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Op-ed

First, do no harm

What’s common to the diverse misbehaviors of Ram Ben-Barak, David Amsalem, Idan Roll and Rabbi David Lau is that they’ve lost sight of their public service obligations

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Israel's Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau visits the Neve Shmuel High School in Efrat, on October 17, 2021. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)
Israel's Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau visits the Neve Shmuel High School in Efrat, on October 17, 2021. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

From the podium of the Knesset on Monday evening, Yesh Atid MK Ram Ben-Barak, rushing to be first with the glad tidings, informed his colleagues that all three servicemen aboard an Air Force helicopter that had crashed into the sea off the Haifa coast had been rescued and were on their way to the hospital. “It seems that the incident ended without loss of life,” he vouchsafed.

When some of those present attempted to silence him, Ben-Barak rebuffed them. “Why not? It’s in the news,” he said.

Ben-Barak, who had been relying upon unconfirmed speculation rather than any official announcement, was mistaken. For reasons still unclear at time of writing, two of the three men on the AS565 Panther helicopter had in fact been unable to extricate themselves from the chopper, and when the rescue teams found them, still with their seat belts on, they were unable to revive them.

Not long after Ben-Barak had breathlessly conveyed his unfounded good news, another MK, David Amsalem of Likud, found the need to make an announcement of his own — declaring from the podium that he’d seen a report saying two soldiers had perished in the crash.

Ben-Barak was wrong, Amsalem was right, and both men were wildly irresponsible.

When things go wrong for soldiers in conflict and in training, and loss of life is feared, carefully formulated procedures, including military censorship, kick in, or are supposed to. Media outlets, and it should be needless to say, politicians and other considerate communicators, are expected to await the official release of information; crucially, if a life or lives have been lost, this process is intended to ensure that casualties’ families hear the terrible news not from a newsflash, WhatsApp message or politicaster, but from the IDF personnel trained to deliver it.

Soldiers search for parts of a crashed military helicopter off the coast of Haifa, January 4, 2022. (Shir Torem/Flash90)

Ben-Barak, of all people, might have been expected to understand and respect the norms by which official Israel handles such incidents. He is a former combat soldier and officer in the elite Sayeret Matkal reconnaissance unit, served as a commander in an IDF counter-terrorism division, joined the Mossad and rose through the ranks to deputy head. He would know better than most the risks faced by Israelis on the front line, and the imperative to follow those carefully prepared procedures when something goes awry.

Ram Ben-Barak leads a Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, July 5, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Ben-Barak and Amsalem, both of whom subsequently apologized for their recklessness, are not the only public servants whose actions in recent days were a betrayal of their obligations.

Related: Annual poll: Public’s faith in institutions, satisfaction in state of country dire

In what is only the latest instance of an ostensible role model setting a dismal example in the battle against COVID, Deputy Foreign Minister Idan Roll found a New Year weekend resort hotel party irresistible, notwithstanding his government’s pleas to the public to avoid mass gatherings, and compounded his indifference with a maskless appearance on the crowded dance floor.

Deputy Foreign Minister Idan Roll attends a ceremony at the ministry in Jerusalem on December 1, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Quite coincidentally, Roll says, he tested positive for COVID on Tuesday.

And then we come to the state-appointed Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, David Lau, who has told his employers that he will approve no further conversions to Judaism unless or until the minister of religious services, Matan Kahana, abandons a planned reform of the conversion process.

Essentially, Lau is attempting to extort the state, using would-be halachic converts to the Jewish faith as his leverage: Either Kahana halts long-overdue moves to outflank the Rabbinate’s overly hardhearted approach to conversion, or Lau will do his best to prevent blameless, legitimate candidates from becoming Jewish. To stress, Kahana is a deeply Orthodox Jew whose reforms are entirely in keeping with halacha and have been coordinated with leading Orthodox rabbis; they’d just dilute the monopolistic control of Lau’s rabbinate.

What’s common to the diverse misbehaviors of Ram Ben-Barak, David Amsalem, Idan Roll and David Lau is that they’ve lost sight of their public service obligations. They may not be doctors but they too, in their various fields, have clear responsibility for the public’s well-being. As such, first, they should do no harm.

** This Editor’s Note was sent out Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.

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