My Take on the News

Lag Ba’omer in Meron

I will certainly discuss all the minor events of this past week – those involving the government, the police, the state comptroller, and the possibility of a new election – but first, let me devote some space to the more important story, Lag Ba’omer. That is, Lag Ba’omer in Meron.

I am certain that you have seen pictures of the major hadlakos there. No one can fail to be moved by the sight of hundreds of thousands of Jews streaming to Mount Meron on Lag Ba’omer and the crowds of thousands at the various bonfires. The first bonfire was lit by the Boyaner Rebbe, who traditionally begins the hillula at 8:00 in the evening. The event began with Maariv, followed by a few stirring songs, and then the rebbe lit the bonfire and the traditional songs were sung. After about three hours, the chassidim left the site of the bonfire to attend the rebbe’s tish in the village of Meron.

Many “VIPs” enjoy attending the hadlakah of Boyan. This includes government ministers, members of the Knesset, and other officials, such as the commissioner of the police force. What generally happens is that when these people arrive, the police put a stop to all movement in the area. I will tell you what I witnessed personally, which left me indignant and incensed.

The Police Car Drove Off

Like many others, I tried to procure a VIP pass for Lag Ba’omer at Meron. In fact, I was successful. It didn’t actually take much effort. All I had to do was tell them that I am a friend of Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz. The pass made it possible for me to drive all the way to the Chalafta junction, which is very close to Meron, and where I was supposed to enter a specially designated lot. From that lot, a convoy of cars would periodically be permitted to drive up to Meron, with one police car driving in front of the group and another taking up the rear. Before the entrance to the village, the first police car would lead the convoy onto a side road, where the cars would slowly make their way up to the mountain and enter the Burma parking lot. From there, we would make our way on foot to the tziyun, which was only a few minutes away. It is an arrangement that generally works fairly well. The path from the Burma lot leads to the back of the tziyun, next to the Bnei Akiva building.

This has been the procedure on every Lag Ba’omer, and this year was no exception. When I reached the parking lot at Chalafta, I was permitted to join the waiting convoy of cars. Every police officer had a digitized list of license plate numbers of all the cars that had received VIP passes. This made it possible for them to instantly identify which cars were permitted to pass through their roadblock. There were different levels of access granted to the different motorists, and the police had detailed information about how far each vehicle was permitted to proceed.

Who gives these approvals? They are issued by the police, working together with the Center for the Development of Holy Sites, along with the chareidi Knesset members and several other officials. All of the requests are collected and processed, and the police ultimately decide who will receive the coveted passes. I, of course, was granted the highest level of access. I arrived in time for the bonfire of Boyan, and I waited until enough cars had arrived for our convoy to make its way to the Burma parking lot. Before we got underway, a policeman affixed a sticker to each car that identified it as having a received a one-time pass to drive into Meron. I was pleased that I had made it in time for the first hadlakah, and I was looking forward to attending it.

But then something strange happened. The police car that was leading the convoy turned onto the side road outside Meron, but then it immediately stopped. Its occupants discussed something with the police officers stationed at the roadblock there, and then the car turned around and led us in a completely different direction. Clearly, someone had told the officers leading us that we were not permitted to drive up the mountain. The police car led the entire convoy toward the regular entrance to Meron. At that point, we realized that something was not proceeding according to plan, but we obediently followed the car that was leading us. At a certain point, the police car accelerated and drove off, leaving us all alone to contend with the situation ourselves.

Dozens of Disabled People Forced to Wait

The story does not end there. I managed to drive up to the Elulim parking lot, from which there are two roads that a car can take. One of those roads leads directly to the tziyun itself, while the other leads to the Burma parking lot. However, as it turned out, both roads were closed by the police. The explanation they gave us was simply infuriating: “The commissioner and the minister are there now, and until they leave, the roads will remain closed.”

“But aren’t they going to be there for at least an hour?” I asked.

And the answer was: Yes, no one will be permitted to enter or exit the area for at least an hour. In the end, it turned out to be closer to two hours. The access road is a narrow road that cannot accommodate traffic in both directions at the same time; the police must be on hand to regulate the flow of traffic in each direction. But at that point, they did not allow anyone to use the road at all. And why? Because the Minister of Internal Security and the commissioner of the police force were at the top of the mountain, attending the hadlakah of Boyan.

Why is that awful? Because it demonstrates both complete apathy and singularly warped priorities. Was it really necessary to prevent anyone from entering or leaving the area by car simply because these two government officials were present? (As I mentioned, the only way anyone was able to enter Meron at the time was on foot, from the area of the entrance to the community, where the shuttles from all the parking lots dropped off their passengers.)

And the injustice does not end there. Ezer Mizion employed a fleet of twelve ambulances to transport disabled people to the mountaintop. The passengers would wait at the entrance to the village of Meron, and the ambulances would pick up one or two at a time, drive them along the winding roads to the Elulim parking lot, and then drop them off and return to the community’s entrance in order to pick up their next passengers. So while I sat in the Elulim parking lot for an hour and a half, waiting for the minister and the commissioner to leave, there were also twelve ambulances from Ezer Mizion sitting alongside me, each of them containing one, two, or more disabled people. Throughout that time, those unfortunate people were forced to sit idly in the ambulances, while dozens more waited at the entrance to Meron, utterly perplexed by the fact that the ambulances were not returning to pick them up.

To make a long story short, my trip to Meron on Lag Ba’omer exposed me to some utterly illogical and insensitive conduct on the part of the police, and I can guarantee that it will not be allowed to pass in silence. I will demand explanations from the minister and the commissioner themselves, using a highly effective tool that I have at my disposal – the institution of parliamentary queries.

Anger at the Police

Many people complained bitterly about the rigidity and insensitivity of the police on Lag Ba’omer. More than once, I found myself trapped in a traffic jam that would not have been created if the police had any common sense. The traffic backups would also have dissipated quickly if the police hadn’t stubbornly insisted on enforcing pointless rules. I also found that the police had failed to coordinate with each other. For instance, when I drove down the mountain on the roads reserved for the privileged (or for ambulances), I arrived at the road leading to the communities of Safsufa and Ohr Haganuz, where the police asked me to turn toward the entrance to Meron. After sitting in traffic for half an hour, I had almost reached the entrance to the settlement, when another police officer instructed me to make a U-turn and drive back to Yerushalayim via Gush Chalav and Nahariya. (I was not familiar with that road at all, and Waze, for some reason, wasn’t working. It was four o’clock in the morning when this took place.)

I should also mention that I did not personally have a chance to visit the tziyun at all. When I arrived there in my car, there was no parking available, and the police ordered me to turn around immediately and go back. All of my passengers alighted there, and I drove back in the direction from which I had come, until I found an empty spot under a tree where I could wait – for quite a long time – until my family members returned to the car.

In any event, my experience on the return trip was incredibly frustrating. Why was it that one police officer told me to drive in a certain direction when other policemen had already closed the road there? If they had told me originally to drive toward Gush Chalav, I could have been spared three quarters of an hour of aggravation! The lack of coordination among the police – or perhaps their complete indifference and lackadaisical way of doing things – caused hundreds of motorists to squander copious amounts of time for no good reason.

But the behavior of the police did not cause me to become angry with Rabbi Yosef Schwinger and Rabbi Yisroel Deri, the directors of the National Center for the Development of Holy Sites, who partnered with the police in overseeing the hillula. On the contrary, it made me admire them even more, since I had been given a taste of the type of people with whom they are forced to work.

Some Words of Appreciation

In terms of the work of the Center for Holy Sites itself, one can say that the hillula was managed perfectly. I personally observed the degree of effort that was invested in making sure that hundreds of thousands of visitors would be able to travel to and from Meron safely and comfortably. In addition to installing plumbing, constructing lavatories (to replace the chemical bathrooms that were previously in use), and erecting bleachers that were large and sturdy enough to hold masses of spectators, the Center for Holy Sites handled dozens, possibly even hundreds, of tiny details that added up to a much larger picture. No event on this scale, with so many people crowded into such a small area, takes place in the State of Israel at any other time of year.

The Center also does everything in its power to ensure that every rebbe, chassidus, community or other group that so desires will have the opportunity to light their own bonfire. Even if it requires an investment of funds and other resources, along with creativity and brainpower, they will do everything possible to accommodate those requests. In fact, the proliferation of hadlakos has led the state comptroller to announce that he will investigate the criteria by which rabbonim are permitted to light bonfires. In any event, Schwinger and his staff have received plenty of accolades for the role they play in the hillula.

We also owe a debt of gratitude to the many chesed and rescue organizations that mobilized for the hillula. Hundreds of thousands of people received food and drink, even lavish meals, thanks to their efforts. While I was there, I discovered a massive tent erected by Yeshivas Rashbi, where hundreds of people sat and listened to divrei Torah delivered by Rav Benayahu Shmueli. I joined them for a while and then left at 11:30 p.m. As I was heading out of the tent, someone tugged on my sleeve and said, “Are you leaving now? Right before the food comes?” He revealed to me that just a few minutes later, a royal feast would be served to everyone in the tent. There were also numerous distribution points for cake and beverages, both hot and cold. Dozens of organizations were there to provide for hundreds of thousands of people. For instance, I received a chocolate cake wrapped in plastic, with a label that provided all the information I could have asked for: “Distributed by Chasdei Eliyahu Leib in Eretz Yisroel. Wishing simcha and brocha to the entire Jewish people. In honor of the hillula of the holy Tanna Rav Shimon bar Yochai. Mezonos. Baked with flour milled after Pesach 5779. Use by August 31, 2019. Under the supervision of the Badatz of the Eidah Hachareidis.”

Fatigue on the Road

Then there were the traffic accidents. Every year, we daven that no mishaps or disasters befall the many travelers heading to Meron and back. This year, there were two accidents. One of the accidents took place at 9:00 on Thursday morning, involving a car that was returning from Meron. Indeed, most of the accidents take place on the return trip from Meron and are generally attributed to fatigue on the part of the driver. In this case, five of the vehicle’s occupants were injured, including a two-year-old child. The other accident also resulted in injuries. Miraculously, there were no fatalities in either case.

There was also some amount of damage caused by bonfires. There were reports of people who were burned and required first aid. In Meron, there were many people who received medical treatment. The largest bonfire in the city of Elad unfortunately spiraled out of control and turned into a huge forest fire, which had to be extinguished by firefighting planes. There was another large fire in the vicinity of Ashkelon, and yet another one near the community of Beit Chaggai. There was also a large blaze near Beit Shemesh, which led the police to evacuate the residents of the community of Harel from their homes. Firefighters dealt with about 700 fires during the two-day heat wave that coincided with Lag Ba’omer.

This year, because of the weather, the fire department prohibited the lighting of bonfires in areas that are close to potentially flammable greenery and the like. This led to a large number of conflicts between the police and children who wished to light bonfires. In several instances, the police arrested yeshiva bochurim who, they claimed, did not obey their instructions.

A Rash of Danger to Jewish Graves

Two weeks ago, I was stunned to read in the newspaper that the cemetery in Osieciny has been put up for sale. Osieciny is a small village in northwestern Poland that was home to 450 Jews on the eve of the Holocaust, with magnificent communal institutions and prominent rabbonim of its own. The Jews of the village were deported for extermination in April 1942. Two Jews who were born in Osieciny tried to return to their homes after the Holocaust and were murdered, and one other was injured. Only fifteen out of the hundreds of Jews of the community survived.

According to the article I read, the shul in Osieciny is still standing, although it suffered neglect and was eventually occupied by commercial stores. The bais medrash that stands beside it has also been put to other uses. The Jewish cemetery was desecrated by the Nazis, and its gravestones were stolen by the Poles after the war and were used to pave sidewalks. Today, the cemetery is controlled by a private individual, who decided to put it up for sale, with the intent of accepting commercial bids. At some point, a telephone technician who was digging in the cemetery discovered a number of human bones and skulls.

The “seller” is actually the son of the Pole who has been maintaining the cemetery. This man has taken over the property, as if it actually belonged to his father.

Recently, various people have taken it upon themselves to advocate for the preservation of Jewish burial sites in the Diaspora. One of those people is Rabbi Yitzchak Shapiro, and another is Moshe Arbel, the newly elected MK of the Shas party, who has become the leader of the Lobby for Cemeteries in the Diaspora. Two days after I read about the cemetery, I learned that Arbel and Shapiro had met with the Polish ambassador, Marek Magierowski. I don’t know if the ambassador will actually be able to return the cemetery to its rightful owners – that is, the Jewish nation – and to thwart the efforts of the man who has asserted ownership over the site, but the ambassador promised to make an effort to do so. Arbel and Shapiro certainly deserve our appreciation for their efforts.

Less than four days later, I read about another cemetery that is facing destruction, this one in the city of Nadvorna, Ukraine. There, too, efforts are underway to prevent the authorities from carrying out their intentions. Are we looking at an epidemic of threats to Jewish cemeteries? Or is it simply that as a result of the activists’ work, more information has been coming to light about cemeteries that may be destroyed?

A New Member of the Knesset

Speaking of Moshe Arbel, he was invited, like all the other new members of the Knesset, to deliver his maiden address this past week. It was an excellent speech that was subsequently quoted widely. I was equally impressed by the speaker who followed him. It is customary in the Knesset for every new MK’s maiden speech to be followed by a welcome address delivered by a veteran member of the Knesset of his choosing. In general, it is another member of the MK’s party, sometimes even the party chairman, who is chosen for that purpose. But of all people, Arbel chose MK Roy Folkman of the Kulanu party, a man who is completely secular, to welcome him to the Knesset.

Here is an excerpt from Folkman’s speech: “He [Arbel] was raised and educated with Rav Ovadiah [Yosef]’s views, and he later became a talmid of Rav Mashash of Yerushalayim. What you don’t know about Moshe Arbel is that he published a work of halacha – is that correct? – titled Vayishma Moshe, at the age of 16. I don’t know who else publishes such works at the age of 16, and he received a haskamah from Rav Mashash for his work… This is a person who has advanced because of genuine talent. Rabbi Deri, not for the first time, has shown that he is building the next generation of Shas. These three men here, whose pictures are being taken – Malchieli, Yinon Azulai, and you, Moshe Arbel – are sitting alongside the wonderful veteran MKs who were their mentors, who are also sitting here – Margi, Ben-Tzur, and Nahari. You are the next generation.”

Folkman then shared an illuminating story about Arbel’s sterling character. “Immediately after the election, it was first believed that the Shas party had won only seven mandates. At that time, he didn’t go to any parties to celebrate the outcome. Instead, he went to visit MK Azulai, who wasn’t able to attend the post-election celebrations because he is in the year of mourning. Since the polls showed Shas coming out with seven mandates, the first thing he did was to go to Azulai, who was in the eighth place on the list, and to be with him at those moments, when he was certain that he hadn’t been elected to the Knesset. That says something about your brand of politics, and I am very happy that the two of you are here today.”

Half the Knesset Will Be Ministers

For the time being, the Knesset is essentially running on neutral. The Knesset secretariat has been making every effort to find topics to fill its daily schedule, albeit with little success. The lawmakers have been occupying their time mainly with one-minute speeches, which serve little purpose at this point: Every member of the Knesset is entitled to speak about any subject in the world for a single minute. Of course, there are also the maiden addresses, when the new MKs introduce themselves and then are welcomed to the Knesset. That takes time, but it does not add much substance to the Knesset’s work.

To be honest, I can’t really understand why the Knesset isn’t hearing motions for the agenda and urgent parliamentary queries. Those things could have at least filled their entire schedule on Wednesdays, as much as during an ordinary session. But when I tried to submit parliamentary queries, the Knesset secretariat rejected them, claiming that there are no ministers since the government hasn’t been formed yet. That is actually untrue, since there is a never a vacuum in the government. There are government ministers at this time, and they are certainly capable of responding to questions. Therefore, there is also no reason that the ministers shouldn’t come to the Knesset and respond to motions for the agenda. And there are plenty of subjects that could have been raised: the preparations for the hillula in Meron, the crane accident in Yavneh that claimed the lives of several workers, the electric company’s preparation for the heat wave, and so forth. I was baffled by their response, to say the least.

Fortunately, there is at least one thing that creates the sense that there is a legislature at work: the debate over the new law that would expand the government and increase the number of ministers. That was the most heavily discussed topic last week, not only because of the rancorous arguments that it evoked, but also because it was the only issue that there was to discuss. On Monday, the Knesset was supposed to finalize its approval of the bill. The government will now grow from 18 ministers to 24. According to my calculations, if we add the deputy ministers into the total, there would be about 34 people holding ministerial positions. Therefore, if the entire coalition has 65 members, it would mean that every other MK is either a minister or deputy minister. And that is absurd.

The real question, though, is whether Netanyahu will form a government at all. On the one hand, some say that the various parties are gradually settling their differences. This Wednesday will mark the deadline set by the president for a government to be formed and they will have to be ready to accept a new coalition by that time. On the other hand, Lieberman has been so insistent about his draft law that Netanyahu has announced that another round of elections might be held. Which leaves us to wonder: If the country goes to elections once again, what will happen then?

Netanyahu’s Lawyer Resigns

Netanyahu hasn’t managed to see eye to eye with his legal team regarding their fees. One of his lawyers, Navot Tel-Tzur, has already announced his intention to withdraw from the case. Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, has her own legal woes. In the so-called Residence Case, she is accused of using her rights as the prime minister’s wife to receive personal benefits at the expense of the prime minister’s official residence. It was recently reported that Sara Netanyahu is willing to accept a settlement: She will repay the funds that she allegedly squandered and she will not face criminal charges. Meanwhile, the attorney general has approved the prime minister’s request to postpone his hearing – albeit for only three months, rather than a year.

Netanyahu hopes that he will not end up in court at all, on account of his parliamentary immunity. One of his faithful allies in the Knesset, MK Mickey Zohar, has submitted a bill that would make it difficult for the Knesset to revoke the parliamentary immunity of any of its members, even with their express agreement. But that bill requires a majority vote to pass – and, of course, Prime Minister Netanyahu came under fire from his political rivals in response to it.

This past week, Netanyahu celebrated the appointment of a new state comptroller. The current comptroller, Yosef Shapiro, is about to retire, and his successor had to be chosen. The Knesset elects the state comptroller and candidates may be nominated by any group of six MKs. The opposition nominated former General Giora Romm, while Netanyahu tapped Matanyahu Engelman as his candidate of choice. In a typical move, Netanyahu waited until the last minute, at first supporting a different candidate (a woman who was backed by the chareidi parties), until he finally gave his support to Engelman. Today, Engelman is the CEO of the Council for Higher Education and is known in the religious community for having been the right-hand man of the philanthropist Mr. Picciotto, who has built dozens of shuls in Israel in memory of his son, who was kidnapped and murdered years ago.

Horrific Police Brutality

Another piece of news last week was the interview with Jonathan Pollard, in which he spoke out harshly against the State of Israel. I also discovered the existence of ferocious hatred of Jews here in Israel. An article about Lag Ba’omer that appeared on a chiloni website, accompanied by a video clip of the dancing that celebrates the occasion, drew vicious responses that I could hardly believe were written by Jews. “Primitive barbarians!” one person wrote. “A single nuclear bomb there will guarantee the future of the state,” said another. “Tens of thousands dancing on the path to the destruction of the State of Israel,” a third said. A fourth commenter described them as “tens of thousands of parasites.” It was horrifying.

And one more thing: Last Wednesday night. there was a major protest against the military draft, while a Lag Ba’omer bonfire took place adjacent to the protest. It isn’t clear exactly what happened, but a young man who was attending the bonfire somehow insulted or perhaps struck an undercover policewoman. The police immediately pounced on him and beat him viciously. That young man is visibly autistic, and many of the eyewitnesses at the scene shouted to the police to leave him alone, but they persisted in beating him. In the video, the police can be seen slamming him into the ground as blood pours from his face and he begs for water and shouts, “Mommy, help me!” The images led to a wave of horror. It seems that millions of people have seen the video. Even chiloni public officials reacted strongly to the incident. The police were forced to respond, but their reaction was utterly insolent. I have a feeling that this story has only just begun.

Six Passengers for a Trip to Meron

Rav Naftali Burstein, father of Rav Burstein of Lev L’Achim – who is known as “Bushi” – is an elderly man who has a wealth of anecdotes to share about Yerushalayim of yesteryear, with all the remarkable individuals who made up the human landscape of the city. He recently shared some of his captivating memories of traveling to Meron 30 or 40 years ago. Here is one of those stories:

One year on Lag Ba’omer, he boarded a van that was scheduled to travel to Meron. It was a long, exhausting trip at the time, and a trip to Meron was a rarity, but some people were willing to spend the time and money to make the trip. There were six seats in the van, and the would-be passenger had to wait for another five people to arrive. For a long time, he and the driver sat alone in the vehicle. Finally, two Americans arrived and entered the van. They wanted to travel to Meron as well, and they were clearly pressed for time, but the driver insisted that they would leave when there were six passengers and not a moment sooner.

A few precious minutes ticked by and then one of the Americans said, “Let’s just start going. I’ll pay for everyone.”

“We are not leaving until there are six passengers,” the driver replied.

“Maybe you didn’t understand me,” the tourist said in Yiddish. “There are three of us here and I will pay for the other three as well.”

“I won’t leave until there are six,” the driver repeated.

“But I am willing to pay for six people!” the tourist exclaimed.

“You don’t understand,” the driver finally said. “I need to have six passengers, because when we get to areas where the road slopes upward, everyone needs to get out and push!”