I recently met with MK Rabbi Yisroel Eichler to hear what the Belzer Rebbe has been saying about the current situation in Eretz Yisroel.
Eichler is a Belzer chossid and loyal follower of his Rebbe. He is also the editor of Hamachaneh Hachareidi, the Belzer periodical, and is one of the chareidi public’s most eloquent spokesmen.
At the beginning of the current government’s term, Eichler fought to receive the chairmanship of the Special Committee for Public Petitions. Now, he explains why.
Rabbi Yisroel Eichler is first and foremost a Belzer chossid and a loyal follower of his rebbe. For decades, he has served as the editor of the Belzer periodical, Hamachaneh Hachareidi, and has written its weekly letter from the editor, which is often formulated with the rebbe’s direct guidance. At tishen and in the bais medrash, he sits among the other Chassidim. The fact that he is a member of the Knesset does not make much of an impression on any of them.
The chassidus of Belz is a very special one. I myself used to write for Hamachaneh Hachareidi, and I sat at the same desk as Yisroel (also known as “Srul” or “Srulik”) Eichler. I can divine his thoughts without his uttering a word. He is intelligent, talented and eloquent. He is also combative; he does not mince words. Both as a writer and as a member of the Knesset, he speaks sharply. He was once sued for calling one of the leaders of Israel’s political left an “anti-Semite.” Today, he has become more cautious, but even in the Knesset, he can be heard using the strongest words to voice his sentiments. At the same time, in private conversation, he is one of the most pleasant and congenial people in the Knesset.
The Belzer Rebbe is one of the country’s greatest pioneers in everything associated with kiruv. He was involved in kiruv long before many even knew what it was. He was the founder of Naaseh V’Nishma, a kiruv organization that was active in Tel Aviv 40 years ago. Many of the country’s earliest baalei teshuvah were products of his institutions. He also founded the Torah V’Emunah organization. One thing that is very special about the Belzer Rebbe is his concern not only for his own community, but for all of Klal Yisroel, including the chilonim.
Belz is unique in a political sense as well. At certain times, the chassidus was part of Degel HaTorah; now it belongs to Agudas Yisroel. The young Belzer Rebbe had an exceptional relationship with Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach zt”l. There were some Knesset elections in which the chassidim of Belz voted for Degel HaTorah, and the rebbe has been a member of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of the party, which was headed by Rav Shach. Today, the chassidim of Agudas Yisroel and the litvishe politicians of Degel HaTorah run on the same list and the two parties are united under the banner of Yahadus Hatorah.
The approach of the Belzer Rebbe is very close to that of Rav Shach. He opposes provoking the nations of the world, which leads to a dovish political bent, yet he is also opposed to forging alliances with the left. These days, when the country has been suffering from a wave of terror attacks, I felt it would be interesting to hear the perspective of Yisroel Eichler, especially since his statements reflect the Belzer Rebbe’s sentiments.
• • • • •
When I entered Eichler’s office on Sunday, a day when the members of the Knesset do not generally come to the building, I found him busy composing a letter. Eichler enjoys writing, and he is very good at it. “This is a letter to the Chief Rabbinate,” he informed me. “I am writing to tell them that it is unacceptable that avreichim who take tests for the Rabbinate do not receive results for a long time.”
Later in our conversation, we would speak about this subject at greater length. On his desk was a draft of a letter to the Minister of Welfare on another subject: the food baskets that are distributed by chessed organizations.
Let us explain. The State of Israel is a poor country. And if that is the case in the chiloni sector, it is even truer in chareidi society. As a result, a number of chessed organizations, such as Chasdei Naomi and Ohr Leah, distribute food baskets several times during the year. The organizations also dole out knapsacks and school supplies at the beginning of the school year, fruits for Tu B’Shevat, and, of course, major monetary contributions before Pesach and the month of Tishrei. Each of these baskets costs hundreds of shekels. The chessed organizations purchase these items wholesale, thereby reducing their costs, or else they receive the items from donors, but the market value of each package is in the hundreds of shekels. The government, through the Ministry of Welfare, provides funding for these distributions; the organizations receive a fixed sum per basket. Thus, if 1,000 baskets are distributed and the organization can produce a list with the names of 1,000 families who received them, it will receive 1,000 times that sum.
How much does the government give to subsidize each basket?
It is precisely this point that infuriates Rabbi Eichler. “Seven and a half shekels – about two dollars!” he exclaims. “Seven and a half shekels for a basket of food! Do you see the absurdity in that? The government sends the poor to these very organizations, and it tells the organizations that it will subsidize their work only if each basket contains between 150 and 200 shekels worth of products, but then it budgets only seven and a half shekels for each basket. And there is something else astounding: After the organizations send in their lists, the Ministry of Welfare checks each name and sometimes disqualifies some of them for all sorts of reasons, but it never tells the organizations which families were disqualified or why, so they can’t challenge its decisions or fill in missing information.”
In short, that is the subject of Eichler’s next letter, which is a fierce letter of complaint to the Minister of Welfare.
The previous Minister of Welfare, Meir Cohen, was against all these organizations. He said that he would prefer to help the poor through the welfare offices of the local councils.
Seeing my interest in the subject, Eichler grows impassioned. “It’s a shame you weren’t present for the committee meeting last week,” he says. “There was a discussion about a child who is 100 percent disabled. His mother keeps him home all day because she hasn’t been granted funding to transport him from his home in Ginot Shomron to an institute for the disabled in Kfar Saba. The local council of Ginot Shomron can’t give more than 4,000 shekels each month, and the state can’t give more than 5,000 shekels a month, so the child remains at home. The local council says that the transportation would cost 17,000 shekels monthly.”
So what did you do?
“We had a discussion about the subject, and the mother brought us a price quote from a different company that is prepared to provide the transportation for 9,000 shekels each month, but there was no one willing to talk about the subject. I forced all the sides to discuss it, and within half an hour the situation had been worked out.”
Who contacted you? The mother?
“Of course. She wrote me a letter, one of many such letters that I receive.”
In what capacity are you the address for those letters, as a member of the Knesset or as the chairman of the Special Committee for Public Petitions?
“As the committee chairman.”
Then the public has become aware of the committee.
“Of course. It has definitely found its way into the public consciousness. We receive numerous calls and letters every day.”
Here, another word of explanation is in order. There are a number of committees in the Knesset. Some of them are very well-known, such as the Finance Committee, the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, and the Legislative Committee. Others are lesser known. Among them are the Knesset Committee, the Committee for Child Welfare, and the Education Committee.
One of the committees in the Knesset is the Committee for Public Petitions. It was established several years ago as a means of resolving a coalition dispute. Since then, constant efforts have been made to eliminate the committee under the guise of cutting government spending. At the beginning of the Twentieth Knesset, Yisroel Eichler announced that he would not vote in favor of the government unless he was given the chairmanship of the committee. This position hadn’t exactly been promised to UTJ in the negotiations, and Eichler’s colleagues were surprised and even hesitant at his position. The coalition, as everyone knows, rests on a single vote, and Netanyahu himself ultimately gave the order for Eichler to be given the chairmanship. Thus, Eichler scored a double victory: The committee was not disbanded, and he himself was placed at its head. This is fitting for him, since Eichler is supremely dedicated to aiding the average “little” citizen. The other chareidi Knesset members who headed this committee in the past have used it to solve numerous problems facing the chareidi public, such as issues with public transportation and the bus companies’ attitudes toward their passengers, as well as issues affecting the country as a whole, such as the exploitative practices of cellular phone companies.
It is interesting that all the chairmen of the committee to this day have been from Shas or UTJ.
“That is true, aside from the two terrible years of the Lapid government. At that time, Adi Kol from Yesh Atid chaired the committee. I am now reviewing the committee’s sessions from her time, and I see that things were very different, although I don’t want to go into detail about that. All of the chareidi chairmen of the committee were united by their involvement in the problems of Klal Yisroel as a whole. They didn’t single out their own constituencies for assistance.”
It was very uncharacteristic of you to fight for the chairmanship of the committee. Were there plans for someone else to take over or did the government want to eliminate the committee altogether?
“They wanted to eliminate it. Actually, Reuven Rivlin wanted to disband the committee when he was the Speaker of the Knesset, before he became president. In any event, even if they hadn’t wanted to disband the committee, they certainly weren’t planning to make me the chairman.”
So what was your ultimatum? That they wouldn’t disband the committee or that you would be the chairman?
“I demanded to be made the chairman, but that meant, by definition, that the committee would have to continue operating.”
This committee has the same standing as any other committee?
“Not exactly. There is one difference: The committee has to be reestablished at the beginning of every term. It isn’t a statutory committee.
“On that note, I had an interesting interaction with the Knesset legal advisor about the committee’s status. Two weeks ago, I got a law passed that says that the government can no longer threaten people who don’t agree to fill out census questionnaires. Until now, it was a criminal offense not to fill out the questionnaires of the Central Bureau of Statistics. Young students would show up at the doors of elderly people, hand them forms to fill out, and tell them that they would be coming back a few days later to collect the forms, and if the questions weren’t answered, they would be taken to jail… I received government support for the bill, and after its initial approval, it was sent to a committee to be prepared for the next stage. I asked for the bill to be sent to the Committee for Public Petitions, which is under my aegis. I argued that it belonged in this committee because it deals with imposing criminal sanctions on ordinary citizens. The legal advisor went berserk when I said that. It is possible that someone instigated him. He was opposed to the idea. I said to him, ‘You know my attitude about legal advisors. Your job is to tell me if something is legal or illegal, or if the committee has authority on a certain subject. That is all.’ He admitted that the committee has the same authority as any other committee, but he argued that this had the potential to go too far. While the Economy Committee is limited to economic matters, the Education Committee is limited to education, and the Health Committee is limited to health issues, I would be able to use the Public Petitions Committee to deal with any law I chose. He told me outright, ‘It’s one thing for your committee to hold discussions on any subject, but if you get involved in legislation, it will become a circus!’”
There is some validity to his argument.
“He would have been justified if I was flooding the committee with bills, but this is just a single bill that is truly relevant to my committee.”
But your committee might take up an issue like income tax next.
“If the discussion is about the tax rates, then he would be correct that it doesn’t belong in my committee. But if the issue is that people who come to the tax office are forced to wait on long lines in the rain or in the sun, with no protection from the elements, then that is certainly relevant to my committee. The legal advisor argued that even though I am running the committee now, and I may be reliable in that respect, the next chairman might be someone who respects no limits at all.”
Committee chairmen in the Knesset all have approval to hire an additional aide by virtue of their positions. Do you have another aide?
“Not yet, but I hope that will change.”
Let me ask you now about the principle of the matter: What was it that made you so determined to receive the chairmanship of this committee?
“This committee’s work is what I do every day, and it is what I know how to do and what I want to do – helping the public. Every day, I gain a greater appreciation for the importance of this committee. Do you know what happens when avreichim take tests and then spend half a year waiting for the results of their tests? It destroys their motivation. In universities, the students find out the results of their exams within two days.”
You are expressing indignation on behalf of the avreichim who have to wait six months for the results of their Rabbinate exams. But what about the thousands of avreichim who were hoping that you would increase their child allowances and then discovered that you settled for some bizarre decision about a savings plan? I imagine that the avreichim are highly disappointed about that.
“First of all, it wasn’t my decision. At the time, Yaakov Litzman went to the gedolei Yisroel, and I can attest to the fact that he presented the subject to them and received their approval.”
Yaakov Litzman, the Minister of Health, was the representative of Agudas Yisroel in the coalition negotiations with the Likud, along with Moshe Gafni on behalf of Degel HaTorah. “The issue at the time,” Eichler explained, “was that the Finance Minister said that there wasn’t enough money. Another 1.8 billion shekels was needed, and the Finance Minister claimed that the government didn’t have this money. This jeopardized all that we had accomplished in restoring the government allowances. The question was whether we should give up this sum altogether or if we should agree to the idea of a savings plan for children. Parenthetically, we found out afterward that there were many other surplus allocations in the budget, but that is a different story.”
The government allowances were increased by a small margin, but what you are saying is that there wasn’t an even greater increase because the Finance Minister claimed that there was no money for it?
“Actually, they were increased by a large margin. The allowances were restored to the levels of 2012, before Yair Lapid’s reductions. Still, every avreich was supposed to receive an additional 50 shekels per child, and that money was placed in a savings fund.”
Meaning that a person with seven children was supposed to receive an additional 750 shekels?
“He will get that money when his children turn 18.”
When you say that you were an eyewitness to Litzman’s meeting with gedolei Yisroel, are you referring to his meeting with the Belzer Rebbe?
“I don’t want to mention names,” Eichler replies. “I will say only that I was there when he spoke with the gedolim.”
Why the secrecy? Is there something wrong about divulging names?
“I don’t need to say everything that I know.”
But when you say that you were an eyewitness to a meeting, can’t I assume that it was the meeting with the Belzer Rebbe?
“I won’t say which gadol it was,” he replies emphatically.
At this point, I choose to move on to a different subject.
What does the rebbe say about the current situation in Eretz Yisroel?
Rabbi Eichler’s expression suddenly becomes solemn. “He is extremely worried, to the point that I have been asking myself what makes him so anxious. After all, he isn’t the prime minister; the country’s security isn’t his responsibility. I went to see him on Thursday, and as soon as I entered his room, I could see that he was worried.
“On principle, we don’t talk about what took place in the rebbe’s sanctum, so let us just say that I am speaking in a general sense and from my own vantage point. The situation that has been created, in which people take knives in their hands and are prepared to be killed while accomplishing nothing at all, means that the Arabs have reached a level of insanity that is unparalleled anywhere in the world. What creates this craziness? It comes from a lack of clarity. An Arab from Umm al-Fahm, from the Negev, or from the Galil is a person who has been living with the State of Israel for 70 years. He knows that there is nothing he can do to change the situation, that he has to deal with the reality that exists, and he is calm. It is like a person who goes on trial: Before the trial, he will be filled with fear of the unknown, and he won’t be able to sleep all night long. But after the trial is over, he knows what has happened to him. Now he must deal with the situation; it is all behind him, and he no longer feels the same pressure.
“The Palestinians have been driven to insanity. They were told that there would be ‘two states for two peoples,’ and the entire concept of Israeli rule became uncertain. With that, they began to harbor the thought that they might be able to liquidate the Jewish settlement in this country altogether.
“Take the case of the Kosel Hamaarovi, for example. Of course, we are opposed to Jews visiting the Har Habayis, but there are some Jews who do. The fact that hundreds of thousands of Jews come to the Kosel doesn’t provoke the Arabs. They never said a word about it, because the thought never entered their minds that they could do anything about it. But when it comes to the Har Habayis, they go berserk. ‘The Al-Aqsa mosque!’ they scream. ‘It’s a terrible travesty!’ And why is that? Because when it comes to the Har Habayis, there is a lack of clarity. It isn’t clear if there is true Israeli sovereignty over the site. That lack of clarity causes their youths to become crazed. They don’t believe their leaders. From their perspective, it is a call for blood and fire.
“The mass media has played a major role in fomenting their murderous campaign. The media has incited them. Once, in order to get 20 or 50 men riled up, the Arabs had to bring them into a mosque and have a speaker come and incite them. Today, ISIS spreads its extreme Islamic nationalism among the Arab youth through modern media. It reaches the Palestinians in Israel as well, and the thought that they have a chance of overcoming us through violence and murder has already penetrated the fringes of Arab society in Israel. The question is what to do about this, and I have no answer to that, but the basic situation is clear. There is a certain madness here, and the State of Israel must make a decision. Either the state needs to say, ‘We are here to stay and you need to stop fighting us,’ or else it has to step aside. It cannot continue with this lack of clarity, since that is what gave rise to the madness.”
Does the rebbe still have a dovish political outlook?
“The rebbe is neither dovish nor hawkish. He wants the Jewish people to be able to live in Eretz Yisroel in tranquility. Perhaps there will not be peace, since it seems that the Arabs don’t want to make peace. There was a time when they wanted to make peace with Israel in order to achieve something, but today they feel that they have no need for peace, since they have no desire to achieve anything. All they want now is to destroy all of Israel. That is the difference between today and thirty years ago. At that time, there was a Palestinian movement that wanted to gradually establish a state alongside the State of Israel, with certain arrangements regarding the border between the two states, so that the two countries could live side by side. The Arabs have discovered the weakness of Israel – its internal strife and divisions – and they are taking advantage of it. And among the people who helped them discover it are accomplices within Israel.”
The Arab members of the Knesset….
“Arab Knesset members, and Jews as well. This led the Arabs to say to themselves, ‘Wait, why should we give up? Let’s murder a few more people, and then a few more than that, and then we will win.’ There is a dispute between the right and the left regarding the cause of an Arab uprising: Is it despair or hope? I believe that it is a combination of both. The Arabs have despaired of getting everything they want, but they feel hope when they see that Israel is so crushed and so rotten within. They see it mainly in the Israeli media, which speaks about the subject all the time. They see it and they think that with just a few more victims, chas veshalom, they can wipe out Israel. That is the predominant outlook among the Arabs.”
The Belzer Rebbe and his chassidim walked hand in hand with Rav Shach for many years….
“And we still do.”
Even now? But you’re part of Agudas Yisroel today.
“Rav Shach always said that he was Agudas Yisroel.”
True, but in the past, you were officially part of Degel HaTorah. You voted for Degel HaTorah, and the rebbe was part of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of Degel HaTorah.
“To this day, we are not officially part of Agudas Yisroel or Degel HaTorah. If the determining factor is where the rebbe is a member of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, then I would say that you are correct. In the past, he was part of the Moetzes of Degel HaTorah, even though the Moetzes didn’t hold a session for many years, and today he belongs to the Moetzes of Agudas Yisroel. But you should know that the rebbe feels that there is no reason in the world that there shouldn’t be only one Moetzes.
“Incidentally, the State of Israel is falling apart today because of internal strife, and the same thing is happening within chareidi Jewry. The rebbe always says that since we are such a small minority of shomrei Torah umitzvos, we must be united. There is no reason for there to be a Moetzes for Degel HaTorah, another one for Agudah, and a third for Shas. There was a long period of time when the rebbe refused to take part in any discussions that weren’t held jointly by both councils, even though each Moetzes held separate meetings regarding certain events. The rebbe also doesn’t feel that we need to have two separate parties.
“But we aren’t really talking about politics,” Eichler says, steering the conversation back to its original subject. “We are discussing the current situation in the country, and the rebbe is very worried. Another thing that worries him very much is the dropout phenomenon. For the chilonim, a ‘dropout’ is a child who turns to crime and becomes ‘at risk.’ But I am referring to the attrition in our community, the bochurim who feel that they are incapable of learning and who walk around doing nothing, who are in danger of falling. The rebbe feels that the chareidi community must establish proper frameworks for these bochurim and avreichim. This Thursday, when I left after my meeting with him, there was a delegation from Torah V’Emunah waiting to see him. Of course, he was meeting with them not about outreach to the irreligious, but about kiruv kerovim. I knew that he was going to speak to them about that, because when I was meeting with him, he asked me about what was happening in Yerushalayim, and I gave him a detailed overview. In fact, do you know how many young people from religious families in Yerushalayim are turning away from Yiddishkeit?”
Are you referring to the chassidishe community, the litvishe community, or the Sefardim?
“All of them.”
“Tzvika Cohen [the deputy mayor of Yerushalayim from the Shas party, who holds the city’s education portfolio] speaks of ten thousand. I had also thought that the number was in the hundreds. A person could say, ‘What can I do about this? At least there aren’t many affected youths in my own community.’ But for the Belzer Rebbe, that attitude is out of the question. He cares about every Jew, and that has led him to raise the alarm about the phenomenon of attrition.”
The Belzer Rebbe practically launched the teshuvah movement in Eretz Yisroel.
“That is correct, and he still supports the kiruv institutions, but his major concern right now is attrition. If I tell him that there are Jews in Tel Aviv who want greater exposure to Yiddishkeit, it makes him extremely glad, but when he hears that there is a weakening in Yiddishkeit somewhere, he becomes truly dismayed.”
Hinting to his penchant for referring to the enemies of Torah Judaism with harsh designations, I remarked, “The main thing now is that we have a new government, with no Lapid and no Antiyochus.”
“The Antiyochuses still exist, and they want to destroy everything,” Eichler replied. “There is no other country in the world that is subject to the forces of tumah in such a terrible way. Just look at the war against the Shabbos law. We couldn’t be partners in the law because it speaks about commerce; in principle, it is a socialist bill. But did you see the uproar it created? Did you see how Mickey Zohar, who proposed the bill, was practically slaughtered in the Knesset plenum? The greater the kedushah, the more tumah runs wild. Therefore, Antiyochus is alive and well. It only seems as if things have calmed down because they are busy fighting other battles. I once heard in the name of one of the gedolei Yisroel that whenever they try to wage war against religion, another war comes along to distract their attention from us. That is the situation of the State of Israel.”
Then we can’t afford to relax?
“Absolutely not. The Antiyochuses are still here – not only Lapid, but also Lieberman, who may be even worse. Lieberman represents 300,000 sworn non-Jews and hundreds more assimilated Jews. He has no choice but to be anti-religious. And as a result, the war is being fought in every arena.”