Sunday, June 12, 2011

Rationalizing Fraud

I don’t think this is a new story. I believe I wrote about it when the story broke a while back. But whether it is or not it bears focusing upon.

There is a serious flaw in the thinking of people who ought to know better. If what has been reported in a Globes artilce is true - a crime was committted. 10,000 Yeshiva students in Israel were given government stipends that were fraudulently obtained. It was not only a crime it was a Chilul HaShem. And yet the leaders of the Yeshivos involved in this crime thought nothing of doing it.

It is hard to believe that there are people running Yeshivos who think that defrauding the government is a legitimate way of providing income for their students. This wasn’t just a dubious interpretation about the legitimacy of distributing government funds. This was apparently a deliberate fraud! From a Globes article:

10,000 haredi (ultra-orthodox) yeshiva students have allegedly defrauded the Ministry of Education of NIS 4.5 million in scholarships for classes they never took.

What does this say about the perpetrators of the fraud? And what does it say about those students who took the money and the community as a whole?

Well, the first thing it says is how desperate they are for funds. It is no secret that this segment of Israeli population is one of the poorest in the country. Their philosophy of avoiding work and having no job training if and when they do ever seek jobs contributes mightily to the problem of poverty. It is then not too hard to understand that some of them become desperate enough to cheat their own government when ways are flashed in front of them to do it. Especially when rationalizations like the following may be provided.

They must feel that their Torah learning far surpasses any course they were required to take for the money and that since the anti religious government refuses to recognize that, they feel justified in taking the money under false pretenses. Even if one agrees that the government attitude is wrong that does not make what they did any less fraudulent.

The ethical lapse here is clear and the only conclusion to make here is that the ethics of defrauding the government has not been properly impressed into the minds of these students. How could they be if officials in their Yeshiva advise them to do this?

While the problem has been corrected and the funds are now being properly distributed, that does not make the underlying problem go away.

It is a twofold problem. One of need and the other of ethical impairment. And it cannot be swept under the rug. 10,000 students took funds that didn’t belong to them. This is not something that the Torah teaches. The Torah does however state very clearly that stealing money is forbidden - no matter how desperate one is for it.

I guess if one is hungry enough one can have this kind of ethical lapse. It is called being Moreh Heter - creating a Heter (Halachicly permissible behavior) where it does not exist. Or in plain English – a rationalization.

If this isn’t a wakeup call for the Yeshiva world in Israel nothing is. Poverty has increased to the point where cheating the government has no become a normal source of income to the tune of 10,000 students taking money for courses they never attended – and never intended to.

But as much of a wakeup call that this should be it will probably fall on deaf ears. If past is prologue Charedi religious leaders will continue to stubbornly cling to their ‘all torah learning all the time’ philosophy no matter what - calling it the essence of Judaism. Anything thing less is considered anti Torah. Any attempt to change their dynamic by the outside is seen the same way and vigorously fought – often using the harshest condemnations of those who try to suggest even modest change. And the more anyone tries to change things the harsher the rhetoric and the harder they push back.

My fear is that this kind of fraud will continue to surface from time to time as the poverty of this community increases. Not that that the leadership approves of it. I’m sure they don’t. Most of the yeshiva world does not commit fraud of any kind. But when numbers like 10,000 come up, enough of them do to make it a big problem. So new and more creative ways to do it and hide it are sure to emerge. I hope I’m wrong, but frankly I don’t think I am.