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When elites betray us

Israelis Yair Golan and Oded Goldreich represent object lessons in moral failure.

Knesset member Yair Golan of the Meretz Party, Feb. 17, 2020. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Knesset member Yair Golan of the Meretz Party, Feb. 17, 2020. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Douglas Altabef
Douglas Altabef
Douglas Altabef is chairman of the board of Im Tirtzu and a director of the Israel Independence Fund. He can be reached at [email protected]

One of the great maladies afflicting Western democracies today is the decoupling of national elites from their own people. This was the background story to Brexit in the United Kingdom and also to the rise of Donald Trump in the United States.

Here in Israel, with its breathtaking ethnic and religious diversity, we expect our leaders, political and social, to show a fundamental empathy and identification with our citizens, regardless of any particular issues involved. So, when Deputy Economy Minister Yair Golan recently called Samaria settlers “subhuman,” we considered him to have crossed a red line that cannot be erased nor should be forgiven.

Not only was Golan channeling the same Nazis whom he alluded to Israel’s resembling in his notorious 2016 Holocaust Remembrance Day speech; not only did he commit a blood libel against his own people; he broke faith with them.

For a country so dependent on social cohesion in the face of rampant differences, Golan committed the cardinal sin of disloyalty—of a lack of identification and affinity, not to mention empathy, with his fellow citizens.

His attempt to walk his statement back only made things worse since he tried to contextualize it. If there were any question that this man is unfit for a leadership role in a Jewish state, this “clarification” should have been the decisive proof.

The irony is that Israel’s current government prides itself on being something for everybody, a big tent encompassing the spectrum of Israeli society. Golan, thus, has no business being part of it. Conversely, if Golan’s libel is allowed to fade into the woodwork, it will put the lie to the government’s claims of inclusivity and universal respect.

At Im Tirtzu, the organization I am proud to serve as board chairman, we have become used to being called fascists. But even our worst detractors have not crossed the line into Der Stürmer rhetoric. Indeed, Golan has taken demonization to a whole new level. In the name of social cohesion and human decency, it must be rejected wholeheartedly, and the only way to do that is to thank him for his prior military service and to show him the door.

Another case of failed morality, this one among elite academics, involves the awarding of the Israel Prize to mathematician Oded Goldreich. Though the selection committee appropriately singled him out for his brilliance and contribution to computational understanding, he had also distinguished himself with his support for BDS and his joining of a petition to the European Union urging the end of backing for Ariel University due to its being in Samaria, over the Green Line.

Fortunately, two consecutive education ministers had the foresight and wisdom to understand what is truly at stake in this highly symbolic award; they rightly concluded that Goldreich, however accomplished professionally, is not a figure whom we as a nation wish to extol.

It’s not an issue of free speech, as some of his supporters, including Weizmann Institute president Alon Chen, have argued. Chen takes the position that political views have no place in the awarding of the Israel Prize, though I wonder what political positions might prompt him to think otherwise.

Regardless, he misses the import of the Israel Prize, which is a recognition of role-model greatness bestowed by the nation on its own. The significance of the award’s true meaning was brought home by a petition organized by Im Tirtzu’s Ariel University branch, which garnered more than 1,000 student signatures.

The petition pointed out that if Goldreich were to succeed in his mission, thousands of his peers in academia would be displaced and many would have their careers ruined.

Does the State of Israel wish to enshroud in greatness one who is happy to delegitimize it? What kind of message does this send to the rest of us? The answer is a corrosive one that would only reinforce the undesired perception that our leaders are speaking out of both sides of their mouths, and that there is one set of standards for them and another for the rest of us.

Maintaining social cohesion—the sense that, ultimately, we are all in this together—will become a greater challenge as income disparities fueled by the growing tech sector are increased.

We need to create and foster a mindset and an environment that elevates empathy with the citizenry over any entitlement coming from individual achievement. The governing models for our elites need to be Abraham and his open tent, and Joseph, the ultimate elite, who never forgot who he was or where he came from.

Douglas Altabef is chairman of the board of Im Tirtzu and a director of the Israel Independence Fund. He can be reached at [email protected]

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