Herman Cain - AP - 31.10.11
Republican presidential candidate, Herman Cain, Oct. 31, 2011. Photo by AP
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Watching Gloria Cain valiantly defend her husband on Fox News the other night, one could not but feel compassion, perhaps even pity, for yet another politician’s wife who is sent to the front lines to defend her spouse, despite compelling evidence that his behavior was less than exemplary. As an Israeli, my immediate association was with Gila Katsav, whose husband, former Israeli president Moshe Katsav, will soon start serving a seven-year jail sentence for rape and other sexual offenses.

It goes without saying, of course, that even if all the allegations against Herman Cain are absolutely true, his transgressions are not in the same universe as the severe criminal offenses for which Katsav was convicted. Cain’s misdeeds may doom his chances of becoming the Republican presidential candidate - though he seems to be doing a fine job of achieving that by himself, regardless of the accusations against him – but even the most unforgiving of his critics would not lump him together with Katsav, who has now been formally branded by Israel’s highest court as a serial rapist and sexual offender.

Nonetheless, there are some striking similarities between the two cases, beyond the fact that Katsav’s dutiful wife stood by her man despite the accumulation of humiliatingly graphic accounts of his actions given by some of the 11 women who complained against him. Just like Gloria Cain, Gila Katsav also echoed her husband’s assertion that he was a victim of “character assassination” stemming from a well-hatched conspiracy conceived by his political rivals.

Perhaps there is some secret political guidebook for rapid responses to accusations of sexual misbehavior that we are not privy to, in which the first order of business is to dig up dirt and to cast aspersions on the motives of the complaining women; then to accuse the liberal media of maliciously sensationalizing the allegations, in Katsav’s case, as revenge for his victory in 2000 over the darling of the left, Shimon Peres; then to blame interparty rivalries and ruthless political rivals, as Cain did of Texas Governor Rick Perry and as Katsav’s confidantes did when they accused then opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu of orchestrating the campaign against Katsav for fear that he would challenge him for the Likud leadership - and win.

And then there is the trump card, sometimes expressed and often implied, that it was Katsav’s ethnic background as a Sephardi Persia-born Jew that was his true original sin in the eyes of the Ashkenazi elites that supposedly rule the Israeli political establishment, its media and, not least of which, its judicial system. This Israeli version of what Americans call “the race card” was employed, sometimes successfully, as a weapon of last resort, in order to drum up support for Katsav while conveniently ignoring the fact that he had enjoyed a meteoric rise through the political ranks and had been elected to what is, symbolically at least, the highest post in the land.

It took months and months of damning testimonies, in public and in court, to convince the majority of Israelis that what they had thought was utterly inconceivable had indeed taken place, that the presidency, the very embodiment of Israel’s sovereignty, had been so disgracefully sullied and that the President’s House in Jerusalem had actually served as the staging ground for Katsav’s aggressive sexual assaults. Katsav had brought shame on himself and on the office he held, plummeting “from a high roof to a deep pit” as the popular Talmudic expression in Aramaic puts it, meigra rama lebira amikta.

And it is this nose dive from grace that leads not to Herman Cain’s alleged harassments, not even to Bill Clinton’s escapades at the White House with Monica Lewinsky, but to the ongoing scandal of child molestation at Penn State, which appears to be shocking Americans to their core. Not only are the original acts that are at the center of the Penn State scandal on the same scale of criminality and depravity as Katsav’s offenses, perhaps even more so, but college football for Americans is as the presidency was for many Israelis - a revered institution, a holy of holies, a sacrosanct establishment desecrated by the sordid behavior of its most admired practitioners, those who committed the acts themselves, those who knew and did nothing to stop them - and there were plenty of those in Katsav’s case as well - and those who continued to cheer him on, despite the mountains of evidence against him.

In the Israeli context, Katsav’s case is significant in and of itself but it also marks another sad chapter in the ongoing erosion of public confidence in so many of Israel’s once-revered institutions, a trend that, aided and abetted by cynical and unscrupulous politicians, is now threatening the very foundations of Israeli democracy.

It is probably a stretch, but perhaps no more than that, to imagine that the names of Penn State football coaches Joe Paterno and Jerry Sandusky will also feature one day as landmarks in a similar American pattern of fallen idols and disintegrating public trust. “Say it ain’t so, Joe”, said the young boy to his hero, “Shoeless” Joe Jackson in the 1919 “Black Sox” baseball bribing scandal, in an expression of utter disillusionment that is forever embedded in American folklore and which is just as relevant, though it’s a different Joe, in 2011.