My Take on the News

Mandelblit’s Dilemma

Election season has begun, and the investigations surrounding Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu are a topic of greatest concern. There is a set procedure that is supposed to be followed: Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit is supposed to examine all the investigative materials sent to him by the police, and after reviewing the entire case – objectively, of course – he is to decide if it justifies an indictment. The state prosecution and the attorney general do not always adopt the recommendations of the police. In fact, there are those who feel that the police shouldn’t make recommendations at all; they should merely transfer the material they have gathered to the attorney general for his evaluation.

In any event, it is the attorney general’s job to decide whether an indictment will take place, and Mandelblit has therefore become the focus of the entire country’s attention. On the one hand, as I mentioned, he is not bound by the recommendation of the police to indict Netanyahu. On the other hand, since the suspect in those cases is the prime minister himself, the state prosecution has overseen the entire investigation. That means that if the police recommended pressing charges, it has somewhat more significance than in an ordinary investigation. It means that the members of the prosecution who have been following the case are in agreement about that. In essence, the odds that the attorney general will accept the recommendations of the police are greater in this case than under ordinary circumstances.

The Other Side of the Coin

That brings us to the next stage in the process: a hearing. In the State of Israel, a public figure has a privilege that is not accorded to an ordinary citizen: Before the prosecution decides to indict a person of prominence, the defendant has the right to appear along with his attorneys – or to have his attorneys appear alone – before the attorney general or his representatives, to challenge the recommendation for an indictment and to try to persuade the attorney general not to indict him. There is good reason for this: There have been incidents in the past when people were able to use the hearing to prevent themselves from facing criminal charges at all. After all, even if a public figure is acquitted after an indictment, he will have been forced to leave his position and his reputation will be ruined. After the trial is over, it will be very difficult, and potentially even impossible, for him to return to his previous standing. To date, only two individuals have succeeded in returning to positions of power after facing criminal charges: Yitzchok Rabin, who was forced to step down as prime minister in 1977 because of his dollar account in Washington, yet who went on to become prime minister again in later years, and, of course, Aryeh Deri.

Netanyahu moved up the elections by a few months in the hope that it would prevent the attorney general from deciding to indict him, since it would be improper to press criminal charges against an active candidate in an election. What he did not consider was that the attorney general might look at the other side of the coin and consider a line of reasoning that he has actually voiced aloud: It would not be proper for the Israeli voters to be unaware that they are voting for a prime minister who will be indicted immediately after he is elected.

This past week, it was reported that Attorney General Mandelblit met with several of his predecessors – some of whom later became judges, in some cases even on the Supreme Court, and have since retired – to find out what they feel is an appropriate course of action. The fact that he held this meeting may indicate that he is leaning toward pressing charges, and that his only question is whether to announce his decision before the election. According to the report, his colleagues felt that he should pursue the indictment immediately.

Will There Be a Hearing Before the Elections?

This evoked a major brouhaha. The prime minister embarked on a full-scale offensive – personally and through his political associates – against the attorney general. A member of the Likud party denounced Mandelblit’s meeting with his colleagues as a “coup.” In the end, it turned out that the outrage was misplaced. The meeting, it was revealed, was actually an annual conference that had been scheduled many months in advance, and the participants discussed numerous topics. The issue of indicting the prime minister had been raised by one of the participants at the meeting.

In any event, this development disrupted Netanyahu’s carefully laid plans. The last thing he wants is to have to deal with criminal charges at this time. Moreover, Mandelblit has already announced that if he decides to press charges, he will summon Netanyahu to a hearing prior to the elections. That is a possibility that Netanyahu certainly would abhor. He fears that it may cost him five to ten seats, and that might mean that his electoral victory will be snatched out of his hands. As a result, he is fuming over this development.

Don’t Be Impressed by Generals

I am certain that you have already heard about the recent developments in the political arena. Here in Israel, things tend to change at lightning speed, and it can be difficult to follow the developments. Who would have ever believed that Naftali Bennett and Ayeled Shaked, two ministers from the Bayit Yehudi party, would resign and form a competing party? Despite their protests that they are focusing on a different group of constituents, it is clear that their new party will be a direct challenge to Bayit Yehudi. And who would have ever believed that Benny Gantz, a former chief of staff in the IDF who hasn’t even revealed any of his political positions, would appear on the scene and be predicted to win 13 seats, siphoning off votes from all the centrist parties, including the Zionist Camp?

I am not particularly impressed by former generals such as Gantz and Moshe Yaalon. Their ranks in the military do not make much of a difference to me. Over the years that I have spent in the Knesset, I have encountered plenty of former generals who turned out to be essentially worthless as lawmakers. Not all of them were ineffective, but some of them certainly were.

Take Rafael “Raful” Eitan, he was slow to understand and slow to take action. He is as stubborn as a mule. It took enormous effort to explain to him anything that was even the slightest bit complicated. And I haven’t even broached the issue of his approach to religious matters. He was an absolute ignoramus, without even the slightest understanding of Jewish priorities.

In short, I would not advise anyone to be impressed by a candidate’s military rank. And I would advise the candidates to prove themselves without relying on those ranks.

Twenty-Two Years of Public Service

The Knesset dissolved itself last Wednesday. Nevertheless, it continued operating even afterward in order to complete the process of passing a series of new laws, mainly those that relate to social benefits. Although it is not generally accepted for the Knesset to pass new laws when it is at recess, the Knesset is allowed to convene in order to discuss laws that are subject to a consensus. Obviously, then, all the new laws that were passed by the Knesset last Monday and Tuesday were approved by consensus.

Some of the laws were approved only in their first readings, which means that they will still have to pass the second and third readings. (Those two stages are generally performed concurrently.) Nevertheless, there was some benefit in having the laws discussed at this time. If a bill passes only its preliminary reading, it is effectively dead once the Knesset disbands. However, if a law actually passes its first reading, it is possible for it to continue through the process during the following Knesset, as long as the Rule of Continuity is applied.

I actually found it quite enjoyable to watch the Knesset in action over the past couple of days. One after another, new laws were prepared at top speed for their second and third readings and were transferred to the Knesset for discussion. It was essentially a two-day legislative blitz. The opposition and the coalition approved many new laws in rapid succession, without regard for which parties introduced them.

The highlight of those two days for me, though, was the sight of MK Yitzchok Vaknin signing the document that appointed him a minister in the government. After he announced his resignation from the Knesset, Vaknin was heavily praised from every direction. The government’s announcement of his appointment was approved unanimously, even by the opposition. He won the approval of every person in the Knesset, from Yuli Edelstein through the left, and even the Arabs. Aryeh Deri commented, “You have been mekadeish Sheim Shomayim for the past 22 years.”

Respite for Kidney Donors

One of the bills passed by the Knesset was a new provision added to a law passed in 1998 concerning the use of paid sick days by an employee whose spouse is ill. The law states tersely that “an employee who is absent from work in order to care for a spouse who is recovering from a medical process of organ donation will be allowed to use up to seven of the accumulated sick days to which he is entitled.”

The bill, which was first introduced by MK Yinon Azulai, was presented in the Knesset by Dan Saida, a fact that attests to the fantastic collaboration of the Shas team in the Knesset. It was approved by a unanimous vote of the 26 participants in the session. Meir Cohen, who was chairing the Knesset sitting, invited an emotional Yinon Azulai to deliver a brief address of thanks. Azulai began his remarks with a relevant devar Torah and proceeded to relate how the idea for the law had first arisen. Then he continued, “The Shas party has made the posuk ‘He saw their suffering’ its motto. It has dedicated itself to sharing the tribulations and the joys of others. I would like to begin by thanking those who have sent me here, the Moetzes Chachmei HaTorah, and the Creator of the world for the privilege of seeing my very first law being passed so quickly.” He went on to thank everyone who had assisted him in the process, including his aides, “who work day and night,” as well as the other members of the Knesset, and he concluded with a few words of gratitude to Rabbi Avrohom Yeshayahu Haber, the director of an organization that works to match patients in need of kidney transplants with potential donors.

“Of course,” Azulai said, “the last and most precious person on the list is a giant of a man who does a tremendous amount for the Jewish people and who has accompanied me through the process of passing this law: Rabbi Avrohom Yeshayahu Haber of the Matnas Chaim organization.” His final statement was stirring: “May this law elevate the memory of my father, Dovid ben Perla, whose legacy I am carrying on. Thank you to everyone.”

The Gemach Law and the Nonprofits Law

Another law that was approved last Tuesday was the Nonprofits Law, a piece of legislation that satisfies a very obvious need. Until now, any volunteer organization that requested an exemption from property tax had to go through an exceedingly complicated process. It had to submit an application to the local government, which then passed on the request to a regional official, who relayed it, in turn, to the Ministry of the Interior. If the ministry approved the request, it would transfer the file back to the district official, who would return it to the municipality, and the saga would end there. The new law dispenses with this onerous process by stipulating that the local government has the sole authority to determine whether a nonprofit organization meets the criteria for an exemption. If the locality is headed by a hostile mayor – such as Ron Kobi – who decides to reject the application without good reason, the decision can be appealed to the Interior Ministry.

One other law that was passed this past week was the Gemach Law, which effectively prevented the closure of all the gemachim in Israel. Moshe Gafni, the chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee, somehow managed to put together a law that overruled the Finance Ministry’s draconian plan, which would have eliminated every gemach in the country. In his speech to the Knesset, Gafni thanked the Charedi Institute for Public Affairs for its work behind the scenes. The institute recruited a number of prominent economists to help draft a bill that would garner universal approval.

Marks of Honor and Shame

After the “alternative” poverty report was released – that is, the unofficial report compiled by the charitable organization Latet, which found that there are one million starving children in Israel – the National Insurance Institute has now released its own report, which contains statistics that are no less distressing. According to the institute’s findings, there are 1.8 million people in Israel, including 800,000 children, who live below the poverty line.

This is very sad. Whether it is a child, an elderly person, a man or a woman, it is a tragedy when a person cannot afford even food to satisfy their hunger. And when a person has no food, it also means that they can’t afford new shoes, and they must brave the winter rains with old, torn footwear. It also means that they have no choice but to forgo medications whose price they cannot afford, and that they spend many cold winter nights sleeping with thin, inadequate blankets. That is very distressing.

Distracted in the Knesset

Naftali Bennett may soon discover that he has dug a hole from which he will find it difficult to escape. In a political sense, he has taken an existential risk. If he fails in the next election, he will have to return to the field of hi-tech or to America. Then again, if those are his alternatives, then it might not be such a gamble, after all.

I am not particularly impressed by the cries and protests of the members of the members of his former party. They were silent when Bennett turned his back on the chareidim and forged an alliance with Yair Lapid. Now he has chosen to turn his back on them, instead. Just imagine: Bennett and Bayit Yehudi might both fail to pass the electoral threshold.

The following story may be difficult to believe, but it actually happened. In the Knesset, a chareidi MK presented a motion for the agenda titled “Gravestones Have Been Desecrated in the Jewish Cemetery in Strasbourg, France.” He began speaking about the vandalism in the cemetery, but he went on to raise another issue as well: the fact that religious immigrants from France have been led away from Yiddishkeit. He decried the fact that the government officials responsible for helping the immigrants have been referring them to the secular and religious public school systems for their children and have failed to inform them about the option of enrolling in chareidi schools, including those run by the country’s kiruv networks.

During this speech, Naftali Bennett, who serves as the Minister of Education and Minister of Diaspora Affairs, was seated at the government table in the Knesset, but he was completely oblivious to the speaker’s words. Instead, he was fully engrossed in whatever he was hearing through a pair of headphones. He was therefore the only person in the room who did not hear the speaker, MK Michoel Malchieli, addressing him directly. “I would like to direct your attention, Minister Bennett, to something that is happening at this time,” Malchieli said. “There are thousands of Jews immigrating from France. This is history repeating itself: About seventy years ago, thousands of Jews came here from other countries, from the east and from the west. Today, we ask ourselves, after so many years have passed, why the State of Israel did not absorb them into religious schools. I think that the minister, who is both the Minister of Education and the Minister of Diaspora Affairs – but he isn’t listening to me. He is laughing. What should I do?”

Yisroel Eichler, who was chairing the sitting, addressed Bennett directly. “Are you hearing something amusing through those headphones, Mr. Minister?” When Bennett did not reply, he said, “He doesn’t hear me.”

“Mr. Minister?” Malchieli said.

“Minister of Education!” Eichler repeated.

“Leave him alone,” Malchieli finally said, apparently having given up on being heard by Bennett. He resumed his speech. “Today, as well, the representatives of the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption and the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs are concealing information from thousands of people. If the Minister of Education was paying attention to us,” he added, “perhaps everything would be…” He paused, then said resignedly, “But he isn’t with us. I would like to call on anyone who hears this: This is a very important issue. Unfortunately, even today, the State of Israel is causing tens of thousands of Jews, who are coming here in complete innocence and are unaware of the options that exist for them here, to betray their religion. Thank you.”

At that point, Eichler tried to get Bennett’s attention again and Malchieli repeated, “He isn’t listening!”

“No, but he has to respond to you,” Eichler said. “Mr. Minister, he wanted you to listen to him so that you could answer him.”

At that point, Bennett removed his headphones and proceeded to the podium. He was equipped with a written response that had been prepared for him in advance, which dealt solely with the issue of the cemetery in Strasbourg. When he concluded his remarks, Eichler said, “MK Malchieli asked you about the absorption of Jewish immigrants from France.”

Malchieli briefly reviewed his earlier comments. “Information is being hidden from them,” he said. “From a spiritual standpoint, these people who have been in Israel for five or six years have lost their children. They were never told that there are Talmudei Torah and yeshivos in this country.”

Bennett, who was now hearing the question for the first time, hastily responded, “The absorption of these people is handled by the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption. Unfortunately, it was never attuned to the Jews from France. I believe that this is a very serious matter and we will address it in the context of our plan.”

“Will there be representatives of chareidi schools?” Malchieli pressed.

“There will be representatives from every sector,” Bennett replied. “At the end of the day, we are all one large Jewish family. Incidentally,” he added, “that is one of the great things about the Jews of France. They are not like us, where every person is a chareidi, a chiloni¸ or something else. They do not have any of those distinctions. We are all a single family. Thank you very much.”

“Thank you, Mr. Minister,” Eichler said. “What do you propose now? Where should this issue be discussed? The Education Committee?”

“Whatever he wants,” Bennett replied.

In other words, he didn’t wish to be bothered with the issue of the French immigrants. Anyway, the Knesset was dissolving; why should he concern himself with such things, when he could be hearing something much more interesting on his earphones?

In the end, this important topic was relayed to the Education Committee for further discussion by a unanimous vote of seven MKs.

An End to Wage Discrimination?

This week, I read a lengthy newspaper article about the employment of chareidi women. The article was replete with facts, analyses and commentaries on the situation. It related that the majority of chareidi women study education, which leads to a demand for positions that is much greater than the supply. This, in turn, results in low salaries. One very well-known and equally distressing fact is that the average chareidi woman earns about 20 percent less than her secular counterparts. Yitzchok Vaknin – a former MK and current government minister – once submitted an urgent parliamentary query in which he presented the pay stubs of two women with equal levels of education and equivalent positions, which showed a major gap between their salaries. He did not reveal that one of the women was his own daughter. In any event, the article that appeared this week reported on a law proposed by Ilan Gilaon, who was backed by the chareidi members of the Knesset, which would prohibit wage discrimination against women. According to the article, the law was brought before the Ministerial Committee for Legislation at the beginning of the week for a vote. And the title of the article lent it an air of finality: “An End to Wage Discrimination Against Working Chareidi Women.”

Nevertheless, the writer’s certainty about the passage of the bill is premature, to put it mildly. For one thing, not every bill that is brought to the Knesset for a vote is supported by a majority. This is especially true of the laws introduced by the opposition. Furthermore, even if a bill is approved in its preliminary reading, there is no guarantee that it will survive the other stages of the process, especially once the Knesset has dissolved. And there is no chance at all that a law will be passed if it does not receive the support of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation – which this bill did not. Gilaon insisted on having his bill discussed in the Knesset, and it was included on the agenda. Nevertheless, even if the Knesset hadn’t fallen, this bill would have failed, since the entire coalition – even the chareidim, who joined him in preparing it – would have had no choice but to vote against it.

Rejoicing in the Shadow of Tragedy

This week, I traveled to the Nof Illit hall in Kiryat Sefer to attend the Shulman-Spiegel wedding. This was one place where there was no discussion about the Knesset, the government, or anything of the sort. The baalei simcha were focused on much more important matters.

The chosson, Yehoshua Shulman, is the son of Rav Avrohom Chaikel Shulman zt”l and a grandson of the mashgiach Rav Shmuel Shulman of Bais Medrash Elyon. The chosson’s late father, Avreimi, was a close relative of mine; his mother is a Yaakovson. He will always be remembered as a remarkable individual, a man of many extraordinary accomplishments, including the founding of a shul in Kiryat Sefer and the publication of Iyun Haparsha, an outstanding kuntres that is released every few weeks. The chosson was eight years old when his father passed away. Just a year later, he began learning in Chemdas Moshe, a yeshiva for outstanding bochurim that is named after my father, Rav Moshe Menachem Yaakovson zt”l, and was founded by my nephew, Rav Zev Pappenheim. He completed his stint in the yeshiva as one of its most outstanding talmidim and went on to learn in Yeshivas Maor Yitzchok (Chemed), which is headed by Rav Menachem Yaakovson, a rosh yeshiva who is an expert in developing bnei aliyah.

I also have a connection to the mechutanim, the Spiegel family. My late uncle, Rav Mordechai Amram, was their uncle as well. The kallah’s father, Rav Shmuel Spiegel, is one of the senior figures in Lev L’Achim, an outstanding educator and posek. The kallah’s mother, a remarkable woman in her own right, is a daughter of Rebbetzin Esther Moyel Morgenstern, who passed away when her daughter was a child. My wife and I visited the rebbetzin just two days before her passing.

With that introduction, you can certainly understand that I had to be present at this wedding.

The powerful emotions that the wedding engendered seemed to spill out of the hall in every direction. Everyone at the simcha poured all of their energies into the celebration. The band infused their music with powerful fervor. Rabbi Eliezer Swerdlov, the owner of the hall, invested tremendous effort into the event, and the rabbeim from the chosson’s yeshivos brought their own enthusiasm to the occasion as well. I watched as prominent talmidei chachamim danced, whirled, and cavorted to entertain the chosson. I observed the distinguished marbitzei Torah dancing in a row before him, and I felt a surge of admiration for the Torah world and its roshei yeshivos. The world of politics seemed far removed and far from any significance as a much more meaningful event was unfolding before our eyes – the genesis of a new Jewish home. Both families had suffered from tragedy, but Hashem did not allow their lights to be extinguished, and their sorrow had given way to joy.