Dishonesty: Good Ethics Make Good Politicians

I am reminded of the Officers Training School. When we were running a certain course, no one would cut corners, especially when there was no chance for anyone to see. Doing so simply stood contrary to the Code of Honor. If one does it when no one else is looking, i.e. when there is no cost associated, one is not worthy of becoming an officer.

The title “Dishonesty” may be misleading to some. For me, honesty is measured when one looks in the mirror, when no one else is present, and asks the person in the mirror for an opinion. Or rather, when one looks at the mirror and renders an opinion.

When members of non-profit organizations ask for money, and tell us that it is our “obligation,” that the world would be a better place, and look at us straight in the eye and expect us to write a check, I wonder: “Have you opened your wallet?” “When did you last write a check for the very same campaign?

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles employs contingencies of professionals who earn more than $50,000 a year. The list is long and the statistics are available for anyone who cares to review them. I wonder how many of these professionals, who “host us” on budgets raised from our own contributions and donations, contribute to the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Simple question, is it not?

I would like to see the next campaign: “We are part of the team too,” a list of major donors from within the Federation employees. Why only highlight those major donors who are non-employees? Clearly the Federation should be proud of its very own doing the same.

Likewise, the Israeli Parliament. Now that it is summer-vacation (“suspension” it is called) and the Knesset is not in session, one can find many of the Knesset members in the USA on personal fundraising missions. In Los Angeles, we are fortunate to host many. In New York, Washington, DC, Miami and elsewhere, the fundraising avalanche is similar.

The beginning of the week I wrote to the Speaker of the Knesset, providing a glimpse of what it means to host a non-stop stream of Members of the Knesset. Typically those arriving are on a “private visit” which allows them certain flexibilities under Israeli law. Plainly, it means they are allowed to ask for money.

If one stops to think about these visits, one would realize that what opens the doors of philanthropists, local government officials and many others who are attracted to hear the MKs is their affiliation with the governing (legislative) body of Israel. I doubt they would enjoy the same reception otherwise. The Deputy Speaker of the Knesset or the Speaker himself is unlike regular Israeli citizens visiting overseas. So are other MKs, serving on various committees, from Foreign Affairs and Defense to the Rights of the Child.

We are all attracted to power or those who represent it, and utilizing one’s position to raise money for primaries (internal party politics), elections (in Israel), associated entities from youth groups to religious groups (all overseas) to the actual host organizations has a reason for impropriety.

One day, not so far away, someone may study all the tax deductions and find that many of the contributions (although not all) are tax deductible in the USA. The NY Times, in a recent front-page article, has already begun questioning some of the money earmarked for “Occupied” territories. The next investigative piece may be about “foreign governments and related activities,” anything to delegitimize Israel. What a better way than the actions of Israel’s own elected representatives?

But let us return to the MKs, received with full honors and great hospitality despite the pace required to welcome all these foreign dignitaries, which at times is quite tiring (one MK after another former general, one current Minister after another former Adviser). They pay for nothing. Someone flies them in. Someone else hosts them or pays the hotel bill. They are hosted for breakfast, lunch and dinner and often in between. They do not even think of offering to pay. They are, after all, elected officials, our guests of honor.

There is something wrong when elected officials who receive very nice salaries, wonderful pensions and enviable working conditions (from free phone calls to computers to staff and office etc. etc. etc. as the list is very long indeed), ask for money. Israeli politicians are not alone in these tactics, and it has become commonplace in all countries. For some reason however, I hold Israel to a higher standard.

“Among my people I live,” and I know that a suggestion to prohibit any fundraising overseas would be welcomed with 120 member uniform agreement to OPPOSE. (There are 120 members of the Knesset.) Why lose such a wonderful source of funds and constant entertainment?

It is the job of the Speaker of the Knesset to achieve just that. It is time for elected officials to serve as an example for others to follow. There is absolutely no reason to come to Israelis overseas, to the Jewish communities and to our Christians supporters and ask for money. We are already over inundated with requests for money for underwear and long socks for soldiers, for milk and bread for starving children (apparently more than 50% of Israeli children are hungry) not to mention all the other good causes with the local Arab and Palestinian populations.

Members of the Knesset should not ask for money. It belittles their missions that should focus on messages from the Israeli Knesset overseas. Why does Israel have a right to exist? How can Israel be a Democracy if it is a Jewish State? What are the benefits to Israeli minorities? What are the obstacles for peace? And on, and on and so forth.

The appearance itself should be a sufficient reason not schnorring. But they look in the mirror and the shine of gold is lucrative, the money rings well in their pockets and the lure of more and more is irresistible.

A friend wrote back not to expect an answer from the Speaker. I hope to be proven otherwise. He is, after all, the Speaker of the Knesset, entrusted with protecting the image and honor of this elected body: “The speaker of the Knesset represents the Knesset externally and is responsible for maintaining its honor.” So in theory, but how about in practice?

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(c) “Postcards from Israel-Postcards from America,” August, 2010

In the series “Postcards from Israel,” Ari Bussel and Norma Zager invite readers throughout the world to join them as they present reports from Israel as seen by two sets of eyes: Bussel’s on the ground, Zager’s counter-point from home. Israel and the United States are inter-related – the two countries we hold dearest to our hearts – and so is this “point – counter-point” presentation that has, since 2008, become part of our lives.