The Book of Esterina

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"Patriotism," said Dr. Samuel Johnson over 200 years ago, "is the last refuge of a scoundrel." If we substitute racism for patriotism, then we have a perfect match with the Esterina Tartman affair.

She could have been a popular member of the Knesset. She belongs to a respected Oriental family (The Shabtai family, seven generations in the country). She is pretty and looks very much younger than her 50 years. She is the mother of four. She has recovered after a severe road accident.

She appeared on the public stage at the end of the last Knesset, when she took the place of a deceased member. From the very first moment, she aroused strong feelings of rejection, disgust and even loathing.

Why? Because she is a vulgar person. Her "big mouth" has become her trademark. Not only is she a member of Avigdor Ivette Liberman’s nationalist-racist faction, "Yisrael Beitenu", which exudes the odor of fascism, but she herself is prone to voicing discordant opinions. Her rabidly racist speeches have won her headlines in the media, but repelled decent people on the Left and even on the Right. "An ax has been raised against the tree called Zionism", "The evil must be uprooted!" she declared after a Muslim-Arab had been appointed a minister for the first time.

Such statements are probably music in the ears of Ivette Liberman (no one knows why his Russian or Moldavian first name sounds like a female French one.) So it was only natural that he decided to give Esterina the post of Minister of Tourism, which was offered to his faction. Since he is the sole leader of Yisrael Beitenu ("Israel is our Home"), that was enough. When asked how the decision was taken, he replied, with unintended irony, "democratically and unanimously." Unanimous" comes from "one mind", in this case his own.

And then, just a moment before the appointment was confirmed, it became known that the beautiful Esterina was a fraud, who claimed academic degrees which she had never been awarded. Also, it was discovered that, after her road accident, she had used dubious testimony in order to obtain compensation and incapacity-rates (52%) from the insurance companies. In another case, after hitting a pedestrian, she claimed that the victim had caused the accident intentionally, to gain compensation. The courts reprimanded her for this argument and took away her driving license for a long time.

It was the academic titles that were her undoing. Actually, a Knesset member does not need any. I served in the Knesset three times without having finished elementary school. So, why did Ms Tartman add the bogus titles to her official biography? Just for her image’s sake.

For several days, the scandal outshone all the other affairs that make Israeli life so interesting: the sex scandal of the President, the fatal kiss of the (ex) Minister of Justice, the cloud of alleged corruption affairs that follows the Prime Minister wherever he goes, the alleged election bribes of the Minister of Finance, the widespread suspicions of bribery in the highest ranks of the Tax Authority, the resignation of the Chief-of-Staff after the Lebanon fiasco, the resignation of the Chief of Police because he did nothing about Mafia penetration of his organization.

The Esterina Affair has even eclipsed another major new disclosure: that Ehud Olmert, in his former capacity as Minister of Industry and Trade, distributed jobs and other benefits to some 115 members of the powerful Likud Central Committee, of which he was then a member, in order to ensure his place on the party’s list for the next elections. And indeed, how could such routine corruption compete with the juicy affair of the "Tartarina" (as she was dubbed by one Knesset member.)

However, it is not the cheating of Tartman that is the main point, nor even her vulgar racism, but a nagging question: how could such a person (almost) become a member of the cabinet?

True, the Minister of Tourism does not have a very important portfolio, but is still the equal of all the other members sitting around the cabinet table, with a vote on matters of peace and war. This vote can be decisive in sending thousands of soldiers and civilians to their death. The minister takes part in votes that decide the future of the state for generations to come. How could such a dubious individual ever reach such a high station?

That is not a purely Israeli question. It has been raised in many other democracies, too.

In the United States, the ministers are appointed by the president and serve only as his aides. If he wants, he appoints talented people. If he feels like it, he appoints perfect fools, cheats and fanatics.

But the President himself, how is he appointed? He needs only one talent: to convince the electorate to vote for him. After being elected, he can surprise everybody and turn out to be a real leader, with vision and integrity (like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for example), or he may turn out to be a charismatic con-man, a trickster devoid of values and principles (see some of the latest names in the media).

Israeli democracy is based on a different system. Since no party ever wins an election outright, the prospective Prime Minister needs a coalition in order to put together a parliamentary majority. The ministries are distributed between the coalition parties as spoils of war. Only after the parties have been allotted their shares, each according to its strength, is it decided who shall actually occupy the seats. In a dictatorial party, like Yisrael Beitenu, it is the leader who hands out the jobs to his loyal supporters. In a democratic party, the winners are the politicians who have been most successful in accumulating power by intrigues, bribing colleagues and setting up inner-party power centers.

At no stage of this process, does one particular consideration play any role at all: the ability of the candidates to direct the ministries they are fighting over. That is considered irrelevant.

I remember a diplomatic party, shortly after Ehud Barak was elected Prime Minister, where I met several of the ministers newly appointed by Barak. All of them were hopping mad.

Shlomo Ben-Ami, a professor of history, an introverted intellectual with an interest in social theory and peace affairs, was exiled to the Ministry of Police. There he was responsible for the "October Events" of 2000, when the police shot dead a dozen Arab citizens. The Judicial Board of Inquiry reprimanded him harshly.

Yossi Beilin, who had dreamed of the Foreign Office, a man of many political ideas (some good, some bad, some very bad), was sent to the Ministry of Justice, which did not interest him in the slightest. Barak treated the others in the same, almost sadistic, way.

But why turn to the past – the present has enough examples to offer. As chairman of the Labor Party, Amir Peretz had a right to the most important ministry allotted to his party: Defense. His tenure there has turned into a pathetic farce (exemplified most vividly by the famous picture that shows the minister observing maneuvers through binoculars with the lenses still capped.

The Foreign Minister, Tsipi Livni, is considered well suited for the job by her colleagues because other countries – the United States, the United Kingdom and Austria among them – also have female foreign ministers. She also has dealings with the female Chancellor of Germany and may soon – God willing – be meeting with a female president of France. Since assuming office, Livni has not started any initiative and not expressed any idea that would suggest that she has any vision at all.

The Minister of Police is a former Shin Bet chief, and therefore sees the police as a force fighting enemies, rather than protecting citizens. He has shown his talent by appointing a new police chief, who has in the past been stigmatized in court as unfit to wear a police uniform. The new Minister of Justice, who has just been appointed, declares publicly that his main aim is to cripple the Supreme Court, the last bastion of democracy in Israel, because a female friend of his failed to be appointed to this august body. (His main ally in this noble endeavor was – surprise, surprise – MK Esterina Tartman.) And the appointment of Avigdor Liberman, the primitive racist bully, as minister in charge of dealing with the Iranian problem is like introducing a deranged elephant into a porcelain shop.

And this government remains in power only because practically everybody believes that another one would be even worse.

Israeli society is vibrant, multi-faceted and rich in talents. It is prominent in many fields, such as the sciences, medicine, the world of computers and especially of start-up companies, the economy, literature, in several fields of the arts and some sports. Why, then, for Gods sake, does it elevate to the highest ranks politicians who are good for nothing?

I have the impression that in other democracies, similar questions are being asked. There, too, a vicious circle is in operation: the political profession is debased, as a result, good people do not choose a political career, as a result, the political profession gets even more debased.

According to a Hebrew proverb, "the trouble of others is half of a comfort". Not in this case.

Israel is facing many problems, more than most democratic countries. It craves recognition from its neighbors. It must overcome the negative aspects that accompanied a hundred years of Zionist endeavor. It needs a settlement, peace and conciliation with the Palestinian people, and with the entire Arab world. It must cope with deep domestic schisms – between the secular and the religious, between the poor and the rich, between the Jewish majority and the Arab minority, between the various Jewish ethnic communities.

In order to cope with these tasks, we need outstanding men and women, people with vision, integrity and talent. And, yes: patriots who are not refuge-seeking scoundrels.

In short: men and women who are the very opposite of Ivette and his Esterina.

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