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The Jewish Report Editorial

Pride and shame against the law

Bribe-taking seems to be so pervasive in South Africa these days - not just by traffic police, but by the most senior government officials - that we’ve almost become resigned to it and tend to turn the page and read something else when we see it in a newspaper. ​​
by GEOFF SIFRIN | May 14, 2014

Which should make us sit up and take fervent notice of Tuesday’s sentencing in Israel of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to six years’ imprisonment for taking bribes when he was mayor of Jerusalem.

Not that everything is fine and dandy in Israel. As in any country, shadowy things happen behind the scenes and it often takes tough investigators to force them into the limelight. But at the end of the day, the Israeli legal system has adhered to the principle that no man, whoever he is, should be above the law. A prime minster, president or anyone else must keep his hands clean just like the lowliest citizen. The judge in the Olmert case, Judge David Rozen was right in saying that someone in office who does what he did is, in fact, a “traitor”.

This case follows another one several years ago when former President Moshe Katsav was convicted and sent to jail for sexual crimes.

What about crimes by people in public positions at the level of communities? For example, the Jewish community, or other small communities like the Greeks. What happens, for example, when the head of a community charity uses the organisation’s money to line his own pockets? Or when a teacher sexually molests pupils, such as happened in the case of a gym instructor at King David School several decades ago?

In those days, the way such things were dealt with in most schools and similar institutions, was that the teacher was warned, dismissed or moved elsewhere, and the matter quietly pushed under the carpet. It very seldom got into the public domain; newspapers were basically not interested in the stories. The legal route was seldom taken.

That seemed the right thing to do then, in contrast to today’s ethos when we shudder at perpetrators getting off so lightly, and victims not receiving the counselling and other help they need.

Such was also the case at Yeshiva University in New York, when two instructors were found to have molested students many years ago. The way the case came out recently was when former students went public about what was done to them, and the emotional damage they suffered throughout their adult lives.

As a result, the university took immediate action and put in place stringent measures to ensure that something like this would never happen again.

The King David case has been handled with similar urgency: the King David Schools Foundation publicly apologised to all its alumni in its newsletter for the long-ago incident, and put measures in place to ensure it would never happen again. Indeed, today such a thing would result in serious legal action against the perpetrator.

When it comes to scandals and wrongdoing in communities, there is a time for going public and legalistic, but also a time when, for various reasons, dealing with the matter behind the scenes may be the wiser course, such as to protect children or prevent collateral damage to innocent people. Knowing which is best requires wisdom.

When it comes to a country, however, and the behaviour of its public officials, silence must never be an option. The full glare of the public spotlight is essential.

Sadly, there have been too many instances in South Africa where public officials have been involved in corruption or other misdemeanours, and nothing has happened to them. Their deeds have remained in the shadows, and our leaders seem strangely reluctant to cast the spotlight on them or make them pay. Police investigators have also been strangely reluctant to pursue these cases. Perhaps the Israeli example should be waved in the face of every government official as to how things should work.

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