Wednesday, February 12, 2003

Blame Game

Elections bring out the worst in politicians. The just-concluded campaign was no different. The sheer number of fingers pointing in every which direction, apportioning blame to anybody but their owners, could have put on the most magnificent piano recital. But it wasn’t music to my ears.

Israelis are masters of the blame game. No one ever takes responsibility. It’s always someone else’s fault.

The Maccabi Games bridge disaster is one of the most glaring. examples Shoddy construction leads a bridge full of young athletes to collapse. Some die of diseases contracted in the heavily polluted river. The blame gets shifted everywhere, the buck never stops and the head of the organization responsible claims for years he did nothing wrong: it was the contractors, I didn’t have any supervision over them, he whines.

A corporate executive is accused of tax evasion and share manipulation. He didn’t know anything about it. His accountant handled everything. How did that executive get so high up the corporate ladder if he didn’t keep a watch on everything extremely closely?

A wedding hall collapses in Jerusalem killing 23 and injuring 350. Illegal permits have been issued, internal walls removed without checking with the contractors. The developer of the Pal-Kal system that collapsed says it’s too late to try him; he’s protected by the statute of limitations. The Mayor comes out clean as a washroom fixture.

I didn’t do it. It was him.

It’s not me, it’s the system.

Everyone does it. What, I should be a freier?

Yes, the ultimate insult for an Israeli – to be a sucker. My friend, writer Stuart Schoffman once pointed out to me that there are no four-way stop signs in Israel.

“Who could possibly decide who got there first?” he asked me.

True, true. Imagine it! Every driver would aggressively push their way into the middle, claiming they had the right of way, causing untold numbers of traffic accidents in the process. And after the accident, no one would take the blame.

Thank God we have no-fault insurance in this country!

Israeli TV recently showed the episode of The West Wing where President Bartlett accepts an unprecedented bipartisan censure on his failure to disclose he had a Multiple Sclerosis during his campaign for President. Why did he accept such a stern decree? Because he felt he had done wrong. And he wanted to set an example by taking responsibility for his own actions.

Is it worse here than anywhere else? I don’t know. It’s been a long time since I’ve lived in America, but listening to Trent Lott’s feeble protests and embarrassing apologies, it seems that the blame game cuts across nations. It’s just that we’ve made fine art out of what for other countries is still a student project.

Now, before you give up on Israelis altogether, remember that identifying the problem is the first step towards curing it. So consider this an opening shot, my own small contribution to instituting a nationwide 12-Step program.

"Hello, my name is Shimon and I'm a Blame-Shifter."

Yes, there is always hope. And there have been bright spots. Perhaps the noblest, most surprising act of responsibility ever taken by a politician was that of the late Yitzhak Rabin when he resigned after it was revealed that his wife held an illegal foreign bank account. Seems almost ludicrous in light of today’s vote-buying scandals and fishy money transfers.

One of the first lessons we teach our kids is to take responsibility for their actions. In the Blum household, we have a sign up in our kitchen that reads:

If you drop it, pick it up.
If you spill it, wipe it up.
If you take it out, put it back.
If you turn it on, turn it off.

We also pay our kids 20 agarot (around 5 cents) for taking responsibility for doing their chores. Taking out the garbage, putting away the silverware, sweeping the floor. That kind of thing.

Maybe if we pinned up the Blum Family’s Responsibility Reminders on the wall of every Israeli cabinet meeting and in every office – government or otherwise – we might make some progress. And since government officials are always whining about how they need another raise, an extra 20 agarot a task might go a long way.

And Lord knows, they've got a lot of floors to sweep and garbage to take out.

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