Criminal leadership: a bad situation for citizens and scientists

Happy New Year to everyone. And while many countries celebrated the coming year, not in every country is the New Year based on the Gregorian Calendar. And not in every country was the New Year’s break a happy time.

The example that I would like to bring forth is that of the State of Israel, a country that I adopted many eons ago, and unfortunately with which I have become somewhat disenchanted.

There are many wonderful people in Israel, in particular my own scientific mentors and teachers. In fact, Israel has a very strong scientific tradition, and it’s easy to appreciate this from the Nobel prize winners for figuring out the ubiquitin proteasome pathway (Ciechanover and Hershko, 2004) and the ribosomal structure (Yonath 2009) in recent years.

Although it’s now very difficult to find paper journals to flip through (with the exception of Cromercrox’s weekly starting with the letter N and a few others), virtually flipping through tables of contents of any journal dredges up a host of Israeli authors. Perhaps non-Israelis may not easily pick out the Israeli names. And indeed many names, such as my own, do not have an “Israeli ring” to them. But amazingly, there will often be an entire list of 6-7 Israeli-named authors, including the senior author, with the correspondence address listed as “Harvard” or “UCLA” or some other university in the US (or elsewhere in the world). Not necessarily in Israel. In fact, statistics show that there are actually more Israeli scientists who are employed in Academia (not postdocs—that’s obvious—but actual lab heads) in US universities than in all the universities in Israel.

By now, some of you may be wondering where this commentary is headed, so its time to move on to the point. So while the world was celebrating New Year’s, in Israel, where the New Year is celebrated according to the Hebrew lunar calendar, the wheels of justice churned forward. And those wheels of justice convicted Israel’s former President (a ceremonial figure, as opposed to the Prime Minister), Moshe Katzav, of two counts of rape and another for sexual assault.

While this is a victory for the Israeli judicial system (and for the victims and their families), proving that no one is above the law, it is a sad day for a country whose first president was Chaim Weizmann, a chemist who is considered to be one of the developers of industrial fermentation, and who helped create the Hebrew University in Jerusalem as well as found the Weizmann Institute in Rehovoth. The second presidency was offered, after Weizmann’s death, to Albert Einstein, who turned down the opportunity. And yet, the 8th president, Katzav, has sunk the country to a new low.

It is clear that the opportunities for Israeli scientists outside Israel are a major factor in the so-called “brain-drain”. However, it is also clear that a pervasive atmosphere where a rapist can climb up to the esteemed position of President reflects a much deeper problem, and that the “brain-drain” is the outcome of more than just an imbalance in opportunities for scientists.

Here’s to a better 2011.

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery. "Saving One" is my most recent novel set at the National Institutes of Health. Now IN PRESS: Today's Curiosity is Tomorrow's Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research (CRC PRESS, 2021). All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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8 Responses to Criminal leadership: a bad situation for citizens and scientists

  1. Stephen says:

    Steve, I’m not at all familiar with the details of the case or Katzav’s career or reputation (prior to the conviction), but this seems a little over-egged (as they say at the BBC). Do the crimes of one individual really reflect something rotten in the political system of Israel?

  2. Steve Caplan says:

    “Do the crimes of one individual really reflect something rotten in the political system of Israel?”

    Sadly, they do. I’ll try to be brief, but:
    1) An astounding percentage of Israeli politicians is/was in jail and under criminal investigation(s). It has become impossible to recruit good honest people to politics.

    2) This position of president is a “Figurehead” position; akin to Canada’s Governor General, or the Queen in the UK. It is not necessarily held for politicians (as I mentioned, earlier presidents were renowned scientists). It is supposed to be kept for people who have made extraodinary contributions to society, and are wonderful ambassadors of the country. Not your garden variety perverts and rapists.

    3) When Katzav was chosen by the Israeli parliament (over the current president, Shimon Peres, who is highly respected in Israel and around the world and a Nobel Peace prize laureate), people like me were in shock. At the time, without knowing about his propoensity for sexual harassment and worse (which WAS known to members of the parliament, including our current prime minister who supported him, as well being common knowledge to many others including members of the press), my view was that he was an ignorant and petty politician, certainly not deserving of such a respected position.

    So, in answer to whether this is “over-the-top”- unfortunately, I really don’t believe so. Many of us who have lived in Israel over the years yearning for better times…

  3. Stephen says:

    Cheers Steve – that helps to set the case in context for me.

  4. cromercrox says:

    Well, at least he was, as you have said, not above the law. People in ceremonial positions in many other countries would have been, I suspect. Do you not think that your plaint, however justified, reflects a feeling that Israelis and people who resist attempts by many to deligitimize it (a constituency which, sadly, recruits many from academia) should be seen to adopt standards that are higher than those which apply to anyone else?

    • Steve Caplan says:


      Thank you for bringing this up—it is an excellent point and I see you are well informed. I absolutely agree that there IS a fairly wide-spread—and I think biased attempt to delegitimize Israel. I think the academic boycott is one of the worst manifestations of this. Especially since overall the academics in Israel are the champions of ending Israeli occupation of the territories captured in the 1967 war, and have always been at the forefront of the peace movement. The only reason that I myself was not present at the fateful demonstration where Rabin was assassinated in 1995 by a religious right-wing extremist (precisely to harm the chance of peace and reconciliation), was that I was home sick with the flu.

      Ironically, of all of Israel’s wars, it was the “successful” 6-day way in 1967 that has been Israel’s undoing. 30-40 years of settling in conquered territory has ripped the country apart, morally and economically. However, in the mid-90s there were major changes in this approach and several near misses with regards to peace. Some of the near misses could be faulted to Israel, but others were (and still are) due to inflexibility by the Palestinian side. Nonetheless, despite much valid and deserved criticism, I do feel there is an undercurrent that goes above and beyond towards actual delegitimization.

      Having noted all of the above, my blog about the president’s conviction for rape is, in my view, a separate issue. Yes, first and foremost, it deals with a highly immoral person who was undeservedly given a position of power and stature–in part through the desire to nominate a “religious” person. However, there is a lot going on in Israel that does not reach the international news. It is a country blessed with a tremendous number of highly talented people, who have been very influential in the sciences and arts, as well as making Israel into a technologically advanced country with more high tech start-ups than any other country except the US.

      On the other hand, Israel is becoming a theocracy. You may have wondered why my responses to Steffi’s blog about “Manpower” ( were so radical. Part of the reason was that I lived in a country where—despite the fact that all citizens are considered equal (including the president)—women are lacking certain basic rights. For example, all marriages in Israel must be done religiously—for example by rabbinical court for Jews, and by Islamic law for Muslims. And when it comes to divorce, a woman cannot divorce her husband without his permission. My spouse and I flew to the island of Cyprus so that we could marry in a civil ceremony (as do about 20% of Israelis).

      While I am entirely secular, and celebrate my Jewish roots in a cultural and historical manner, there are many Jews who belong to the “Reform” and “Conservative” streams of Judaism—however, in Israel this is not tolerated. There is a complete monopoly for the rigid orthodox form of Judaism, and no tolerance of any other stream.

      This year, it was reported that 51% of first grade children in Israel are ultra-orthodox. For the most part, the ultra-orthodox neither do military service, nor do they work—they receive taxpayers stipends to study bible, and this perpetuates a system by which the productive sector of society carries the non-productive sector on their backs like parasites. And as you may imagine, religious practice dictates that demography is a one-way street.

      So with this somewhat depressing answer to your query, I would sum it up by saying that Israel is being held to higher standards unfairly in certain avenues, but not being challenged enough in other areas that are crucial to the country’s future.

  5. cromercrox says:

    Thanks for that Steve – I completely agree with everything you’ve said. I belong to the Liberal community here in the UK and there is a lot of pain felt that despite Israel being nominally a secular democracy, marriages even between Liberal Jews aren’t recognized in Israel, and there is of course the just awful constraints under which women must live with regards to divorce, the utter cruelty of halacha and so on. The first and only time I was in Israel was in 1985 just after the Lebanon campaign, but I sense that Israeli society has bcome more fragmented since.

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