My Take on the News

Netanyahu and Mandelblit – Allies No Longer

Binyomin Netanyahu fought for Avichai Mandelblit to be attorney general. Today, it is likely that he has come to regret it. Mandelblit previously served as the cabinet secretary, which meant that he was very close to the prime minister. Now, however, he seems to have launched a full-scale offensive against him.

This week’s bombshell came in response to the prime minister’s request to summon additional witnesses before a decision is made about his indictment. Mandelblit replied that there was no need for further witnesses, and that their testimony would not make a difference. His meaning was clear: He has already made the decision to press charges against the prime minister.

As always, Netanyahu is making every effort to radiate an air of normalcy, proceeding with his usual diplomatic conferences and meetings. Last Wednesday, he traveled to Warsaw to meet with the foreign minister of Oman. But in spite of these efforts, Netanyahu is not succeeding in projecting that sense of normalcy – because at the same time as he is going about his business, he is also frequently releasing statements, especially in the form of videos filmed in his home, in which he fiercely attacks the media and the criminal justice system. Some people feel that he is coming off as panicked to the point of hysteria. Others say that he is correct. Netanyahu hopes that he will ultimately be able to demonstrate that he is the victim of unjust persecution. That position should help him collect a few more mandates in the upcoming election, and at this point, that is critical for him.

In Warsaw, Netanyahu spoke about one of his favorite topics: Iran. He informed his audience that Israel is doing everything possible in order to drive Iran out of Syria, and he revealed several details that immediately caused his opponents, led by Benny Gantz, to accuse him of endangering soldiers’ lives for the sake of electoral propaganda.

The Right-Wing Bloc in Jeopardy

To be honest, Netanyahu isn’t the only one who is concerned at this time. Instead, the entire political right has reason to worry. As I have explained in the past, the critical question isn’t whether the Likud party will receive more mandates than Chosen L’Yisroel, the new party led by Benny Gantz. Rather, the question is whether the right or the left will receive the greater number of votes as a whole. Based on the results of the latest polls, we may soon be watching a left-wing government headed by Benny Gantz come to power.

As soon as Naftoli Bennett and Ayelet Shaked left Bayit Yehudi and opened their own party, the New Right, the polls showed that they would siphon off many votes from the party that was formerly their home. Bayit Yehudi actually consists of two factions, one of which is the National Union, the movement formerly headed by Minister Uri Ariel, who has since retired from political life, and that is now led by MK Betzalel Smotrich, who defeated Ariel in the party’s internal primaries. According to the polls, if the National Union splits from Bayit Yehudi, neither of the two parties will cross the electoral threshold.

There is also another right-wing party, known as Otzma L’Yisroel, which is headed by adherents of Rabbi Meir Kahane (Baruch Marzel, Itamar Ben-Gvir, and Dr. Ben-Ari). According to the polls, this party will also fail to cross the electoral threshold if they run separately. In the last election, Otzma L’Yisroel ran together with Eli Yishai’s party, Yachad, and the two together received 120,000 votes, which brought them almost to the threshold but failed to cross it. Those votes cost the right-wing bloc four very important Knesset seats. And if the three parties run separately now, they will cost the right wing a total of seven or eight seats. In other words, the fragmentation of the right may end up leading to a victory for the left, especially if Avigdor Lieberman also fails to make it across the threshold.

The electoral threshold currently stands at approximately four mandates. Any party that makes it into the Knesset must have a minimum of four seats. Those that do not succeed in meeting the threshold will cause all the votes that were cast for them to be squandered, potentially harming their entire bloc. As of now, everyone is blaming someone else for the situation, including Rabbi Rafi Peretz, who was elected to serve as the chairman of the Bayit Yehudi party, and Betzalel Smotrich, the chairman of the National Union.

The polls show that even Kulanu, the party headed by Finance Minister Moshe Kachlon, is hovering somewhere around the threshold. This has only increased the concern within the political right. Moshe Kachlon has announced that he has no intention of joining a larger party, and if the public does not want him on his own terms, then he has no business being part of the government. At the same time, the prime minister is calling on all the smaller right-wing parties to unite, in order to avoid a catastrophic loss of votes.

A New Widower’s Astounding Reaction

We are all still reeling from the tragic bus accident that took place last week. The accident occurred when a bus collided with a car that had stopped in the middle of the highway – not even on the side of the road, but actually in the middle of a lane. The driver of the car, a paramedic who volunteers for Hatzalah, had seen another car that had been struck in the opposite lane, and he quickly left his own vehicle to render assistance. But while his actions were very noble, he caused a tragic accident by leaving his car in the middle of the highway. The bus driver was also found to have an extensive record of traffic violations, which makes him likely to be partially at fault, as well. Both drivers were interrogated by the police, and the detective who questioned them made a chilling statement: “I don’t know yet which of them is more at fault for the accident, but no one should envy them the psychological torment and feelings of guilt that they are both experiencing!”

Last week, the directors of the Kavim bus company arrived in Modiin Illit to visit the family of one of the women who were killed in the crash.

A Strike at Hadassah

This week, the doctors at Hadassah Hospital in Yerushalayim staged a strike. The hospital has been suffering from financial problems for several years already, but a doctors’ strike is a red line that is generally not crossed. There was a doctors’ strike in Israel many years ago, and the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah went so far as to call on the prime minister to do everything in his power in order to bring it to an end. Today, however, the strike has not elicited condemnation of any sort. And that is unfortunate.

Kobi’s Contempt

Ron Kobi, the newly elected mayor of Teveria, has been continuing with his pattern of brutality. He has brazenly spoken out against chareidi public figures and has displayed callous contempt for the rabbonim of his city. All this is aside from his ongoing battle against Shabbos itself. Kobi has already opened the beachside promenade and has pushed for a transportation company to provide public transportation on Shabbos, and he claims that that is only the beginning.

It is said that Kobi’s victory in the election can be credited to social media, where he ran a virulent campaign of incitement against chareidim. It is quite disheartening to think that he found plenty of willing “customers” for his hateful invective. And that is not the only example of the hatred for chareidi Jews that has infected Israeli society. This week, I discovered that MK Dani Saida submitted a parliamentary query with the title, “A Video Defaming Chareidi Residents Was Ostensibly False and Libelous.” Here is the text of his question: “About two months ago, a young woman publicized a video in which she claimed that she was attacked by chareidim on account of her immodest dress. The chareidi community was attacked and defamed as a result, and the police announced that they were working to locate the suspects. Meanwhile, it was revealed that the events in the video were probably staged, and that this was a deliberate attempt to slander the chareidi community. I would like to ask: What were the results of the police investigation on this subject? Did the police question the girl who claimed to have been assaulted by chareidim? Did she continue to maintain that she was assaulted, and was her version of the story verified or proven in any way? Do the police believe that the video was authentic or that it was falsified? If these events were staged for libelous purposes, will any punitive measures be taken against the people responsible?”

This was an incident that was reported in Yediot Acharonot in Cheshvan, just a few months ago. According to the article, the police began their investigation when they were certain that the allegations of an assault were true. Later on, it became clear that the episode had been faked. In the words of the newspaper itself, “Recently, additional information was received by the police regarding the incident, which led them to examine it further. Among other things, there was a video that was filmed and disseminated on social media, in which the girl who was assaulted claimed that the entire incident had been staged. As of now, the authenticity of this video has not been confirmed, but it has been transferred to the investigators who are still looking into the assault case, but are now examining other avenues.” Once the crime in question was the maligning of the chareidi community, rather than an alleged assault committed by chareidim, the police seemed to lose interest in pursuing justice.

An Outage in Beitar Illit

Parliamentary queries – especially of the direct variety, which are answered in writing – can be submitted even while the Knesset is in recess, and it can be presumed that the relevant minister will respond to them. According to Knesset regulations, a minister must respond to a query within 21 days, and there are still over 40 days remaining until the election. Moreover, the ministers will remain in their positions for some time even after the election. Therefore, there is still time to demand answers from the government on a variety of issues.

This week, one of the chareidi MKs submitted the following query to the Minister of Energy: “About a month ago, during a time of stormy weather and frigid temperatures, the electric company initiated several deliberate outages in several places, including the city of Beitar Illit. The mayor of Beitar Illit claimed that in his city’s case, they were too quick to shut off the electricity, and he is certain that other cities were not subjected to intentional outages for such a long time. I would like to ask: Did the electric company initiate deliberate outages during those days? If so, in which cities were the outages, and for how many hours in each city? How long was the power outage in the city of Beitar Illit?”

It will be very interesting to hear how the minister responds to this question.

Brazen Insolence from a Mayor

Let us return to the subject of Ron Kobi, mayor of Teveria: I am one of the many people who believe that the baffling phenomenon of Kobi’s mayoral career is not destined to last long. Kobi’s rise to power was rapid, and his downfall is likely to be even swifter, not to mention devastating. I find that his pompous proclamations strain credulity. Two weeks ago, he received fawning media coverage when he announced the opening of a new section of the beach alongside the Kinneret. With his trademark conceit, Kobi boasted about the restoration of the beach; from the tone of his remarks, one might have thought that he had invented the wheel or that he had discovered America.

However, as it turns out, he might not have actually accomplished anything. In February 2018, the media reported that the National Mine Action Authority, a division of the Ministry of Defense, along with the Union of Kinneret Cities, the Kinneret Authority, and the Golan and Jordan Valley Regional Councils, would begin a massive effort to clear the landmines in that particular area during the month of April. The area in question stretched from the Gofra Beach to the Chalukim Beach. “When the project is completed,” the article added, “a new, wider beachfront will be made available, in an area that was heretofore blocked off and surrounded by a fence.”

Moreover, in the month of Shevat, the publication Eretz HaKinneret featured an article written by two architects about the restoration and refurbishment of the beaches of the Kinneret. “In recent years,” they wrote, “due to the lowering of the water level of the Kinneret, a new stretch of beach was added to the existing strip, bordering on an undeveloped and mostly unused area of the Kinneret. The overall plan that is the basis for our project is National Outline Plan 13 (Tama 13), whose formulation first began about ten years ago, and which went into effect approximately two years ago…. This plan designates four sections of the beach, from south to north: Tzinbari Beach, Barniki Beach, Shekamim Beach, and Shachaf Beach.” If Kobi was referring to any of these waterfront areas, then the planning for these beaches began over ten years ago and has already been the subject of government decisions. In other words, he is trying to take credit for the accomplishments of others. If he tries to pull off a few more stunts of this nature, Kobi will soon receive his just deserts.

The Quality of Fear

During the past two weeks, Rav Uri Zohar has received copious attention from the media. It began when we was interviewed by the religious journalist Sivan Rahav Meir, who features on one of the most popular television stations in the State of Israel. That interview, which was almost half an hour long, has been a hot topic of conversation among the citizens of Israel for the past two weeks. If we needed any proof that a person who flees from honor is pursued by it, this is ample evidence of that fact. Rav Uri Zohar resists media attention of any kind; he considers it “chitzonius” and “klipos,” and he does everything in his power to steer clear of publicity. Yet the media responds by pursuing him indefatigably. When he agreed to the interview with Rahav Meir, it was a highly unusual move, and he probably relied on her integrity. But the real reason for his actions was known only to a few people: He consented to the interview out of hakaras hatov – the specifics of which are not important at this time. All that needs to be said is that Rav Uri’s sense of gratitude trumped his usual reluctance to be interviewed.

Rav Uri Zohar is an incredible person, who spends the majority of every day immersed in Torah learning with a series of rotating chavrusas, and who observes every possible stringency in halacha. “In Gan Eden, I want even the cherry on top,” he is known to say when he is asked about his uncompromising dedication to observing every detail of halacha. He also values his privacy; what happens in his home, behind closed doors, is expected to remain there. And the things that occur around him can be fascinating. He was once approached by a group of people who sought his help having a resident of Mea Shearim released from prison after a demonstration. Rav Uri tried to evade their request. “Who am I? What can I do to help him?” he demanded. Incredibly, that is truly the way Rav Uri thinks of himself; he does not view himself as a highly influential celebrity.

Rav Uri finally agreed to put in a call to the police commissioner, and he was told, not surprisingly, that the commissioner was in a meeting. He left his name and phone number, and the commissioner himself returned his call exactly seven minutes later. Of course, the young man was released.

The same thing happened quite frequently in his interactions with Ariel Sharon, Yitzchok Rabin, and Ehud Olmert. I can attest to that from incidents that I witnessed. To this day, it is amazing to observe how many people still demonstrate excitement merely by virtue of being in his presence. Even after so many years have passed, he still exerts a magnetic pull on others. But that is not actually my subject.

One can often find a wide range of visitors in Rav Uri’s home. Some of them are baalei teshuvah at various stages of the process who have come to learn with him. (Rav Uri maintains some chavrusas even for ten-minute periods, and even once a week). Others are tourists from America, most often supporters of Lev L’Achim seeking his brocha (and hoping to catch a glimpse of the ascetic conditions under which he lives). Then there are the young men and women seeking someone who will understand them and offer them guidance, the students and academics who come to learn about his hashkafah, the youths from Lev L’Achim’s midrashot who come for chizuk, and even doctors who come to discuss various matters with him. This week, I arrived at Rav Uri’s house to find him conversing with Dr. Gad Lutan, a prominent surgeon who specializes in pediatric surgery. Dr. Lutan first earned acclaim in the medical corps of the IDF and served until recently as the director of the pediatric surgery department in Assaf Harofeh Hospital; today, he works in Ichilov Hospital. Just a week ago, Dr. Lutan operated on a one-day-old infant to remove a cancerous tumor that had been discovered before the child’s birth – an operation that few doctors anywhere in the world would be skilled enough or daring enough to perform. I also recall that on one occasion, Rav Zundel Kreuzer zt”l paid a surprise visit to Rav Uri’s home. Rav Uri turned pale with surprise and awe when the illustrious rov appeared, and he nearly prostrated himself before Rav Zundel. But again, I digress.

As I mentioned, Rav Uri is not one to cut corners. Whenever he hears about a new possible halachic stringency, he will not rest until he has investigated the matter thoroughly and determined whether it is true – and, if necessary, has integrated it into his conduct. For instance, ever since he heard that a person who recites a brocha should preferably listen to someone else reciting “amein,” he has been meticulous about making sure to recite brachos in the presence of at least one other person. This week, Rav Uri discovered that there is a question as to whether one may add milk to corn flakes on Shabbos; some have suggested that it might constitute the melochah of losh. The result, as you can imagine, was a frenzy of halachic research.

In a conversation of my own with Rav Uri, I happened to mention that Rav Yaakov Edelstein zt”l once told someone that Hashem wants us to be cautious, but He doesn’t desire for us to be fearful. Rav Uri was shocked. “Is that so?” he said. “Then we must certainly at least be cautious!” Then he hesitated, as if he was inwardly debating how much to respond. Finally, he asked me to hand him a copy of Mesillas Yesharim from the bookcase behind me. With a familiarity born of numerous reviews of the sefer, he opened it to a specific page and began reading aloud: “The first is yirah, meaning that a person should have fear of His loftiness as if he were sitting before a great king. The ideal form of this yirah is for a person to feel this fear at every time, in every action, every word, and every thought. On account of Hashem’s greatness, he should have shame in every movement that he makes before Him, to the point that he will be constantly fearful and trembling.” The Ramchal goes on to add that if a person is not capable of reaching this lofty spiritual level, he should at least attempt to absorb the most important quality he discusses – the absolute fear of Hashem.

The End of Begin’s Term

I wasn’t devastated when I heard the names of the Likud party members who will not be returning to the Knesset after the election – although I regret the departure of Ayoob Kara – and I was also not particularly excited by the identities of the newcomers who are expected to join Israel’s parliament. There has been much talk about two particular MKs who are departing: Oren Hazan and Mrs. Zoabi. At the same time, almost nothing has been said about Benny Begin.

Begin is a very interesting man. On a personal level, I am very fond of him. As a politician and public servant, on the other hand, I find him less pleasant. One of his most prominent traits is his headstrong nature; when he is opposed to something or in favor of something, there is no point in making any attempt to convince him to change his mind.

I enjoyed my conversations with Begin, especially when we spoke about his father. I told him that I used to spot Menachem Begin arriving in Beer Yaakov from time to time; I will not go into the reasons for his visits. We spoke about politics, about the Golan Heights and Yehuda and Shomron, and about Yerushalayim.

Once, in the course of a phone conversation, our discussion turned to the time when Menachem Begin had joined the Mapai government as a minister without portfolio. Benny Begin then spoke about the Six Day War. “My father spoke with Yigal Yadin, who was Eshkol’s advisor, and then he spoke with Yigal Alon on the first day of the war,” Begin said. “Menachem Begin [he referred to his father by name] and Alon went to Eshkol, and Yigal said to him, ‘Begin and I want Yerushalayim.’ Eshkol replied, ‘Go ahead.’ And that was how it all began.”

Begin explained to me that Yigal Alon had been the commander of the Palmach while Begin had commanded Etzel – the two organizations that failed to liberate the Old City of Yerushalayim in 1948. Therefore, it was only natural that the two of them would be interested in leading the effort to reconquer it.

At that point in our conversation, Begin realized that I was typing as he spoke. “Are you writing this down?” he exclaimed. “But I’m not being interviewed!”

I once mentioned to him that his father had used the term “Nazi laws” to describe the emergency laws that were passed when the state was founded. Begin was appalled. “I would never say such a thing,” he insisted. “With all due respect to my father, there were times when he said things that I would never say.”

As Begin prepares for his departure from the Knesset, he has been praised for the fact that he never used office supplies from the Knesset storeroom. Personally, I didn’t find this particularly impressive. If he never used any office equipment, how could he have responded to citizens who contacted him? And what about his staff?

Boruch Hashem, I don’t have any aides,” Begin told me when I posed that question to him.

“What about envelopes?” I asked. “Didn’t you ever have to write a letter to a citizen?”

“Everything works through e-mail today,” Begin replied. “I remember that I once asked for some printer paper, and I received some pens and a package of tape in addition. I didn’t need those supplies. Since I became the director of the Geological Survey, my desk has been clear of papers. Who writes letters today? Everything goes through e-mail! My entire office is in my pocket.”

Begin hastened to add that he does not like to talk about himself. And for that reason, on a personal level, he will be missed in the Knesset.

Matan from “Minus One”

This week, I took the elevator from “minus one” – the floor below the ground floor of the Knesset building, where the Knesset printing department operates and where the staff members of the Central Electoral Council spend their time between elections – to the first floor, where the entrance to the old Knesset building is located. I was accompanied in the elevator by a young man who had also come from the printing department. It was evident to me that he was one of the “special” employees whom the Knesset, under Dalia Itzik, had decided to adopt and add to its work force. The young man greeted me in a whisper, and I returned his greeting. “Where do you work?” I asked.

“In the Legislation and Justice Committee,” he replied. I didn’t bother to ask about the particulars of his job; I assumed that he served as a gofer. “Shimon Malka is also there,” I remarked.

“Yes, Shimon Malka is also there,” he replied, uttering the words in a peculiar tone.

The elevator was still moving, and I had nothing else to say. What more could I add to the conversation? But while I was fumbling for words, the young man himself took the initiative of asking, “What is your name?”

“My name is Tzvi,” I replied. “Some people call me Tzvika.”

“Nice to meet you. My name is Matan,” he said. “What is your mother’s name?”

I stared at him in surprise. What could possibly have impelled him to ask that question? “My mother’s name was Gita,” I said. “Why do you ask?”

“So that I can daven for you to be successful,” he replied, with an air of absolute serenity.

At that moment, I was filled with envy for this young man, who was so ordinary and yet so special, and who had shown me, in that brief glimmer of an instant, what it meant for a person’s life to be all about giving – and that “Matan” was a perfect name for him.