Former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt once joked that the politicians of his time were so corrupt that “when they call the roll in the Senate, the senators do not know whether to answer ‘present’ or ‘not guilty.’”
Unfortunately, the same holds true for Israeli politics today.
Former Prime Ministers Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Olmert, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Barak were all investigated on various corruption charges. Olmert went to prison for bribery and Netanyahu is currently on trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
It is possible that Israeli politicians were always corrupt and there is just more scrutiny nowadays. Maybe the system is at fault. Perhaps our standards have risen and our leaders must now be more careful than ever not to go beyond the letter of the law. However, it is also possible that corruption has not increased at all and the press and much of the public are making mountains out of molehills.
Nevertheless, if Netanyahu can be tried for accepting gifts and seeking positive media coverage, every politician in Israel must be held to the same high standard.
That is why recent revelations about Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai and his fellow Labor Party Knesset Member and Reform Rabbi Gilad Kariv must be taken seriously.
An exposé by Ma’ariv newspaper columnist Kalman Liebskind found that Shai had funneled 30 million shekels from his ministry’s coalition-allocated discretionary funds to a small non-profit organization dedicated to advancing religious pluralism in Israel.
That organization, called Panim, had only two workers and a small budget. Nonetheless, it was chosen to run the Diaspora Affairs Ministry’s new Jewish Renewal Department without a required government tender. Kariv was a board member until nine months after he became an MK.
Panim’s Director-General Yotam Broom is a Labor Party member and Kariv confidant who praised Kariv on social media during his election campaign and bragged about the funding Panim would receive long before it became official. Broom helped the ministry form the department he would later be chosen to head.
Liebskind’s final revelation in the article was that the Diaspora Affairs Ministry was allowed to fund pluralism projects inside Israel, because they are deemed “societal.” That preposterous decision calls into question why the ministry even exists.
Moreover, the Diaspora Ministry has larger, systemic problems. Most of all, it is clear that Israel is providing too much money to the Diaspora, which can certainly fund itself. If Israel has more money than it needs, it should go to relieving poverty and the housing crisis, and American organizations need to rethink their fundraising efforts. The Reform movement in particular can raise its own money instead of taking it from Israeli taxpayers.
It was former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett who first changed the paradigm of Israel-Diaspora relations while he was Diaspora Affairs Minister. In 2017, Bennett approved a $1 million aid package earmarked for the Houston Jewish community in order to repair the damage caused by Hurricane Harvey.
“The Jewish state is measured by its response when our brothers around the world are in crisis,” Bennett said at the time.
But the aid was to help relieve an American Jewish community in distress due to a disaster. It should have been a very rare exception. The Diaspora ought to help fund Israel and not the other way around. Moreover, the idea that Diaspora Affairs Ministry funds should be used internally to advance religious pluralism ought to be unimaginable.
The very fact that the government allocates discretionary funds to the pet causes of various parties is problematic to say the least, but it may explain why Kariv did not believe he was doing anything wrong by earmarking it without prior approval.
Moreover, if the information in the article about Kariv had been disclosed earlier, Kariv might not have done so well in the Labor Party primary. He won the third slot on the party list as Labor’s top male candidate, but had Labor members known that he gave away their tax money to an organization alleged to be myopic and even fake, the outcome could have been very different.
Now that it has been proven that the Diaspora Affairs Ministry’s money was allocated without following proper procedures, the allocation should be frozen immediately. Especially when an election campaign is underway in Israel, Shai and Kariv cannot be permitted to hand out taxpayer money that may have been tainted.
Kariv and Shai should be given the benefit of a fair investigation while the money is frozen, of course. They deserve to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.
Normal procedures must be applied in order to determine whether Kariv broke the law, just as it was to Netanyahu and former ministers Yaakov Litzman and Arye Deri, as well as Likud MK David Bitan. Kariv and Shai’s alleged crime is much worse than the cigars Bibi accepted.
There cannot be two sets of rules. Only if Israeli politicians are held accountable to identical standards can they prove themselves unworthy of comparison to the American politicians of the Roosevelt era.
Martin Oliner is co-president of the Religious Zionists of America, chairman of the Center for Righteousness and Integrity and a committee member of the Jewish Agency. He was appointed by former U.S. President Donald Trump as a member of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. The views expressed are his own. He can be reached at [email protected].
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