My Take on the News

Netanyahu Appeals to the Public

There are some parts of this weekly column that probably sound repetitive to you. The reason for that is simple: The news repeats itself.

Time after time, Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu has released statements to the public about the criminal investigations surrounding him. He mocks the media by speaking directly to the people, bypassing it completely. He speaks to the public from the prime minister’s office, rather than using the government spokesman’s office. He even speaks from his own home, without being represented by aides, without addressing the press, and without giving anyone the opportunity to ask questions. Whenever he talks, the news outlets feel compelled to report on his statements exactly as they were made, lest they miss something important.

In his two most recent messages to the public, Netanyahu attacked the police and the attorney general. The first time, he spoke about the right of a public figure to a hearing in which he can try to convince the attorney general not to indict him. Everyone agrees that Netanyahu is entitled to such a hearing. The attorney general has dropped hints that he plans to decide before the upcoming election whether to press charges against Netanyahu, and that the prime minister may even be summoned for a hearing before the election. This infuriated Netanyahu, who insisted that he cannot be called for a hearing unless the result of the hearing will also be announced before the election.

Netanyahu’s argument is simple: If Attorney General Mandelblit decides to press charges against him, it will effectively blacken his name at a time when he is up for reelection. Even if a hearing is held, his reputation will remain tarnished unless the verdict is also announced before the election. Netanyahu wants the attorney general to do one of two things: Either postpone his decision about an indictment until after the election or guarantee that if he decides immediately to press charges, then a hearing will be held and the result will also be announced before the country goes to the polls. Once a hearing takes place, Netanyahu believes that he will succeed in persuading Mandelblit to see his side of the story.

Who Is Right

It is possible that Netanyahu’s outrage is actually misplaced? If the attorney general decides before the election to press charges against him, it may very well work in his favor. Once that decision is made, Netanyahu will be able to portray himself as the victim of persecution; the timing of the announcement will be the most convincing evidence of that. When Aryeh Deri was indicted, he distributed one and a half million copies of a CD entitled J’Accuse, in which he set forth his grievances against the establishment. In the following election, the Shas party won a record 17 mandates. Apparently, then, a victimized candidate is a winning candidate.

Officials in the Ministry of Justice have tried to explain the logic of Mandelblit’s insistence on going ahead with an indictment, or at least deciding to press charges, before the election. They maintain that it is their obligation to notify the public if it might be on the verge of electing a candidate who will be facing criminal charges. According to their argument, it is very important for the people to know if Netanyahu is surrounded by a cloud of suspicion. The prime minister, on the other hand, vehemently rejects that line of reasoning. It is hard to know which of them is right.

In his second message to the public, Netanyahu spoke out against the police. “I asked them twice to allow me to confront the state witnesses and they refused,” he proclaimed. It certainly sounds as if Netanyahu was deprived of his elementary right, as a suspect in a criminal investigation, to prove that the allegations against him are unfounded. “I wanted to look them in the eye and to see what they would say,” Netanyahu added.

The prosecution and the police were quick to respond. They claimed that Netanyahu had made his request too late, and that he had asked to confront his accusers only after the investigation was over. “This is nothing but an attempt to delay the process,” they asserted. “A confrontation is arranged between a suspect and a witness only when it is expected to yield benefit in an investigation of the truth. In this case, that is not applicable.”

Lapid’s Confidence

Meanwhile, we are still in the middle of an election campaign. Yair Lapid, upon whom Netanyahu’s opponents have always pinned their hopes, seems to be losing popularity. Not long ago, the polls predicted that his party would receive at least 29 mandates in the next election, but that number has dropped to 15 and is continuing to fall. Benny Gantz, the former IDF chief of staff whose political positions are still unknown, has clearly siphoned off many of Lapid’s mandates. The latest polls show him winning between 12 and 16 seats in the Knesset. Orly Levy has also suffered from Gantz’s entry into the race. Previous surveys indicated that she would receive five to seven mandates, but she has dropped to the vicinity of the electoral threshold of four mandates. According to Israeli law, a party that does not win four mandates in an election is not permitted to enter the Knesset at all.

This week, Lapid attacked Netanyahu vociferously, accusing him of “hysteria” and claiming that he is not fit to serve as prime minister. As for himself, Lapid asserted, “I am ready for the task of prime minister. I am able to assume the office.”

Brimming with hubris, Lapid made the following remarks, which met with enthusiastic applause from his admirers: “Yesterday [when the prime minister addressed the nation], we received the final evidence as to why a person who is suspected of serious crimes is not fit to be the prime minister. It wasn’t just a dramatic announcement; it was an announcement made in hysteria. A country with complicated challenges cannot allow itself to have a prime minister with weak nerves. Like a common criminal, Netanyahu attacked the judicial system itself in a live broadcast. We will not allow Netanyahu to drag the country down along with him. There is a state here, Mr. Netanyahu, and that state is bigger than you and more important than you.”

It did not end there. Lapid went on to spew invective at the chareidi community, as well. “I would be prepared to take over the position of prime minister tomorrow morning,” he said. “I am ready to begin working… I would begin by taking away traffic congestion, by shortening waiting times in emergency rooms, by restoring our deterrence against Hamas in Gaza, by going to the regional council and beginning our separation from the Palestinians, and by putting an end to the chareidi coercion. Let us repeal the Supermarket Law, let us restore the draft law, and let us restore the study of mathematics and English.”

With all that boasting, someone pointed out, Lapid forgot to promise one other thing – that he would raise the water level in the Kinneret.

Will the Chareidim Run Jointly

The upcoming elections are generating plenty of headlines in the media. First, there is the speculation about Benny Gantz and Lapid. Will Gantz lead his own party to the finish line or will he end up allying with Yair Lapid? (In that case, the two would pose a real threat to the Likud and Netanyahu.) Will the arrogant Lapid agree to give up his spot at the top of his party’s list to Gantz, or will that be too great a challenge for him, even if it means that Netanyahu will be elected for another term by a wide margin?

Meanwhile, in the Zionist Camp (the latest incarnation of the Labor party, which was once the Alignment party and was known before that as Mapai), the knives have been drawn. An attempt is underway to remove Avi Gabbai, the party chairman, from power. The party has always been beset by internal power struggles, and tensions are running especially high now that it has plummeted in the polls to the vicinity of seven mandates. The party members are also squabbling over several changes that Gabbi wants to implement in the list. But then again, Gabbai himself isn’t really to blame for the situation. No one ever dreamed that a centrist figure such as Benny Gantz would appear on the scene and draw votes away from every other party. Gantz is not a man to be underestimated. This week, another poll showed that 41 percent of Israelis want Netanyahu to serve as the prime minister, but 38 percent prefer Benny Gantz. The gap is clearly narrowing.

On the right side of the political spectrum, as you probably know, there were some explosive developments, when Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked announced their desire to run on a separate ticket. The Bayit Yehudi party was plunged into confusion. They are now trying to recover. Will this split be good or bad? Will it ultimately lead to more or fewer mandates for the right? No one knows.

Putin Against the Shin Bet

As Benny Gantz’s popularity continues to climb – or at least remain stable – everyone has made the same comment: His success isn’t despite his reticence, but rather because of it. If Gantz began talking, the argument goes, he might easily lose his charm – along with the mandates he is expected to win.

It is quite astonishing that a man whose political positions are completely unknown seems poised to win 13 seats in the Knesset. On the other hand, it is possible that he will have some intelligent things to say. In that case, he might receive even more votes. Furthermore, even if he spouts utter nonsense, it is still possible that Gantz will hold on to his mandates, just like Yair Lapid. After all, Lapid is laughable. He embarrasses himself every time he speaks. He contradicts himself repeatedly. His positions shift constantly. He is conceited, aggressive, and hypocritical, making nonsensical claims at a dizzying rate but maintains his hold on his mandates – except those that Gantz has succeeded in “stealing” from him.

In yet another story related to the election, the director of the Shin Bet, Nadav Argaman, has claimed that foreign countries are attempting to interfere in the election. Although Argaman did not single out any specific country, the public automatically suspected Russia. Vladimir Putin immediately denied making any attempts to interfere. “We have never done such a thing before, we aren’t doing it now, and we will not do it in the future,” he asserted. How could Russia possibly influence the outcome of an Israeli election? There are a few different ways. I will try to go into greater detail next week. In the meantime, though, it looks like Argaman’s claims were unfounded.

Kiddush Hashem in Health Care

This week, Shamir Medical Center – which is better known as Assaf HaRofeh Hospital – received the highest ranking in emergency medicine in the Health Ministry’s survey of the major hospitals in Israel. The hospital reported treating over 90,000 patients every year in its emergency room. There were several parameters that determined each hospital’s score, but the bottom line is that this was a mark of distinction for Assaf HaRofeh. In case you are wondering why I took an interest in this story, the answer is simple: The hospital is located within the jurisdiction of Be’er Yaakov. Since my father served as the rov of Be’er Yaakov for fifty years, he was essentially responsible for Assaf HaRofeh as well. Today, my brother holds the position of mara d’asra. Under his oversight, the kashrus and halachic standards at the hospital have undergone a major improvement.

The rov of the hospital is Rav Refoel Fadida, who is assisted by the mashgichim, Rabbi Moshe Kornik, a talented and hardworking Gerrer chossid, and Rabbi Shloime Heimowitz, a Kretchnifer chossid from Rechovot and an outstanding baal chesedThe staff of Assaf HaRofeh includes a number of prominent physicians whose services are sought by patients from all over the country, including Dr. Yigal Mirovsky, who specializes in the spine; Dr. Bar-Ziv, who specializes in knee and thigh surgery; Dr. Halperin, a plastic surgeon; and Dr. Yoram Enkstein, a pediatric spine specialist. The hospital also includes a cardiac institute founded by Dr. Tzvi Vered, who continues to serve as the institute’s director to this day. Since its founding, the cardiac institute has accomplished incredible things, and it, too, has received Rabbi Firer’s approval. Parenthetically, the main building at the Yitzchok Shamir Medical Center is known as the Aliza Begin Building.

Next on the Health Ministry’s list was Laniado Hospital. That, too, is a reason for any chareidi to take pride. The hospital was once belittled by the public. Today, it is “on the map.” No one ever believed that the chareidim would succeed in establishing a successful hospital, yet Laniado stands out as a model of medical excellence.

Our Brothers Are Languishing in Prison

In some sort of modern campaign to stamp out “Jewish terror,” the Shin Bet has begun relentlessly persecuting the “hilltop youth” and other young, impassioned dati leumi activists dati leumi. These youths are regularly arrested, questioned and imprisoned. There was a time in the past when the Shin Bet allowed their actions to pass in silence, perhaps even inwardly saluting them for their efforts. Today, however, the Shin Bet and its sister organization, the Mossad, have changed their attitudes. The agents of the Shin Bet recently stormed into a dati leumi yeshiva and interrogated all of its talmidim, six of whom they proceeded to arrest. The youths were accused of throwing stones and causing the death of a Palestinian woman. Four of the detainees were released last Thursday.

Last week, the court disqualified a Jewish youth’s confession on the grounds that it was extracted through unacceptable methods. The young man had confessed to setting fire to a church in Yerushalayim and to committing other crimes, but the judge tossed out his confession on the grounds that it was obtained through “improper pressure,” a euphemism for unimaginably cruel torture. The judge cited a few horrifying examples. His delicate choice of words did nothing to mitigate the shocking implications of the account. Meanwhile, though, several other youths have been arrested on suspicion of involvement in a different incident (the rock throwing that led to the death of a Palestinian woman), and their parents related at a press conference that they have been subjected to torture. “They tied up my son and spit on him,” one parent announced. In court, the parents could barely look at their own children. The youths were shadows of their former selves, pale and trembling like leaves in the wind. They, too, were victims of the Shin Bet’s abuse.

This came as no surprise to anyone who had read the verdict of District Court Justice Ami Kobo in Tammuz 5778 regarding the anonymous minor who was imprisoned in conjunction with the Duma case. Kobo quoted the previous ruling of a different court: “In his testimony in the court, the investigator who was present at three interrogations confirmed the statement of the defendant that the methods that were used were ‘painful and possibly even very painful.’ … The court also found that the special means that were employed constituted a serious violation of the defendant’s basic right to physical and psychological well-being … [and involved] physical harm, emotional stress, and elements of degradation and violations of dignity.” As for the youth who was released to house arrest (which, I believe, left him imprisoned in the Kirya Chareidit in Beit Shemesh), the judge quoted a psychiatric evaluation that found that “the defendant is in distress as a result of the conditions of his imprisonment, and he requires treatment.”

President Rivlin warned that the Shin Bet is involved in “sacred work,” and although that cannot justify criminal abuse of young men, even if they themselves have committed crimes, it could be a mitigating factor in determining the judgment for the Shin Bet investigators themselves. Meanwhile, two more youths were released to house arrest by the courts on Thursday. This was yet another slap in the face to the Shin Bet.

An Encounter with Rav Shach

I often met the recently deceased Rav Elisha Vishlitzky in the shuls of my neighborhood, Givat Shaul. Rav Elisha was always purposeful and always wore a smile. He was always the first to offer a greeting, which was sometimes accompanied by a sharp comment or even a pithy reprimand, although even his words of criticism always stemmed from the goodness of his heart. I was also acquainted with one of his sons, a wonderful young man who is clearly destined for greatness and has inherited his father’s penchant for powerful and intense tefillos.

On Motzoei Shabbos, I paid a visit to the mourning family. The Vishlitzky family lives in a simple, unadorned apartment on Rechov Beit Shearim. Had I not known the family already, the sights that greeted me even before I walked through their door would have told me everything about them: On each of the first four floors of the family, a chair had been placed at the top of each flight of stairs to allow visitors to rest. The family’s home is steeped in chesed. During my visit, I heard an astounding array of anecdotes about Rav Elisha’s kind heart, many of which dated back to the days before he became a leader of kiruv in the national religious sector. In Israel, he was famed for being the father of the institution of Garinim Toranim.

Rav Vishlitzky was one of the prime thinkers of the national religious community. He was a talmid chochom, a tzadik and a driving force in the dati leumi community. During my visit to the family’s home, I discovered that the younger generation has its own unique frame of reference. In previous generations, bnei yeshivos used to identify periods of time based on the masechta they were learning (“it happened when we were learning Makkos”). Today, they might describe an event as “after the terror attack in Itamar.” I listened as Rav Aryeh Stern, the official chief rabbi of Yerushalayim, delivered a drosha at the shivah house. Someone else recalled that after a particular terror attack, the talmidim in the dati leumi yeshiva in Itamar felt drained of their energy. “At that time,” he related, “Rav Elisha said, ‘From where can we derive strength? From a place where there is none.’” For the talmidim, that became their guiding principle: They would seek renewed strength in a place where none existed.

Rav Vishlitzky was an eloquent and captivating orator. Once, in a drosha about the subject of Eretz Yisroel, he cautioned his listeners not to rely on hearsay. He recounted an incident in which he had been involved: “There were some proclamations that began circulating in Rav Shach’s name that referred to hesder yeshivos as ‘treife pots.’ According to these proclamations, the chilonim are like a treife pot without a lid, while the hesder yeshivos are like a treife pot with a lid. Five or six bochurim from Merkaz [i.e., Yeshivas Merkaz Harav], including myself, decided to meet with Rav Shach. We called his secretary and were given an appointment on a Monday. This took place in 1979 or 1980. We sat with Rav Shach and began asking him questions. ‘What does the rov think about learning Kuzari?’ we asked.

“Rav Shach replied, ‘They didn’t learn it in Ponovezh in chutz la’aretz. Here in Eretz Yisroel, we are continuing the practices of Ponovezh in chutz la’aretz.’

“‘Is it a good thing to learn Kuzari?’ we pressed.

“‘The main thing is to learn Shas and poskim,’ Rav Shach replied.

“Then we asked, ‘How does the rov relate to us?’

“He said, ‘Let us be the fulfillment of what the Gemara says [in Maseches Kiddushin] that even a father and son or a rebbi and talmid can become like enemies during their impassioned learning, but in the end, they have mutual love.’

“There was a certain impudent bochur there,” Rav Elisha went on, referring to himself. “I asked him, ‘Is that really true?’ Rav Shach then grabbed my hand and said in Yiddish, ‘Young bochur, do you not believe me?’

“I said, ‘Rabbeinu, there was a proclamation about us. How can I believe it?’

“Rav Shach straightened up as soon as I said that and his face turned bright red. ‘Don’t believe anything they say in my name!’ he shouted.

“‘Then why doesn’t the rov repudiate it?’ I asked.

“‘There is no one to talk to,’ he replied.

“‘What is the rov’s attitude about the State of Israel?’ we questioned him.

“‘It’s like Poland,’ he said. ‘It’s here today, but tomorrow it might not be here at all.’”