My Take on the News

Netanyahu Clashes with Mandelblit

Bibi Netanyahu. His troubles never seem to end.

True, a ceasefire was achieved in the south – for which he came under plenty of blistering yet unjustified criticism from the generals of the Blue and White party – but the result left a sour taste in everyone’s mouth. One of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s critics claimed that the destruction of the homes of leading terrorists in Gaza was a meaningless act, since the terrorists were notified in time to evacuate their homes. Another detractor argued that the weapons that Israel uses to demolish the terrorists’ homes are more costly than the destroyed houses themselves. But even if we put aside the issue of the south, even if we accept that Netanyahu was correct in exercising restraint over and over in the face of Arab terror – especially considering the international song competition that is being held in Israel, since none of the foreign competitors would have dared set foot in Tel Aviv if the missile fire had continued – nevertheless, he did not emerge from the situation looking like a hero.

But Netanyahu’s troubles begin on a personal level. He is approaching his upcoming hearing, a privilege granted to a public figure before a decision is made to indict him. That is, since the attorney general has officially announced that he intends to press charges against Netanyahu, it is now the prime minister’s turn to try to convince him to refrain from doing so, in the course of a hearing. But in order to prepare for the hearing, Netanyahu’s legal team must review all of the material that is in the possession of the police and that was handed over to the prosecution – and that takes time. Just as it took time for Attorney General Mandelblit to review the material in preparation for his decision, it will also take time for Netanyahu to do the same.

Nevertheless, if Netanyahu hoped that the process of studying the material could be dragged out for a long time, during which he would be able to continue serving as prime minister and perhaps even have a law passed that would prohibit indicting him (which is precisely what is under discussion right now in the coalition negotiations), he was undoubtedly disappointed. Avichai Mandelblit recently announced that he will not tolerate any delays and that the hearing must take place in the near future.

Netanyahu then informed the attorney general that he is having trouble with his legal team and there is no one who can study the material for him at the moment. In fact, the attorney general’s office actually sent the material – which consists of numerous boxes filled with papers – to Netanyahu’s legal team, who responded that they were not interested in receiving it until they were told for certain that Netanyahu plans to retain them. They added that they are in the middle of a dispute with their client over their fees. To Mandelblit – and to others as well – it seems like nothing but a ploy to stall for time. This week, Mandelblit said that he is still considering his response. It will be interesting to see what he does. In the most extreme case, he might even decide to skip the hearing and file an indictment immediately. If that happens, it will lead to an uproar that is impossible to imagine. Netanyahu will claim that he is being persecuted, and the country will be gripped by controversy.

Netanyahu to Ask Rivlin for an Extension

Meanwhile, Netanyahu has also had a fairly difficult time assembling his coalition. After almost a month of negotiations between the Likud and its potential partners in the next government, it turns out that there hasn’t much progress at all, to the point that Netanyahu seems to have no choice but to ask President Rivlin for a 14-day extension.

Let me explain. After an election, the president is supposed to assign the task of forming a government to the candidate who is recommended by the largest number of elected representatives (in our case, Netanyahu) or the leader of the largest party (in our case, that is not exactly Netanyahu). That person then has 21 days to report to the president that he has succeeded – or that he hasn’t. If he fails to assemble a coalition, the law gives him the right to request an additional extension. And that is precisely what is about to happen. Netanyahu, for his part, insists that nothing of note has happened, and that he certainly hasn’t failed; he is simply a victim of the circumstances. He has reminded his detractors that the process of creating a coalition was hampered by the Yom Tov of Pesach and by various government events, with the result that he didn’t actually have a full 21 days to achieve his objective. In that respect, he is right.

Netanyahu himself isn’t actually managing the talks with the various parties. That task has fallen upon Minister Yariv Levin, the minister in the government who is closest to him. Levin, who is an extremely polite and pleasant individual, sat for many hours and listened to all the parties’ demands, but he didn’t quite succeed in accommodating everyone. That, in fact, would have been an impossible task. When three different parties demand the same ministry, such as the Housing Ministry, it is absolutely impossible to please them all. When Betzalel Smotrich has set his sights on the Ministry of Justice, but Netanyahu planned to give it to Yariv Levin, that creates a problem. When Rafi Peretz demands the education portfolio, but Netanyahu pledged during the election campaign to keep it in the hands of the Likud, that also creates a problem. That, more or less, is what is happening here.

That is to say nothing of much more fundamental matters of principle, such as the issue of the draft law. United Torah Judaism – mainly Agudas Yisroel – has been demanding that changes be made to the bill, while Avigdor Lieberman insists that he will not join the government if even a single word in the law is changed. And that, too, creates a problem.

On the Right Side of History

Netanyahu may be in trouble, but he still has his good friend in America – President Donald Trump. Jason Greenblatt, the American president’s envoy to the Middle East, recently spoke out against the UN for its obsessive opposition to Israeli settlements and its general anti-Israel leanings. Greenblatt asserted that the settlements are not an obstacle to peace – the exact opposite of what has been said repeatedly by American political leaders throughout the years.

Trump himself mentioned at the beginning of the week that we are now marking the first anniversary of the transfer of the American embassy to Yerushalayim. He declared that relations between Israel and America have never been better. Of course, his recognition of the Golan as Israeli territory was certainly a major step toward the improvement of those relations.

David Friedman, the Israeli ambassador to Tel Aviv – er, that is, Yerushalayim – published an article at the beginning of the week that discusses the anniversary of the embassy’s relocation. Parenthetically, Friedman himself recently took up residence in Yerushalayim. Here is a quote from his article: “On May 14, 2018, the United States finally inaugurated its embassy in Yerushalayim, the eternal capital of Israel. By making this courageous decision, President Trump not only carried out the instructions issued by the American Congress 23 years ago, but also recognized the truth – a 3000-year-old truth that the enemies of Israel have long been trying to erase.” After many nice words, he concludes, “Despite all the dire predictions, the transfer of the embassy has been a remarkable success that has helped promote coexistence, bilateral cooperation, and cultural interactions between Israelis, Americans, and Palestinians. But above all, the American embassy in Yerushalayim represents truth, which is the foundation of any successful diplomacy. The transfer of the American embassy has placed the United States firmly on the right side of history.”

An Unusual Visitor

The Knesset building can always be relied upon to generate surprises. You never know whom you are going to meet in the corridor at any time. People of all sorts of nationalities and races, and from all over the world, somehow find their way to the Knesset. On Sunday, someone asked me if he could use my office to meet with a visitor from America. “Why not?” was my polite response.

The visitor was a courteous elderly American man, who thanked me graciously for my hospitality and sat down to wait for the two Knesset members who were scheduled to meet with him. I continued going about my business, but then the man’s companion said to me, “Do you know who this is?” I admitted that I didn’t, and he said, “He was the American ambassador to Romania under President George W. Bush, around the year 2005.” He identified the man as Nicholas Taubman, and I soon discovered that he has a formidable past not only as a diplomat, but also as a businessman. From 1969 through 2005, Taubman worked for Advance Auto Parts, the company founded by his father, where he also served as the president and CEO from 1973 through 2005. He is also the president of Mozart Investments in Roanoke, Virginia, and the director of the Shenandoah insurance company, along with a host of other titles. Today, he is a member of the executive board of Advance Auto Parts, a company with an annual cash flow of billions of dollars.

I overheard a portion of their conversation (not by choice), and listened to the visitor speaking about Bush, Obama, and Trump. He spoke about the friendship between Israel and America, and about anti-Semitism. He also mentioned that there are 150,000 Romanians working here in Israel who are very pleased with their working conditions, and he revealed that his mother is active in the Hadassah women’s organization. It was clear to me that he was Jewish. At the end of their meeting, he approached me to bid me farewell, and I asked if he was indeed Jewish. “That is what they say,” he replied, then added in Hebrew, “Mazel tov.” Perhaps that is the only Hebrew phrase he knows….

As a parting gift, I gave him a memento that the Shas party distributed during the election campaign – a copy of Sefer Tehillim on microfilm. He beamed with joy and thanked me profusely.

The New Zeman Has Begun

Despite all the news on the political front, there is no question that the story of the greatest importance – at least as far as our community is concerned – is the beginning of the summer zeman. At the Zupnik shul in Givat Shaul, we have long grown accustomed to watching a procession of American bochurim from the nearby yeshiva of Ner Moshe ascend to the bimah and bentch Gomel, one after another, at the beginning of every zeman. Sometimes they buy a single aliyah, and then a large number of boys take turns reciting the brocha. That is how we know that the zeman has begun.

In light of the tensions in the south, there were some yeshivos whose talmidim visited various gedolim to ask if they should begin the zeman in their yeshivos. This was the case in Yeshivas Shaarei Shemuos, which is located in the community of Beis Chilkiya and is headed by Rav Aryeh Shapiro, and in Yeshivas Schar Sachir in Netivot, as well as several other yeshivos in the south. On Sunday morning, I noticed several young men from my neighborhood carrying suitcases as they set out to travel to the yeshiva of Tifrach, which is located in the south. I inquired if they had asked a shailah, and I discovered that in the yeshiva of Tifrach, which is headed by Rav Aviezer Piltz, such questions are not asked. The talmidim were happy to be returning to their yeshiva – and no, they were not afraid.

By the evening, I had completely forgotten about the hostilities in the south – not because of the ceasefire, which hadn’t yet taken place, but because I was in the bais medrash of Yeshivas Bais Mattisyahu, where everyone’s attention was focused on a completely different issue: the exact parameters of the proprietary acquisition effected by an act of kiddushin. The rosh yeshiva spoke about the similarities between the act of kiddushin and the acquisition of a slave, who becomes partially obligated in the observance of the mitzvos. His shiur dealt with the question of whether the halachic dimension of the kinyan somehow restricts the ability of a slave owner to free his slave, or of a husband to divorce his wife. I found it incredible that the illustrious rosh yeshiva always manages to come up with some new perspective on an issue in lomdus that delights his hundreds of talmidim. I also found it amazing to observe the passionate love for the Torah that blazed within the talmdim of the yeshiva, to the point that they all bounded up the stairs to the bais medrash in their eagerness to return to their studies.

That night, I found myself in Yeshivas Knesses Meir, a yeshiva ketanah in the city of Rishon Letzion. The trip to the yeshiva took me past rows of villas bedecked with Israeli flags, and I was surprised at its incongruous location. When I arrived at the yeshiva, though, I realized that it was situated in the optimal location for a talmid who wishes to immerse himself in learning in an atmosphere of complete tranquility, surrounded by blossoming trees and far from the hustle and bustle of the city. I was told that the faculty members are known for their prodigious dedication to their talmidim. The yeshiva is certainly a credit to Rav Moshe Chodosh zt”l, who founded a number of yeshivos that excel in showering every talmid with unconditional love and investing enormous effort in every bochur.

Much has been written about these bastions of Torah, which provide invaluable protection for our generation, but that sense always becomes remarkably palpable to me at the beginning of every zeman. And this time, I felt it more than ever. Rav Chaim said it to the rosh yeshiva of Shaarei Shemuos, and Rav Gershon Edelstein made the same statement in a shmuess. At the beginning of the zeman, the nosi of the Moetzet Chachamei Hatorah called for greater dedication to Torah, tefillah, and ahavas Yisroel. The entire country was gripped by fear as thousands of people repeatedly took shelter from the incoming missiles, but the bnei yeshivos took hold of their Gemaros and marched proudly into the botei medrash, serving as the true vanguard of Klal Yisroel.

Chillul Shabbos in Tel Aviv, Chillul Kevorim in Paris

There are a few other issues of note this week. First of all, there are the preparations for the hillula of Rav Shimon Bar Yochai on Lag Ba’omer, an annual event that takes place on a larger scale than any other event in the State of Israel, at a site that simply isn’t large enough to contain everyone who visits it for the occasion. It should come as no surprise, then, that the hillula is invariably preceded by feverish preparations. The most important element of the success of the hillula is ensuring that the transportation system runs smoothly. Naturally, that is the focus of a significant amount of attention. When the transportation system collapses on Lag Ba’omer, everything else collapses as well. Let us daven that there will be no mishaps or misfortunes this year.

This week also features the major entertainment event that I have already mentioned and which I wrote about last week. The event will be held on Shabbos, and it will generate a significant amount of chillul Shabbos in Tel Aviv. The chareidi representatives are responding to this in the only way they can – by protesting and decrying the desecration of the Shabbos. Netanyahu, however, has paid little heed to their protests. Then again, what can he do? Would he ever give up the opportunity to host this international event? There isn’t even the slightest chance of that happening. And, incidentally, the date of the competition was determined by the organizers from abroad, not by Israel.

Another major issue at this time is the desecration of the Jewish cemetery in Paris. A group of French rabbonim came to Israel this week and met with various gedolei Yisroel, who instructed them to do everything in their power to address the situation. At this time, from Monday through Wednesday, the Conference of European Rabbis is meeting in Belgium, and the cemetery in Paris will be one of the major topics of discussion.

Anti-Chareidi Incitement

Then there is another issue – the incitement against the chareidi public. As soon as the coalition negotiations began, the incitement kicked in as well. Prominent writers who are highly influential in the chiloni community wrote openly that they are afraid, and that they believe the only recourse left today for a “sane” (read: leftist) secular Jew is to move to a different country, preferably one in Europe. Other newspapers, including economic journals, wrote at length about the chareidim’s monetary “demands.” For some reason, this triggered an avalanche of articles about chareidi “boorishness,” amidst the claims that we are raising a generation of “leeches.” And yes, those were their exact words.

Yair Lapid issued an inflammatory statement of his own, in which he claimed that the stipend paid by the government to an elderly citizen is one eighth of what a chareidi yungerman receives. The reason, he explained, is that this is all that the government, which “belongs to the chareidim,” is willing to give a senior citizen. Of course, Lapid’s claims were completely fabricated. He wrote that a yungerman receives monthly funding of about 8,000 NIS, which is completely untrue. This time, even the chilonim, led by Globes, spotted the hyperbole and demanded an explanation. Lapid’s spokeswoman promised to clarify the matter, and after 40 minutes, she sent the following message: “For the average chareidi family, which has six children and in which the wife does not work, the government funds a package of benefits with a value of 6,500 shekels. This package of benefits and discounts includes the government child allowance, funding for dormitories for children, major discounts on preschool tuition, National Insurance Institute payments, health insurance, property taxes, scholarship grants, and welfare payments.”

Globes responded derisively to this claim: “From this response, one can see that according to Lapid, the average yeshiva student, who isn’t yet twenty years old, is married with six children, some of whom attend preschool while the others already live in dormitories. This is an improbable profile for a 19-year-old youth, even a chareidi. It is clear that Lapid has confused a yeshiva student, who is an unmarried young man who lives in a dormitory and studies in a yeshiva, with a yungerman, a married man who learns in a kollel and generally lives with his family in a private apartment. Yungeleit indeed receive government stipends, which stand at 765 NIS per month today, along with private donations. Gilad Malach has assessed the total monthly income of a yungerman at about 2000 NIS.” The newspaper concludes, “So let us put aside the 19-year-old boy and assume that Lapid was speaking about a yungerman. On what did he base his calculation that this person receives 6,500 shekels? A Google search reveals that the response attributed to Lapid was taken, word for word, from a detailed study published by Shachar Ilan in Haaretz, in which he attempted to assess the range of benefits provided to a yungerman who fits the aforementioned profile. The problem is that this article was not published during the term of the previous government, nor was it published during either of the two previous Netanyahu governments. Rather, it appeared in 2003, 16 years ago.”

Of course, Lapid emerged from this looking extremely foolish – and not for the first time – but still, his incitement has a way of trickling into the public consciousness.

Right-Wing Outreach

For some reason, I recently wandered into the Knesset library to examine the right-wing newspaper Basheva, and I found myself exposed to a new world. I discovered that the dati leumi community in Eretz Yisroel has experienced a plethora of official events, many of which were announced by the Yerushalayim municipality. There was a tour of Har Hazeisim on Yom Hazikaron, which included a tish at Yad Avshalom; and a morning of Torah learning on Yom Haatzmaut on Har Bracha, in honor of Minister Uri Ariel; and a festive davening at the Kosel on the night of Yom Haatzmaut. There was also a seemingly endless array of events billed as celebrations of Israel independence – in Kiryat Moshe, in the Shomron, at the school in Sdeh Kfar Atzmon, in Gush Etzion with Chanan Ben Ari, and in the school at Sdeh Shaar Hagai. There was even a trip abroad “in the footsteps of Rav Kook,” which took the participants to destinations such as Minsk, Volozhin, Vilna, Kovno, Ponovezh, Ziemel, Boisk, and Dvinsk.

I also discovered that the community is heavily involved in kiruv. From an article about Israelis living in Berlin, I learned about organizations such as Torah Mizion, Morasha Germany, and Shem Olam. Two full pages were devoted to a report on “a Shabbos of Toras Eretz Yisroel, both in Israel and abroad,” a project that involves both the Mizrachi movement and the Ministry of Education. Last Shabbos, on the week of Parshas Emor (in Israel), many rabbonim were dispatched to a large number of shuls to learn with the mispallelim. It was the sixth Shabbos on which this project took place. Rav Dovid Lau, for instance, spent Shabbos in the neighborhood of Gilo in Yerushalayim, Rav Amichai Eliyahu was in Dimona, and Rav Shlomo Badash was in Migdalim. The list of participants was quite lengthy and included several rebbetzins, as well as Natan Sharansky.

Their activities seemed to span the glove. “In celebration of Yom Haatzmaut and the anniversary of the liberation of Yerushalayim, the Mizrachi party has sent a large array of lecturers from the ranks of Religious Zionism in Israel to 360 Jewish communities throughout the world,” the newspaper proclaimed. This was followed by a long list of rabbonim, rebbetzins, “rabbi doctors,” rebbetzins who also work as journalists, Yehuda Glick and David Stav, and two others, Chaim Eisenstein and Chanoch Teller. The group visited a total of three hundred thirty communities!

This newspaper certainly favors Betzalel Smotrich over Rafi Peretz. One writer reported, “Concern over Betzalel Smotrich’s power has led various people within the party to try to torpedo his appointment to the Ministry of Justice and even to the Ministry of Education, so that the talented young MK will not overshadow the chairman of the party, Rabbi Rafi Peretz.” Another writer added, “The question is whether Rafi Peretz will stick to his position, or he will give in to the forces within Bayit Yehudi that are attempting to drive a wedge between him and Betzalel Smotrich.”

Keeping Occupied in the Knesset

The Twenty-First Knesset has officially begun its work, but at the moment, there is nothing for it to do. Even if new laws are placed on the Knesset table – and it is reasonable to assume that, as usual, thousands of proposed laws will indeed be submitted that were not passed during previous terms of the Knesset, including laws that were proposed by legislators who are no longer active in politics – a period of 45 days must elapse before they can be brought for discussion. There isn’t even a Ministerial Committee for Legislation to make any decisions at this time, since the successor to the former Minister of Justice has yet to be named.

This week, I tried to file several urgent parliamentary queries with the Knesset secretariat, only to be told that it wasn’t possible to do so. “There are no government ministers now,” they said.

“That isn’t true,” I objected. “All of the ministers are still working in their former positions for the time being.”

They claimed that they would look into the matter and get back to me. Before long, they replied that I was wrong; parliamentary queries would be suspended until the government was assembled.

Moshe Arbel, a new member of the Knesset, decided not to give in on this matter and wrote to the secretariat directly: “Regarding your response that parliamentary queries cannot be submitted at this time, I would like to request that this letter be forwarded to the Speaker of the Knesset for his response. The queries are a tool of unparalleled importance for the Knesset to provide oversight for government. Even though the current government is a transitional government, to the best of my knowledge, this government operates within the bounds assigned to it. I would like to know which clause in the Knesset regulations was the basis of your decision.”

The Knesset Finance Committee, at least, is not resting on its laurels at this time. The committee director has already informed the members of the committee, on behalf of its “temporary chairman,” Moshe Gafni, that a meeting will be held on Monday. The agenda for that meeting includes compensatory payments and financial aid for residents and businesses in the south that are suffering from the recent hostilities and the resulting economic damage, a discussion of the prospect of hundreds of layoffs in the event that certain major factories in the south close, and a review of the government’s decision to privatize the Tadmor hotelier school.

Meanwhile, how is the Knesset filling its days? With the maiden addresses of each of the 49 new MKs, each of whom will address his colleagues and will then invite someone else to deliver a speech welcoming him to the Knesset. These speeches will fill the entire coming workweek of the Knesset, which consists of Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. (This Tuesday and Wednesday, as well as last Wednesday, the Knesset did not meet.) The Knesset also held two special discussions this week, one in honor of “Herzl Day” and the other to mark the anniversary of the Allied victory over the Nazis. And before long, the Knesset will begin its summer vacation.

Rav Abba Berman and the Korean on the Train

Last week was the fourteenth yahrtzeit of Rav Abba Berman zt”l, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Iyun Hatalmud. Many incredible stories have been told about his brilliance, his formidable power of iyun and his superhuman hasmadah. It is a shame that I never had the opportunity to meet him.

There is one story that I feel compelled to share with you: Rav Abba was once traveling on the subway in New York, when a Korean man, who did not speak English, suddenly began acting in a highly agitated fashion. The other passengers became frightened and moved away from him; for all they knew, he might have been about to produce a knife and begin indiscriminately attacking people. Rav Abba, however, approached the man and whispered something in his ear. He immediately calmed down, and after the train had passed another two stops, he disembarked in a state of complete serenity.

The talmidim who were accompanying Rav Abba begged him to explain what he had done, but he was reluctant to tell them. Finally, perhaps to prevent them from thinking that he had conducted some sort of mofeis, he agreed to reveal what had happened. “I thought that the man had simply lost his way and had become frightened, and that was why he was acting like a lunatic. I assumed that he felt that there was no one whom he could ask to direct him to the appropriate stop. So I whispered in his ear to ask him where he needed to go, and then I explained to him where to get off. That was all.”

“The rosh yeshiva speaks Korean?” his talmidim exclaimed in surprise.

Rav Abba confirmed that in addition to the many languages that he spoke fluently, he was somewhat conversant in Korean. He had picked up the language from the Korean laborers who had worked near the Mir Yeshiva in Shanghai. Their shouts had disturbed the talmidim’s concentration from time to time, but had also afforded him the opportunity to pick up a few basic sentences in their language.