Justice Above and Below

Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, humanity stands in judgement before God. As the majestic High Holy Day prayer Unetaneh Tokef reads “on this day we all pass before You, one by one, like a flock of sheep” to learn “who shall be humbled and who exalted.” Not only as individuals do we face uncertainty; both Israel and America stand with deep ambivalence about their future leadership.

In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu literally awaits his future as a hearing proceeds to determine whether he will be indicted or not. But even that decision will not provide clarity on the question of who will lead the nation. Israeli law allows the prime minister to rule even if he or she is indicted, and even after convicted of a crime. Only if he or she exhausts all appeals and the conviction is upheld must the prime minister be removed, although the Knesset can vote on removal before then.

The question of indictment may not matter, however, because Netanyahu seems unable to form a coalition government. Avigdor Lieberman, the kingmaker of Israeli politics, is uninterested in the corruption case against the prime minister. His main focus is on creating a secular-oriented unity government with Blue and White (the party of Benny Gantz) and Netanyahu’s Likud. Lieberman doesn’t much care who leads the government, as long as religious parties are kept out.

The problem is that Gantz, while ready to form a coalition with Likud, is unwilling to sit in a government with a prime minister under the cloud of indictment. His concern is that the integrity of Israeli democracy depends on a leadership free from even a hint of corruption.

America is dealing with the same question. What is the remedy when the leader of the nation uses his office for personal political gain? Unlike in Israel, in this country the Justice Department policy is that a sitting president cannot be indicted, so the only option is for Congress to deliver a consequence on executive malfeasance, up to and including removal from office.

Which system is better, one where the chief executive is subject to the judicial system and the courts or one where he or she has immunity from prosecution? They both have drawbacks. An indicted president would surely politicize the judicial process, which is supposed to be impartial. On the other hand, a president who knows that he or she could be brought to court might stay far from any impropriety. Immunity allows the leader to run the country without having to worry about frivolous lawsuits and investigations, but also may lead such a person to think of him or herself as above the law.

As we are seeing in both Israel and America, regardless of the system in place there is the possibility of impropriety, corruption and breach of trust. During the High Holy Days we remind ourselves that perfect justice can only be found in the heavenly court. Here on earth we make due with the best we can find.

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