Right and wrong

“Is it a gift or a bribe?” asks the poster on the wall of the Jerusalem office of the Business Ethics Center.

It is a simple question that goes to the heart of a dilemma that has been plaguing Israel of late — the issue of corruption.

“Most of us have no trouble distinguishing absolute right from wrong,” states Sharon Kaniel, project coordinator at the ethics center. “Where we run into trouble is with the gray areas. But then most of life is made up of gray areas.”

Is it OK to accept a box of chocolates? Center court seats to an important sports playoff? Or a free weekend in a hotel? When does a gift cross the line and become a bribe?

These are just some of the issues and questions that the center tries to address. Founded in 1992, the center views its mission as encouraging and promoting high standards of business integrity, economic honesty and social responsibility through teaching Jewish ethics.

It does this by reaching out to the business community through seminars, lectures and publications and to schools through educational programs and materials, as well as in-service teacher training. In addition, the center is actively engaged in research projects and has an Internet site called the Jewish Ethicist (www.jewishethicist.com).

“There is an enormous openness to the subject of ethics in Israel,” notes Rabbi Pinchas Rosenstein, the center’s executive director and a former communal rabbi in Great Britain. The center views educating children as a major concern.

“It is extremely important to emphasize ethics at a formative age so that a person will have a built-in sensitivity to the subject by the time he or she enters the working world,” Rosenstein explains.

Toward this aim, the center, with the support of the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture in New York and the Jewish Agency for Israel, has been working to develop both a curriculum for teaching business ethics and social responsibility as well as educational materials.

“We have found that it is not enough to introduce the concept into the classrooms. Teachers need materials and they need training in how to teach the subject,” Rosenstein says.

“We are the only ones in Israel today attempting to address the issue of ethics on an educational basis,” Rosenstein adds. “We do this by focusing on two aspects — integrity and honesty on the personal level, and economic and social responsibility on the macro level — unemployment, budget cuts, globalization, social welfare, environment, etc. … Our aim is to empower students to think for themselves.”

Getting through to what Rosenstein terms “the rough and tough” is not always an easy job.

“These kids often have very negative role models,” Kaniel relates. “They turn on the TV and hear about bribery and corruption at the highest levels of government and business, and begin to think that cheating is the easy way to success.”

And while many blame the difficult economic situation for the cavalier attitude toward ethics, Rosenstein says, “Most of the corruption we see is being done by the rich. It is more a problem of greed. Greed makes you want more and more.”

The difficulties in transmitting the message are apparent in talking with the teachers. Aliza Olivenbaum, who took a recent in-service training program, teaches business administration, marketing and industrial management at Comprehensive High School in Rishon le-Zion.

“It was hard for my students when I introduced ethics into the course,” she recalls. “They thought it was nonsense. Many come from homes without strong ethical values. Also, there are so many corruption scandals in the news. But I told them that if everyone was corrupt we’d have a real problem and that for things to change everyone must be responsible for his or her own ethical behavior.”