Should we focus on a president who is a convicted rapist, or the capacity of the judiciary to try him in isolation from a hyped media and produce what appears to be a thoroughly argued decision? It took more than an hour for the head judge to read it. The procedure has been erratic during the four years that have transpired since the formal beginning of a police investigation. Moshe Katsav may appeal this decision, and it can be more years before he begins whatever punishment the court may impose. Legal commentators are predicting something between four and sixteen years of incarceration.
He is not the only head of state (in Israel's case more a ceremonial figure than a power holder) who has been governed by his lower parts. Our younger children were teenagers when they learned about oral sex from the activities of another country's president. And stories about John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson are not all that different from what we know about Moshe Katsav.
Katsav did not manage his defense well. He first accepted and then rejected a plea bargain that would have him admitting to sexual harassment and a suspended sentence. He insisted that he had no sexual contact with any of the numerous women who charged otherwise, and lost his temper at a press conference. That produced a video clip shown time and again of his pointing and scowling at a prominent reporter, and shouting an accusation of witch hunt by the media.
Israel is among the majority of democracies that tries its cases with professional judges. They may not be able to limit entirely the influence of media coverage, but they avoid the circus that can surround a trial by jury. The court that found Katsav guilty was headed by an Arab, and included two women. They were united in accepting the testimony of a former subordinate of Katsav who claimed that he raped her on two occasions, and found his efforts to defend himself before the public (including a campaign to defame his accusers) and during the trial to be fabricated and unconvincing.
Even more distressing than one oversexed politician was the crisis that filled Israel's media during the days before attention went to the reading of the verdict about Katsav and the commentary surrounding it.
Avi Cohen was more than another motorcyclist who died as the result of a traffic accident. He was a star athlete who graduated from the first league of Israeli football to one of England's leading teams. He was at the top of the news throughout the week following his accident. His casket lay in state on a football field, and thousands marched behind his body on the way to burial.
Although he had signed on to a program offering his organs for transplant, the religious establishment showed one of its darker sides in pressuring the family to reject the physicians' requests for organ donation, and their arguments that there is no hope after brain death. Rabbis and yeshiva students speaking for them predicted a miracle. The cessation of brain activity was not final. He would be on his feet and walking within a week. It would be murder to take his organs. A friend from his playing days who had become a "born again Jew" (חוזר לתשובה) joined those insisting that the family must refuse organ donation.
Israel is a significant laggard in organ donations, and the rabbinate in prominent in the explanation. Leading rabbis have accepted the concept of brain death, but others are adamant in their opposition to anything other than a cessation of breathing and the heart. Rabbis have said that they accept the end of brain activity as the end of life, but they have waffled or denied their own comments when presented with the staunch opinions of other rabbis. Ultra-Orthodox rabbis lead the campaign against donation, but they have no problem with their followers accepting organs.
Another reason to condemn Israel for a political system that provides religious parties with an occasional veto on important issues?
It does not help that the politician serving as Minister of Health is ultra-Orthodox. (Actually he is deputy minister serving in the absence of a minister, because the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox have their own reasons for refusing the position of minister, but the difference is not important.) He has worked against the construction of a hospital extension on land that he perceived to be an ancient Jewish burial ground (overturned after a lengthy campaign) and to institute free dental care for children within the programs of the HMOs. That would serve the large and poor families of the ultra-Orthodox, but may be beyond the capacity of the country's dentists.
It is easier to accuse religious Jews of ruining Israel than to do something about it. The issue is confused by significant differences between the politics associated with the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox, as well as between Ashkenazi and Sephardi ultra-Orthodox, and disputes among the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox.
Israel is a democracy. The religious enjoy the same rights to express themselves and vote as others. Moreover, the ultra-Orthodox in particular are inclined to accept the leadership of their rabbis. They vote at greater rates than other Israelis, and typically in disciplined blocs. Secular Jews of Israel and those overseas who feel some responsibility for the country have cursed the status quo and offered their suggestions to reform the electoral system, and the way the parliament chooses the government. Remaining Jewish and democratic has contributed to six decades of tense tranquility, but offers no clear path to solving the problems of Judaism.
Posted by Ira Sharkansky at December 30, 2010 09:03 AM
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem