My Take on the News

Netanyahu En Route to the United Nations

The submarine affair here in Israel has been growing to ever greater proportions. Last week, several public figures were arrested. They included an aide to Minister Yuval Steinitz who is a close associate of the prime minister; former minister Eliezer “Moody” Zandberg; and Brigadier General Shai Brosh, the decorated former commander of a naval commando unit. In addition, the former commander of the navy, Eliezer “Chainy” Marom, was questioned once again. All of these suspects were interrogated and arrested in light of information provided by Mickey Ganor, the state witness who managed the negotiations at the time of the submarine purchase. Incidentally, the purchase itself is still backed by the state. President Reuven Rivlin is currently on an official visit to Germany, where he asked Chancellor Merkel to defend the deal.

There has been a major amount of drama surrounding the investigation of the submarine deal. Many members of the prime minister’s inner circle, including David Sharan, who served as Netanyahu’s chief of staff, have been questioned recently. In the previous wave of interrogations, the police questioned David Shimron, an attorney who is one of Netanyahu’s closest associates. Nevertheless, it is possible that all of this drama will not affect the prime minister himself. Even the Supreme Court rejected a petition for the prime minister to be questioned about the submarine purchase. This may be a very sad situation for Netanyahu, but it seems that he had no personal involvement in the matter at all, even if the people around him collected huge illicit profits. On a personal level, Netanyahu’s problem is a different investigation – the case of the illegal gifts he is accused of receiving. The question now is whether he actually took gifts, and whether he received anything that could be considered a bribe. Or, in more practical terms, whether Ari Harow provided the police with incriminating evidence

At the end of last week, it was revealed that the police questioned Arnon Milchan several times. Most of the interrogations took place at Milchan’s home in Los Angeles, where the businessman was questioned by Israeli investigators who made a special trip from Israel for that purpose. Last week, Milchan was questioned again at the Israeli embassy in London. This time, it was not as a witness, but on the suspicion that he was guilty of bribery. There are those who believe that this is a sign that the police are preparing to press charges against Netanyahu. Netanyahu, for his part, insists that all of his dealings with Milchan were based on a “deep” friendship. The problem for the prime minister is that even if the gifts are not deemed illegal, his role in the sale of stock in Channel 10, of which Milchan was a partial owner, was considered a breach of trust. Netanyahu was the Minister of Communications and Arnon Milchan was his close friend. As a result, it should have been forbidden for him to have any dealings with the matter. Incidentally, there is an American angle to this story as well: Milchan asked Netanyahu to help him obtain a visa to America, and he is still fearful of becoming entangled in a corruption investigation for the simple reason that it would prevent him from entering America. You should not be surprised, then, if Netanyahu ultimately lays the blame on America for his troubles if Arnon Milchan is allowed to enter the country.

Meanwhile, at the Likud party convention in honor of the upcoming new year, the prime minister spoke about the ongoing investigations. The political world, he remarked, can be cruel and filled with pitfalls. Of course, he also made sure to list his own accomplishments, and asserted that he is focusing now on his travels abroad. Netanyahu is currently in Latin America, visiting Argentina and Mexico and making a brief stopover in Colombia. New York is also on his itinerary. He plans to address the United Nations General Assembly.

 

An Old Party Has True Colors Revealed

The picture of “Moody” Zandberg in the defendant’s seat in the Shalom court reminded me of the anti-religious Tzomet party. Moody, whose real name is Eliezer, was originally nicknamed “Chamudi” (Hebrew for “cutie”) due to his childlike features and his young age at the time. Now 55 years old, he was first elected to the Knesset at the age of 30. He served in the Knesset for several terms, most recently as the chairman of the Shinui party, which included him and one other member. Shinui is the party that was founded to replace Tzomet.

Tzomet, which was headed by Rafael (“Raful”) Eitan, a former chief of staff of the IDF, scored a major electoral victory when it won eight seats in the Thirteenth Knesset. Raful, along with another seven obscure politicians, rode a wave of anti-religious and anti-chareidi incitement to win the election. At the time, the party was nicknamed “Raful and the seven dwarves.” Its members were Pini Badash, Alex Goldfarb, Chaim Dayan, Eliezer Zandberg, Esther Salmovitz, Moshe Peled, and Gonen Segev. The party declared its dedication to promoting the draft for yeshiva students, fighting corruption, and bringing about government reform. In his time, the stubborn Raful Eitan was almost as great a foe to us as Tommy Lapid later came to be.

The Tzomet party presented itself as a model of cleanliness and integrity, but that image was quickly shattered. The previously obscure party members revolted against their leader. The party splintered and some of its members turned against the very man who had brought them into the Knesset by founding their own party, named Yiud. In the following elections, in 1999, Raful ran as an independent party and failed to cross the electoral threshold.

So let us take a look at the Tzomet party in retrospect. The party leader was a bizarre character who was later shown to be lacking an ethical backbone. Chaim Dayan, another MK from the party, was essentially the same. Goldfarb is remembered as a man who could be bought for a low price. He defected from the political right to the left, and he joined the Rabin government in exchange for a deputy ministerial position. Gonen Segev was convicted of crimes, and Moody Zandberg is now following in his footsteps. Zandberg has confessed to having received 100,000 shekels from Mickey Ganor, the mediator in the submarine deal who has become a state witness. However, he insists that it was a legitimate payment.

I know Zandberg personally and I sympathize with him. In fact, I do not believe that he acted dishonestly. However, my subject here is not the man but the issue: He was a member of an anti-religious party that portrayed itself as the most honest party on the political scene, and that set itself up as an enemy of everything holy and condemned us ceaselessly. Now the true colors of Tzomet itself have been revealed.

 

The Battle for Shabbos Continues

While the rest of the country is preoccupied with all these investigations, though, our chief concern is the ongoing battle over Shabbos observance. This is nothing less than a struggle for the character of the state. The constant construction work on the railroad is just a symptom of a much more widespread problem: the sense that anything goes. Minister of Transportation Yisraol Katz, who is responsible for the railway company, and Welfare Minister Chaim Katz, who dispenses official permits to work on Shabbos, are making a mockery of the holy day. When they meet with the chareidi legislators, they do not take us seriously. And the prime minister is not any different.

On Thursday, the various councils of the gedolim convened to discuss the subject. There are three councils: the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of Agudas Yisroel, the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of Degel HaTorah, and the Moetzet Chachmei HaTorah of the Shas party. The gatherings were meant to demonstrate that we are serious about this issue. That is not to say that we have any real ammunition to use against Prime Minister Netanyahu, but the purpose was to show him that his disparagement of Shabbos upsets us.

Another subject related to Shabbos is the issue of soccer games. A few years ago, several hundred soccer players petitioned the Supreme Court, claiming that they did not wish to play on Shabbos and that the soccer games that are held on Shabbos are illegal, since the teams and their players had not been granted permits to work on Shabbos. At the time, the Supreme Court ruled that they were correct, and that one of two things had to happen: Either the soccer games on Shabbos should be discontinued or the state should grant official permits for the games to take place on Shabbos. Netanyahu has now asked the religious parties to agree to the issuance of such permits.

Netanyahu wants to make a deal of sorts: The chillul Shabbos on the railroad will be halted in exchange for permission to continue the chillul Shabbos on the soccer fields. Moreover, he has played what seems to be a winning card: the status quo. We always argue that the status quo must be upheld in order to preserve religious observance in the public sphere, and Netanyahu has now turned that argument against us, insisting that we allow the soccer games to become legal so that the “status quo” of organized soccer on Shabbos will continue. Netanyahu is working under pressure from the Supreme Court. This makes for a very difficult situation.

 

70,000 Students in Bnei Brak

The school year has now begun. It hasn’t been a smooth beginning in all the religious cities, but we must still be happy about the proverbial full half of the glass. The biggest problem was the failure of the transportation system for special needs students in Bnei Brak. The positive side of the picture, though, is the fact that there are a total of 70,000 students in Bnei Brak this school year, from kindergarten through high school age (yeshiva ketana for boys and seminary for girls). That is a very large number. The growth of Bnei Brak’s student populace since last year has exceeded that of any other city.

The saga of the Yemenite children continues. The investigative committee has continued its discussions, and this week it decided to allow the families to open the graves where their children were allegedly buried in order to determine the truth. There are very severe accusations that some of the graves are empty or that other people were buried there. The religious members of the committee (Yisroel Eichler, Uri Maklev, and Yoav Ben-Tzur) added a clause to the decision requiring the exhumations to be carried out in accordance with halacha and in coordination with the Chief Rabbinate.

 

On Judges and Hot Dogs

The position of chief justice of the Supreme Court has now changed hands. Miriam Naor has retired from the post and has been succeeded by Justice Esther Chayut. Chayut was officially chosen by the Judicial Appointments Committee, but the reality is that the decision had already been made. Traditionally, the most senior justice on the court is appointed to serve as chief justice. This has become a controversial policy, and Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked has announced that she plans to change it in the future, so that the position will be awarded to the most qualified judge rather than the oldest. Minister Yariv Levin, who is one of the most ardent political foes of the Supreme Court, attacked Chayut’s appointment on the day it was made: “Today, a new chief justice of the Supreme Court was designated once again in a fictitious election that defies all the rules of appointments for public positions. It is difficult not to be amazed at the brazen way the judges once again chose their leader without anyone daring to vie for the position, and with the selection committee surrendering completely to their will and submissively accepting their function as a rubber stamp.” Incidentally, the members of the committee include two members of the Knesset, two government ministers, and two representatives of the Israel Bar Association. All the others are judges. In other words, the judges themselves rule the committee that appoints them.

Several weeks ago, I entered the Negev hall in the Knesset building during a symposium on this very subject – the policy of selecting the chief justice of the Supreme Court based on seniority. Ayelet Shaked, the current Minister of Justice, fearlessly crossed swords with outgoing Chief Justice Miriam Naor by placing the proposal to change the system on the public agenda. She suggested that the chief justice, rather than the judge with the greatest seniority, should be the person deemed most qualified for the office. It was fascinating to listen as the senior figures in our judicial system attempted to justify their position. They radiated confidence in the superiority of their intellects. As I watched them, I felt certain that I had never seen that much ego in a single room before. If arrogance were kerosene, they could have caused the entire city of Yerushalayim to go up in flames.

I laughed when I listened to Aharon Barak, the former chief justice of the Supreme Court. The level of his arguments was not particularly impressive; he might not have been less convincing than the other speakers, but he certainly was not more persuasive than they were. He didn’t have a single argument that couldn’t have been refuted. He is widely hailed as a genius, but I saw no evidence of his superior intelligence. Nor was Miriam Naor particularly convincing. Her arguments were lengthy and predictable. She read from a written script and did not offer any new insights. I actually found the central argument of both judges to be embarrassing: They explained that under the existing policy, every judge who is appointed to the Supreme Court knows that he – or she – has reached the end of the road. There is no other post to which a judge can aspire after receiving that position. And that, they claimed, avoids any concern that the judges will be biased in their decisions. If a judge knows that he can still aspire to become the chief justice, though, his rulings might be skewed by his desire to please the selection committee. I considered this a weak argument, which does not speak well of our judges.

When Aharon Barak stepped out of the room for a minute, I confronted him. “How can you make that argument? Would a judge really issue a verdict in order to please the politicians who choose the chief justice?”

The former president of the Supreme Court replied, “The public will make the mistake of thinking that.” That is, he claimed that that was what he had meant all along.

When I asked Professor Daniel Friedmann, a former Minister of Justice, for his reaction to the discussion, he chuckled. “They’re all just letting off steam,” he said.

“Then the policy will continue as it has been?” I asked.

He shrugged. “What else?”

It was also embarrassing to listen to Dan Meridor, another former Minister of Justice. Shaked cited the example of the army, pointing out that no one would ever think to designate a chief of staff based on seniority. Meridor replied, “What’s the comparison? A chief of staff sends soldiers into battle!” Do you understand what he meant? I certainly do not. I don’t believe that anyone thought that the chief of staff appoints judges to the court…

I also had a brief exchange with Salim Jubran, the Arab justice on the Supreme Court, when he stepped out of the room for a break after the first four hours had passed; the symposium was seven hours long altogether. Jubran is a personable fellow with a penchant for perpetual laughter. “Are you enjoying the debate?” I asked him.

“Absolutely,” he replied.

I asked him for his opinion of the argument that I had found objectionable. He replied, “That was only one argument out of several.”

All in all, I believe that the most accurate comment was made by one of the professors on the committee: “A judge is like a hot dog. If you like one, you shouldn’t try to find out how it was made.”

 

Pushing for Public Transportation on Shabbos

After all that has been said, we cannot afford to ignore the Supreme Court. It is unquestionably the ruling power in this country, and it is currently presiding over a number of religious issues. There is the subject of the Reform movement’s demand for a place at the Kosel, the chillul Shabbos in Tel Aviv, and the status of talmidei yeshivos. On the latter issue, I believe that the departing chief justice, Miriam Naor, is going to write a decision that will serve as a ringing slap in the face to us. Remember that I warned you…

This week, the court discussed the issue of public transportation on Shabbos. Once again, the Reform movement was responsible for stirring up trouble. They petitioned the court with the demand for the government to be obligated to provide transportation on Shabbos. In response, the government argued that running public transportation on Shabbos is not a vital need of the residents of the State of Israel. Today, the law prohibits public buses from running on Shabbos. At the same time, the law defines several exceptions and allows the Minister of Transportation to grant permits for the operation of buses in certain cases, such as buses that run to hospitals or border communities, or other places that are considered to have a “vital need for public transportation.”

The Reform movement’s demand is for the government to investigate the critical need of the country’s citizens for public transportation on Shabbos, and then to devise a plan for providing it. The government responded that instituting full bus service on Shabbos would be a contradiction to the law, which requires the Minister of Transportation to take Jewish tradition into consideration as much as possible. As for the bus lines providing transportation to hospitals and remote communities, the government responded that it could consider granting a license for those buses, but that the buses would not actually operate without an examination of the need. The government also noted in its response that the number of permits issued for transportation on Shabbos has risen in recent years: In 2012 there were 164 permits, while the figure rose to 373 in 2017. Today, there are 383 permits in effect.

The government also acknowledged that Shabbos bus service already exists for many of the hospitals in the country. This is true in Tel Aviv, Cholon, Petach Tikvah, Be’er Sheva, Naharia, Afula, and Haifa. In addition, there is public transportation on Shabbos in communities such as Arad, Mitzpeh Ramon, Dimona, Sderot, Shlomi, Naharia, Chanita, and other settlements in the Eshkol region. But the Reform movement wants buses to run on Shabbos throughout the country.

 

Obama’s Messenger Was a Reform Jew

A man named David Saperstein recently visited us here in Israel. Saperstein previously worked for the Obama administration, holding the title of Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. That made him part of the State Department. I imagine that you were unaware that such a title exists. Obama was apparently very worried about ensuring freedom of religion throughout the world.

What does this have to do with us? First of all, the battle with the Reform movement is connected to the definition of religious freedom. That means that whenever the Reform Jews were outraged, Netanyahu had to worry about Obama’s reaction. Second, the very same David Saperstein is one of the leaders of the Reform movement in America. Now you should understand why Netanyahu was always so afraid of the Reform movement: One of their most senior figures was an advisor to President Obama on the very subject of religious freedom throughout the world.

That seems to be the reason that Netanyahu is no longer quite as intimidated as he used to be. Trump isn’t particularly concerned about worldwide religious freedom, nor is the new Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. As a result, Saperstein has no longer maintained a regular presence in the White House. But this story should remind us of the way things were. (Incidentally, Saperstein’s position was always held by non-Jews.)

Today, the envoys of the president of the United States are very different. They even wear yarmulkas and daven at the Kosel. Saperstein, meanwhile, has returned to his original position as a Reform clergyman and as one of the spokesmen of the Reform movement. On his recent visit to Israel, he spoke to the press. A reporter asked him, “Why do the Reform Jews care about the Kosel? Does the Reform movement really believe in stones?” He understood the fact that the religious people daven at the Kosel, but he could not fathom why the Reform movement had any interest in prayers at the site of the Bais Hamikdosh.

Saperstein replied, “The issue isn’t the Kosel; it is the unity of the people. The Kosel is symbolic. It is part of our history,” he added, making no mention of its significance as part of the Bais Hamikdosh. “It is part of the victory during the Six Day War, and it symbolizes the unity of the people. Our struggle is not over the Kosel but over equality,” he concluded, in a frank admission of the truth.

“The vast majority of religious Jews in Israel are Orthodox, and from their perspective you are worse than Christians,” the journalist pointed out.

The former US envoy replied, “The Orthodox are not my concern. I am concerned about the state, the government, the Knesset, and the courts. They are the ones who must see to it that there is equality. The Jewish community in America feels that it is being pushed aside, that it is subject to discrimination. I came here in order to try to convince the public that this is an urgent matter.”

I don’t believe that Saperstein managed to change the public’s opinion at all, but he did prove that Aryeh Deri was right: The Reform Jews are not interested in davening and do not believe in the Kosel. After all, they deny the major principles of our faith and profess no allegiance to the 613 mitzvos. All that interests them is recognition, and they are willing to fight for it with every possible means and with all their might.

 

The Miraculous Story of the Mir Yeshiva

This week, I received a copy of Lo Paskah Yeshiva, a book produced by the Mir Yeshiva in honor of its bicentennial. Looking through the pages, I found my hands trembling. The documents, the stories, the facts, the people, and the pictures were all awe-inspiring. The yeshiva is a kingdom of Torah, led by a royal dynasty. Despite all the suffering, against all odds and despite the dangers it has been through, the yeshiva has remained strong for 200 years. Today, it is at the height of its strength.

The yeshiva was founded in the town of Mir, Belarus, in the year 5577. One hundred years ago, in the year 5675 (1915), it was displaced from Mir and forced to travel to Poltova, Ukraine. From 1940 through 1942, the yeshiva also traveled to Vilna, then to Kobe, and finally to Shanghai. In 1944, it was finally reestablished in Yerushalayim. Today, one cannot help but be amazed at the sight of the original yeshiva building in Yerushalayim, surrounded by the many auxiliary buildings of the yeshiva.

The book contains pictures of leaders of the yeshiva throughout the centuries, Rav Avrohom Tiktinsky, Rav Eliyahu Boruch Kamai and his son-in-law Rav Eliezer Yehuda Finkel, Rav Yeruchem Levovitz and Rav Chatzkel Levenstein. In later generations, the yeshiva was led by Rav Chaim Shmulevitz, Rav Nochum Partzovitz, Rav Chaim Zev Finkel, and Rav Beinish Finkel. And then there were the leaders of the yeshiva in recent times: Rav Moshe Finkel, Rav Eliyahu Boruch Finkel, Rav Refoel Shmulevitz, Rav Aryeh Finkel, and Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel.

Perusing the volume, I was struck by the scope of the yeshiva’s history. It began in Yerushalayim with a few dozen talmidim learning under Rav Eliezer Yehuda or Rav Chaim. In the pictures, one can identify some of the leaders of today’s Torah world and Yeshivas Mir during their younger years, including Rav Yitzchok Ezrachi and Rav Aharon Chodosh. Over the years, the yeshiva has grown to immense proportions. The bais medrash today can hardly contain the hundreds of talmidim who occupy it, and thousands more talmidim learn in a large number of other botei medrash, including a yeshiva ketanah run by Rav Menachem Zaritzky and a satellite yeshiva in Modiin Illit (Kiryat Sefer). There are pictures of the daily shiur of Rav Asher Arieli, the largest such shiur in the world; the images show the bochurim sitting on the steps and listening as he speaks. A bochur whose beard hasn’t yet begun to grow can be seen seated next to a man much older than he, whose beard has already turned white. The intensity of the Torah radiates from the pictures.

The yeshiva has endured pogroms, persecution, exile and wandering, just as the rest of our nation has suffered over the past 200 years, both in the Diaspora and in the golus of Eretz Yisroel, but its characteristic “bren” accompanied the yeshiva throughout its wanderings, and its talmidim brought their “shteiging” to the yeshiva’s new home in Yerushalayim. Today, the yeshiva is thriving, a fact evidenced by the pictures of buses discharging thousands of yungeleit outside the yeshiva every morning, botei medrash overflowing with talmidim thirsting for the wisdom of the Torah, an otzar seforim brimming with volumes, heavily attended siyumim, and enthusiastic talmidim and rabbeim dancing with the Sifrei Torah.

 

Massive Preparations in Uman

The preparations for Rosh Hashanah in Uman have been underway for a long time. The logistical arrangements are incredibly extensive. The organizers could certainly teach a lesson to many countries about how to run events. During the Yom Tov, tens of thousands of visitors will crowd into a small space; it is a sight that is difficult to describe to anyone who hasn’t been there. I visited Uman during the week before Rosh Hashanah several years ago, and I was astonished by the level of organization involved. I visited Uman again last month, and the atmosphere was already heating up in preparation for Rosh Hashanah. I can only imagine the sound of thousands of voices shouting “Ha-me-lech!

There are many who shoulder the burden of the preparations, including emergency responders, hospitality providers, and Breslover organizations. The preparations in Uman are newly enhanced every year, while the organizers contend with a government that is neither particularly progressive nor especially friendly. Of course, recognition is also owed to Rabbi Yisroel Meir Gabbai, who is identified not only with Uman but with numerous other Jewish towns. Reb Yisroel Meir has undoubtedly earned the gratitude of the gedolim of previous generations, as he has spent his life working to preserve their memories and to identify and mark their places of burial.

Several months ago, the newspapers reported that the Uman municipality is involved in ongoing harassment of the town’s Jewish residents. The reports related that representatives of the municipal government, accompanied by a large police force, dismantled the tents that were set up ten years ago and served as a tent city on Rosh Hashanah. Before that, there was the episode of the dismantlement of the kohanim’s bridge. Rav Yisroel Meir Gabbai recently met with Dovid Azulai, the Minister of Religious Services, to discuss the situation in Uman, and Azulai promised to do everything in his power to address the matter. That meant appealing to Prime Minister Netanyahu, as well as contacting his counterpart in the Ukrainian government. MK Yoav Ben-Tzur also addressed the issue by submitting a parliamentary query to Naftali Bennett, in his position as Minister of the Diaspora, asking him: “Are you aware of what is happening in Ukraine? Are Israeli forces working to prevent harassment of Jews?” He was referring to Israeli diplomats stationed in Ukraine. Bennett’s response was terse and not particularly reassuring: “The Ministry of Diaspora Affairs is aware of the details and is monitoring events in Uman. Israeli forces are working to prevent conflicts between the Jewish Israeli community there and the local residents and government.”

No further details were provided. If Bennett is doing anything substantial about the situation, he isn’t being very talkative about it.