My Take on the News

Finally, Elections Are Over

By the time you read these lines, the municipal elections in Israel will be behind us. As I am writing these words, though, we are in the eleventh hour. There has been plenty of drama, tension, and conflict, but we daven that on the day after the elections have ended, all of it will be placed behind us.

Most of the players in this game of political musical chairs probably did not achieve half of what they hoped to accomplish. Abba Eban once said about the Palestinians, “They have never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” In the municipal elections of 2018, there were plenty of things that did not work out.

Personally, I think that we do not have an obligation to succeed, nor should any of us be motivated by a desire for victory. Every person’s task is to perform his hishtadlus and to act in accordance with his rabbonim’s instructions. No person should feel anger or resentment toward anyone else for doing as they were told by their own rabbonim.

 

Did Lieberman Strike a Deal with the Chareidim?

This brings us to the uproar that Yediot Acharonot tried to create last Thursday. The entire front page of the newspaper was dedicated to an “expose”: a transcript of a conversation between Moshe Leon and someone else. It sounded as if Leon was pledging to provide a favorable outcome concerning the draft law in exchange for the support of the chareidi community. This appeared to be a ploy on the newspaper’s part to damage Leon’s chances of winning the election.

Leon’s political patron has always been Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman. In the conversation reported by the newspaper, Leon assured someone that “the draft law will work out.” This made it sound as if some sort of deal had indeed taken place. Personally, I can’t see what would have been wrong with such an agreement. In politics, it seems that anything goes. Nevertheless, Leon and Lieberman were quick to deny the existence of such a pact.

A few days before the election, I was asked to write a column for a newspaper produced by Lieberman’s electoral council. In that column, I wrote that although some believe that the chareidi support for Leon was promised in exchange for the passage of the draft law, that was not the reason that I planned to vote for him. Rather, it was because Rav Chaim Kanievsky had instructed the community to support him. I was later informed that Leon wanted me to delete that from the article, but I did not comply. He doesn’t understand that if there is any true reason for the chareidi community to vote for him – aside from the imperative of obeying the gedolei Yisroel – it is precisely the ramifications concerning the draft law. On the other hand, it is possible that he asked for the line to be deleted because he feared the chilonim’s reactions.

For my part, I don’t think that the comment caused him any harm. I believe that the chilonim are also tired of hearing about the “hot potato” known as the draft law, which never seems to fade from the public agenda. Why should they care if a formula is found for the law that will satisfy the army, the Minister of Defense, the Supreme Court, Yesh Atid, and – lehavdil – the gedolei Yisroel? But again, all of this is now behind us, and we are moving forward.

 

Netanyahu Accuses

Forward to what? Well, for one thing, the next Knesset election. The main question now is whether the next election will be moved up. Prime Minister Netanyahu sometimes hints that he plans to hold the election early, but at other times he implies that he has no such intention. This week, a major “scoop” exploded in the news: Netanyahu, according to the latest reports, was planning on moving up the election, but he was prevented from doing so because he found out that someone had hatched a scheme to wrest control of the government away from him. At a birthday party last week, Netanyahu claimed that a “subversive maneuver” was being organized against him by “a former Likud minister.” It was clear that he was referring to Gideon Saar.

Saar was once a high-ranking government minister from the Likud party. He resigned from politics several years ago and now he has returned. He is extremely popular, and there is no question that he will receive a large portion of the vote in the Likud primaries. According to Netanyahu, he concocted the following scheme: After a Knesset election, the president selects the leader of the party that received the largest number of mandates to attempt to form a government. It is considered a foregone conclusion that the Likud party will receive the largest number of mandates. Therefore, the president can be expected to invite the chairman of the Likud party, Binyomin Netanyahu, to assemble a government. However, according to Netanyahu’s account of the scheme, the president will choose a different member of the Likud list instead of its chairman – namely, Gideon Saar.

Netanyahu is not a young man anymore. He just celebrated his 69th birthday. He was born on the 28th of Tishrei, 5710/1949, and he is now entering the 70th year of his life. Last Monday, in his speech at the opening of the Knesset’s winter session – which might be considered a sequel to his “sour pickles” speech – Netanyahu was able to ignore his hecklers and to respond to their accusations where appropriate. He is no longer young and impetuous, but he seems to have retained some of his signature paranoia.

The prime minister has let it be known that he plans to correct the oversight in the law that would allow Saar to usurp his position. From now on, the law will state explicitly that the president must assign the task of forming a government to the leader of the party that has received the largest number of mandates. According to the most recent reports, Netanyahu opted to refrain from calling for early elections in order to have time to change the law. The only question is whether this entire story has been fabricated or if it actually took place.

President Rivlin responded to these reports by asserting that Netanyahu suffers from paranoia that requires professional treatment. That was an unusually sharp comment for a president who is supposed to reflect the dignity of his office. Netanyahu and Rivlin have a longstanding feud. In fact, it was the prime minister himself who tried to prevent Rivlin from being elected to his current position. Gideon Saar, meanwhile, announced, “The prime minister must bring evidence for the severe accusations that he has made against me. If he cannot do that, then he should retract his claims and apologize.” Saar also said, “In general, it is not my practice to respond to such outlandish claims, but since my name has been tarnished, I want to make it very clear that there is no truth to the reports that have been publicized. They are utterly false.”

The episode created an uproar that lasted for several days, and it is not clear that the furor has subsided. This says something about the prime minister himself, and it also reflects the level of tension within the Likud party.

 

Herzog and Netanyahu Pander to the Reform

There were plenty of other events of note this past week, but I will mention only three of them. First of all, there was the flooding. Winter has finally arrived, and in the State of Israel, as soon as there are torrential rains, the entire country becomes paralyzed. Trees fall down, roads are blocked, and there are electrical outages throughout the country. It is as if no one expected winter to arrive. Somehow, everyone is always surprised by the rain. And it is no laughing matter: The flooding not only disrupts transportation and other daily activities, but sometimes causes a loss of life. In the south, a child in a Bedouin community drowned.

Another distressing incident last week was the deliberate torching of a Sefer Torah. The image of the burnt parchment was utterly appalling. This took place in the large shul in the city of Chadera, near Haifa. The perpetrator was revealed to be a mentally disturbed individual who sleeps in the shul and even received a key to the building from the gabbai. It is a painful episode.

There was a convention of the Jewish Federation of North America, which took place in Tel Aviv. Prime Minister Netanyahu and Yitzchok Herzog, who succeeded Natan Sharansky as the chairman of the Jewish Agency, seemed to be competing to determine which of them could ingratiate himself with the Reform Jews of America to a greater extent. Netanyahu tried explaining what he had accomplished on their behalf in their struggle for a presence at the Kosel. Herzog also announced the launch of an international program for the study of the Hebrew language. Let us see how many Reform Jews actually learn Hebrew…

 

Yerushalayim – Capital of Two Nations?

Is the relationship between Israel and America – or between Binyomin Netanyahu and Donald Trump – no longer what it once was?

This past week, the newspapers in Israel featured lengthy discussions about President Trump and the concern that he is poised to make a 180-degree turnabout on the issue of Yerushalayim. The same Donald Trump who announced that Yerushalayim is the capital of Israel, and who was the first American president to put those words into action by moving the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Yerushalayim, seems to be on the verge of taking the most damaging step in that respect by declaring Yerushalayim to be the capital city of both the State of Israel and the Palestinian people.

Is it possible that he will do that? Anything is possible. According to the political figures who raised the concern, Trump would make that statement in order to bring Abu Mazen and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table. They reason that the negotiating process – if there was a process at all – was disrupted by the American moves concerning Yerushalayim, and Trump therefore plans to appease Abu Mazen on that very issue.

 

A Colorless Memorial Event

On Sunday, I was present for the Knesset’s official commemoration of the death of Yitzchok Rabin. Yair Lapid was nowhere to be found. The Yisroel Beiteinu party was also absent. Only three MKs from the Shas party were present, and the seats of UTJ and the Arab List were likewise almost completely empty. Ayman Oudeh and Dov Khenin of the Arab List were present only so that they could walk out of the Knesset when Netanyahu began speaking. I saw them entering the visitors’ gallery afterward to greet the members of the Rabin family. When I asked Oudeh why he had left, he said, “Listen, I came to the Knesset in order to suffer, but there is a limit.” At some point, Uri Maklev arrived. He was the only member of his party to attend the event.

When the Knesset holds events of this nature, additional chairs are added to accommodate former MKs who are attending. They are permitted to sit in the Knesset, and even to occupy the unused seats of current MKs. There are 120 seats in the Knesset, but there are always about 20 MKs who sit at the government table, which leaves their ordinary seats available. Plenty of former Knesset members attend these events, reveling in their brief return to the home of the country’s legislature.

Although efforts were made to lend an official, ceremonial air to the proceedings, the attempt was not successful. The Sergeant-at-Arms of the Knesset sat there in his starched uniform, and President Rivlin, Chief Justice Chayut, and even the Chief of Staff of the IDF sat in the visitors’ gallery. The chief rabbis of Israel were also invited, but they did not attend the event. The Knesset was fairly empty, and the discussion was dull. It seems that the Israeli public has grown tired of this annual observance.

This year, the commemorative day reached an unprecedented nadir. Rabin’s granddaughter, in her speech at Mount Herzl, pointed the finger of blame at Netanyahu, as if he were the one who had labeled Rabin a traitor. The left demanded that the prime minister express remorse for his “sin.” But Netanyahu did not give in. In his speech in the Knesset, he responded to Rabin’s granddaughter, “This is an unfortunate example of the way that, in the course of talking about keeping our discourse moderate and combating incitement, people sometimes say things that are offensive and groundless – not only about me, but about an entire community – that have no connection to reality.”

 

Rav Ovadiah Yosef’s Chosen Judge

Speaking of Rabin, I would like to share a story that took place at Hadassah Hospital many years ago. Rav Ovadiah Yosef was once hospitalized, and I found out that Rabin, who was the prime minister at the time, planned to visit him. I arrived before the prime minister, and I found the rov in an elevated mood. He was seated in the armchair beside his bed, thoroughly immersed in a sefer as usual. His son, Rav Dovid, and Aryeh Deri were also present in the room.

Rabin arrived without bodyguards or an entourage of any kind. He was slightly flushed and flustered, and he made no effort to conceal his admiration for Rav Ovadiah or his fondness for Aryeh Deri. He made the type of small talk that could be expected during a visit to any patient in a hospital, and Rav Ovadiah related to him with the respect due to a prime minister. Then Rabin said, “The rov knows that a religious judge is supposed to be appointed to the Supreme Court now. Whom does the rov want us to appoint?”

You may find this hard to believe, but that is precisely what he said. Rav Ovadiah looked at him with an quizzical expression on his face. Rabin repeated his question and waited for an answer. Rav Ovadiah then said, “I think it would be better for you to ask Aryeh. I agree with whatever he tells you.”

Forgive me if I do not reveal the rest of the story. I simply wanted you to be aware of the positive side of the prime minister who was assassinated on the altar of peace.

 

Rav Ezrachi and Rav Povarsky in Prison

Two members of the Knesset, whose exact affiliations are not relevant to this story, have made it their business to advocate for the rights of the inmates in Israel’s prisons, especially chareidi inmates. There are designated wings for religious inmates in several of the country’s penitentiaries, and the two MKs in question have proven to be reliable sources of aid for the prisoners. They also receive requests for help from prisoners who hail from traditional backgrounds, from the families of prison inmates, and from Dror Lamishpachot, an organization that was recently founded to benefit chareidi prisoners. Rav Sholom Ber Sorotzkin has also been involved in their efforts in the past.

Among the tools used to ensure the rights of religious prisoners are parliamentary queries, which are often used to question the policies imposed on prison inmates, whether individually or on a system-wide basis. For example, there is an issue raised by Ehud Olmert, who lamented in his book about the apathetic, even abusive attitude of the Prison Service and its senseless rules. One example that Olmert cites is the fact that a prisoner is not allowed to bring aftershave or cologne into the prison. According to the chief warden, that is because of the concern that an inmate might drink the liquid for its alcohol content. Yet the same products are available for purchase at the prison commissary – at double the price. “Are they not concerned that prisoners might drink the cologne from the commissary?” Olmert asked. I wrote about this in the past, but now the government minister involved has responded to a query on the subject.

As it turns out, the Prison Service has mastered the art of responding to a question without actually answering it. Unfortunately, the minister to whom the query was sent fell into the trap of repeating that non-answer. In his response to the question, the minister explained at length that dangerous substances have been brought into the prison in the past, disguised as perfumes or colognes. A prisoner was once even poisoned with one of these substances. He added that the cologne sold in the prison commissary does not come in the form of a spray, which prevents the prisoners from spraying it in the faces of the guards. He also related that the Prison Service works to prevent any form of intoxication within the prison. Nevertheless, Olmert was told that the reason for the ban is to prevent prisoners from drinking the cologne, and his question – as to how the cologne sold in the commissary differs from that which is available outside the prison – was not answered.

The same type of uninformative response was given for a different question. According to the rules of the Prison Service, an inmate is permitted to bring only one pair of shoes into prison – the pair in which he arrives. After the date that he begins his sentence, he is not permitted to bring any other shoes into the prison. The minister was asked to explain how an inmate is expected to wear a single pair of shoes throughout his sentence, which can sometimes be several years long. The questioner emphasized that a certain inmate did not wish to purchase sneakers from the commissary; he wanted to wear more formal shoes, which would be suitable for Shabbos. This question also received an answer that was long – extremely long. The Prison Service responded with a lengthy dissertation on the concern that prisoners might smuggle contraband into the prison in their shoes, and repeated that an “assortment” of shoes can be purchased within the prison. But they managed to avoid answering the question that was asked.

On a related note, there are some surprisingly distinguished individuals who have visited the inmates in Wing 8, the religious wing of Maasiyahu Prison. Rav Boruch Mordechai Ezrachi recently visited the prison in order to deliver a shmuess and some words of encouragement to the religious inmates, and today Rav Berel Povarsky is scheduled to make an appearance there.

 

The Wound That Has Not Healed

Two weeks ago, Itamar Eichner published a charming account in Yediot Acharonot of his experience accompanying President Rivlin on a visit to Denmark.

“President Rivlin participated in a ceremony in memory of the victims of the Holocaust in Denmark,” he began, explaining that “Rivlin participated yesterday in a special ceremony marking 75 years since the rescue of the 7900 Jews of Denmark during the Holocaust, along with Prime Minister Lars Rasmussen of Denmark, Ron Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress, and other dignitaries.” I was less enthusiastic about the location where the event was held: “The ceremony was held at the first church in Gilleleje, where approximately 80 Jews were hidden during the Second World War. When an informant told the Nazis about their location, their fate was sealed and they were sent to Theresienstadt.”

A chareidi newspaper reported two days earlier about a different memorial ceremony, which was held by Holocaust survivors who reenacted the rescue operation in which the Jews of Denmark were smuggled from Copenhagen to Sweden. The reenactment was organized by Rabbi Yitzchok Leventhal, the Chabad shliach in Copenhagen. The newspaper added that the Jewish community in Denmark plans to organize a series of events commemorating the salvation of the Jews of Denmark. Leventhal is a dedicated and hardworking shaliach, who does his best to carry out his mission – even though there isn’t even a minyan today in the Machzikei Hadas shul in that city.

But let us return to the Yediot Acharonot article. There was a chilling line in the middle of the article: “During the course of the ceremony, the president met three Holocaust survivors whose lives were saved as a result of the rescue operation. One of them was Tove Udscholt, who was adopted as a child by a local Christian family, and who chose to remain after the war with her adoptive family in Gilleleje, where she still lives to this day.”

Udscholt, whose original name was Warshavsky, is one of dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of Jewish boys and girls who were hidden in the homes of Christian families, in the hope that they would be reunited with their own people after the war. There were also hundreds of other Jewish youths who survived the camps and came to Sweden after the war, some of whom were taken in by local Christians, while others were put into the care of Zionist organizations – and thus their connection to their heritage was severed. Eighty-seven girls were cared for by my grandfather, Rav Binyomin Zev Yaakovson zt”l, who served as the rov of the Machzikei Hadas community during the transition to Sweden. Together with Rav Shlomo Wolbe zt”l and his wife a”h, my grandfather was one of the founders of an institution known as Lidingo, where these girls found shelter after the war. He brought all of the girls to Israel and married them off, essentially taking the place of the kallah’s father at every wedding. All of those girls went on to establish faithful Jewish homes in every sense.

Today, in Denmark and even more so in Sweden, there are elderly “Christian” men and women who are actually full-fledged Jews. My father served for several years as the rov of the religious community in Copenhagen, Denmark, and he was routinely asked to arrange for the burials of niftarim whose children were astonished to discover that they were actually Jewish. Those men and women revealed the truth only in their wills, in which they implored their progeny to have them brought to Jewish burials. As a result, their children are likewise Jewish, albeit leading fully Christian lives. It is a terribly tragic situation, and the tragedy is ongoing.

 

Remembering Rebbetzin Rivka Wolbe a”h

On Thursday, we escorted Rebbetzin Rivka Wolbe a”h, wife of the mashgiach, Rav Shlomo Wolbe, to her final rest. She was a daughter of Rav Avrohom Grodzensky, the mashgiach of Mir. Her father was murdered by the Nazis, as were several other members of her family. Her brother, Rav Yitzchok Grodzensky, who lives in Bnei Brak at Rechov Chazon Ish 5 (the same building where Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman zt”l resided), survived the war, as did two of her sisters, one of whom was married to Rav Chaim Kreiswirth, the rov of Antwerp, while the other was the wife of Rav Boruch Rosenberg, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Slabodka. Her incredible life story is chronicled in her book, V’Emunascha Baleilos.

To me, she was essentially an aunt. In our home, we referred to her as “Dodah Rivka.” After the Holocaust, she was one of the young girls who made their way to Lidingo, where my grandfather literally gathered in girls from the street. All of the students were survivors of the war and almost all of them were completely alone in the world. They all came from religious families, and he became a father figure to all of them. It was in Lidingo itself that Rebbetzin Wolbe met her husband, who was a bochur who had come from Mir and found himself stuck in Sweden, where he became involved in kiruv.

I grew up in the town of Be’er Yakaov. There were three chareidi families there: the Shapiros, the Wolbes, and the Yaakovsons. Growing up together in a Sephardic, traditional community, we were all very close. But that was not the only reason that Rebbetzin Wolbe was like an aunt to us. It was also because all of the students in Lidingo became as close as sisters. Therefore, I had about 90 “aunts.”

After my marriage, I moved to Givat Shaul and settled in the very same building where Rav Wolbe and his wife lived. By that time, Rav Wolbe had left Be’er Yaakov and moved to Yerushalayim, where he founded his yeshiva in Givat Shaul, as well as the Bais Hamussar. I have lived in the same building ever since. Thus, I was Rav Wolbe’s neighbor until his petirah, and I was the rebbetzin’s neighbor until she passed away last week. Her daughter, Rebbetzin Esther Schwartzman, recently took up residence in that apartment.

I am certain that I will write about her in the future, but at this time, it is still too difficult. I still haven’t digested the fact that she is gone. We used to see each other every day. She often came upstairs to my apartment, I visited her home very often, and we met in the street almost every day. It is a tragic loss. She was 95 years old, but the fact that she lived a long life does not diminish the pain of her absence. It is the end of an era. She was the daughter of gedolim, a woman from the world of Kovna and Slabodka, and a remarkable representative of a different generation.

 Yehi zichrah boruch.