I was quietly studying chapter 1 of the prophet Isaiah when from the holy text there leaped headlines from the Jerusalem Post, Haaretz, Maariv, Yediot, as well as the major newspapers of the West: Your leaders have become plunderers, associates of thieves, lovers of bribery, pursuers of payoffs… (1:23)
The rest of the chapter, as they say, was commentary: How has she become like a harlot, the city of faithfulness. Once it was filled with justice and righteousness, but now – murderers…
One often turns to the Bible for solace and comfort, but in this instance, the only consolation was in the knowledge that we today did not invent corruption. Greed and selfishness are part of the human condition. This is precisely one of the major purposes of Judaism: to help man transcend his natural inclinations and to become a mentsch and not remain an animal.
That this is an ongoing struggle is evident from the endless string of scandals and sheer incompetence in Israeli public life. When 85% of the Israeli public believes its government is corrupt, it is time to ask: Have we become just another Levantine state on the shores of the Mediterranean, whose officials are always on the take, and where bribery and cronyism are an accepted way of life? Does Israel now embody the fear of the prophets that some day we would be truly become kechol haGoyim, “like all the nations,” instead of an ohr laGoyim, “a light to the nations”?
The distinguished congregation of suspects is frightening: former Minister of Justice Haim Ramon and the current president of Israel face morals charges, while an earlier president resigned because of financial improprieties. PM Sharon and his sons were accused of financial misdeeds, and former PMs Netanyahu and Barak have been under investigation, even though charges were never formally brought. Star players of a major soccer team are accused of accepting payoffs from gamblers. Even Orthodox political leadership does not always behave in ways that bring glory to the name of Torah.. And now, the frosting on the cake: Israel’s topmost tax officials and businessmen are accused of defrauding the Tax Authority, while Olmert himself could soon be under investigation for other improprieties — all underscoring what Yediot describes as “the tight relationship between the criminal world and the public bureaucracy.” In a recent survey of countries judged the most honest in the world, UPI recently dropped Israel from its former #10 position to the #34 position, along with such exemplars of rectitude as Cuba and Laos. A corrosive culture of corruption surrounds us. One needs more than a lantern to search the dark for an honest man.
Let no one think that it is only “they” who are affected by this. Each one of us is affected. If everyone is cutting moral and ethical corners, why should I not do so as well, lest I be labeled a sucker, a freier? The great threat to our future in this land emanates not so much from the enemies around us, but from the enemies within us — in keeping with another prophetic dictum: Those who undermine and destroy you will emerge from you ( Isaiah 49:17). For whom does the bell toll? It tolls for thee — for the moral climate of the country.
The secular founders of the modern state of Israel wanted to create a new Jew. They would toss Judaism overboard as a Galut phenomenon, and create an Israeli in tune with contemporary times. Not for him the inhibitions and onerous restrictions of Judaism. He would be carefree and joyous, not caftaned in gloomy black, but wearing shorts, sleeved rolled up, arms and legs bronzed from the sun, always smiling, optimistic, carefree. The original Zionist anthem was emended, and lashuv l’eretz avoteinu, “to return to the land of our fathers,” was replaced by lihyot am chofshi b’artzenu, “to be free in our land.” Chofshi — free not only politically, but from any anchor in the past.
They have succeeded only too well. Like any banana republic, the common currency consists of graft, greed and cynicism. Is this what has become of the Zionist dream? Little wonder that men of integrity like Benny Begin, Natan Sharansky, and Dan Meridor leave government for private life.
We are new Jews. The shared suffering of Jewish history, our moral triumphs over savagery, the long, mystic chord of Jewish national memory, the unique Jewish perspective on God, life, morality, and the world around us — such things have been torn away from our being.. And when we do pick up shards of our history, we immediately distort them. We celebrate Chanukah, but we celebrate exclusively a military victory of the few over the many: God’s miraculous intervention is not part of our Israeli narrative. We observe Passover with matzos and special food, but God’s intercession is not part of the story. Shavuos is no more than an ancient agricultural festival, celebrating the first fruits of the land. Sinai and its thou-shalts and thou-shalt-nots are not on the screen. Rosh Hashanah, the anniversary of the world’s creation and a time to acknowledge His sovereignty, is instead a time for trips to the beach and jaunts to other countries.
One has only to look around to see what has occurred. Our youth imitates the worst attributes of the West, with its drugs and instant gratification. The riches of our spiritual and literary tradition are a closed book for them. (In a recent chat with a tenth grade secular boy, I asked if he studied any Mishnah. He had never heard of the word.) Having lost all pride and self-confidence in who they are, and knowing and caring little about the long history of the land, they are unable even to defend the very idea of a Jewish state, much less prepared to sacrifice for it. As for much of our intellectual elite — having discarded their own unique Jewish identity, they parrot the trendy anti-Jewish clichés of intellectuals around the world, and consider Israel to be a colonial occupier of land not their own.
We are in the throes of a struggle for the soul of Israel. Will it be a light unto the nations, or just another corrupt little state, the only difference being that our corrupters speak not Italian or Turkish, but Hebrew? The future well-being of Israel will not be determined by bombs or planes or military might — as crucial as these are to our physical survival — but by our strength of character, by our recognition that there are transcendent forces in life that surmount the dollar, by the realization that our past is precious and of enduring relevance. This is why the moral flabbiness that is so pervasive in our public square is so distressing. Internal rot is much more insidious than external assault.
There are those among Israel’s cultural and academic elite who are not blind, and who realize that there is a Jewish history and sacred heritage that antedates Herzl, and that a radical re-assessment of our educational and spiritual priorities is long overdue. They surely recognize that this slavish genuflection to the values of the West leads only to a dead end. It is time for these opinion leaders — together with the masses of our people who deep within themselves yearn for truth, meaning, and transcendence — to speak up and demonstrate their revulsion, lest Jerusalem the city of holiness becomes Jerusalem the city of graft.
These are dispiriting times, and yet, if Isaiah’s prophecy about thieves and bribery constitute today’s headline, then the following prophecy — from that same first chapter — could also be tomorrow’s headline:
Your judges will I re-establish as of old
and your counselors as at the beginning…
Zion will be redeemed with justice,
and her returnees with righteousness.
This article appears in today’s Jerusalem Post.