Private Bellies and Public Coffers

Once upon a time, there was a man named Dr. Emil Schmorak. In 1951, as comptroller of the Jewish Agency, he released an extremely astringent report about several officials' conduct.

Once upon a time, there was a man named Dr. Emil Schmorak. In 1951, as comptroller of the Jewish Agency, he released an extremely astringent report about several officials' conduct. His findings were so grave that Haim Cohen, then attorney general, ordered the police to open a criminal investigation against the officials whom Schmorak had accused of corruption.

But then Levi Eshkol, then the Jewish Agency's treasurer, intervened. "Thou shalt not muzzle the ox when he treadeth the corn," he ruled. In other words, you don't prevent public servants from making a bit on the side while carrying out their sacred tasks.

Following this statement, the public turned against Schmorak. He was forced to resign, and the criminal procedures against the suspects were revoked.

The edict "thou shalt not muzzle the ox when he treadeth the corn" is a moral halakhic command originating in Deuteronomy, meaning you don't prevent animals that serve you from eating a bit of the fruit of their labor. Eshkol applied this enlightened rule to the backyard of public life, thus giving corrupt conduct the seal of approval. His statement has been engraved as a mark of shame in the history of Israeli public administration, and is considered improper and worthy of denunciation to this day.

Eshkol was not one of the Jewish Agency officials whom Schmorak had censured, but he was their superior. The expression with which he chose to defend himself reflected the mindset of Israel's leadership, which was held entirely by Labor: God chose us to rule, and we know what is proper and what is improper. We are all members of a holy group that devotes its soul to the nation, and if here and there someone filches a little perk at the public's expense, it pales in comparison to our national mission. In any case, the stumbling official must not be given a hard time; leave it to us, the leaders, to decide how to return him to the straight and narrow. Most importantly - don't distract attention from the main thing: advancing the public interest.

Fifty-six years later, Israel's leadership is trying to revive the ox principle. It is lashing out at the prying interference of State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss, at the strict regulations of Accountant General Yaron Zelekha, at the interference of Attorney General Menachem Mazuz, at the police investigations against it and at the public pressure that forced it to set up the Zeiler and Winograd commissions.

The government, headed by Ehud Olmert, claims these checks are crippling its ability to function. Following the second Lebanon war, we heard the complaint that from now on, every officer would have to have a lawyer on retainer. The inquiry into the Tax Authority was accused of depriving the officials of their powers and blocking them from carrying out their duties. The accountant general's accusations led to the argument that he was stymieing the state's financial and business affairs. The significance of this approach is that the law enforcement authorities' examination of the government's performance is damaging Israel's vital interests.

It is important to refute this approach. This scrutiny is not intended to harm the powers of our leaders, but to force them to act in a proper and seemly way. It is not about the judgment of the decision makers, but about their transparency and proper conduct. Olmert is not required to explain his stance regarding the Bank Leumi tender, but his alleged conflict of interest and personal relations with one of the contenders. The Tax Authority officials under investigation are being asked why they did not explain in a transparent and orderly way their decisions regarding certain parties. Commander Yoram Levy was not denounced by the Zeiler Commission for erroneous professional judgment, but for his alleged shady relationships with criminals, and his failure to report them to his superiors.

Oxen may eat from the corn; public officials are required to keep their private belly separate from the public coffer.