My Take on the News

The Scourge of Car Accidents

We in Israel are not alone in suffering from the scourge of traffic accidents, but there is still a difference between Israel and America in that area. When you hear about a car accident somewhere in America, I am certain that you are pained by the news. When we hear about an accident somewhere in Israel, though, we feel the pain with even greater intensity, since the victims are generally Jewish. And there have been far too many accidents in recent times. Even one accident would be too much, and when there are multiple such disasters, it is certainly highly distressing.

A recent car crash on the road leading to the Dead Sea claimed the lives of two young men, Amit Bar-Lev and Hillel Lalum, from the settlement of Elazar in Gush Etzion. Shlomo Neeman, the head of the Gush Etzion Regional Council (whom I once interviewed for the Yated), announced that the entire Gush Etzion was in mourning following the deaths. The two youths were buried in the cemetery of Kibbutz Kfar Etzion. At the levayah, the families related that they had immersed in a mikvah near Mitzpe Yericho just before the accident.

This is the latest in a long list of accidents that have taken place over the past months. In one of those accidents, at the Beit Rabban junction in the south, a truck struck a private car, crushing most of the vehicle and taking the lives of half the members of a family. A woman and her son were killed, while her husband, a senior officer in the army, has been hospitalized in critical condition. The fourth member of the family, a young girl, was lightly wounded. The levayah has been postponed for the time being, since the deceased mother’s family is in America.

There has also been no respite from the attempted terror attacks. We have become so accustomed to it that the news programs no longer report on attempted acts of terror that fail to kill or maim innocent Jews. Last week, the director of the Mossad revealed that Israel’s security services are involved in thwarting terror attacks not only within Israel, but throughout the world. He claims that the intelligence that Israel has shared with various countries has served to prevent hundreds of terror attacks, some of which were planned for crowded places such as international airports and would have caused loss of life on a massive scale. Hashem yishmor.

Speaking of terror, this week marks the 25th anniversary of the devastating bombing at the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, which took the lives of 85 people. There is no doubt that the attack was masterminded by Iran, and there is also no question that no one was brought to justice for this terrible atrocity. The entire affair was whitewashed after it took place.

The Perilous Road

Binyomin Biegeleisen, the boy who was injured in an accident at the Ramot intersection, passed away last week. It is a terrible tragedy. A sweet, innocent 11-year-old child’s life was suddenly snuffed out. I witnessed the accident on Chol Hamoed Pesach, and I feel a certain connection to the victim. His father, Reb Yisroel Meir, wept bitterly at the levayah and asserted that we can never understand Hashem’s calculations. Since that time, a bicycle rider was injured on the same road.

The chareidi political leadership can certainly attest that they do not share the blame for these accidents. A perusal of the protocols of the Knesset will show that they have worked tirelessly to address the situation. Over and over, they have sounded the alarm over the perilous situation on Golda Meir Boulevard. Their main motivation is their inability to remain silent in the face of an unmistakable danger to human life. Besides, many of the chareidi Knesset members and ministers are residents of Yerushalayim and naturally feel connected to the victim and the situation.

The government officials have always joined the chareidim in expressing shock and concern over the dangerous situation on that road. Tzipi Hotovely, who served in the past as Deputy Minister of Transportation, once claimed that she did not believe the statistics she had received about the number of accidents on the road. When she stood before the Knesset and the figures were presented to her, her shock was plainly visible in her expression. Nevertheless, very little has been done to rectify the situation. The argument that the public transportation lane causes confusion that endangers pedestrians crossing the street, especially children and the elderly, has met with utter apathy. The municipal government pledged to make improvements to the situation, but nothing was done. This, in fact, was the subject of an article I wrote in the Yated several years ago, on July 1, 2016.

Hezbollah Threatens to Destroy Us

Last weekend, Hezbollah marked the 13th anniversary of the Second Lebanon War. Almost every week, they find some reason to make dramatic pronouncements. In honor of this occasion, the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, was interviewed and declared, “The Islamic opposition is stronger than ever, and it has the ability to destroy Israel completely and to drive it back to the Stone Age. The rockets and missiles of Hezbollah are precise enough to target any spot in Israel, from Rosh Hanikra to Eilat.” He held a map in his hand and demonstrated how he plans to rain rockets and missiles on all the Israeli population centers along the coast, from Ashdod to Netanya, in a strip of land 70 kilometers long and 20 kilometers wide. He also threatened to target the ammonia factory in Haifa, creating an explosion that he claimed has the potential to cause thousands of Israeli fatalities. He claimed that any war would place Israel on the brink of annihilation.

What Nasrallah forgot is that his own military, political and economic situations are quite dismal. He did not remember that Israel has already discovered the tunnels that his people toiled for many years to dig into Israel. He boasted pompously, “Any war with Israel will include not only rocket and missile fire, but also a ground campaign. The plan to invade the Galil is still in force.” He added that the American sanctions on Hezbollah are “a badge of honor for us.”

In Israel, efforts were made to downplay his statements. Nasrallah is generally treated as a braggart and saber rattler who makes empty threats. He has been living in a bunker for over ten years, although that hasn’t prevented him from declaring that he will soon pray at “Al Aqsa” (the Muslim term for the Har Habayis). On the other hand, it seemed that Israel could not allow his statements to pass without some sort of response. At the beginning of the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday morning, Netanyahu declared, “If they dare to take the foolish step of attacking Israel, we will deal a crushing military blow to him and to Lebanon. Unlike Nasrallah, I have no intention of revealing my plans in detail,” he added, warning the Hezbollah leader not to become arrogant.

Productive Meetings in Kiev

Last week, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri took a brief trip to Ukraine. He was accompanied by a delegation consisting of senior officials in the Population and Immigration Authority, headed by its director-general, Shlomo Mor Yosef, as well as Reuven (Ruvi) Shemesh, the government legal advisor in that area, and Rav Shalom Arush, one of the most influential rabbonim in the Breslover community. Deri and his delegation traveled there for the purpose of putting an end to the obstacles that Ukrainian immigration officials have been imposing on Israelis, especially chareidim, arriving in their country at the airports in Odessa and Kiev. In recent times, Israeli travelers have been suffering from harassment at the hands of the Ukrainians, and there was great concern that if the situation continues, it will disrupt the mass pilgrimage to Uman for Rosh Hashanah. This topic falls within Deri’s purview not only because he is the counterpart of the Ukrainian official responsible for the situation, but also because the Ukrainians claim that their policies have been implemented in retaliation for Israel’s disdainful treatment of Ukrainian visitors. And that is actually somewhat true: Every Ukrainian tourist is automatically suspected of having come to Israel with the intention of remaining here, and must prove otherwise before being allowed into the country.

Let me explain. A month ago, the Israeli media reported that the director of the Ukrainian State Border Guard Service had been dismissed. In Israel, this announcement was met with rejoicing; finally, it seemed, the ongoing harassment of Israelis arriving in Kiev and Odessa would come to an end. The news report revealed some details about the shameful treatment to which Ukrainian International Airlines subjected its passengers. There were incidents in which flights were canceled at the last minute, or when flights were delayed to the point that Shabbos-observant Jews were forced to give up their flights in order to avoid desecrating the Shabbos. The article also mentioned that some high-level meetings had taken place between Israeli and Ukrainian officials.

The facts in this report, however, were somewhat inaccurate. It was indeed true that there had been some meetings between the officials, attended on the Ukrainian side by the Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs in Ukraine, who is responsible for her country’s immigration service as well. On the Israeli side, the participants were members of the Population Authority: Shlomo Mor Yosef (the director of the Population and Immigration Authority, who previously served as director of the National Insurance Institute and of Hadassah Hospital), Amnon Shmueli (the head of the Border Control Administration), and Ruvi Shemesh (the aide to the Interior Minister who is responsible for matters concerning immigration or foreign workers, and for fielding complaints submitted by the public or by government officials). They were also joined by Yoel Leon, a former member of the Ministry of Religious Affairs, who serves today as the Israeli ambassador to Ukraine. Leon is an observant Jew, an accomplished statesman, and a charming fellow.

On the other hand, the firing of Petro Tsyhykal, the former Head of the State Border Guard Service of the Ukraine, had no connection to their meeting. Tsyhykal’s dismissal was the result of the change in presidents of Ukraine. He had been a supporter of outgoing president Petro Poroshensko, and the new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, chose to replace him with one of his own loyalists. The issue of the Ukrainian airline is also not connected to this story. The airline is a commercial company that treats its passengers like hostages, and the way to deal with that is simply to hit the company in its pocket by choosing a different airline instead. That has no connection to the question of who oversees the country’s border crossings.

Paving the Way for Rosh Hashanah in Uman

The core issue, as I mentioned, is the attitude of Ukrainian immigration officials toward Jewish travelers in general, and religious travelers in particular, which has been abysmal. I can attest to that on a personal level: My son and his wife traveled to the country to visit Uman and Mezhibuzh, and they, along with every other passenger who was religious in appearance, were detained for a lengthy period of time. Any passenger who didn’t immediately answer the question of where he planned to sleep was sent directly back to Israel. Anyone who was there for the first time was detained for hours. In one incident, this took place on a Friday and caused major distress to the travelers. In those cases, the detained passengers often contacted chareidi officials in the Israeli government, such as Meir Porsh and Interior Minister Deri, to ask them to intervene on their behalf. And that worked.

The meeting between officials in the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs, headed by its deputy minister, and the Israeli Interior Ministry, along with Israel’s ambassador to Ukraine, was supposed to lead to a substantial change. The Ukrainian deputy minister understood her guests’ arguments very well and internalized the fact that the continued brutal harassment of Israeli travelers would lead to a crisis in relations between the countries. Shortly thereafter, a document that was signed was handed out to all the participants and became a position paper, stating clearly that the current situation would not be allowed to continue. The Israeli delegation deserves to be fully commended for their efforts, as does the Interior Minister of Israel. This is yet another accomplishment for Deri, which will impact hundreds, possibly thousands, of Israeli travelers who plan to visit the kivrei tzaddikim or Jewish communities in Ukraine, especially with the approach of Rosh Hashanah and the masses of visitors descending upon Uman for the Yom Tov.

The discussions led to a signed agreement, and Aryeh Deri traveled to Ukraine last Thursday to formalize it. He met the new Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, and signed an agreement with his Ukrainian counterpart to put an end to the obstacles that the authorities had placed before Israelis attempting to visit the country. Deri, who is a man of few words, declared at a joint press conference in Kiev, “We are pleased that, along with Rav Shalom Arush, we have succeeded in opening the gates to the tefillos of Rosh Hashanah in Uman and at the kivrei tzaddikim in Ukraine.”

Traffic Changes in Yerushalayim

After all the warnings and dire proclamations, I cannot say that there were fearsome traffic jams at the entrance to Yerushalayim this past Sunday. The roads were no more congested than usual for the entrance to the city on a typical Sunday morning. By now, we have grown accustomed to dealing with heavy traffic at the entrance to Yerushalayim, since the roads have been under construction for months already. Chief among the construction projects is another designated lane for public transportation that will run from the entrance to the city toward Rechov Yirmiyohu.

But Sunday was marked by the complete closure of the road leading from the intersection at the entrance to Yerushalayim (at the Chords Bridge) in the direction of the Binyonei Ha’umah convention center, where the road intersects with Rechov Sarei Yisroel. A motorist arriving in Yerushalayim will no longer be able to drive straight ahead into the city. He will have to turn right toward Herzl Boulevard (in the direction of Har Herzl, Bayit Vegan, and Hadassah Hospital) or take the left turn slightly before that intersection and drive in the direction of Rechov Yirmiyohu and Ganei Geulah. The road leading straight ahead was closed on Sunday at 10:00 in the morning, and it is scheduled to remain closed for the next three years! Dozens of police officers were deployed to direct traffic in the area, as if there was something incredibly complicated about the situation—or as if someone was afraid that the drivers would not obey the instructions they were given.

The first day after the change passed without any sort of mishap. The media outlets that had predicted the worst traffic congestion in the country’s history—including one local paper in Yerushalayim that warned its readers to “prepare for gehennom”—were forced to swallow their doomsday predictions. The officials in charge of the construction, meanwhile, declared that they were surprised. I had to wonder what had surprised them – the fact that the motorists had obeyed the signs and the police officers’ instructions?

Almost Time to Submit the Lists

And then there is the election campaign.

There isn’t much time left for posturing or negotiating. The deadline for the parties to submit their lists of candidates to the Central Elections Committee, headed by Supreme Court Justice Chanan Meltzer, is only a week away. And yes, the judge who headed the committee before the previous election has retained his position. I have mentioned in the past that the Central Elections Committee is always headed by a justice of the Supreme Court. We, the employees of the Knesset, were actually quite fond of Meltzer, more than any of his predecessors from previous election campaigns. One day, when I entered the building, I found him standing in the doorway of his office. When he caught sight of me, he greeted me with excitement, “Yaakovson! I missed you!” I have probably told you in the past that the committee takes over the entire first floor of the Knesset building. This time, the judge is occupying the office where I typically work. “Be careful,” I warned him. “Lashon hara is not spoken in this room.”

So there is only one week remaining until we will know if Ayelet Shaked will be joining Naftoli Bennett again or if she will join the Union of Right-Wing Parties. Peretz and Smotrich are interested in having her, but without any preconditions; they will decide only later whether the top slot in the party will be held by Shaked or Peretz. Bennett is entertaining the idea of relocating to New York and becoming the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, a post that Prime Minister Netanyahu offered him just this week.

The left will also have to make some decisions, although it seems unlikely that there will be any major changes there. Ehud Barak has raised the possibility that he might join the Labor party or Meretz, although they do not seem to have much interest in taking him. There is also some infighting within the ranks of the Blue and White party, especially due to the sense that Yair Lapid has become a dead weight, not to mention a threat to any possible future alliance between Blue and White and the chareidim. Nevertheless, the friction hasn’t reached the point that Gantz and his fellow former Chiefs of Staff, Yaalon and Ashkenazi, seem to be on the verge of parting ways with Lapid.

Who Needs Lieberman?

On that note, it is important for me to follow up on something that I wrote last week. At the time, I noted that both Likud and the Blue and White party released official statements that if the next election results in another impasse, and they have no choice but to form a unity government, they will manage without Lieberman altogether. One of our distinguished readers questioned me about my source for that information.

First of all, one does not have to be a genius in order to envision such a scenario. If neither of the two major parties manages to form a government on its own, and they have no choice but to create a unity government, then they would have no reason to include Lieberman at all, especially since he will demand the position of Defense Minister, which is a particularly important commodity in a unity government. But if I am pressed for a source, then I would quote Amit Segal, who is indisputably connected to reliable sources of information. Here is Segal on Channel 12 on July 5: “Senior officials in the Likud and Blue and White have announced in recent days, following Lieberman’s declaration that he will try to force a unity government, that if the situation remains the same, the two parties plan to establish a government on their own, without including the chairman of Yisroel Beiteinu.”

Lieberman himself was interviewed on the radio last Wednesday, and he said the following: “I will continue to work for a unity government, even if it is established without me. It is necessary to think about what is truly most important for Israel, even if it doesn’t include me. In any event, I will never join a government with the chareidim.” Lieberman added that he does not actually believe that he will be left out of the government. I, on the other hand, certainly believe that it could happen.

Elections in the Knesset

This week, there were elections in the Knesset—not for the Knesset, but in it. These elections were for the Knesset employees’ committee. The seven candidates receiving the largest number of votes were elected to serve on the committee, and they were responsible for choosing a chairman from within their own ranks.

These elections offered us a striking glimpse into the absurdities of human behavior. People shook hands and promised to support each other even though they knew they would never have the opportunity to keep those promises. Candidates for the committee strutted around pompously outside the polling stations, only to appear completely deflated after the results of the vote were announced the next day. People wore luxury suits on the day of the voting, radiating dignity and class, only to appear shamefaced and defeated on the next day. There were people who seemed popular yet did not garner a single vote, while a humble young man named Eliezer Schwartz raked in an astonishing number of votes. “How did you do it?” I asked him.

“I always try to help all the employees with anything they need,” he replied modestly.

That, at least, teaches us that there is some level of justice in an election, and that a person can indeed reap what he sows.

At the voting booth, I encountered one of the candidates and asked him, “Why did you bother entering the race? You know that you won’t be one of the seven winners!”

He laughed and replied conceitedly, “I will be either in the first or second place.” The next day, when it was revealed that he had been defeated, I asked again what had prompted him to enter the race. This time, he replied, “I wasn’t the foolish one; it was the other employees who didn’t vote for me.”

Watching all the political maneuvering in advance of the real Knesset elections, I cannot help but feel that I am observing the fulfillment of Chazal’s warnings about the result of chasing after honor. I can see quite clearly how pride warps a person’s thinking; I find myself astounded by the decisions made by some of the politicians, and I wonder how they came up with their grandiose—even delusional—ideas. Amazingly, the smaller the person, the more exaggerated is the image he seems to have created of himself. Every election campaign yields a megalomaniac who deludes himself into believing that he will receive six or seven mandates, living in his fantasy world until that illusion is shattered on the rocks of reality. In the previous election, it was Moshe Feiglin. This time, it is Ron Kobi. I cannot understand what rational basis can possibly exist for their decisions. How can they ever imagine that 200,000 sane citizens would vote for them?

Of Money and Medicine

Zev Rothstein, the director of Hadassah Hospital, has been summoned for questioning by senior officials in the Finance Ministry—for paying exorbitant salaries to doctors whom he recruited urgently for the hospital’s pediatric oncology ward. That is the same ward that stirred up a major controversy two years ago, when the senior physicians resigned from the hospital staff.

Rothstein did everything in his power in order to recruit excellent doctors to serve the patients in the ward. What’s more, it was his obligation to do so. Even if he paid these doctors two or three times the typical salary of a physician in a hospital, he deserves to be applauded for it. If he hadn’t done everything humanly possible to bring in the most highly qualified doctors on an immediate basis, he would have betrayed his responsibilities as a hospital director and as a doctor. How can anyone have the audacity to place him under investigation for it?

With the Lev Simcha in Lakewood

Forty years ago, I was a yeshiva bochur in Lakewood, a young man from Eretz Yisroel who had traveled to America to learn in the largest yeshiva in the world. Until I managed to find a room, I was graciously hosted by Reb Moishe Solomon, who owned the only religious hotel in Lakewood. The hotel owner was a Belzer chossid with a golden heart and a remarkable capacity for chesed,who had himself come to America from Israel. Any Israeli who was in need of accommodations, or anyone who sought moral support of any kind, benefited from his kindness—and he refused to accept even a single cent in exchange for his hospitality.

During the three weeks that I was his guest, I noticed an elderly man who arrived alone and spent nearly a week at the hotel. Every day, this man sat and learned for many hours, and I was certain that if I asked him, he would be glad to be my chavrusah. Nevertheless, I failed to make that request. On the day he left, I asked Moishe Solomon who he was. His answer surprised me: “He is the brother of the Gerrer Rebbe.” That man was the Lev Simcha of Ger, whose yahrtzeit was marked this past week.

To think that I had had no idea of the distinguished guest’s identity! The hotelier revealed to me that the Lev Simcha came to his establishment every year for a vacation of sorts. That is not to say that the Lev Simcha himself was seeking a place to vacation. Rather, he had a relative who stayed regularly in the hotel and who was ill and lived alone. Thus, the Lev Simcha managed to kill two proverbial birds with a single stone: He was able to spend a week learning undisturbed in a remote location, and he was able to bring emotional succor to a lonely relative.

There are some things that a person regrets doing over the course of his life, although I will not go into detail on that note. Then there are things that a person regrets not doing. I will never forgive myself for failing to take advantage of the week that I spent in the presence of the Lev Simcha while he sat in solitude, with no one else vying for his attention. Every year, on his yahrtzeit, I feel a pang of regret once again.

Tzedakah Collectors at the Kosel

A quiet legal debate is taking place concerning the people who collect tzedakah at the Kosel. A criminal case has been opened against two of those collectors, and the Public Defense Office has applied to join the case as a friend of the court. They claim that the legal prohibition on collecting charity at the Kosel, which is a highly unusual law, is illegal, unconstitutional (although I cannot tell you what the difference is between those two terms), and outrageous.

Charges have also been brought against a woman who stood at the entrance to the women’s section at the Kosel and begged for donations from passersby. A letter from the Public Defense Office claims that this woman has three daughters who are suffering from a rare disease and has already lost a fourth daughter. They state that it should be unthinkable for such a person, who is the very embodiment of poverty, to be judged as a criminal for seeking tzedakah. What she did, they maintained, was nothing more than attempting to survive. “The nature of a society is reflected in the way it relates to the poor and disadvantaged,” they added.

Until now, I was not aware of these proceedings. I remember that the rov of the Kosel, who has always proven wise and resourceful in his management of the most sensitive site in the world, asked Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein if tzedakah collectors should be prohibited to beg for funds at the Kosel. Rav Zilberstein, who cited Rav Chaim Kanievsky’s opinion in his reply, responded that they should not be driven away, except those who deviated significantly from the standards of proper conduct.

Separating Business from Chesed

This past Shabbos, a chareidi family from Yerushalayim—a father, a mother, and three small children—spent Shabbos in a tzimmer (vacation cottage) in the north. They had made all the appropriate inquiries in advance, and the accommodations met their expectations. The surrounding scenery was breathtaking, and the cottage was close to a shul. When they arrived, they saw that the cottage didn’t exactly live up to the descriptions that had been presented to them. However, it was still reasonable enough. They made one last attempt to bargain the owner down to a lower price, but their efforts were in vain. The owner, who was a religious man himself, stubbornly refused to reduce the price even by a single shekel.

On Friday night, one of their children suddenly began suffering from terrible pain and was rushed to the nearby Ziv Hospital in an ambulance, which created a sensation in the small community. His mother accompanied him to the hospital, and for the remainder of that Shabbos, the owner of the cottage attended to all the needs of the father and his other children, showering them with toys and treats. On Motzoei Shabbos, the mother called her husband to inform him that the doctors had decided to remove their son’s appendix in the morning.

Upon hearing the news, the owner of the tzimmer announced that the family was welcome to stay for free until the boy was released from the hospital.

“Yesterday, you argued with us over every shekel,” the father said in surprise. “When did you become a philanthropist?”

“One thing has nothing to do with the other!” the owner replied. “Yesterday was a matter of business, but today you are in distress. Don’t you realize that I am also a Jew?”