Gil Troy: Olmert disses the Diaspora – and the Jewish People

Center Field: Olmert disses the Diaspora – and the Jewish People

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 3-4-09

In an unfortunate temper tantrum as his administration peters out, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert reportedly erupted at a recent Cabinet meeting when a respected think tank report made the rather obvious point that Israel’s corruption scandals are demoralizing the Jewish people. The occasion was the annual presentation of an assessment of the Jewish people, prepared by the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, an independent think tank based in Jerusalem, subsidized by the Jewish Agency.

“This is none of Diaspora Jewry’s business and none of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute’s business,” Olmert shouted when his Justice Minister Dan Friedmann passed him a note pointing out that the report mentioned Israel’s “ongoing corruption problem.” “On what basis do you conclude this?” he asked, echoing Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky debacle. “I haven’t been charged with anything yet; these are only suspicions. And former president [Moshe] Katsav” – whom the report also cited – “has also yet to be indicted.”

In this one tirade, Olmert mocked the many speeches he has given to fawning Diaspora audiences about the unity of the Jewish people. He made it clear that he views the relationship with Jews abroad as a one way street – he will take their cash (legally or illegally) but does not care for their opinions, unless they are adoring. Moreover, he implied that Israelis are not part of the Jewish people. An assessment of the Jewish people includes millions of Israelis, who are even more disgusted by the corruption than their Diaspora brethren.

Olmert’s anger, and the Justice Minister’s role in stirring the pot, suggests that this subject had not been broached in the Israeli cabinet – and that Israel has lamentably embraced the Clintonesque standard of I’m-honorable-if-I’m-not-indicted. Fortunately, the writers of the report were willing to speak truth to power – and the JPPPI’s Executive Director, Avinoam Bar-Yosef, held his ground. “I unequivocally stand behind the things that were said,” Bar-Yosef, a well-respected former columnist for Maariv and the Jerusalem Post, told Ha’aretz. “There is no doubt that in the annual assessment of the situation of the Jewish people, the corruption affairs cannot be ignored. This is very disturbing to Jewish communities – that seven people who hold some of the highest offices in the land are suspects or on trial.?

Olmert also objected to a claim in the report saying Diaspora Jews viewed the Second Lebanon War as a failure. “What are you talking about?” the Prime Minister barked.  “I can bring military experts who will prove that the war brought us great achievements. Who appointed you? Why are you sticking your nose into these matters, and on what basis do you draw these conclusions? “Here, too, one would hope that Israel’s leaders did not have to wait for the JPPPI report to hear about this widespread – but clearly debatable – belief.

As Israel forms a new government, this episode offers three important lessons. First, Diaspora Jews are neither lemmings nor suckers. They deserve to be respected and heard. Diaspora Jews should know their place, especially on security matters and boundary issues, given that only Israelis serve in the army, pay Israeli taxes, and vote. But the days of the Israeli superhero simply collecting accolades and checks from Jews abroad have ended. No initiatives the outgoing Prime Minister or the incoming Prime Minister could launch to improve Israel-Diaspora relations would be as valuable as encouraging more mutuality and more respect in both formal and informal interactions, among all Jews. And yes, the state of the Israel-Diaspora relationship is somewhat contingent, like everything else, on Israel adhering to the country’s core ideals.

Second, Israel’s leaders are indeed the leaders of the Jewish people – and should behave accordingly. Being entrusted with the mantle of Jewish leadership is a privilege that should elevate, not an opportunity to degenerate. Bibi Netanyahu should set high standards not just for his cabinet, but for the entire Knesset. Israel’s leaders need to have sustained debate about how the culture of corruption is a cancer, undermining faith in Israeli democracy at home and abroad. Leaders can set standards, starting with their own behavior, continuing with zero tolerance for corruption among their closest associates. For too long, too many Israeli leaders, especially, Ariel Sharon, Moshe Katzav, and yes, Ehud Olmert, have telegraphed a sense of “magiya li,” I deserve special treatment. The results ruined their repuations, cut short the Katzav and Olmert tenures, while demoralizing the Jewish people.

Finally, one of the great challenges any government faces is to avoid being imprisoned in a bubble of its own delusions, perpetually inflated by its own sycophants. Leaders in a democracy need honest feedback, they must hear what the people are thinking. Think tanks such as the JPPPI perform an essential function, stepping back, providing analysis and perspective. JPPPI’s researchers and leaders should be applauded for breaking through the Olmert Cabinet’s isolation, letting Israel’s leaders hear what they needed to hear, not just what they wanted to hear. A real leader, a class act, would have invited Avinoam Bar Yosef back for more frank overviews rather than berating him. Then again, a real leader, a class act, would not have succumbed to the many temptations that brought down Olmert’s government in the first place.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University. He splits his time between Montreal and Jerusalem and is the author of Why I am A  Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today.

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