My Take on the News

Netanyahu’s Unending Woes

Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu’s troubles have given him no rest.

This week, a certain reporter, who is known to enjoy attacking the prime minister, published a series of details that he gleaned from the investigations surrounding Netanyahu. He quoted the testimony of Mrs. Hadas Klein, the personal assistant to Arnon Milchan, who is suspected of having given gifts to the Israeli prime minister. The leak from the investigation was intended as a ploy to tarnish the Netanyahus’ public image.

I don’t like sharing gossip, but in order to illustrate what is happening here, I will quote a small portion of what was publicized. Mrs. Klein told the investigators that she had once received a phone call at 1:00 in the morning from Sara Netanyahu, who asked her to send Milchan’s driver with razors and shaving cream for the prime minister, who was very fond of their shaving cream. This was on the night before the funeral of Shimon Peres, and Mrs. Netanyahu – according to the leaked story, as it was quoted by the reporter – sounded pathetic. “Do you want the prime minister to show up unshaven at the funeral because of you?” she asked. In another case, according to the same leaked information, Mrs. Netanyahu called to confirm that Mr. Milchan was going to buy a heavy coat for her husband, since the Netanyahus were planning a trip to the north on the next day and it was quite cold there. She allegedly added, “I also don’t have a coat, and there is no reason for me to be cold, either.”

Of course, one can argue that these revelations aren’t all that terrible and that the gifts in question were of minimal value, but the purpose of these disclosures isn’t to create a criminal case against Netanyahu. It is simply to portray him as a hedonist with an insatiable appetite. Netanyahu himself responded indignantly, “This was an article that was filled with lies from beginning to end, and it is merely the next stage in the character assassination that is being carried out against us.” His son Yair also issued a sharp response, perhaps one that was a bit too blistering, calling the reporter in question “a little venom-filled Satan.”

To be honest, this type of report never achieves anything. Anyone who already despises Netanyahu (and his wife) will continue to do so, and anyone who is on his side will simply support the prime minister more as a result of the undignified actions of his detractors. My point in telling you this is to illustrate the depths to which some reporters in Israel are prepared to sink in order to besmirch the prime minister’s name, and to give you an inkling of what Netanyahu is up against. This is the type of adversity that he is facing even as he must invest thought and energy in dealing with the hostilities at the Syrian border (and we were told that Israel struck the vicinity of Damascus twice this week), as well as Israel’s enemies in Iran and, of course, in Gaza.

Struggling to Advance the Coalition

The coalition talks haven’t exactly been an easy ride for Netanyahu either. On Sunday, at the beginning of a cabinet session, Netanyahu addressed the press for a few minutes. This is fairly standard: The cabinet meets every week on Sunday, and at the beginning of every such meeting, Netanyahu makes a couple of statements to the reporters. This time, he spoke about the coalition negotiations. “There are a few parties who have climbed up very tall trees,” he said, referring to the impossible demands on which all of them are standing firm. “I hope that they will be quick to return to the solid ground of reality.”

Parenthetically, in the very same cabinet meeting, a law was approved that will increase the number of ministers in the government. At the moment, the law limits that number. Netanyahu, of course, understands that the pressure exerted on him by his coalition partners will force him to appoint additional ministers in the upcoming government. The law is slated to be approved by the Knesset this week. It will be interesting to see if it passes with ease.

It is difficult to identify which parties Netanyahu had in mind when he criticized them for their unreasonable demands. He may have been referring to the chareidi parties. At this time, it seems that the main conflict lies between the chareidim and Avigdor Lieberman, with the latter being completely unwilling to accept even an iota of compromise on the draft law that he formulated as the Minister of Defense – a law that was approved by the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of Degel HaTorah and the Moetzet Chachmei HaTorah of Shas, but that was opposed by the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of Agudas Yisroel. The main opposition to the bill at this time is still from Agudas Yisroel.

In addition, there have been some rancorous disputes over ministerial positions in the new government. There are several people who have set their sights on the same positions, which seems to have left the negotiations in a deadlock. However, these are problems that can be surmounted. When there is no alternative, everyone will make concessions. On matters of principle, though, there can be no compromise. It is simply that no one ever thought that Avigdor Lieberman would consider the draft law a matter of principle.

Lapid’s Mistake in Math

Right now, the situation is very difficult. We are quickly approaching the second deadline that was set by President Rivlin, who granted Netanyahu a 14-day extension to form his government, as of last Tuesday. Eventually, someone in the Likud suggested forming a coalition of exactly 60 seats, which would exclude Avigdor Lieberman. It is a suggestion that could work, since it takes a majority vote of 61 to dissolve a government, and the opposition will never have that. (Besides, even if Lieberman ends up in the opposition, it is hard to believe that he would vote to topple a right-wing government.) If there is a motion of no confidence in the government that results in an impasse, with 60 votes in favor of dissolving the government and 60 against, it will still remain in power. It is also reasonable to assume that if a government with only 60 supporters is formed, then Lieberman will indeed join it eventually.

This proposal led Yair Lapid to publicize a response that earned him no small measure of derision: He made a public call for Lieberman to hold out to join a government led by Blue and White, rather than Likud. “We have 55 seats,” Lapid wrote. “Come to us. We are waiting for you. Together, we will be 61.” In an interview with a Russian radio station, Lapid added, “If Lieberman joins the government, he will have to compromise on pensions, and the Russian community will not receive anything. If he waits a few months, he will receive 55 certain votes from us to raise pensions to the level that he promised. Together with him, we have 51 votes – a full majority.”

The problem, though, is that Lieberman has only five seats in the Knesset. Together with the 55 that Lapid promised him, that will yield a total of only 60 seats. Lapid made a simple mathematical error…

The Immunity Law

The negotiations are being managed on behalf of the Likud party by Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, who is poised to become the next Minister of Justice. Levin is a refined, cultured gentleman who is not a fool in any sense. Nevertheless, it seems that what is obstructing the process of forming a coalition is more than just the conflicting demands of the various parties. Rather, it is a topic that hardly anyone is speaking about: the Immunity Law.

Every Knesset member or government minister is legally entitled to immunity from prosecution. According to the law, in order for such a person to be indicted in court, approval would have to be granted by the Knesset Committee and then by the entire Knesset. Several years ago, this law was changed so that the immunity of a government minister or MK is automatically revoked if they are indicted. In essence, that means that the concept of parliamentary immunity has become meaningless.

What Netanyahu’s supporters – and Netanyahu himself – want at this time is to restore the previous state of affairs in which the Knesset Committee will have to vote to revoke the immunity of a minister or MK in order for them to face criminal charges. If that takes place, then even if a government official announces that he or she is willing to face an indictment, it will be impossible to press charges against them without the approval of the Knesset. Netanyahu is confident that the Knesset Committee would never agree to revoke his immunity. Perhaps it bears mentioning that there are three other members of the coalition who are also facing the specter of criminal prosecution: Aryeh Deri, who has already been informed that there are plans to indict him for alleged tax evasion, and who is now facing a hearing that hasn’t yet been scheduled; Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, who is being investigated on the suspicion that he provided assistance to certain people in exchange for favors, although he vehemently denies the charges; and MK David Bittan, a close associate of the prime minister, who has been under investigation for months and has already been told to expect an indictment.

Yariv Levin claims that the Immunity Law will not be discussed in the coalition talks, although some of the parties have already announced that they would support the law. Betzalel Smotrich’s party has taken a particularly vehement stance: They insist that the Immunity Law must be one of the fundamental components of the government, and that all the parties in the government must pledge to support it. At the same time, the law has its opponents. Gideon Saar, Netanyahu’s rival within the Likud party, has announced that it is a bad law that will not benefit Netanyahu in any way. The opposition insists that they will fight the law with all their strength (although they will never have a majority, so there is little that they can do about it).

As you can see, Netanyahu’s troubles are only beginning.

A Light Unto the Nations – and Darkness for the Jews

While the chareidi parties are involved in coalition talks with Netanyahu’s representatives, recent events have left a bitter taste in their mouths. Last Motzoei Shabbos, an international music competition took place in Tel Aviv, and many Jews worked throughout the Shabbos day to prepare for it. This wasn’t chillul Shabbos on the part of only one or two people – which would be a heinous offense anyway – but rather involved thousands of workers. The chareidi community protested and pleaded for the chillul Shabbos to be avoided, but nothing came of their pleas. In a letter to the heads of the chareidi parties, Netanyahu explained that the event was arranged by its organizers in Europe and they had chosen the date.

Here is an excerpt from his letter: “The Eurovision contest is a unique international event that is scheduled in advance based on international standards that are not under the control of the government, and is managed exclusively by the Public Broadcasting Corporation and not by the government. The government of Israel is not interested in desecrating the Shabbos, and the vast majority of the participants in the event are not Jewish. The government of Israel respects the Shabbos day as the national day of rest and will continue to preserve the status quo that has been in place for many years.”

With all due respect to Netanyahu, his letter did not exactly warm the hearts of the chareidi public. The feelings engendered by the event were painfully negative. In his day, David Ben Gurion expressed the hope that Israel would be a “light unto the nations.” In reality, it has instead created darkness for the Jewish people….

In order for Jews to be employed on Shabbos, the government must issue a permit. For that purpose, there is a special committee consisting of three government ministers: the prime minister, Welfare Minister Chaim Katz, and the Minister of Religious Services, Yitzchok Vaknin. Two weeks ago, this committee authorized the employment of thousands of Jews during the preparations for Eurovision. Vaknin voted against it, but he was outnumbered.

In response, Rav Chaim Kanievsky and Rav Gershon Edelstein published a long letter calling upon the public to protest the chillul Shabbos with tefillos. Hundreds of thousands of Jews gathered in various locations throughout the country to daven and recite Tehillim. Huge numbers of people came together to cry out in pain over the desecration of Shabbos.

Rav Chaim’s Letter

Due to the importance of the letter, I will quote the words of the gedolei Yisroel: “Behold, wicked people have arisen to desecrate our sacred and glorious Shabbos in a brazenly public manner, Hashem yishmor. They are compelling many Shabbos observant people to work on the Shabbos day, and we do not have the power to oppose them or to thwart their intentions. This is a danger to the entire community here in the Holy Land, as the Gemara derives in Shabbos 119b from the pesukim in Yirmiyahu 17, but what can we do? Our strength lies in our mouths and in the craft of our forefathers, and it is incumbent on us to shout and to protest, and to beseech Hashem to protect us from the desecration of the honor of Shabbos, so that the cries of Shabbos shall not, chas veshalom, harm those who observe the Shabbos, who comprise the majority of the inhabitants of this country, and so that evil shall not descend upon the entire society, chas veshalom. We must declare openly that we are not participating in this crime, that we oppose it wholeheartedly, that we treasure Shabbos, and that we yearn for the gift of Shabbos.

“For that purpose, let us all gather together throughout the Eretz Hakodesh on Thursday night of Parshas Behar, at midnight, at the time when [Hashem’s] mercy is strongest, in our shuls and botei medrash, to daven and recite Selichos and plead for mercy. The gabbaim of the shuls shall open the gates of the shuls, and the masses of holy Jews shall gather to recite the order of tefillos.”

Rav Chaim went on to present the order of tefillos for those gatherings: perakim 13, 20, 123, 130, and 142 of Tehillim, followed by the passages of “Ezkerah Elokim V’ehemayah” and “Keil Melech” from Selichos, then the sounding of the shofar (three repetitions of tekiah, shevarim, teruah, and tekiah), the thirteen middos of rachamim, kabbolas ol Malchus Shomayim, Shema Yisroel, three recitations of “boruch shem malchuso l’olam va’ed,” seven repetitions of “Hashem Hu Ha’Elokim,” and, finally, the kappitel of “Mizmor shir leyom haShabbos.”

“In the zechus of our tefillos, which will be accepted in the gates of Shomayim,” Rav Chaim’s letter concludes, “may we be zoche to the brocha of Shabbos, for it is the source of all blessing for life and all good things. May Hashem pour out a spirit of purity from Heaven to cause the sons to return to their fathers. We will do our part, and Hashem, in His goodness, will look down from His sacred dwelling and bless His nation Yisroel and the land that He has given to us. ‘When I observe Shabbos, Hashem will protect me.’”

Rav Gershon Edelstein appended his signature to the letter, adding that “it is appropriate for every person to strengthen his observance of the holy Shabbos, and that will certainly influence the entire community to observe the holy Shabbos properly. I know that the Chazon Ish said that when bnei Torah strengthen their own observance of Shabbos, it influences the entire tzibbur to observe Shabbos properly.”

I attended the davening in Romema at the shul led by Rav Yisroel Gans (may he have a refuah sheleimah; he suffered a stroke on Friday night). The scene was more powerful than words can describe. It was a massive gathering of Jewish men who had come to cry out for the honor of Shabbos.

At the Kosel

When a person feels distraught or despondent, there is one logical place for him to go – the Kosel Hamaarovi.

On the night of Yom Hazikaron, there were not enough people in the Knesset shul to form a minyan for Maariv. There was also a general atmosphere of melancholy, and there was a palpable sense of sadness in the street. Somehow, I found myself drawn to the Kosel.

At the entrance to the Kosel plaza, I was approached by a young man who asked me for a knife. “A knife?” I repeated in surprise.

“Yes,” he said. “I have to perform kriah.”

It is never dull at the Kosel. A person may be reciting Tehillim, but he will have to pause from time to time to respond to Borchu or a Kaddish. Perhaps it would be interesting to ask Rav Chaim Kanievsky if it is appropriate to interrupt a perek of Tehillim in order to respond to every “amein.

As I approached the Kosel, I saw a group of people surrounding a distinguished man. I peered through the crowd and was able to distinguish the features of Rav Yekusiel Abuchatzeira. I observed that his Sefiras Ha’omer took more time than my Shemoneh Esrei….

At some point, a large group of men on motorcycles drove into the plaza. They doffed their helmets and approached the Kosel. Their jackets bore the words “Rochvei Tzion.” They revealed to me that they even have a rov, a man by the name of Rav Meir Cohen, who was accompanying them.

Somehow, dozens of birds had congregated at the Kosel on that evening. I overheard an elderly man telling his grandson, “Those are the gilgulim of neshamos that are waiting for their tikkun.”

I gazed at the people passing back and forth before me. Every one of them surely had his own unique story, his own desires and his own prayers. Many people caressed the stones of the Kosel, kissing them and whispering into them. I have always been taught that it isn’t necessarily permissible to touch the stones, but who am I to say anything? I noticed a police officer leaning against the Kosel, seemingly unable to tear himself away from it. Who could know what sort of emotional turmoil he was experiencing?

When he took a few steps back, I asked him, “Did something happen?”

“No,” he said. “Why do you ask?”

“Because you seemed to be on the verge of tears.”

“It was just a feeling of excitement,” he replied. “I just arrived from Teveria. How could I not visit the Kosel?”

“From Teveria?” I repeated.

“Yes,” he said. “We are here as reinforcements for the Yerushalayim police force.”

Incitement in Financial News

It seems to me that hatred and brutality have found a home specifically in the economic papers. These publications, which don’t feature the type of dramatic news that makes much of an impression on readers, seem to be attempting to boost themselves on the backs of the chareidim. Strike a blow at the religious community, they apparently reason, and you will gain points in the public eye. Recently, for instance, a newspaper reported that the Phoenicia bottle factory, which hasn’t been very profitable, seems to be about to close down due to a boycott launched by the Gerrer chassidus. Chareidim do not buy the factory’s products because it is mechallel Shabbos. The factory owners claim that it is impossible to turn off their furnaces for Shabbos. Now that the factory is on the verge of closing, the chareidim are being blamed. But I have to wonder: Even if it is true that the company will close down due to a chareidi boycott, what is wrong with that? Am I obligated to buy products made by a company that desecrates the Shabbos and tramples on my faith? This article is nothing but pure incitement.

The Marker, one of Israel’s economic papers, recently outdid itself when it announced that “the chareidi political leadership keeps chareidim ignorant and in closed ghettos.” After it was heavily criticized, the newspaper apologized and conceded that its wording had been “too harsh.” Unfortunately, there are some statements that cannot be wiped away by a simple apology.

Whenever coalition talks are held, the economic papers always create charts and tables that illustrate the economic cost of the chareidi parties’ “demands.” This is a terrible injustice to the religious populace: Why should it be considered a costly “demand” for the government to avoid discrimination? Why is it that they denounce the chareidim’s demands for equality rather than the discriminatory practices that led to those insistences? And why are the needs of the chareidi citizens presented in a chart that illustrates the “burden” on the country? Why don’t they publish similar charts indicating the sums spent on the immigrant population or the disabled? Is it simply because those groups are citizens of the country, entitled to equal rights? Does that mean that the chareidim are not equal citizens of this country?

Then there was an innocuous-looking piece in The Marker titled “Chareidim Demand Yeshiva Funding Be Linked to Growth in Number of Talmidim,” which decried the community’s insistence on its natural growth being taken into account in the government’s budgeting. “In 2017,” the article related, “the number of talmidim in yeshivos and yungerleit in kollelim increased by 27 percent, to 124,000. The cost of this demand will be an additional 200 to 300 million shekels annually for their institutions.” Yet no one paid attention to the increase in the cost of disability stipends due to the natural growth of the disabled population. The number of students in the public school system also grows naturally every year, and their budgets increase accordingly without anyone uttering a word of protest. But when the money is spent on chareidi children, it becomes the subject of a news article, a chart that tracks the costs to the state…and vicious incitement against the chareidi community.

And that is not all. The article goes on to relate, “In addition, linking the budget to the number of students is a step that encourages yeshivos and kollelim to report the largest possible number of talmidim, which may lead to artificially enlarged reports of the numbers of students.” Do you understand what they are implying? The underlying assumption is that chareidim are naturally predisposed to criminal activity, and if they receive additional funding based on their enrollment, that will lead them to make false statements to the government in order to receive extra funds. That is nothing but hateful, brazen, flagrant incitement.

The Iron Hand of the Police

Two weeks ago, the state informed Mickey Ganor, who had signed an agreement to serve as a state witness in the submarine case, that their agreement had been voided. That is somewhat amusing, since it was Ganor himself who voided the agreement a month earlier, when he decided not to give the police the information that he had promised. As soon as he reneged on his commitment, the police decided to arrest him. This did not garner much protest, since this country is a police state. Even agencies such as the internal investigations department of the police force or the state prosecution have lost the trust of the public, and rightly so. The courts have also suffered many blows to their collective image over the past year, even before we learned about the judge in Rishon Letzion who was found to automatically approve every request from the police to extend a suspect’s detention, or former justice Oded Eligon who was recently caught making anti-Semitic statements and was soundly criticized for it.

In the case of Ganor, the police went too far. Due to his withdrawal from their agreement, the police grew concerned that all the suspects in the submarine case (including former national security advisor Avriel Bar-Yosef and former commander of the navy Eli “Cheiny” Marom) may escape their clutches. In response, they decided to arrest Ganor – as if an arrest is a tool that can be used to punish someone who displeases them, or a means of venting their aggravation. The arrest of a state witness who reneged on his agreement is an example of the ills that plague the police force, yet no one has uttered a word of protest. The public is simply afraid to criticize the police.

The very institution of a state witness, of course, is both ethically and halachically problematic. But that, too, has been allowed to go unchallenged.

Two years ago, the police announced that they had amassed enough evidence to press charges against the mayor of Netanya, Miriam Feirberg. This week, it was revealed that State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan has decided to close the case. It is very nice that Nitzan does not wish to take the risk of suffering a stinging loss in court, but who will compensate Feirberg for the years of torment that she suffered due to the announcement made by the police?

Four years ago, the police arrested fourteen people, all of them chareidim, who worked in the money changing industry, and the newspapers speculated that they may have been involved in an international money laundering scheme. This week, several of those suspects were informed that the cases against them will be closed. But who will compensate them for the loss of their reputations, for the financial losses they suffered, and for all the tribulations they have endured?

“Abba, Are We Going to Die?”

Someone recently wrote the following to me:

“We were spending a Shabbos of solidarity in the community of Tifrach. We had been looking forward to the weekend for a long time, and Saba Kessler had granted us our wish. We planned to return to Yerushalayim on Motzoei Shabbos, but then the air raid sirens began. The darkened sky was lit up by the missiles, the ground shook, and ambulance sirens wailed in the streets as people dropped to the floor. The tension was palpable in the air; we were filled with dread.

“The radio said that the missiles had fallen in open areas, with the exception of one that struck a home, Hashem yishmor. The children asked questions, and we didn’t know how to answer them. They saw that we were afraid, and they didn’t know what to do.

“‘Abba,’ Yonah asked, ‘are we going to die?’

“‘What do you mean?’ I exclaimed. ‘A person dies only if Hashem decides that he should die!’

“‘But what if Hashem decided that we will die?’ he asked.

“I said nothing. I realized that in Neve Yaakov, where we live in Yerushalayim, we can never understand what the residents of the south experience when the missiles are fired at them – the terror of hearing a siren and having nowhere to take shelter, or hearing a missile fall and having nowhere to run. We had only a small taste of that horror, and we were shaken to the core. On our return to Yerushalayim, we began to breathe easy again. We promised ourselves that we would feel more empathy for our brethren in the south from now on. We would recite Tehillim fervently whenever the missiles fall.”