My Take in the News

Memorials in the Knesset

This past week, Prime Minister Netanyahu delivered a speech at the opening sitting of the Knesset in which he boasted at length about his own accomplishments. The next day, the Knesset held another special sitting, marking the seventeenth anniversary of the murder of Minister Rechavam Zeevi, a friend of the chareidi parties. Zeevi was killed at the entrance to a hotel room in Yerushalayim after he ignored the Shin Bet’s instructions to alter his routine to make it harder for terrorists to target him. Zeevi declared that he would not surrender to threats from Arabs in the State of Israel and he paid for his tenacity with his life.

This week, the Knesset held a special sitting on Sunday to commemorate the 23rd anniversary of the assassination of Yitzchok Rabin. Why did the Knesset convene on a day when it doesn’t usually conduct business? Because Dalia Rubin insisted that the commemoration take place on the same date as Rabin’s murder.

We are only a few days away from the municipal elections throughout Israel and dramatic events are unfolding within the chareidi community. For instance, Yitzchok Pindrus was disqualified by the courts from running for the office of mayor of Elad. Pindrus was the candidate agreed upon by both Degel HaTorah and Shas, and it seemed very likely that he would be elected. Now the only remaining candidate in the city is incumbent Yisroel Porush.

 

When Judges Reject Candidates for Office

You are probably wondering why the courts intervened in the election. That is a very good question, but there is also a good answer. The petition against Pindrus argued that he is not a resident of Elad and is therefore disqualified for running for office in the city. Why did he think that he could participate in the elections? The answer is that he moved his official address to Elad just before the elections. But when the judge questioned him, Pindrus admitted that if he lost the election, he would return to Yerushalayim. The judge therefore decided that his transfer of address was fictitious.

Sometimes, petitions are submitted to the courts for technical reasons. For instance, a judge in Rechovot disqualified the candidacy of Ephraim Kafra due to a technical issue. Einat Kalish-Rotem, a candidate in Haifa, was also disqualified because the forms she submitted for her candidacy were not completed properly. In appeal, the Supreme Court reinstated her. Degel HaTorah supports her candidacy. According to the polls, she is poised to defeat the incumbent mayor, Yonah Yahav. A petition was also filed against Moshe Abutbul, the incumbent mayor of Beit Shemesh, but was rejected. It would have been a blow to the chareidi public if he had been disqualified.

The elections will be held Tuesday.

 

An Overt Miracle in Be’er Sheva

Last week, a home in Be’er Sheva sustained a direct hit from a rocket. The media reported only that the rocket struck a building in Be’er Sheva; the specific location is not named. In general, the news reports never reveal exactly where a rocket landed to prevent terrorists from learning how to refine their aim. In this case, the residents of the home were saved by an overt miracle. As soon as the siren sounded, the mother gathered her three children from their bedrooms and raced with them into the apartment’s reinforced room. One second after she closed the door, the rocket struck her home. The home is shared by two immigrant families, the Tamno family from Ethiopia and another family from Georgia. The Tamno family’s side of the home was destroyed.

After the incident, the Jewish Agency released an announcement that it was providing aid to the family, which it credited to a donation from “the Jewish community of Canada.” The aid amounted to slightly more than one thousand dollars.

 

Praise for the Opposition

I would like to quote briefly from a speech delivered by a relatively obscure Knesset member, who spoke during the discussion that followed the prime minister’s address. His name is Dan Saida, and although he is relatively new on the job, he managed to speak without a prepared script, as if he were a veteran parliamentarian. “I would like to discuss the enlightening words of the prime minister,” he said, “who so eloquently described all of the areas that the government must handle – security, the economy, diplomatic relations, and spiritual issues as well. The general sense everywhere I have gone is that there has never – never at all – been a government as efficient, as fruitful, and as popular as this government.” Nevertheless, Saida called on the government to act with determination against Israel’s enemies.

“The prime minister mentioned in his speech,” Saida continued, “that the Negev, the Galil, and the periphery are blossoming. I would like to give thanks to Rabbi Aryeh Deri, the chairman of my party, who toils day and night for the sake of the Jewish people in general, and especially for the weaker citizens everywhere.”

He concluded his address with a clever comment. “We also have a good opposition,” Saida said. “I think that it is one of the best oppositions that we have seen in years. So since we now have the best possible government and prime minister, as well as the best possible opposition, then let us allow the wise people who dwell in Zion to continue giving a mandate to this distinguished government and this wonderful opposition to function as they are. Let each of them remain in its place for another full term.”

 

Netanyahu’s Outburst

Last week, the prime minister traveled to the northern town of Kiryat Shmonah for the inauguration of a new emergency room. While he was speaking, a local political activist barged into the room and began heckling him. She complained that he visits Kiryat Shmonah only during election seasons, and she wanted to tell him that the town had had an emergency room in the past, but that it had been closed until the new one opened to replace it. Her objective was to complain about the government’s apathy toward the residents of the north. But Netanyahu reacted by shouting at her, “You are boring! We have no interest in you!” His reaction triggered a cascade of blistering criticism, and Netanyahu hastened to apologize. He explained that she had interrupted him when he was about to speak about his good friend and attorney, Yaakov Weinroth z”l, and that was why he had little patience.

It has since been revealed that the heckler is heavily involved in politics and has a close connection to Finance Minister Moshe Kachlon. She is also a cancer sufferer who has experienced the frustrations of dealing with Israeli bureaucracy and the lack of important medical treatments.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu continues hearing reports that the police are about to finish investigating him, and leaked reports continue to indicate that the police will recommend indicting him. The attorney general himself recently commented that he anticipates coming under attack with increasing frequency as the investigations draw to a close.

 

Friedman Crosses the Green Line

Ambassador David Friedman paid a visit to the city of Ariel in the Shomron. Until now, American ambassadors have always tried not to visit the “occupied territories” or to cross the Green Line. Friedman’s visit to Ariel was to attend an event that encouraged Israelis and Palestinians to collaborate on business ventures. In his speech, Friedman criticized the Palestinians for their unwillingness to do business with Israelis. The reason for that is that they fear for their lives. In the Palestinian Authority, Arabs who conduct business with Israelis are considered guilty of treason.

Meanwhile, Nikolai Mladenov visited Israel and met with President Reuven Rivlin. Mladenov is the United Nations envoy to the Middle East, and the purpose of his visit was to observe and report on the situation in Israel. He was present for an escalation of the violence on the south, to which he reacted by claiming that “both sides” had caused the escalation, and that both sides must show restraint. Such is the “objectivity” of the United Nations regarding the Middle East. As far as Mladenov is concerned, the blame for the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is shared equally by both sides.

 

Missing Mendy Klein

Attorney Yaakov Weinroth passed away last week. He was a highly respected legal expert and represented some of the most prominent public figures in Israel – that is, those who required legal aid. His clients included former President Ezer Weizmann, Prime Minister Netanyahu, and plenty of government ministers and senior figures in the economy and the country’s defense agencies. Both the chareidi and the chiloni press published many tributes to Weinroth after his passing. At his levayah, many of the speakers related that he had been a prodigious baal tzedakah and an outstanding talmid chochom.

This past week also marked the yahrtzeit of Rochel Imeinu, when Kever Rochel receives thousands of visitors. The number of visitors increases every year, making the logistics of the day increasingly complex. Kever Rochel is crowded on an average day, especially since the visitors are confined between the high walls surrounding the compound, out of fear of violence from the Arabs who live nearby. On the day of the yahrtzeit, over one hundred thousand people visit the kever during a span of 24 hours. Every year, this operation is overseen by Rabbi Yosef Schwinger, director of the Center for the Development of Holy Sites in Eretz Yisroel, who works together with the police and the army to ensure the safety and well-being of the visitors. Kever Rochel is under the joint control of the police and the army. This year, the yahrtzeit fell on Shabbos, and visitors began flocking to the kever on Motzoei Shabbos. Rabbi called on the public to refrain from traveling to the kever until two hours after Shabbos in order to prevent the police and army from claiming that they needed to be mechallel Shabbos to prepare for the visitors.

Whenever I think about Kever Rochel, I can’t help but be reminded of Mendy Klein zt”l. Every year, this wonderful, righteous man used to arrive at Kever Rochel on the yahrtzeit and mingle with the crowd, davening fervently along with the thousands of other visitors. None of the people around him had an inkling of the fact that Mendy had personally sponsored the refurbishment of the site. When I visited the kever this year, I felt a pang of yearning in his absence.

 

Anti-Religious Prejudice Exposed

Municipal elections in Israel have caused some of the bigots in this country to creep out of their holes.

In the course of the municipal campaigns, we discovered a dark side to several of this country’s municipal politicians, who suddenly revealed the anti-Semitic sentiments that they have been harboring. In several cities, there were candidates who released videos that were absolutely deplorable, one of which was offensive on a record level. Eli Nacht, a candidate for mayor of Ashdod and immigrant from the former Soviet Union, produced a video that was meant to appeal to the nonreligious community in the city. The video presents his vision of what would happen if the chareidim gain control of Ashdod. He was trying to make panic take hold, and he succeeded. The residents of Ashdod were convinced that if they do not vote, the “chareidim” will effectively paint the city black.

The video depicts a fictitious family. The father is Israeli, while the mother speaks Russian. The two, who spent Election Day vacationing, return to their home one day to find a chareidi man in their living room. The intruder explains that a new municipal ordinance requires every religious resident to induce others to become baalei teshuvah and he has therefore moved into their home in order to “convert” them to religious Judaism. At that moment, the blond-haired son of the couple, Stas, enters the room, dressed in a hat and jacket. The father demands an explanation, and the boy replies, “According to the new law, this is our school uniform now.” Suddenly, the house is plunged into darkness. The father calls the electric company, and the operator asks if someone has just entered the house. The father confirms that his son had just arrived, and she asks if he kissed the mezuzah. “There is a new municipal bylaw: If someone enters a house without kissing the mezuzah, the electricity is cut off,” the operator explained. “You reconnect it by walking outside and then coming into the house again, making sure to kiss the mezuzah this time.” The rest of the video follows the same pattern. It is a clever work of satire, but the humor barely camouflages the venomous hatred that lies at its core. As MK Yisroel Eichler reminded the nation, the greatest crimes in history have often been justified by satire.

Perhaps we could ignore this shallow-minded video crafted by a shallow-minded person, but we cannot ignore the fact that many Jews share its sentiments. There are plenty of people in Israel who consider the chareidi community to be some sort of nightmarish sect of enemies. That is something that should give all of us – all religious Jews – food for thought. Shouldn’t we be making some sort of effort to educate them? It is their right to know – and the religious community’s obligation to teach them – that chareidi Jews are not seeking to harm them in any way, or even to detract from their living space.

 

Unfounded Fears of a Chareidi Takeover

There is a very simple counterargument to the “nightmare” scenario depicted in this campaign video: The chareidim have more or less controlled the Ashdod municipality for years already, and no one has suffered as a result. The same is true in other cities, including Yerushalayim, where the chareidi and religious parties make up the majority of the city council. But logic will always be defeated by scare tactics; nothing drives voters to the polling stations more than ominous proclamations designed to sow panic. Remember Netanyahu’s warning that the Arabs were “coming out in droves” to vote? The voice of reason, even when it is backed by solid precedent, cannot stand up to fear.

In reality, the video depicts the exact opposite of what the chareidi parties are actually trying to do. The chareidi community has never tried to change the existing situation or to wrest control of anything from anyone. They do not participate in elections in order to gain power; they simply want to preserve the status quo and to be allowed to live as they choose. That is precisely the opposite of what the video portrays, and the opposite of what some of the chilonim believe. For the chareidim of Israel, it is actually a good thing that this election campaign has exposed the true colors of their enemies, but it is a bad thing that they themselves are viewed as enemies. That puts them in the position of having to try to overcome the hostility of others, even when that hostility is completely unfounded.

The video is an accurate reflection of what chilonim are capable of doing when they are in power. There are plenty of precedents that attest to this reality. Take the situation in Tel Aviv, for instance, where Ron Huldai’s dictatorial regime has given him the ability to destroy religious life in the city and he has used that ability liberally. Yerushalayim is another example; Nir Barkat has championed anti-chareidi policies. He promised to prevent the chareidi communities from growing in mixed neighborhoods, and has done so.

If the video from Ashdod should shake anyone out of their complacence, it is the chareidim. It shows that a hostile municipal government has the ability to pass plenty of destructive ordinances and to undermine the religious presence considerably.

 

Putting an End to the Hatred of Chareidim

Shemesh Lehavah is the title of a book by Eli Cohen, the former mayoral contender in the Beit Shemesh elections who ran against Mayor Moshe Abutbul five years ago. Cohen lost the election and appealed to the Supreme Court, claiming that the chareidi vote had been fraudulently inflated. His petition led to a second round of elections in the city, in which he lost again. It is a fascinating book in that it clearly depicts the thoughts and motivations of those who feel threatened by the chareidi population. The 34 chapters of the book take the reader on a journey from Cohen’s perception of a calamitous situation, through his brilliant election campaign, to his final defeat. His own personal story blends with that of Beit Shemesh in a book that is completely subjective but absolutely true to its author’s heart.

The 450 pages of the book essentially constitute a lengthy lament over the changes that Beit Shemesh has undergone. The first chapter is titled “From a Zionist City to a Chareidi City.” Cohen invokes the concept of Zionism on almost every page of the book. He writes about “the values of Zionism,” he refers to “the two sides – the chareidim and the Zionists,” and he describes “the anti-Zionist sector,” the “Zionist front,” the “Zionist mayors,” and the “Zionist chilonim.” He also describes himself as the leader of the “Zionist bloc.” The unmistakable message is that the election of a chareidi mayor constitutes a tragedy for Zionism. “Abutbul and his supporters expressed in their interviews the vision of the chareidi leadership to transform Beit Shemesh into the largest city of Torah in Israel,” he relates. He concedes that it is legitimate for a chareidi candidate to run for office, albeit only on the condition that “his intentions and his actions are not sectarian, but are for the benefit of the community as a whole.” But why does he suspect chareidim of sectarianism, but not chilonim? Moreover, why did Eli Cohen consider it his responsibility, if he were elected as mayor, to ensure that Beit Shemesh would remain chiloni, whereas it would be wrong for Moshe Abutbul to turn it into a chareidi city?

In the 29th chapter, Cohen declares, “I learned the meaning of hatred of the Jews.” Personally, I found the earlier chapters to be an object lesson in hatred of chareidim, and a clear demonstration of how they can be marked as enemies and utterly delegitimized. I cannot find fault Eli Cohen for his pain, but I think the time has come for the chareidi community in Israel – which includes myself – to tear down the wall of hatred that divides us from many of our chiloni brethren.

The city of Beit Shemesh hasn’t become a chareidi city. If the chareidi and religious community in the city remains apathetic, it may well be snatched out of their hands by Abutbul’s rival from the Bayit Yehudi party. Residents of the city have reported that the opposing candidate has already made significant inroads. The battle must be waged not against the “Zionist bloc,” but rather against the phenomenon of complacency.

“Who Are You?”

Here is one last incredible story. I visited the kollel in the Pressburg shul, where a group of outstanding yungeleit are in the process of learning dayanus. They are a group of yungeleit there who learn with incredible hasmodah, but that is not the point of my story. Rather, it is an incredible anecdote that I heard from a yungerman whom I greeted in the tea room.

The yungerman related that Aryeh Deri paid a visit to Rav Yosef Yekusiel Efrati last week during the shivah for Rav Efrati’s son, Shlomo. Deri found himself sitting beside Rav Asher Arieli, the famed maggid shiur, and began reminiscing about several of the shiurim that he heard from Rav Asher over 30 years ago. A flustered Rav Asher turned to Aryeh, one of the most widely recognized figures on the Israeli political scene, and said to him, “Sorry, but who are you?” That fascinating episode is a testament to Rav Asher’s immersion in Torah learning.