Tuesday 14 April 2020

Leading By Personal Example

Attribution:  United States Department of State
 The problems that we have had in holding Israel's leaders to personal accountability is not new.  The notion that politicians are above the law and not subject to the same rules as everybody else is unfortunately one that pervades Israel's political system.  This has reached the highest echelons in the hierarchy with a former president and a former prime minister having already served jail time for criminal offences committed.  The current list of charges levelled against Prime Minister Netanyahu do not help in any way to restore our faith in politicians and their behaviour.

Against this backdrop, little should surprise me in the way of politicians and leaders misbehaving.  And yet, some things over the past few weeks have surprised me into giving this matter some further thought.  My disgust has finally reached levels that have compelled me to air my thoughts in public.
Attribution: Kobi Gideon / GPO Israel

I was absolutely horrified at the inaction of the ultra-Orthodox leadership on the issue of the Coronavirus, both in Israel and around the world.  While doctors, scientists and international leaders were pronouncing the necessity of social distancing as a way to avoid the spread of the virus and to save lives, the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox community were imploring their followers to continue life as usual.  Their communities were advised to continue to attend wedding parties, brit celebrations, attend shiurim and study classes and to pray in a minyan, a quorum of at least ten men.  This extended even to Israel's Minister of Health, Yaakov Litzman, himself a follower of the ultra-Orthodox Ger Hasidic dynasty.  Soon after appearing live on the news laying down legal restrictions on the number of people allowed to gather in any place, he was attending wedding functions that hosted many more than the permitted maximum that he had earlier been responsible for imposing upon the nation.

By the same token, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, one of the senior leaders of the Israeli Haredi community, refused to consider the pleas of the civilian authorities for social distancing.  Instead, he instructed his followers to continue to pray in a minyan.  A number of weeks after the social distancing rules had been implemented in Israel, he was finally convinced to instruct his followers not to pray in a minyan.  In spite of this,  he was seen praying in a minyan himself at his home in Bnei Brak not long after that.  These life-threatening actions not only violated laws of the land that he lives in, they also directly contradicted his own instructions.  Perhaps, more tellingly, the act of endangering humans and taking action that could threaten human life goes against the highest-ranking principle in the religion of preserving human life at any price.

Prime Minster Netanyahu appeared on prime time TV on two separate occasions to prepare Israelis for the Pesach (Passover) holiday.  He told the nation that the government had taken decisions that would not allow Pesach to be Purim.  It was believed that Purim parties were attended by many carriers or sufferers of the Coronavirus, perhaps unknowingly, and were a source of many secondary infections.  The Pesach Seder is usually a time when friends and family gather together to celebrate the start of the holiday.  But not this year, said the prime minister.  "A small Seder is a healthy Seder", were his words on TV to convince people that they would be allowed only to celebrate the Seder at their registered place of residence and in the attendance of their nuclear family.  A full lock-down and curfew was imposed on the whole country to prevent anybody from venturing more than 100 metres from their residence on Seder night.  Police were deployed across the country to enforce the lock-down in the most determined manner possible.  Apparently, that applied to everybody except for members of the families of the prime minister himself and the president of Israel, who both hosted family members who were not part of their immediate household for Seder night.  Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman was also apparently exempt from the restrictions after it was alleged that he hosted members of his family at his Seder who do not live in his household.

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman was forced to pay the price for his indiscretion having contracted the Coronavirus and passed it onto his wife.  He also succeeded in sending many members of the Ministry of Health into self-isolation to prevent them from the possibility of passing his virus onto other unsuspecting and innocent people.  Just at a time when the Ministry of Health needs all of its team at their healthiest, most available and strongest to fight the greatest health crisis in living memory.  And, while we wish the Netanyahu, Rivlin and Lieberman families good health in spite of their indiscretions, their actions are clearly unforgivable under the circumstances that we find ourselves.  Gushing apologies and excuses were naturally forthcoming, but this falls well short of the behaviour that we expect from our leaders.  We particularly expect more from those who stand in front of the TV cameras advising what people will be forced to do, at risk of fines or even prison sentences, then go about doing exactly the opposite themselves.  Leaders in earlier times were forced to resign and vacate their office for infringements far less serious than these.  I do miss the days of leaders who are held accountable and responsible for their words and actions.

This sorry episode demonstrates a two-tier system that spells future disaster for any country.  If the leaders are unable to adhere to the rules, how can they expect other citizens to do so?  The simple answer is that they cannot.  The leaders set the tone for how others will behave.  Actions speak louder than words, and it is impossible to expect that ordinary citizens will not follow suit in their actions too.  This ultimately creates an environment where the unacceptable will become acceptable by virtue of common infringement of the laws.  Time has come for a return to leaders who not only set the rules, but adhere to them as well.  If not, our society will unavoidably fall into decline.

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