Israeli ethicist calls for a battle against corruption

Israel State Comptroller Joseph Shapira
Israel State Comptroller Joseph Shapira issued a report that was critical of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

According to Transparency International’s 2014 world corruption index, Israel is number 37 of 175 nations and received a grade of 60 out of a possible 100 points – that’s the bad news.

The good news is that when compared to 34 states in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Israel came fairly high, tying Spain, Poland and Taiwan at 24.

However, one of Israel’s most outspoken proponents of moral and ethical codes is highly skeptical of international assessments of corruption and does not believe they motivate change.

“It’s really irrelevant where Israel is ranked on the global indices,” says Asa Kasher, a professor who held Tel Aviv University’s Laura Schwarz-Kipp Chair in Professional Ethics and Philosophy of Practice. “Comparing ourselves with other countries is misleading. We have to improve for our own sake, for the sake of our country and our own standards.”

A recipient of the Israel Prize in philosophy, Kasher was reacting to last week’s state comptroller’s report on the spending habits of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara. The report unleashed a torrent of comment and condemnation throughout the country and presented the possibility of criminal charges. The airwaves were filled with detailed examinations of their alleged excesses, a blitz of talk show interviews with Netanyahu’s supporters and collective conjecture about how the revelations would affect the upcoming elections.

The comptroller’s report came on the heels of corruption charges leveled against several politicians and officials in Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party and the subsequent arrest of some of those involved. And these are only two of the more recent disclosures about widespread corruption in political circles, the police and the army.

“We have a very significant system of gatekeepers,” Kasher says. “Our officials are surrounded by people who are always watching them. This results in the perception that people in power should not be trusted. But that system has collapsed. It simply doesn’t work. Even if we assume the gatekeepers are not corrupt, there’s too much complicity on too many levels.

“There are a lot of important people now sitting in jail,” he says, ”a lot of important people who were in jail and a lot of important people about to go to jail. What is required is a shift in practice and perspective – it’s not in the details, it’s about the big picture.”

Although he states repeatedly that he doesn’t have the answers, Kasher has some suggestions. He believes the remedy lies in ethics – in defining expectations, not setting restrictions; in praise for performance, not in imposed protocols.

“People have to recognize their obligation to do more than simply what the law states. They have to understand the purpose of their position and how to fulfill it properly. The idea is to act properly, to
be accountable – and accountability must mean that there are positive standards, meaningful values and transparent implementation. Unfortunately, we have not yet reached that level of conception and behavior,” he says.

He is not referring to legal standards or restrictions but positive ethical standards that embody values – standards that embrace setting an example, serving as a role model. As the state comptroller commented: “… we can expect a publicly elected official, as senior as he may be, to show more public sensitivity and ensure he behaves during each year of his term based on the basic principles of proper public conduct.”

Kasher says that “Israel is a very young society, a ‘childish’ society in historical terms. In 67 years, we have experienced more than a few wars and coped with immigration at an unprecedented level. We have met many challenges and overcome many difficulties, but we have not internalized what it means to be a president, a prime minister, a first lady or a cabinet minister.

“We are also a very critical society,” he continues, “and very dismissive of praise. There is something in the spirit of Israeli society that considers praise cheap. Everything and everyone is scrutinized, but scrutiny is not transparency – and transparency doesn’t solve problems, it just exposes them.

“We have to look for a way to have trust in our officials,” he says. “Being critical is just the first step – now we have to improve. We have to set standards and praise people for proper performance.”

Kasher is internationally recognized as an authority on ethical behavior.

Among his extensive list of credentials and accomplishments is his appointment to the Israel Committee for a Code of Ethics for Ministers and to a similar panel to create a code of ethics for members of Knesset. That was in 2006 and 2008, respectively. “Nothing came of their recommendations,” he notes. “They were virtually ignored. There is the distinct possibility that people in power do not want standards. At the moment, major positions do not have their own specific ethics.”

Now in his mid-70s, Kasher came of age with the state of Israel and has been a powerful force in its development for decades. As a university professor he has seen a shift in his students’ attitudes.

“The founding generation had a strong sense of responsibility,” he says, “but that sense of collective responsibility has become weaker. The education system stresses the rights of students but does not emphasize how to be good citizens; it does not teach that along with rights come responsibilities. People have to feel that they are partners – and partnership involves responsibility.”

Paraphrasing President John F. Kennedy’s well-known appeal to the American people, Kasher suggests, “All Israelis should ask themselves, ‘what is my responsibility to the state,’ not just what can the state do for me.”

Sarabeth Lukin is an American/Israeli journalist who lives in Jaffa.

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