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The Holyland Sentencing: A Faithful City?

I found myself on an emotional roller coaster this week following the Court’s sentencing of Ehud Olmert, former mayor of Israel’s capital and former prime minister of Israel, being tossed from side to side by sadness, pride, and apprehension.

My sadness was on a personal level. I know Ehud Olmert. We are not friends, but we embrace when we meet. He is an intelligent man, warm, with a sharp eye and tongue and extraordinary leadership skills and decision-making abilities. The course of his life has paralleled that of the love of my life— the State of Israel. It is possible to reject his indulgent lifestyle and fancy cigars while still appreciating this remarkable man, from deep within. It is imperative to question the wisdom of his decisions, the impetuousness of his launch of the Second Lebanon war and its hasty end, and the heavy price paid for those events. But at the same time, it is possible to salute Olmert’s courage, composure, and lack of timidity. The fact that the court has deemed him a “betrayer of the trust reposed in him”—a status which may be overturned on appeal, as we would hope it will be—is depressing and distressing on a personal level. Is it possible that Ehud, the salt of the earth from Binyamina, will find himself in prison?

The pride I feel is for the government of Israel. The rule of law, the basis of our existence as a society, has faced a difficult test in recent years. Omniscient proclamations and assertions have warned of a systematic and sustained weakening of the power of the gatekeepers. Many have attacked the weak points of the justice system, the State Prosecutor, and the Attorney General. There is no need to be blind disciples of these institutions; I myself criticize them when necessary, and there is certainly room for repair. But in the end, it is crystal clear that these are the most professional and reliable institutions in Israel’s system of government, and as such, we are greatly indebted to them.

This past week we saw another addition to our accumulated debt to the justice system: Regardless of the outcome of the appeal, an extremely important biblical message was etched in the collective mind of the public: “You shall have one manner of law” (Leviticus 24:22)—that is, there must be one standard of justice for all. The Holyland verdict teaches us that all are subject to the law—not only a peculiar finance minister or a president whom the public loves to hate, but also a well connected, engaging prime minister who is one of the most influential people in the country. The law rules the ruler.

My apprehension, the strongest feeling evoked by this episode, is on a moral plane. In the collective historical memory of the Jewish people, there is an intrinsic connection between the moral failure of our nation and its leadership and our national destruction and exile. The great prophets— Isaiah, Amos, and Jeremiah—made this eminently clear in their emphatic admonitions. After a long, tragic period of waiting, the Zionist enterprise finally gave us another chance to manage our sovereign state in an ethical manner; we have once again been given the power to act as a national group in history. The generations of the past and future are now watching our generation, the generation of the revival of the State of Israel: How we will use our power this time? Have we learned the central lesson of our national history?

Beyond the mountains of lofty and lowly words pouring out in the media, there is a gnawing fear that the words of rebuke of the prophets that heralded the destruction apply to our generation, the generation of revival.  The frustration of Isaiah, expressed over 2,700 years ago, echoes here and now: “See how the faithful city has become a harlot!” (Isaiah 1:21). The faithful city of Isaiah, Jerusalem of the First Temple Period, is the very same city in which two mayors, a deputy mayor, the city engineer, and the head of the mayor’s office were deemed by the District Court to have abused their government power and accepted bribes. The municipal administration of the capital of Israel repeated the failures of the capital of the Kingdom of Judah. Jerusalem’s city hall, as described in the judgment of Judge David Rozen, is like the faithful city decried by Isaiah—”Your princes are rebellious, and companions of thieves; everyone loves bribes, and follows after rewards” (Isaiah 1:23).

But alongside my sadness, pride, and apprehension, there is also hope:  A decade of cleaning house has just come to an end. The diligent work of Israel’s law enforcement system has borne fruit. The Holyland affair is likely to leave its mark in the minds of powerful government players. The primary purpose of criminal law is not to punish those convicted and give them their just desert, but to deter those around them from engaging in criminal activity. The tasteless tower with the ridiculous name “Holyland”—a name that implies the exact opposite of what it really is—will continue to mar the landscape of Jerusalem. But it will also serve as a reminder of the revolving sword that hovers over the heads of Israel’s public servants, thus preventing them from succumbing to the temptation to abuse their power and use it for wrong. 


Yedidia Z. Stern is Vice President of Research at IDI and a Professor of Law at Bar-Ilan University.

This article was first published in Hebrew in the Makor Rishon weekly newspaper on May 16, 2014.