be indicted for bribery after five years of a dragged-out legal process in which other charges were dropped. Meanwhile, Shas’ fellow ultra-Orthodox party and coalition partner, the UTJ, has its own suspected senior lawbreaker, Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman. In August 2019, the police recommended that he stand trial for bribery and aiding an alleged paedophile (yes, you read that correctly), and much like Deri, the judicial process has been prolonged, with many a suspecting finger pointing to close political ally, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, as the cause. Such political corruption is by no means a creature solely of the current government, with numerous past politicians having had their fair share of brushes with the law, including former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert who served two-thirds of a 27-month sentence in prison for bribery and obstruction of justice.

It is the widespread nature of these crimes and allegations that further encourages Israeli cynicism towards officials who become politically (and, by extension, judicially) increasingly immune to misdemeanours.

The Israeli aversion to being a ‘fryer’, a sucker, has perversely turned Israelis into a nation of fryers. By being intensely cynical about politicians’ wrongdoings, Israelis have adopted a mentality of weary acceptance in which they often fail to appreciate the good in those who appear to serve them well (with the notable exception of the Netanyahu personality cult) and have given up any hope in assuming that politics can return its more wholesome, less scandalous days of old. It is no surprise that the Israel Democracy Institute’s survey reveals widespread distrust in the country’s political institutions, with less than a quarter expressing trust in the Government, a fifth in the Knesset, and just 14% in political parties.

This hardened fatigue has become self-defeating because Israelis are rarely discriminatory in directing their cynicism, with no effort among the wider public to identify more upstanding political representatives or parties, nor recognise the more egregious culprits and punish them at the ballot box. The assumption that ‘they’re all the same’ feeds itself and fails to adequately hold politicians to account and begin any sort of process of repair. It is precisely this attitude which restricts the anti-Netanyahu protest movement to a predictable, limited segment of the Israeli public.

This not only has disastrous consequences for the health of democracy but also, in the age of the pandemic, the health of the public, as state officials routinely break coronavirus regulations with virtual impunity in full view of the electorate.

One of the great challenges of the national effort against the virus has been to convince people to abide by painfully limiting directives when the individual risk factor is seemingly incredibly low. Appeals to social solidarity, a core strategy which has served Israel well in the past, hasn’t performed so strongly this time round. This is in part because of the increasingly divisive and fractured nature of Israeli society. However, it can also be attributed to the despicable failure of politicians to properly commit to their public duty and serve as role models during this time of national emergency.

Over the past year, government figures and state officials have routinely been exposed breaching the coronavirus regulations, many of whom were among their chief architects or signatories. Just last month, Transport Minister, Miri Regev (Likud) was photographed attending a lockdown-violating office party. Deputy Education Minister, Meir Porush (UTJ), attended a wedding with hundreds of guests. Energy Minister Gila Gamliel (Likud), made the 125 kilometre journey from Tel Aviv to Tiberius on Yom Kippur, infecting ministry staff upon her return. In the capacity of Health Minister, Yaakov Litzman (UTJ), caught the virus after attending an illegal prayer quorum, breaching his own ministry’s directives in the first weeks of the pandemic. And the Prime Minister held his Passover seder with his son who does not live with him in the midst of the strictest lockdown which he himself ordered.

This is not to mention the multiple incidences of noncompliance among unelected public servants including senior police officers, prime ministerial aides, the head of the Shin Bet (responsible for the controversial phone tracking programme), the IDF Chief of Staff, and the President who has twice been caught violating restrictions, further testifying to the rotten culture among state officials.

Of varying degrees of heinousness and hypocrisy, they all broke the rules. However, there’s another common denominator. They all kept their jobs. There were no resignations or firings and there was rarely any expression of regret or apology. More often than not, the rule-breakers were shown to be lying through their teeth about their actions to the collective sigh and determined inaction of the Israeli public.

There has been a direct consequence to such behaviour; a prolonged national crisis and more deaths. For every exposed act of shameless noncompliance by state officials, our already fragile social solidarity further frays and public resolve unravels. For all the political posturing and finger-pointing ahead of the election as politicians seek to create the most beneficial coronavirus narrative, it is ironically this very judgeable metric that has been most overlooked.

In combatting the world’s worst pandemic in at least a century there were and are bound to be policy failures. There won’t be anything remotely close to a final judgment on these matters for some time to come. However, that state officials and elected representatives abide by their own directives and take seriously the grave responsibility of public duty they chose to undertake was and is a reasonable expectation.

It’s time to cease with the self-defeating cynicism and stop being fryers. If we want better public servants, we must begin by caring enough to demand resignations as well as properly discriminate between the good and the bad among our parties and representatives, or at least between the better and the worse.

We have an election coming up. There’s no better time to start caring.

About the Author
Yoel Collick is a writer and researcher of Jewish, Israeli and Middle Eastern affairs based in Jerusalem. He has a degree in History and Political Thought from the University of Cambridge and served in the International Cooperation Division of the Israel Defense Forces.
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