My Take on the News

Pre-Election Excitement

It was only to be expected that the election campaign for the 22nd Knesset is generating an endless array of news stories. First of all, there is absolute chaos in the Blue and White party. Benny Gantz’s chief strategist has stated openly in interviews with the press that the tactics employed by Gantz’s “partner,” Yair Lapid, are keeping Gantz away from the office of prime minister. His reasoning is simple: Without the support of the chareidi parties, there is virtually no chance of establishing a government—unless Gantz joins forces with Netanyahu, making the chareidim irrelevant. This is a feasible scenario, similar to what took place in the government led by Netanyahu, Lapid, and Bennett, which made for a very bad situation indeed. Within the ranks of Blue and White, there have been many calls for the party leadership to recognize that Lapid is an intolerable burden. Lapid himself hasn’t taken the criticism in silence. Instead, he has demanded of his colleagues, “When will you understand that submitting to the chareidim only distances voters from us?”

Another story that attracted a significant amount of attention was the decision of Ron Kobi, the eccentric (to say the least) mayor of Teveria, to join the race. Kobi, who represents the battle against chareidim, announced that he would run for the Knesset as a representative of the secular right. To be more precise, he represents the anti-religious right. That places him roughly in the same box as Avigdor Lieberman. Kobi is a bizarre person, but experience has shown that bizarre people sometimes tend to be successful (although they also fade away fairly quickly). We have also discovered that there is a right-wing, anti-religious sector within the Israeli public that seems to be worth about 10 to 15 mandates in an election. Some have suggested that Ron Kobi was recruited by Netanyahu to steal votes away from Lieberman. Indeed, that may be a valid theory.

Nor have things been quiet within the national religious right. The big question is what Naftali Bennett will do. In the previous election, he fell only slightly short of passing the electoral threshold. He certainly believes that if he runs again and makes a slightly greater effort, he will make it into the Knesset with five mandates. If that happens, then the entire political map will change; the right will have a majority even without Lieberman. But the question is whether Ayelet Shaked, the recent Minister of Justice who ran along with Bennett, will continue to align herself with him. Until now, Shaked was said to be planning to join the Likud party, but rumor has it that she is now considering joining the Untied Right. The party is interested in having her join their ranks (without Bennett), but the greatest point of contention is who will lead the party. Shaked reportedly insists on being in the top slot, but it is viewed as unsuitable for a woman, especially an irreligious woman, to lead a religious party. On the other hand, she is not willing to accept the position of second in command of the party.

Ehud Barak Tries to Make a Comeback

Do not be fooled into thinking that things are quiet within the Likud party itself. The merger between Likud and Kulanu will cause all the Knesset members within the Likud to move three or four spots further down on their list, which has angered those in the bottom third. Netanyahu is also perturbed by the polls that show Gideon Saar becoming wildly popular within the Likud party. He is also still preoccupied by his own legal troubles; he has announced that he will attend the pre-indictment hearing on the date set by the attorney general (at the beginning of October), albeit under extreme protest.

At the same time, Netanyahu is also waiting for a decision from the permissions committee under the auspices of the state comptroller, which is likely to decide once again to reject his request for permission to receive campaign donations from two wealthy financiers. The committee made its approval of the request contingent on Netanyahu disclosing his own personal assets. In all likelihood, he will refuse to do so, even if it means that he will be barred from accepting donations.

On the other side of the political map, events have been just as lively. The Zionist Camp (formerly the Labor party) will soon be holding primary elections to determine the makeup of its list for the next Knesset. The party will be choosing a new chairman as well, as the current chairman, Avi Gabbay, has resigned. There are three candidates for the position: Amir Peretz, Itzik Shmuli, and Stav Shafir. The latter two were heavily involved in the “cottage cheese protests” on Rechov Rothschild in Tel Aviv several years ago. To make matters worse for them, Ehud Barak, who holds the dubious distinction of being known as the worst prime minister in the history of the State of Israel, has announced his plans to form a new party of his own.

And that is not all. Shabtai Shavit, the former head of the Mossad, was recently interviewed by a newspaper and slammed Likud voters, accusing them of lacking intelligence. This happens in every election campaign, and it always works to the benefit of the right.

Strategizing Against Lieberman

Meanwhile, Avigdor Lieberman has continued lashing out against the chareidi community, not only in his campaign propaganda, but in his interviews with the press as well. Over and over, he has repeated his mantra: “A Jewish state, not a halachic state.” It seems undeniable that something has happened to him. Meanwhile, the polls indicate that he is expected to win eight mandates. According to the same polls, the right stands to win 60 mandates (without Lieberman), which would mean that this round of elections has made no difference. We will arrive at the same impasse that caused the Knesset to dissolve itself in the first place.

Lieberman has proclaimed that if that happens, he will force the Likud and the Blue and White party to form a national unity government excluding the chareidim. Last week, as well, he announced his intention to form a government without the chareidim. The chareidi press immediately attacked him for his avowed intent to leave them “stuck” in the opposition. From the dire tone they adopted, one might have thought that he had proclaimed his desire to wipe out the chareidim altogether!

Still, we must be fair: Just as Lieberman hopes to leave the chareidim out in the cold, they intend to do the same to him: to form a bloc of 61 mandates without Lieberman. As much as he hopes to render the chareidim irrelevant, that is their aspiration regarding him, as well.

Meanwhile, it seems that no one has a clear strategy for dealing with Lieberman. Everyone has reacted differently to his tactics, and nothing clear has emerged from the situation. Without a doubt, someone will have to come up with a solid approach to contending with him. Lieberman is unpredictable, uncontrollable, unstable, unreasonable, and perhaps a bit intolerable as well. On the other hand, nothing he does is irreversible; he could easily perform an about-face just as rapidly as he withdrew his support for the government. Whatever happens next, though, the politicians will not be speaking to Lieberman at this time; instead, they will be appealing to the voters whom he plans to capture. If he is to be defeated, then someone will have to be targeted, focused, and extremely clear.

To Take a Lesson from the National Religious Sector

Meanwhile, there has been a change in the current government: Netanyahu decided to dismiss Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett from their respective positions as Justice Minister and Education Minister, and to replace them with members of the New Right. Rafi Peretz, who insists on using the title “rabbi” and even signs his name with it, was designated the new Education Minister, while Betzalel Smotrich, who had claimed that he would insist on receiving the justice portfolio, was appointed Minister of Transportation. This makes him the head of a ministry that presides over constant chillul Shabbos. He may not have received the Justice Ministry, but for the religious right, the top priority is the education portfolio.

Do you know the story about the man who bought an aliyah for an enormous price, reasoning that if it was good for Rothschild, it must be good for him as well? By the same token, if the right-wing politicians have their sights set on the Education Ministry, there must be something extremely valuable about it. Take the Garinim Toraniim, for example. These are groups of right-wing activists who live in the cities on the country’s periphery, and whose activities are funded by the Education Ministry. They had managed to amass large followings, and in two cities, Sderot and Lod, they have even managed to secure the office of mayor. The Ministry of Education is a source of abundant funding for the activities of right-wing organizations. Now, the chareidim do not begrudge the national religious sector what they have gained—even though the religious right is not as charitable toward their communities—but there is a general sense that the chareidim should enjoy the same benefits.

As I said, if the right insists on controlling the Education Ministry, there is a good reason for it. This ministry, I am told by people in the know, can be a highly satisfying source of significant funding, which may take some maneuvering and machinations to obtain, but will not elicit much attention in the process. With all due respect to masters of government budgeting such as Gafni and Nahari, it seems that this fact has yet to become widely understood.

Here is a story to illustrate this point: There is a nonprofit organization that calls itself “Haroeh Ha’Ivri,” which works with the “hilltop youth” of Yehuda and the Shomron. One of its projects is an educational farm near Mishor Adumim. The Mateh Binyamin Regional Council designated a parcel of land for this purpose, and at a conference involving several government offices, it was decided that there was national importance in dealing with the hilltop youths. As a result, an exemption was granted from the requirement for a tender, and the project received a generous budget of one million shekels from each of four government ministries: the Education Ministry, the Welfare Ministry, the Finance Ministry, and the Ministry of Housing. This made for a total annual budget of four million shekels. Clearly, then, this sector is highly adept at procuring funds. If I understood correctly, the other ministries later decided to retract their commitments, and the Education Ministry therefore stepped forward and provided an annual allocation of 2 million shekels to Haroeh Ha’Ivri. Those funds are certainly being channeled to a worthy cause—outreach to the hilltop youth—but the chareidi community would do well to learn from their success and try to emulate it.

A Druse Pilot in the Air Force

I do not intend to write about things that I know nothing about. Therefore, I won’t write about the tensions between America and Iran, about President Trump’s initial decision to attack Iran and his subsequent decision to refrain from attacking. I simply don’t know enough about the subject. I also won’t write about the conference in Bahrain or the White House’s “deal of the century.” All I know is that the plan includes investments in the Middle East totaling 50 billion dollars over the course of a decade. I also do not understand why the Palestinians aren’t interested in it at all. Yesterday, a senior official in the Palestinian Authority claimed that they hadn’t even been invited to the conference, which he called “a wedding without a bride and groom.”

Today (Thursday), a conference is being held in Yerushalayim to discuss Israeli-American relations. Mrs. Nikki Haley and Jason Greenblatt will both be attending the event, along with Prime Minister Netanyahu and the philanthropist Sylvan Adams. I will certainly report to you on anything interesting that is said there.

Now, here is an astonishing piece of information concerning the Palestinian Authority: In the previous Israeli election, the Arab parties ran on two separate lists, with each party actually consisting of a merger of four or five splinter parties. This time, they have decided to run together. They claim that it is because they discovered that splitting the Arab vote cost them two or three mandates. In the 20th Knesset, after all, they received 13 mandates after running on a joint list, whereas the previous election brought them only ten mandates, and one of the parties barely managed to scrape past the electoral threshold. There is one thing that they haven’t disclosed to the public, though: The decision for them to run together was made by none other than Abu Mazen, the chairman of the Palestinian Authority!

And here is one more item concerning the non-Jewish sector in the State of Israel: As you probably know, the Druse population serves in the IDF, unlike the Muslims and Christian Arabs. Tomorrow, there will be a festive ceremony at the Chatzerim air force base to celebrate the graduation of the 38 newest trained pilots. One of the newly minted pilots is a grandson of Ariel Sharon, but there is no question that the most prominent of the new graduates will be the very first Druse pilot in the air force.

Yair Lapid, Master of Zigzagging

Something has been happening to Yair Lapid. Ever since his wild cries of “No! No! We won’t allow it!” at Rabin Square, many people who have been watching his actions have concluded that something bad has happened to him. He has been acting rashly and irrationally. Of course, he has always been known to rant and rave, but things seem to have taken a turn for the worse. Since the beginning of his career, some people have enjoyed listening to him in order to identify the many signs of his ignorance in every area. This week, he made his lack of knowledge clear once again when he claimed that the chareidim demand separate sidewalks for men and women.

He is not a successful demagogue. Not long ago, an interview was published with the celebrated reporter who had revealed Lapid’s meetings with Nuni Moses, the publisher of Yediot Acharonot, at a villa in Caesarea. Those meetings were erased from his calendar when it was released, in violation of the Freedom of Information Law. The reporter claimed in her interview, “From Lapid and his mindless followers, I have been the target of endless slander, accusations, and attempts to attribute improprieties to me. They claim that I was motivated by political interests. Mr. Lapid, don’t you criticize Netanyahu for harassing the press? You yourself are harassing a reporter!” She went on to mock Lapid for paying lip service to the values of democracy, and she added that she had notified her superiors that Lapid complains about every news report that displeases him. “He is used to being treated with kid gloves,” she asserted, “and if someone dares to criticize him, he will lash out against them immediately.”

This week, the country was preoccupied by the issue of the Sdeh Dov airport. For years, there has been talk of closing the airport, which is situated on a particularly valuable piece of land. The residents of Eilat, however, have argued that if the airport is closed, it will lead to a major economic loss for their city. These arguments have been taking place for years already and the airport was supposed to have been closed down by now, but when Betzalel Smotrich assumed the position of Transportation Minister, he announced that the closure would be delayed for half a year so that the situation can be reevaluated. Lapid responded by praising the move, asserting that he had always been opposed to closing the airport. During his tenure as Finance Minister, though, a statement had been released on his behalf in support of the closure….

In another incident this week, Lapid issued a statement in which he asserted that the State of Israel is a “state of all of its citizens.” What he meant to say was that it is unacceptable to discriminate against any citizen of the country. Nevertheless, his choice of words was problematic, since the term “a state of all of its citizens” is a catchphrase used by the Arabs, whereas Jewish Israelis refer to the country as a Jewish and democratic state. Lapid immediately realized that he had misspoken, and he quickly announced that he had been misunderstood and that he is opposed to the idea of a “state of all of its citizens.”

Laws on the Knesset Table

The Knesset is currently in recess, but during the month when it was in operation, dozens of MKs had enough time to place over 500 proposed laws on the Knesset table. Now, before you marvel at their industriousness, I should inform you that all of those bills were copies of laws that had been submitted during previous terms of the Knesset. Some of the bills were reintroduced by the same lawmakers who had originally proposed them, while others were copied by different parliamentarians, which is less commendable. All of their efforts, though, turned out to be in vain. When the Knesset disbanded, all of the proposed pieces of legislation were automatically canceled.

Still, it is worthwhile to make note of some of the bills introduced by the chareidi representatives. The most active of those MKs were Yaakov Asher, Michoel Malchieli, and Yaakov Margi. These three legislators submitted a variety of bills on a wide range of topics, including the following: benefits for a parent who quits his or her job to care for a child, insurance policies for two cars belonging to a single driver, exemption from insurance premiums for a student in an institution of higher education, a fixed government grant for the birth of every child after the second, official recognition of the disabilities of individuals affected by polio, unemployment benefits for interns, facilitating access to higher education, grants for residents of the capital, the withdrawal of funds from a school that refuses to accept students on the basis of ethnicity, special funding for the school systems in distant locations, and the absorption of discharged soldiers. This should give you an idea of the wide range of people that our Knesset members seek to aid, and the issues that they strive to address.

A Supreme Court Justice in the Shas Offices

Meanwhile, all the political parties and their employees have once again been required to give up their offices to the Central Elections Committee. The Shas party’s offices will now become the headquarters of Justice Chanan Meltzer, the chairman of the Central Elections Committee. On Tuesday, the committee’s workers removed the large pictures of Rav Ovadiah Yosef and, yibadeil l’chaim, Chacham Shalom Cohen that decorate the walls of the office suite. The offices of United Torah Judaism have also been taken over by the committee. It is somewhat infuriating, but there is nothing we can do to change the situation. What makes it even more frustrating is that we had all just settled into our offices once again, after the upheaval caused by the previous election.

This is the second time in half a year that the Knesset has called upon all the parties to vacate their offices. The party leaders have made several efforts to argue against the practice, but their complaints were always dismissed by the Knesset, in particular its director-general. This time, the Central Elections Committee announced that they are short on office space. I asked them what had changed since the previous election, and they replied that there were two significant differences. First, Avi Nissenkorn of the Blue and White party adamantly refused to leave his office. “I am staying here,” he told the committee workers bluntly. “Now get out of my sight!” Taken aback, they fled from his wrath. Nissenkorn served until recently as the head of the Histadrut workers’ union, and he knows very well how to assert himself.

Even more amusing is the fact that several offices were appropriated over the past month by the office of the director-general of the Knesset. A deputy director-general was quietly appointed not long ago, and he and his staff took over several offices, which they also refused to surrender to the Central Elections Committee. The move may have been justified, but it seems that they are not quite conversant with the idea of practicing what they preach; they may ask others to give up their offices, but they will not do the same.

The Central Elections Committee is not part of the Knesset and should have no place in the building at all. In fact, it pays rent to the Knesset for the offices that it occupies. It has already been suggested several times that the committee should be relocated somewhere else, and now it seems that we are closer than ever to seeing that happen. They themselves would prefer to be housed in different quarters. As long as they remain in the building, everyone can see just how much time they spend being idle….

Police Ignore Thefts of Sifrei Torah

Sifrei Torah that were recently stolen in Bnei Brak were found abandoned in a goat pen in an Arab village. The horror that spread through the community following their theft led to an atzeres hisorerus at Yeshivas Orchos Torah. The sifrei Torah had been stolen from Tiferes Shimon, a shul that serves the former talmidim of Orchos Torah. The recovery of the seforim led to a widespread sense of relief, and they were returned to the shul amid a festive celebration that led to the closure of the main streets of Bnei Brak. Nevertheless, the incident left a sense of sadness and anguish in its wake. In previous generations, Jews would submit to being burned with their sifrei Torah, yet here in the Jewish state, criminals are evidently aware that the authorities will not respond harshly if a sefer Torah is degraded.

I am not aware of any official body that is monitoring incidents of anti-Semitism in Israel today, and I believe that is a problem. The Klausenberger Rebbe, in his day, asked for a rabbinic and judicial agency to be formed that would monitor such incidents. That agency was indeed established (I remember that Rav Simcha Kook was the driving force behind it), but at some point, it was disbanded. That was a fate that was shared by various similar initiatives. The left and right alike have an assortment of organizations that respond to the slightest trace of hatred, but in the chareidi community, there is nothing of the sort.

I maintain a collection of newspaper clippings that report on incidents in which shuls were vandalized. There was a case in which swastikas were scrawled on the Mikdash Moshe shul in Petach Tikvah, another incident in which vandals destroyed sifrei Torah in a shul in Moshav Aviezer, and yet another case in which swastikas were sprayed on the walls of the Koresh shul, which serves an Iranian community in Yerushalayim. And we all still remember the horrific act of vandalism that was perpetrated in the Siach Yisroel shul in Kiryat Yovel less than half a year ago. Then there was the hateful graffiti sprayed in the cemetery and the shul in the settlement of Bnei Ayash, and the criminals who burned a siddur in Arad. And in all these cases, the perpetrators haven’t been brought to justice.

A parliamentary query was sent to the Minister of Internal Security, Gilad Erdan, regarding the episode in Moshav Aviezer. He responded, “Regarding the shul, it is naturally impossible for us to reveal any details about the findings of the investigation at this point. Of course, I view the crimes of breaking into a shul and destroying property as serious offenses, which impact the routine lives of citizens and their sense of security, especially when the target of the offense is a sacred place. Therefore, I expect the police of Israel to do everything necessary, in the context of the means available to them, in order to put an end to these phenomena quickly and professionally, and to bring the perpetrators to justice.” It has been a year and a half since Erdan delivered this response, and I find myself wondering if it has become possible yet for him to share any details with us, or if the criminals were ever captured. In fact, has anyone ever been prosecuted in Israel for vandalizing a sefer Torah?

Unfortunately, it seems that the police do not relate seriously to any crimes committed against items of religious significance. I have dealt with this issue extensively, and I discovered that there is no specific category of crimes relating to offenses committed against a shul. Instead, there is a general category of “damage to religious institutions,” in which the police group shuls, mosques, and churches together. And if that is their approach, then it seems that there isn’t much that we can expect to be done about it.

A Remarkable Event at ITRI

I was a guest at the reception celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the ITRI yeshiva. One of the most stirring parts of the event was the arrival of Rav Shlomo Fisher, who had been released from the hospital several hours earlier and came to show respect to his talmidim. Hundreds of former talmidim of the yeshiva, dozens of whom are already in their seventies, stood up and applauded when he arrived. With visible effort, Rav Shlomo made his way to the front of the room and stood facing his talmidim. It was difficult to gauge which was greater—their admiration for their rebbi or his love for them.

I heard two remarkable stories at the event. First, someone related that Rav Mordechai Elefant, the founder of the yeshiva and mechaber of Zehav Mordechai, once visited Rav Shach, who asked him, “How is it that you are not hesitant to appoint such outstanding talmidei chachamim as roshei yeshiva in your institution?” Rav Elefant’s answer was characteristically incisive and bold.

The second anecdote concerns a bochur from the yeshiva who once found himself sitting on a bus next to a distinguished-looking elderly man. His seatmate asked him where he learned, and the bochur replied, “In ITRI.”

“My son also learns there,” the elderly man replied.

In fact, the stranger on the bus was none other than Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, whose son was a rosh yeshiva in ITRI at the time.

Rav Mordechai Elefant was considered a highly unique individual. His life is the subject of wondrous stories, some of which may well be exaggerated. Then again, as Rav Shimshon Pincus once pointed out in a different context, the mere fact that such a story is told about the man is a testament to his character…. Rav Elefant had close ties with a vast array of people, including gedolei Torah, wealthy philanthropists, and presidents and prime ministers in America and Israel. He was a man of astounding accomplishments, and his yeshiva was a remarkable success. In his later years, he frequently visited Rav Moshe Shmuel Shapira in Be’er Yaakov, and he often visited my father, the mora d’asra, as well. I believe that they knew each other from their time in Ner Yisroel in Baltimore. My father revealed to me that Rav Elefant had been an outstanding bochur in his youth, and that it had been predicted that he was destined for greatness. I will never forget the sight of his radiant eyes, the elevated manner in which he spoke, and his never ending repertoire of chiddushim. Of course, there was also his incisive wit. Once, he commented about his wife, “Together, we are ‘hagaon hatzaddik.’ I am the gaon, and she is the tzaddik.”

The event was held outdoors, amongst the pine and cypress trees that decorate the yeshiva’s campus. Bright lights played along the walls of the yeshiva building, as the music enchanted the guests. A display of rare photographs, including pictures of Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky and Rav Yitzchok Hutner at Rav Elefant’s wedding, and images of Rav Elefant meeting with President Reagan and Vice President Humphrey, emphasized the remarkable and unusual history of the yeshiva and its founder. One former talmid of the yeshiva related that a letter had once arrived that was addressed to “Rabbi ITRI of Yeshivas Elefant.”

I was moved by the sight of the regal-looking bochurim and the magnificent bais medrash. The event began with the dedication of an aron kodesh that had been donated by the Reich family, in memory of their father, Rav Shmuel Refoel ben Rav Yechezkel, and their mother, Esther Leah bas Rav Yissachar. Rav Benzion Reich delivered a speech, revealing that the bond between the Reich and Elefant families dates back decades into the past. His mother (Esther Leah Reich, nee Parnes—a granddaughter of Rav Yosef Yitzchok Parnes, one of the founding figures of the religious community in America) and Rebbetzin Zehava Golda Elefant (nee Herman, the granddaughter of the famed Rav Yaakov Yosef Herman) were childhood friends in Brooklyn. Rav Benzion recalled, “My mother told me that as a child, she used to daven that she would have as many children as the shevatim of Klal Yisroel. The young Mordechai Elefant, meanwhile, davened that he would establish yeshivos where all the shevatim of Klal Yisroel would learn. And both tefillos came true….”

Most of the bochurim in the yeshiva are chareidi tichonistim.” Rav Dovid Cohen aptly described the yeshiva as “one of a kind.” he added, “Rav Nochum reportedly said that Maamad Har Sinai continues in every generation. In our generation, it is represented by the yeshivos. There was a time when the function of a yeshiva was to build; today, however, it is to preserve. But ITRI is unique in that it ‘builds’ its talmidim as well; it is a place where bochurim became bnei Torah and men of great accomplishment.”

A Great Soul in “Little Geulah”

There is a store in the neighborhood of Bayit Vegan known as “Little Geulah,” but its proprietor is a man who is far from “little.” On the contrary, he is a great man with a great soul.

My son, who teaches in the Yeshiva of Be’er Yaakov, once gave a test to his talmidim and decided to purchase popcorn and rugelach to surprise the bochurim who were taking the test. He brought his purchases up to the counter, but then discovered that he did not have enough money to cover the cost, and he began deliberating over which items to buy.

“What are you buying this for?” the storeowner asked him.

“For bochurim who are being tested on Gemara,” he replied.

“Then forget the money. It’s on me!” the owner declared.

This week, my son visited the store again, and the owner was overjoyed to see him. “Would you be willing to learn mishnayos in memory of a childless woman?” he asked. My son agreed and asked for the details. He was astonished by the story that the proprietor told him: “Twenty years ago, when we were younger, we had a neighbor who passed away without children. We pledged to give tzedakah and to learn in her memory. My sister just called me and reminded me that it is her yahrtzeit today, and I am not certain I will finish all the mishnayos before shekiyah.” Thus spoke the tzaddik who runs a tiny store in Bayit Vegan, as he marveled at his sister’s power of recall.

“You see, Abba,” my son said to me as he concluded his account. “This man isn’t a rosh yeshiva or a famous mashpia. He isn’t the menahel of a Talmud Torah or a well-known maggid shiur. He is just an ‘ordinary’ Jew who sells popcorn and candy for a living. Ashreichem Yisroel!