My Take on the News

Understanding the Knesset

I have some familiarity with the workings of the Knesset, and I find it amusing when I come across mistakes in the Israeli press regarding some of the details of its activities. For instance, a prominent Israeli newspaper recently described the inauguration of the Twenty-First Knesset in the following terms: “The 120 members of the Knesset, who fought a pitched battle against each other until just recently, will soon step up to the podium in Yerushalayim in order to be sworn in.” This is a blatant error: The members of the Knesset are sworn in from their seats.

Every year, at the beginning of the Knesset’s summer session, the Israeli media reports that they expect it to be a “hot” season. This week, someone wrote that the Knesset cafeteria will no longer be selling shnitzel, as part of its efforts to promote healthier dietary habits. This is a news item that I have read quite a few times over the years…

Lieberman Creates Problems

The attorney general recently announced that he has scheduled a date for Prime Minister Netanyahu’s pre-indictment hearing, which is a privilege that the prime minister enjoys by virtue of his position as a public figure. Attorney General Mandelblit made a point of asserting that the judicial process will not be affected in the slightest by Netanyahu’s participation in the government, the Knesset, or any other political events.

Then there were the coalition negotiations. Serious discussions regarding the next coalition have begun, and one of the issues at hand is the distribution of ministerial portfolios. Sometimes, there are conflicting demands, as was the case this time: Kulanu, UTJ, and the Shas party have all demanded the education portfolio, and there seems to be a conflict between Shas and the United Right regarding the Ministry of Religious Affairs as well. The position of Minister of Housing is also in high demand, and I should note that it is a position that entails tremendous responsibility and requires occasional concessions to be made. Of course, the Minister of Housing must be someone who is prepared to work lesheim Shomayim.

Despite all these minor disagreements, the general sense is that the only person who will pose a true problem is Avigdor Lieberman. Moshe Kachlon will probably follow Netanyahu’s lead. In fact, it seems almost guaranteed that he will join his colleagues in the Likud party, as a result of the severe blow that he was dealt in the elections. That would certainly assuage Netanyahu’s concerns, since it would make the Likud the largest party in the Knesset, and it would put an end to Kachlon’s threats and efforts to pressure the prime minister. Thus, everyone except Lieberman has essentially sided with Netanyahu, without too much squabbling. Lieberman himself insists on receiving the defense portfolio, and it is unclear if Netanyahu will be able to accommodate his demand. The real problem, though, lies in his conflict with the chareidi community: Lieberman has repeatedly asserted that he will not give in to chareidi “extortion,” and the community’s concern is that he will adopt an unyielding stance on the issue of the draft. We can only hope that this will not come to pass. Miracles have already occurred on this subject in the past. In fact, it was Lieberman himself who extricated the chareidi sector from trouble in the past, and who presided over the crafting of a more reasonable law in the Ministry of Defense.

Hatred Lives On

Not only is anti-Semitism not on the decline, it is actually rising.

This was the clear conclusion of a report that was recently submitted to the State of Israel. America, too, is suffering from anti-Semitism. If the beast within John Earnest hadn’t been revealed, he would have continued his life as a popular, lively young student at the University of California, who was known as a gifted pianist and a congenial fellow. That is what would have happened if he hadn’t stormed into the Chabad shul of San Diego two weeks ago and sowed death in his path. Before his rampage, he wrote that he despises Trump, who “loves Jews,” and that he detests Jews and believes in a “pure” bloodline. He asserted that Jews are “not human,” and even after his crime, he had no regrets. He believes that all Jews deserve to be sent to Gehinnom.

We would have liked to believe that our world was free of the many “Eisovs” who detest Yaakov. We are tempted to believe that hatred is a thing of the past, a relic from a bygone generation. But now we have witnessed an act of coldblooded murder purely for the sake of causing death, a manifestation of pure, unadulterated hatred.

In our own day and age, a young gentile suffused with hate and fury murdered a Jewish woman simply because she was Jewish. The woman who was killed had come to shul to recite Yizkor for her mother, and the victims who were wounded included the members of an Israeli family who had left Sderot, the city that has been scarred by Arab terror, to resettle in tranquil San Diego. We thought that we were rid of that hatred, but we were wrong: Hatred of the Jewish people is still alive, and it still kills.

I recently read a new book titled Eidut Chayah (“A Living Testimony”), which is dedicated to the stories of Holocaust survivors who reside in a nursing home in Haifa. The survivors speak about their experiences, and the reader is drawn into their journey. This is the story of Sholom Stemberg of Warsaw: “The rioters burned down our house, leaving us homeless. In a matter of minutes, we were left with nothing. I spent the entire day wandering around and scavenging for food: a rotting apple or a tiny scrap of bread. I walked among the abandoned homes and gathered everything I could find. In garbage dumpsters and alleyways, I searched and also hid. Everywhere I went, I saw horrendous sights: Jews who had died, their bodies lying on the side of the road or on the cold ground… That was my accursed daily schedule.”

The Klausenberger Rebbe’s Testimony

The book describes the implacable hatred of the gentile nations for the Jews. It tells stories of Jews who entrusted their children to non-Jewish friends, neighbors and business partners, who proceeded to betray them and to deliver those children into the hands of the Germans.

The Klausenberger Rebbe once related the following:

“I spent an entire year at the camps, brutally oppressed by the wicked Nazis. It goes without saying that I did not receive any favorable treatment there. I suffered the same tribulations as all of my Jewish brethren. And I can bear witness to the following: Along with us, there were also gentiles of various nationalities imprisoned in the camps, from Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and other countries. The Germans placed them along with us, and even though those gentiles were beaten by the Nazis ym”sh, they themselves then beat us viciously. One of them stomped on my head, a second rained fierce blows on me, and a third shouted ‘Zhid!’ at me. The common denominator was that all of them, each in his own way and irrespective of whether he came from Germany, Holland, Czechoslovakia or Austria, joined in tormenting and afflicting us in a way that is impossible to describe or to fathom.”

It is true, though, that there were some righteous gentiles, and the book speaks about them, as well. Esther Lieber of Poland related, “My mother made a deal with a Christian woman from one of the nearby villages: She gave her the fur coat that my father had bought for her, and in exchange the Christian woman gave us black bread every week… The Poles didn’t allow us to enter their houses… We nearly despaired, but then we reached the home of an elderly woman who lived alone. My sister pleaded with her to allow us to sleep in a shed near her home. She agreed, provided that we would leave immediately at dawn. She warned us that the Germans would not hesitate to shoot us. The elderly woman gave each of us a piece of bread, which we devoured in a matter of seconds, and she treated my sister’s wounds. In the morning, she woke us up and urged us to leave. It was one of the times when we envied the people who had already been murdered…”

There are other stories about heroic non-Jews in the book, including one about a priest who risked his life to provide bread and medicine to Jews who were hiding, and another about a Christian woman who likewise endangered her life by supplying Jews with black bread and milk. Those people, however, were the exceptions.

Yad Vashem Zigzags

Here is another story related to the subject of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism. Just before the ninth of May last year, following Yoav Ben-Tzur’s race against time, the Knesset passed the Law of the Day of Liberation and Salvation. Every year, on the 26th of Iyar – the Hebrew anniversary of the date when the Allied forces defeated the Nazis – various ceremonies are held by Jews in a number of capital cities in Europe, with the main commemorations taking place in Yerushalayim and in Moscow. These ceremonies were the brainchild of Gavriel (German) Zakharyaev, a Caucasian Jew who harbors a deep, abiding sense of commitment to his Jewish heritage in general, and to the legacy of the Caucasian community in particular. Zakharyaev insisted that it was unacceptable for the Allied victory to be commemorated only on the secular date when it occurred. He managed to garner widespread support for his idea. So far, the occasion has been marked with events at the Kosel Hamaarovi, in various prominent shuls throughout the world, and even in the Knesset. One of the supporters of the idea is Rav Yisroel Meir Lau, who is himself widely associated with the triumph of Jewish faith over the Nazi beast. The events in Israel on this date are typically attended by the country’s chief rabbis.

Zakharyaev was also responsible for promoting the law passed by the Knesset, which designates the Hebrew date of the Allied victory as an official day of commemoration. It was Zakharyaev who first proposed the idea of passing such a law, and his dedicated right-hand man, Dovid Mordukhaev, worked hard to advance it. Yisroel Beiteinu was not pleased with the initiative, and various other forces attempted to prevent its passage, but Zakharyaev managed to overcome all of those hurdles. Many of his accomplishments in that respect could be credited to the legislative advisor who worked under Ben-Tzur, a man by the name of Moshe Arbel.

During a debate in the Knesset Education Committee, the participants were shocked when a representative of Yad Vashem expressed opposition to the law. “It can be called the Day of Liberation, but not the Day of Liberation and Salvation,” she asserted, “since there were six million Jews who were not saved. The name is very problematic for the survivors, and it is a very sensitive subject. They are opposed to this term.” If you find this difficult to believe, you are not alone; I was equally astonished at the time. Before the law was approved in the Knesset, I asked the organization for its official position on the subject. The response was the same. I proceeded to contact Rav Yisroel Meir Lau, who serves as the chairman of the organization’s advisory council, and he confirmed that he did not agree with their approach. I also noted to them that my mother was a Holocaust survivor, and that she always said that Hashem had saved her in a miraculous fashion.

Before the law was passed, Avner Shalev, the director of Yad Vashem, wrote to me: “The use of the term ‘salvation’ regarding the specific day when Nazi Germany was defeated seems to us to be an incorrect description of the significance of the day, and an affront to the memories of both the victims and the survivors.”

In my view, their aversion to the term “salvation” has a philosophical basis. The term has an excessively Jewish ring to it, as far as they are concerned. “Salvation” implies the involvement of Hashem. In the committee, the title of the law was emended to describe it only as the “Day of Liberation,” and the bill was approved unanimously. At the same time, Yoav Ben-Tzur added a reservation in which he called for the original name of the law to be restored, and the Knesset ultimately approved that measure.

Today, I heard a radio commercial in which Yad Vashem asked for survivors of the Holocaust to provide testimony regarding their experiences. In the ad, the organization used the Hebrew term “nitzolim” – meaning “those who were saved” – in reference to the survivors, promising that their staff would come to the survivors’ homes to collect their testimony, and that every interviewee would receive a complete copy of the recording of their interview. Apparently, Yad Vashem has backtracked from its earlier position, and has come to feel that the reference to “salvation” is no longer offensive to survivors of the Holocaust.

An Encounter in Shul

On a very different subject, every few years there is a period of time when the weekly parsha read in Israel is different from the parsha read in America. It generally happens in America, and this year it took place because the seventh day of Pesach fell on a Friday. Here in Israel, that Shabbos was no longer part of Pesach, and Parshas Acharei Mos was read. In other countries, however, Shabbos was the final day of the Yom Tov of Pesach, and the Torah reading for Yom Tov was read instead. Thus, you read Parshas Acharei Mos on the week when we read Parshas Kedoshim, and the disparity will continue for several weeks. Why don’t we close the gap earlier? Well, there are some questions that I do not know how to answer…

This gives me an opportunity to share another tidbit of information concerning the American community. As you know, my neighborhood of Givat Shaul is home to Yeshivas Ner Moshe, a yeshiva that caters to American bochurim. The talmidim of the yeshiva are outstanding young men, and our neighborhood enjoys their presence. I recently found myself sitting next to one of these fine young men in the Pressburg shul during a minyan for Shacharis, and I observed that he davened with remarkable intensity. His name, which was embroidered on his tefillin bag, was Mattisyahu Zev Weingarten. I was fascinated as I saw that he withdrew a small, laminated card from his tefillin bag, on which was printed the words “eid od milvado” both in Hebrew and in English letters, along with its English translation, “There is only Hashem.” On the other side of the card was a short excerpt from the Nefesh Hachaim, which states that if a person believes wholeheartedly that Hashem is the only G-d, then he will be spared from any unfavorable judgments.

The Spinka Rebbe Brings in a Vote

The chareidi community’s success in the recent elections is still being celebrated.

Someone recently told me about a young bochur whose father is a Spinka chossid and who had decided before the election that he would vote for Likud. He felt that this was a crucial step to take in order to save Eretz Yisroel and our society. His father was aware of his decision, but he found it impossible to influence the young man. Seeing no other alternative, the father called his rebbe. The Spinka Rebbe asked for the bochur’s phone number and made a personal phone call to the young man. That conversation was enough to change the bochur’s mind and he proceeded to vote for UTJ.

Rav Moshe Maya, a member of the Moetzes Chachmei Hatorah and a rosh kollel and neighborhood rov in Tel Aviv, davened for the chareidi parties’ success. His grandson informed me that he had spent hours reciting Tehillim at the Kosel. In the Shas party’s headquarters in Givat Shaul, word arrived about a family that was vacillating on Election Day, and the party operatives believed that a phone call from Rav Moshe Maya would convince them to vote for Shas. Rav Moshe himself had told them, “Don’t hesitate to solicit my involvement. If there is a reasonable chance that someone will vote for Shas instead of Likud because of a phone call from me, then let me know!”

The chareidi representatives on the Central Elections Committee worked faithfully for their parties’ success, and their efforts also created a measure of kiddush Hashem. Their legal expertise, despite the fact that they had never studied in university, dazzled everyone who encountered them. For a while, there were those who mocked them for working tirelessly to retrieve additional votes for the sake of recouping the party’s eighth mandate. However, in the end, their efforts paid off, and Yitzchok Pindrus became a member of the Knesset as a result.

Rav Ovadiah’s Tears

Let me conclude with a postscript to Pesach. As you are probably aware, the Moroccan community celebrates a holiday known as Mimouna at the conclusion of Pesach. This year, I participated in a Mimouna event, and I finally understood the Jewish source for the minhag, in which the door of the home is left open for people to come in, have something to eat, and exchange brachos with their hosts. I was invited to the seudah by the family of Rav Yosef Ben-Amram, a fellow resident of Givat Shaul. The Ben-Amrams are a prestigious family. Their sons learned in Yeshivas Mir Brachfeld and are outstanding kollel yungeleit today. Their mother, Mrs. Ben-Amram, hails from the illustrious Dayan family.

I arrived at their home at the same time as another guest, a distinguished-looking individual who was introduced to me by my host as his “brother.” I soon discovered that all Moroccans refer to each other as brothers, and in this case, the visitor was also a colleague who teaches at Ohr Shraga, the Talmud Torah where our mutual host is also employed. The other guest, Rabbi Chai Cohen, related to me that he had once attended a convention arranged by the Talmud Torah network on Rechov Ido Hanavi, where Rav Ovadiah Yosef addressed the educators. At one point, Rav Ovadiah suddenly burst into tears and said, “You are raising the next generation of the Sephardic Torah world. What a tremendous zechus you have! We are all sitting in the same room right now, but in Olam Haba, who knows where you will be and where I will be? I hope that I will be fortunate enough to be like you.” These words were uttered by the man who had created the spiritual revolution that had swept through the Sephardic community in Eretz Yisroel for forty years.

Soon enough, my host’s mechutan, Rav Gavriel Toledano, arrived. After treating me to an explanation of the history of his family, he also explained the meaning of the holiday of Mimouna: In order to take advantage of any new inspiration or spiritual growth, one must translate it into action. That is the reason that we reached the pinnacle of ruchniyus at Krias Yam Suf, rather than after any of the great miracles that preceded it, because at Krias Yam Suf, we were forced to take action by entering the sea with mesirus nefesh on the basis of our emunah. Similarly, the holiday of Mimouna is a time to take action in order to concretize the spiritual heights that we reached during Pesach. (Interestingly, a similar explanation appears in the Sefer Hachinuch for the mitzvah of taking the Arba Minim on Sukkos.)

At the front of the room sat a venerable-looking man who reminded me of the Moroccan sages of previous generations. This man was Rav Gavriel Dayan, my host’s father-in-law and the former director of the Ohr Binyomin network of institutions in France, as well as an outstanding talmid chochom. I found it difficult to follow his drasha, which dealt with the subject of whether chometz is muktzah on a Shabbos that begins immediately after the seventh day of Pesach. Another distinguished guest was Rav Avner Monsonego, grandson of the famed mekudal Rav Yedidya Monsonego and nephew of Rav Aharon Monsonego zt”l, who was the rov of Morocco. Rav Avner spoke about the question of why we do not recite a brocha before reciting the Haggadah, which is a mitzvah de’Oraisa. He answered that the Haggadah is not subject to a brocha because it is a mitzvah whose fulfillment depends on others (the same reason that there is no brocha for the mitzvah of tzedakah).

The festive seudah was attended by a large group of family members, close friends, and even uninvited guests or strangers. I noticed a group of yeshiva bochurim from Yeshivas Rashi, another group from Mir, and even a few bochurim from Bais Mattisyahu, all united by a shared spirit of camaraderie. The host, who joined his rebbetzin in serving every guest with great pleasure, offered me another remarkable insight into Mimouna: “In Morocco, it was customary not to eat or drink anything, even water, in anyone else’s home on Pesach. Therefore, now that the holiday has ended, we ‘rectify’ that by making the rounds of our acquaintances’ homes and eating at everyone’s table, as well as exchanging brachos with each other.”