I am writing this essay on the day that former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been sentenced to six years in prison for the crimes of political corruption and bribery while he was the mayor of Jerusalem. Assuming that the sentence will be upheld by Israel’s Supreme Court, he eventually will join Moshe Katzav who is also incarcerated for a number of sexual offenses committed while he was Israel’s president. This is a sad day for the State of Israel, and at the same time, it is a very good day for the justice system of Israel.
There are very few countries, past or present, that have had the courage to send its elected leaders to prison. Even our great nation, known for the rule of law, has sent precious few people of political prominence to jail. I think especially of the cabal of bankers and investment tycoons, none of whom collectively has spent even a single night in the slammer. Considering the tremendous harm done to the U.S. economy and the lives of millions of Americans, they continue to enjoy prestige, are welcomed at their country clubs, and live handsomely off of their platinum parachutes. The many members of Congress and heads of various governmental institutions that were, de facto, their co-conspirators, seemingly continue to be above the law, “too big to fail, ” i.e. to be held accountable.
Let us consider the sentence imposed to Mr. Olmert. Was it excessive or was it appropriate? The presiding judge in the case likened political corruption to treason. I could not agree more. Public servants, elected or appointed, are afforded the privilege of public service; yes, of service to the public. They are entrusted with the wellbeing of society. They are not given a license to steal. When they do steal, when they do succumb to influence peddling or outright bribery, they do more than debase themselves; they inflict actual harm on those that have put their trust in them. That constitutes a betrayal of great magnitude, yes, even treason.
Here in Illinois, where we have a long history of sending governors to prison, and where Chicago alderman seem to be removed from office with predictable regularity, we know all too well the cost and effect of political corruption. And yet it continues. The culture of “where’s mine?” continues unabated. Hardly anybody in Illinois, certainly in Chicago, serious believes candidates run for office so that they may be of service to society. Public trust here is nil, despite the efforts of the occasional reformer. The price for corruption paid by the social order is high. Ultimately it erodes the essential basis of democracy.
Senator Elizabeth Warren, long the champion of ordinary Americans, has spoken repeatedly of the terrible harm done to the political system by the army of lobbyists, political contributors to campaigns, and PAC’s that have essentially have bought Washington. The obscene amounts of money donated both by individuals and by corporations to politicians is legalized bribery. That’s the way the game is played here in the world’s greatest democracy. That is the same game the Ehud Olmert played and for which he is not being held to account.
I firmly believe that Mr. Olmert got what he deserves. More than that, the people of Israel have received precisely what they absolutely deserve. Israel became a better nation today.
The respected Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz believes differently. An admitted friend of Ehud Olmert, he is of the opinion that Olmert’s years of public service, particularly the time when he held Israel’s highest office, should have been taken into consideration, that he should have received a lighter sentence in recognition for his good works. I don’t buy that for a second. It is correct that he is to be be punished for crimes he committed as mayor of Jerusalem, before he became prime minister. So what? Had the public been aware of the bribes he took as mayor, he never would have become prime minister. Nor is there the slightest hint that any actions he took as prime minister were to make amends for previous wrongdoings. I do not deny that Mr. Olmert served well as prime minister, but that is not the meaning of the legal term “of having been given credit for time served.”
Professor Dershowitz offers as a proof text for a more lenient sentence the admonition from the Torah: “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” He contends that the concept of justice is never singular because the dispensation of justice must take into account both the crime itself and the person. This is a distorted and false interpretation of the Torah’s teaching and Mr. Dershowitz must know it. Since time immemorial, the rabbis have taught that the word tsedek, “justice” is repeated in order to make clear that justice applies both to the powerful and the powerless, the rich and the poor, the Jew and the non-Jew, the Jew and the Muslim.
There must not be one kind of justice for ordinary citizens and a different one for persons of power, of wealth, or majority status This is a lesson that needs to be understood and embraced by society and by legal experts. So much depends upon the equal dispensation of justice. We have so far to go to realize this ideal. Yet the ideal must remain our vision: one justice for all.
Here in America, we know all too well that the ideal of justice for all has been seriously eroded. Who can deny that we are a less just society as a result? Those who can afford expensive attorneys usually get off. White people commonly receive greater leniency than people of color. People who know the right people often pull the right strings. We all know this is true. It’s not right, but it is true.
So, sad as it may be to see Israel’s 68 year old former leader led off to prison, we have good reason to feel positive about this case.
The fall of Mr. Olmert also constitutes the rise of Israel’s democracy to a higher rung. Justice is being served.