Tuesday, Sep 21, 2021

At the Home of Eyal Yifrach

In the sky, the Sunday afternoon sun was blazing with all its intensity, as if to show us that it was not apathetic to the events unfolding on the ground below. In a way, that mirrored the reaction of the Jewish people, a nation that has suddenly been united by a calamity.

Once a week, as part of my job as a volunteer for Ezer Mizion, I drive two blind ladies from a center for the blind in Kiryat Moshe, Yerushalayim, to their homes in the neighborhood of Kiryat Menachem. On this Sunday, during our drive, they were listening to the radio along with me. The radio program, of course, focused on the subject of the three kidnapped boys, and my passengers, who spend their entire lives listening, were fascinated by an interview with the mother of Nachshon Wachsman Hy”d. It was a chilling interview to hear.

 

Suddenly, one of my passengers said to me, “Do you know what our problem is as a nation?”

 

“What is it?” I asked her.

 

“We are united only at a time of trouble,” she replied.

 

Her companion added, “Yesterday, fifty thousand people were davening at the Kosel.” That, of course, was an exaggeration. “Why can’t we come together even during ordinary times?”

 

I had no answer to her question.

 

A CLOSELY GUARDED HOME

 

Elad is a mostly chareidi city, which has recently found its way into the headlines as a result of its municipal elections, in which Tzuriel Krispel of the Shas party and Yisroel Porush of Agudas Yisroel vied for the office of mayor. It was clear from the start that the race would be decided by a mere handful of votes, since the city was almost exactly evenly divided between Ashkenazim and Sefardim. It was a difficult time for the city of Elad, and ultimately the elections were won by Porush. Apparently, the National Religious minority in the city gave him their support.

 

To anyone even approaching their home, it is easy to tell that the Yifrach family lives in a Dati-Leumi area. Two massive Israeli flags decorate the façade of the building, presumably left there since Yom Haatzmaut.

 

We arrived in Elad on Sunday. At the entrance to the city, a Yemenite young man with a stubble-like beard stood guard in a booth. He was exhausted not only from the heat but also from constantly giving directions to the home of the Yifrach family. Before I could even ask, he told me, “Make a right turn at the fifth traffic circle, and then make another right turn onto Rechov Rashi.” Then he added a piece of advice: “Don’t go into the street itself, because the police have roadblocks there.”

 

He was mistaken, however. There were no roadblocks in the street, but there was a police barrier right outside the Yifrach home. The Yifrachs live on the ground floor of an apartment building, in an apartment with a private entrance. From the street, an aluminum door in a brown fence opens into a courtyard from which one can enter the apartment. Now, police barricades prevented anyone from entering the courtyard. Police officers were standing guard there, and any visitors had to be approved by Effie Stern.

 

Effie is the director of the municipal police unit in Elad, and he has placed himself at the family’s disposal since 6:00 on Friday morning. Describing the difficult Shabbos that the family just endured, he related that the parents have displayed unusual restraint. They have been giving chizuk and encouragement to the visitors who have come to try to encourage them. “We were at their home on Shabbos,” he relates. “They are a very strong family, a family of great quality and nobility.” It was a Shabbos spent in prayer. The family members davened at home, receiving the aid of various chesed organizations and employees of the Elad municipality.

 

“Would you like to go inside?” Effie asked me.

 

“Only if it will help in some way,” I told him. “I don’t want to go in there for no reason. I have no interest in observing the parents out of curiosity. But there is a certain element of bikur cholim to this, and visiting a sick person relieves him of one-sixtieth of his ailment. That is something I would want to do.” Effie went inside to check if my presence was desired.

 

While I was waiting, Meir Cohen, the Minister of Welfare and Social Services, emerged from the apartment. He was quick to agree to be interviewed by the various journalists congregating outside. The reporters and their teams had been asked to stand on the other side of the street, where a small shelter had been erected for them. To their credit, they have respected the family’s request not to congregate directly outside their home. In case any of them are tempted to disobey those instructions, the police are there to stop them.

 

Yaakov Peri, another government minister, also emerged from the apartment as I stood there. Peri was once the head of the Shin Bet intelligence service, so whatever he said to the family must have had some meaning to them, I assumed. Then Effie Stern returned and whispered to me, “The family has had enough of the parade of politicians. None of them have anything special to say to them. Perhaps they are trying to be encouraging, but they have become a burden for the family.”

 

By this point, plenty of Knesset members and government ministers had come and gone. Most of them, of course, agreed to be interviewed for the media, although none of them had anything new to say.

 

ACCUSATIONS OF NEGLIGENCE

 

It all began last Thursday night, when Naftali Frenkel of Nof Ayalon and Gilad Shear of Talmon – both yishuvim in the Binyamin region; Nof Ayalon is near the yishuv of Shaalvim, and Talmon is near Modiin – arrived at a hitchhiking post at the Gush Etzion Junction. The two boys, both of them 16 years old, are students in the eleventh grade class of Yeshiva Mekor Chaim in Kfar Etzion. They were joined by Eyal Yifrach, a 19-year-old student at Yeshivas Shavei Chevron. The three were looking for a lift to Yerushalayim, where they were planning to go their separate ways.

 

The subject of hitchhiking will soon be in the headlines. At the moment, the residents of Gush Etzion and the settlements have few other options for transportation, as public transportation in the area is far from adequate, but the students, in general, are cautious. They are well aware of the fact that their enemies are waiting day and night – especially at night – for an opportunity to pounce. And in case any of them may forget that, there are plenty of warnings to sow renewed alarm in the populace. In the year 2014 alone, no fewer than fourteen kidnapping attempts were foiled, meaning that a Palestinian terror cell was preparing to carry out an abduction and was prevented by the Shin Bet, operating primarily on the basis of intelligence gathered from Palestinian collaborators or informants working for money or other benefits. The three boys who were kidnapped last week, Naftali, Gil-Ad and Eyal, are known to be among the most responsible.

 

We now know that on Thursday night, at around 10:00, the police emergency hotline in the region of Judea and Samaria received a telephone call in which someone – now known to be one of the three boys – whispered something that sounded like, “We’ve been kidnapped,” or perhaps, “They kidnapped us,” or, “It’s a kidnapping.” The information was not relayed any further. At 3:00 in the morning, the father of one of the boys called the police, and that was when they realized that they were dealing with an unusual event. One hour later, at 4:00 in the morning, the information was passed on to the army, which immediately leapt into action. It would be superfluous even to mention the critical importance of those few hours, which may have made the difference between life and death.

 

Of course, the people of Israel, who are deeply concerned about the wellbeing of those three boys and who feel just as trapped as their families, are enraged over the police negligence. Minister Yitzchak Aharonovich, who is responsible for the police force, has been questioned endlessly about the incident. The answer that has been given on every occasion has been simply that this is not the time for such questions. Parenthetically, the chief of Israel’s police force, Yochanan Danino, was in the United States at the time of the incident, attending a convention of police chiefs from all over the world. He returned to Israel, but it took him a full day to decide to do so, and he has been subjected to scathing criticism for that delay, as well.

 

On Friday, the rumors began to spread through unofficial channels. At first, it was through the WhatsApp and SMS messaging services, then through various websites, and then the story became official. That happened shortly before Shabbos. Until then, the security forces preferred to make the kidnappers think that the story was still unknown, so that they would be less cautious. It was a Shabbos of intense prayers and supplications for all of Klal Yisroel. On the instructions of the gedolei Yisroel and the chief rabbis of Israel, chapters of Tehillim were recited even on Shabbos. On Motzoei Shabbos, radios were turned on with great trepidation in tens of thousands of homes throughout Israel.

 

But there was no news. Nothing was known. The army had clamped a closure on the area, but that was it.

 

But what about the boys? Where were they? What were the chances that they would be found?

 

None of the answers to these questions were known. The kidnappers themselves made no announcement of the kidnapping and did not open any negotiations. This meant that they were still hidden somewhere and had not contacted the leaders of the terror organizations. The Jewish people were engulfed by worry and prayer. Now, all of us were members of the Frenkel, Shear, and Yifrach families. On Sunday morning, the parade of politicians to the victims’ homes began.

 

THE POLITICIANS ARE ASKED TO LEAVE

 

Yisroel Porush emerged from the Yifrach family’s home. He had been doing everything in his power to help on the logistical end. Municipal vehicles arrived at the home, delivering chairs, a folding table, and drinks. A family member came out from time to time to give out cookies and soda to the police officers standing watch.

 

Three women approached the police barrier outside the home.

 

“Yes?” the exhausted police officer said.

 

“They asked for the rebbetzin to come,” one of the women said, pointing to her companion.

 

“Who asked?”

 

“The mother.”

 

The “mother,” of course, is Iris Yifrach, mother of Eyal Yifrach. (For anyone who wishes to daven for him, his full name is Eyal ben Iris Teshurah.) The policeman did not ask too many questions, but the woman’s story was apparently confirmed from within the house, since she was soon granted entry.

 

Nachman Shai arrived next, and the policemen hurriedly ushered him inside. Shai is a Knesset member from an opposition party (Labor, formerly Mapai). He had nothing new to tell the family, and he certainly did not know any special information. Undoubtedly, like everyone else, he derives his information from the Israeli media, who know nothing but still never stop talking, without actually saying anything.

 

Despite all that, Shai, as a former army spokesman, is an important person. He became famous during the Gulf War, when the entire country left their radios on, listening to his voice, for many days. And so, he became known for calming the nation. When he arrived, the door was opened without question. Let him calm the family today.

 

Shai left fifteen minutes later.

 

“You were inside for a long time,” I commented.

 

“No,” he replied. “Just a quarter of an hour.”

 

What did you say to them? What is there to say?

 

“I can try to help them be strong. I can tell them to be patient and to hold themselves together. Right now, they are on an adrenaline high, but in two or three days, the hopelessness will set in. Whether or not there is any news, they will be miserable. I don’t know how much information will be shared with them, and I don’t know if it would be good for them to know every detail. That is why it’s so important for them to hold themselves together.”

 

Did you speak with the mother or the father?

 

“I spoke with both of them.”

 

What can you say to encourage them? There doesn’t seem to be anything encouraging to tell them.

 

“You are right. I don’t have anything encouraging to say. But what interests me is for them to stay strong. Do you know why? Because of their faith in Hashem. We can’t lose our faith at times like this. In my eyes, that is the most important thing right now. They are strong and they know that Hashem knows how to take care of things. And I agree with them.”

 

Is that what they are saying?

 

“Yes it is. And you also agree, don’t you?”

 

I do agree. But I, unlike you, didn’t hear them say it.

 

“I did hear them. These are the sentiments they are expressing, and they are very convincing.”

 

Three more Knesset members, all from the same party as Shai, were next to arrive: Mickey Rosenthal, Arel Margalit, and Ofer Bar-Lev. (Bar-Lev is a son of Chaim Bar-Lev, a previous government minister and commander in the IDF.) To their surprise, they were asked to come back in the evening. At that point, the family was no longer interested in receiving visitors. The politicians were shocked. The aide to Gideon Saar, the Minister of the Interior, then argued with the police, insisting that the minister was on his way to Talmon to visit the family, and the family responded by asking him to cancel the visit. The aide, too, was shocked.

 

THE MOSSAD CHIEF’S PREDICTION

 

It is incredible, but exactly one day before the kidnapping, the Knesset approved a controversial law championed by the Bayit Yehudi party, or, to be more precise, by the party chairwoman, MK Ayelet Shaked. Shaked is a secular Knesset member who was brought into the party (which was previously known as Mafdal, and before that as HaPoel HaMizrachi) by the new party chairman, Naftali Bennett, as a means of opening the party to chilonim.

 

The law (known as Basic Law Proposal: President of the State, Correction: Ban on Freeing Murderers) dictates that murderers should not be released from prison. The purpose of the law may be to prevent incidents such as this kidnapping by seeing to it that the kidnappers will not be able to gain from their actions by having other terrorists released. As of now, however, since the three boys were abducted, this law seems to be ill-fated. If the terrorists know that Israel will not negotiate with them, since the law forbids releasing murderers, they will probably have no interest in holding onto their captives.

 

The law, which has yet to pass its readings and has only begun the legislative process, has already been debated in the government numerous times and has gone through several incarnations. At first, the prime minister announced that he was opposed to it, but Naftali Bennett protested vociferously and fought for it until he managed to force it on the government. Last Sunday, the law was approved, and Bayit Yehudi hurried to bring it to an immediate vote in the Knesset plenum.

 

Parenthetically, Tamir Pardo, the head of the Mossad, was also present for the debate. He heard Naftali Bennett speak, and then, in his usually soft voice, he roared, “You think you’re such a hero? What will you do if Hamas kidnaps two twelve-year-old girls from one of the settlements and demands the release of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for their lives? Will you say then that we don’t release terrorists because they are murderers?”

 

The Mossad chief knows a thing or two about national security. Incidentally, he was the right-hand man of Yoni Netanyahu Hy”d during the operation that liberated the hostages at Entebbe. In retrospect, his words seem to have been prophetic. It was a bad prophecy, a prophecy of misfortune, but one that became frighteningly real within a single day.

 

LAST WEEK’S KNESSET DEBATE

 

Back to the Knesset plenum. Ayelet Shaked, in her presentation of the problematic and controversial law, backed up her position with an interesting bit of historical evidence: the case of the Maharam MiRottenberg. “Seven hundred twenty-one years ago,” she said, “the Maharam MiRottenberg, one of the greatest rabbonim of the Middle Ages, passed away. During his lifetime, Jews were occasionally taken prisoner, and their communities debated whether to buy their freedom and at what price. Pidyon shvuyim is considered a great mitzvah, but on the other hand, it might lead to further kidnappings, as Jews would become sought-after merchandise, since their brethren would be willing to pay a high price for their release. In 1286, the rov was arrested in the course of an attempt to emigrate illegally to Eretz Yisroel, and he was imprisoned in a German prison. Kaiser Rudolf the First demanded an enormous ransom from the Jews to have him released. The rov, in response, did not allow the Jewish community to redeem him in exchange for such a sum, because he feared that the precedent would lead to many more such imprisonments in the future.

 

“There was no mass media at the time, and the rov did not have video recordings sent from his cell. Nor were there stickers distributed with the words ‘The Maharam is Still Alive’ [a reference to the ‘Gilad Shalit Lives’ stickers]. With almost incomprehensible inner strength and poise, the rov refused for many years to give in to the Kaiser’s extortion. He continued learning and writing his Torah in his prison cell, and he ultimately died in prison. Even after his death, the German government refused for years to release his body for burial. On his tombstone, both the date of his death and the date of his burial are inscribed. The two dates are seven years apart.

 

“The rov, according to his students, refused to budge from the ancient teaching of our sages in the Talmud: ‘We do not redeem captives for more than they are worth, to maintain world order.’ In other words, paying exorbitant prices in this type of exchange may produce a sigh of relief in one specific case, but over time, it will devastate the world.”

 

A different Knesset member shouted at her, “So the IDF captives should die in jail?”

 

Another one added, “You don’t think we should have exchanged murderers for Gilad Shalit?”

 

Shaked answered, “My proposed law here, unfortunately, does not deal with the subject of abductions and prisoner exchanges.”

 

The following is an exact quote of an excerpt of the law as we have it: “In recent years, the State of Israel has released a large number of prisoners as part of prisoner exchange deals or as a political gesture. This reality has created an absurd situation in which terrorists who have committed acts of murder as part of their struggle against the State of Israel are released long before they have served their sentences. This fact is a moral failure that indicates a lack of understanding of the severity of their actions and a blemish in the authority of the judicial system of the State of Israel. Similarly, the sentences of murderers are regularly commuted today even if they have committed horrific acts of murder, even murdering children. The purpose of this proposal is to rectify these things and to prevent a situation in which various pressures will result in clemency being shown to terrorists who have committed acts of murder, whether in the context of prisoner exchanges or political gestures. We therefore suggest that when special circumstances exist, the courts should have the authority to impose a sentence of life imprisonment on a criminal who has been convicted of murder for nationalistic motives, without the possibility of a reduced sentence or clemency from the president of the state. In addition, the proposal is intended to make it possible for the court to rule in particularly severe murder cases, such as the murder of children, that the sentence of the murderer will not be commuted.”

 

WHY WE OPPOSE THE LAW

 

From this formulation, it is not clear what Shaked meant by her statement that the law does not deal with prisoner exchanges and kidnappings. In fact, that seems to be untrue. If a judge rules that an Arab murderer must not be released or granted clemency under any circumstances, then it will be impossible to release him. The law speaks explicitly about prisoner exchanges. If a boy is kidnapped and his abductors demand the release of Arab prisoners in exchange for his freedom, isn’t that a prisoner exchange?

 

During the debate, Knesset member Ofer Akunis announced that the government supports the law. He was then subjected to a hail of criticism for having explained on behalf of the government just two weeks earlier that the law should not be passed.

 

One of the Knesset members who expressed strong opposition to the law was Moshe Gafni, who declared, “Knesset member Ayelet Shaked has cited the case of the Maharam MiRottenberg, but the Maharam decided for himself, when other Jews came to redeem him and wanted to pay for his ransom, that the price was too high to pay for his freedom. And that took place in an entirely different era. In the case of the Maharam, the precedent would have caused the enemies of the Jews to begin carrying out abductions. His main concern was what would happen next; his argument was that what had happened would be repeated.

 

“The worst thing that could result from this law is the following. Let us imagine that Ron Arad was before us, and they were prepared to give him back, and we had to free terrorists in order to do that. It would be a case of pikuach nefesh in the full meaning of the term. Would we then decide not to do it? Ayelet Shaked would say so, and I disagree with her completely. It would be pikuach nefesh! A life would be at stake! Furthermore, the responsibility for these matters rests with the prime minister and the defense minister. I disagree with Ayelet Shaked, and I will vote against her for the reasons that I have said and because of this point: She wants the judges of the court to decide these things, not the government. And that is why we are against the law.”

 

The law was approved, with a majority of 36 Knesset members supporting it against the 20 who were opposed. And that was this past Wednesday.

 

UNRELIABLE RUMORS

 

Monday morning, the Jewish nation arose in the morning in sadness. Were the boys still within the borders of Israel? If so, there would be good reason to impose a siege that would prevent them from being taken into the Palestinian Authority. On the other hand, negotiations could begin only if the boys were brought into enemy territory. Until then, the chances of finding them were nil. And then there was a third factor: If the boys were still in the Chevron area and the kidnappers saw that they would not be able to escape with them, what would they do?

 

Indeed, on Monday, terrible rumors began to spread. Who was behind these rumors? No one. But they created an atmosphere of despondence. On Monday afternoon, at a conference of the Shas party in the Knesset, Aryeh Deri addressed this subject.

 

Deri is a member of the Knesset’s committee for security and foreign affairs. This committee oversees the activities of the army and the entire security apparatus in Israel. Recently, a new chairman was appointed for the committee, following a struggle that lasted for months between Yair Lapid, who insisted that his close associate, Ofer Shelach, be appointed to the post, and the prime minister, who preferred to have Tzachi Hanegbi in that position. Instead of both, Ze’ev Elkin, who was the deputy foreign minister, was appointed to that position. (The members of the committee, incidentally, are required to leave their cellular phones outside the room. In any event, the room is located in a sterile area of the Knesset building, which is insulated against even the newest forms of technology, thus preventing the committee’s sessions from being recorded.)

 

Elkin was asked today why he has not convened the committee to receive a report from the security agencies regarding what is happening. He answered, “I see no reason for the entire committee to meet. There is a subcommittee for clandestine operations, and they received a report today.”

 

To explain a bit, for the reader’s understanding: The subcommittee for intelligence and clandestine operations is a subcommittee of the Knesset committee dealing with security and foreign affairs. It oversees the various intelligence agencies and secret services of the State of Israel. The committee is staffed by no more than six members and is headed by the chairman of the Committee for Security and Foreign Affairs. The committee meets clandestinely, and the protocols of its discussions are classified. Any report on its activities must be approved by the military censor. The subcommittee is headed by Ze’ev Elkin, and four of its other members are Aryeh Deri, a onetime cabinet member; Tzachi Hanegbi of Likud; Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who previously served as the Minister of Defense and was recently a presidential candidate until he dropped out of the race due to a police probe; and Ofer Shelach of Yesh Atid. It should come as no surprise, then, that many journalists came to the Shas conference to hear what Aryeh Deri had to say.

 

He spoke briefly. “We sat with the prime minister, and we came out of our meeting with the sense that he is doing the right thing,” said Deri.

 

The journalists tried to pressure him to elaborate further, but he firmly resisted. He added, “It’s very important to visit the families. I also visited them, and I feel that I gave something to them. They took a lot of encouragement from all the prayers and the words of chizuk of the rabbonim.”

 

Deri expressed anger at the irresponsible spreading of baseless rumors. “It’s irresponsible, it’s very damaging, and it causes tremendous pain,” he said.

 

In order to illustrate the absurdity, he related that during the conference with the prime minister, one of the participants received a text message reporting that the bodies of the boys had been found and that the city officials charged with informing the family members were already at their homes. Asked about the claims of police negligence in responding to the incident, he said, “I have no doubt that these claims will be examined by the Knesset committee. Everything must be studied and conclusions must be drawn. But this is not the time. Right now, we have one obligation: to unite behind the army and the intelligence service in their efforts.”

 

It is now Tuesday evening and all we can do is daven for our brethren, wherever they are.

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