My Take on the News

Election News

Shaked Takes the Top Spot

We have known all along that as we approached the deadline for submitting the party lists to the Central Elections Committee, the political situation in Israel would become clearer. Indeed, the exact picture of each political party is rapidly taking shape. Unless something changes at the last minute, it now seems that the political right will consist of two separate lists: one very large and prominent, and the other hovering around the electoral threshold. The first is the United Right, which includes Bennett and Shaked’s New Right party and the right-wing bloc headed by Rafi Peretz and Betzalel Smotrich (who are actually from two separate factions—Bayit Yehudi under Peretz and the National Union under Smotrich). This Sunday night, Rafi Peretz announced that he was willing to relinquish the top spot on his party’s list to Ayelet Shaked. This is a historic development, since it is the first time in the history of the state that the National Religious Party will be headed by a woman—and a chiloni woman, no less. Women have been included in the party’s list since its very inception, but until now, it has been unheard of for the party to be led by a woman.

As of Sunday evening, the other right-wing party consisted of a merger between Otzma, the party of the followers of Rabbi Meir Kahane, and the Noam party, a new list consisting of the followers of Rav Tzvi Tau. Rav Tau, who is one of the roshei yeshiva of Merkaz HaRav, finds it intolerable for the National Religious Party to be headed by a woman. Will this combined party manage to cross the electoral threshold? That is something that is very difficult to predict. It is more reasonable to presume that Otzma Yehudit will join the United Right at the last possible moment. If that happens, then it seems inevitable that Noam will withdraw from the race altogether, since they will not stand a chance of making it into the Knesset on their own—even though they are now proclaiming loudly that they will remain in the race until the bitter end, at least for the sake of protest. The polls currently show the United Right receiving between 12 and 16 mandates, which would leave enough seats in the Knesset for Otzma Yehudit’s representatives as well.

A Question of Blocs

Nevertheless, what ultimately matters the most is the respective sizes of the right- and left-wing blocs. Therefore, it is not clear that the unification of these right-wing parties will ultimately yield any benefit. According to the current projections, it seems that neither the left nor the right will pass the minimum threshold of 60 mandates to form a coalition, which makes the situation not very promising. The United Right may not lose votes this time around, but any votes it receives will be transferred from elsewhere within the right itself, primarily from the Likud, and will not impact the left in any way. And that means that the net gain from the right’s unification is very small.

According to the latest polls, the right-wing bloc is expected to receive about 57 seats, with the left-wing bloc coming in about one or two below that. The remaining mandates, about eight or nine in total, seem to be headed toward Avigdor Lieberman. And Lieberman has been loudly proclaiming that he will not sit in the same government as the chareidim or the political right. This is somewhat bizarre, since Lieberman has always been part of the right and was quite chummy with the chareidim. But that is not the only mystery regarding his behavior in recent times, when he has become a veritable enigma.

Nor can we understand exactly which voters are going to award Lieberman those eight or nine—or, according to some polls, ten—mandates. In the election campaign, Lieberman has declared himself to be a centrist, so who will vote for him? The political right abhors him and his conduct, especially since he declared a personal vendetta against Netanyahu. Most of the Russians in Israel, who are Lieberman’s prime constituents, identify with the right. So who, then, is going to vote for Lieberman? The anti-religious sector? Ostensibly not, since they have Yesh Atid. And even if Lieberman will be able to steal votes from Yesh Atid, how many votes can he possibly take from them? Remember, Lieberman also has competition for the anti-religious niche in the form of Ron Kobi, who is vying for votes from the same sector.

To make a long story short, even if all the rosy predictions come true and the expanded right wing reaches 14 mandates or more, and even if the chareidi parties maintain their representation—and the Likud, of course, loses a few mandates—it will still be impossible to form a right-wing government without Avigdor Lieberman.

Responding to Rhetoric with Silence

After Ron Kobi failed in his latest attempt to pass the municipal budget in Teveria, he lashed out against the chareidim once again. His coarse style causes many people to shudder. His political rival, Avigdor Lieberman, is also continuing his own campaign of incitement against the chareidim. This week, Lieberman proclaimed loudly that he isn’t really demanding anything from the chareidim—only that they enlist in the army and go to work.

Kobi and Lieberman have one thing in common: They both plan to build their political success on the backs of the chareidim. At the same time, they have been squabbling with each other; one calls the other a clown, and his rival responds by calling him an oddball. Not long ago, following a discussion with the Jewish People Policy Institute, Prime Minister Netanyahu announced the establishment of a government agency that would work to combat anti-Semitism in the Diaspora. To that, I ask: What about the anti-Semitism in Israel itself? In Teveria, for instance?

I believe that there is a general consensus that no one will allow Lieberman and his ilk the satisfaction of fomenting discord between the chareidim and the Russian community. Nevertheless, there are some public figures here and there who seem to be incapable of restraining their tongues, and that is very unfortunate. Someone is going to have to force them to remain silent in order to prevent the situation from deteriorating further. I am awed by the MKs of the Shas party, who have refrained from making any public comments about Ron Kobi. Kobi has repeatedly attacked Aryeh Deri with vicious invective, yet he has been met with absolute silence. I don’t know if anyone gave this order to the party’s MKs, but it is certainly a wise move.

The members of the Teveria city council are also deserving of praise for putting their personal interests aside and voting against Kobi’s budget, which is unprofessional, unethical, and full of holes. By rejecting the budget, the council members have essentially given up their positions in the municipal government—positions that are coveted by any local askan. But they will certainly be rewarded one day for their self-sacrifice. We all admire them for their nobility.

Amir Peretz Tries to Appeal to Periphery Voters

On the left, the situation has also become quite clear. It seems that the Arabs will run on a single joint list. They actually have four smaller parties, only one of which—Balad—is still uncertain of whether it will join the others. Still, now that the other three parties have declared their intention to join together, it seems almost certain that Balad will merge with them as well, rather than risking political liquidation. In the previous elections, the Arabs divided into two separate parties, each consisting of a merger of two factions, and one of the two Arab parties barely managed to cross the electoral threshold. There would be no sense in one of the parties running separately this time.

Meretz, meanwhile, was fearful of running alone and sought allies. The most natural alliance would be between Meretz and Labor, but Amir Peretz, the new chairman of the Labor party, approved a merger between Labor and Orly Levi’s Gesher party last week, and Levi is not considered part of the left. In fact, until recently, she was a member of Lieberman’s party, Yisrael Beiteinu. Levi is the daughter of David Levi, a senior member of the Likud party for decades. Therefore, the merger between Labor and Gesher effectively torpedoed the chances of either Meretz or Ehud Barak joining with the party. Peretz explained that he had chosen to merge with Gesher in the hope that she would bring in votes from the periphery of the country, including from right-wing voters.

That left Meretz with only one option: running jointly with Ehud Barak, who is also concerned that he may not pass the electoral threshold. Thus, Barak’s party, Democratic Israel, was absorbed into the Meretz list, and Barak himself was given the tenth spot on the list. This seems to imply that he is confident that the newly combined party will receive ten mandates. But even if that does not happen, Barak won’t be overly concerned, since the merger agreement called for him to be given the first ministerial portfolio. This actually serves Barak’s interests quite well: If Netanyahu wins and forms the next government, then Barak would have no interest in remaining in the Knesset as a relatively powerless MK. And if the next government is headed by Benny Gantz, then he will represent Meretz as a government minister—and it is no secret that Barak has set his sights on the position of defense minister.

So there you have it: Both on the right and on the left, the political situation has begun to become clear.

Shas Launches Its Election Campaign

Last week, the Shas party officially opened its election campaign, with the slogan “hakoach hachevrati” (“social power”). This was a slogan suggested by the party’s political strategists. Today, as you know, everything is determined by advisors. The party’s logo also proclaims that its members have been the emissaries of Rav Ovadiah Yosef for 37 years. Of course, the speech launching the campaign was delivered by Aryeh Deri, who responded to questions from reporters after he had made his remarks, Deri sounded more authoritative than in the past. He is no longer the youngest minister in the government; on the contrary, he is now in the position of the responsible adult. Of course, the reporters tried to goad Deri into attacking Lieberman or Ron Kobi, but he didn’t take the bait.

Addressing the average secular voter, Shas explained that anyone who votes for them will be their partner in the establishment of mikvaos and shuls, and will be supporting a party with a socially oriented agenda. Shas, like UTJ, is considered a socially conscious party, which is a natural outgrowth of their fealty to daas Torah and to the mitzvos of the Torah, which naturally results in a commitment to helping the poor or underprivileged. With the launch of the party’s electoral campaign, which is predicated on Shas’s commitment to the disadvantaged, the party’s activists were plunged into a frenzy of activity.

In UTJ, as well, the campaign is getting underway. Electoral councils have already been established, and meetings have already been held. The Ashkenazic chareidi party has also discovered that social issues are of tremendous importance in the current campaign, and they certainly have plenty to offer their voters in that respect. The MKs of United Torah Judaism are considered social activists of the highest order. Plenty of laws aimed at benefiting the average citizen were introduced on the initiative of the party’s members.

The Chareidi MKs and Social Issues

Last week, the Knesset Education Committee held a meeting to discuss whether the Education Ministry is adequately prepared to contend with students suffering from food allergies. There are hundreds of thousands of students in Israel’s schools who suffer from allergies to various foods, such as milk, sesame, or many other ordinary food items. I came to the committee session to see who was in attendance. (I should note that in light of the elections, there are only two Knesset committees that are currently operating: the Finance Committee, which is dealing with urgent budgetary matters, and the Education Committee, which must carry on its work in light of the impending opening of the school year. The latter committee is chaired by MK Yaakov Margi of the Shas party.)

Due to the large number of participants in the committee session, it was transferred from the committee’s usual location to the larger Negev hall. Yaakov Margi oversaw the committee session efficiently and authoritatively, quelling interruptions and making sure that the speakers were heard. Throughout the session, he also demonstrated masterful knowledge of the subject matter. At one point, when he called upon a member of the Knesset to speak, he said to her, “You have two minutes to say anything you wish, but not to sing.” When a baby who was held by a woman participating in the meeting began crying, Margi remarked, “He is the only person whom I allow to disturb this meeting.”

I noticed that the meeting was also attended by a couple of Knesset members who are not members of the committee: Yaakov Asher of Degel HaTorah and Yinon Azulai of the Shas party. They may not be part of the committee, but they care about the issue. On the other hand, most of the actual members of the committee did not attend this session, in spite of its importance.

As I said, the chareidi MKs can certainly boast of being socially conscious.

The Deputy Minister and the Nurses

Last week, there was a nurses’ strike in Israel. Of course, when the country’s nurses initiate a work stoppage, it can pose a threat to human life. In the distant past, there was a protest in the hospitals, the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, headed by the Vizhnitzer Rebbe, intervened to put an end to the strike. Decades have passed since that incident.

This time, the strike didn’t attract much attention in the media, which was preoccupied with other matters. Besides, it was only the nurses who were on strike; the doctors continued working. Nevertheless, one of the country’s media outlets interviewed Deputy Minister Yitzchak Cohen, who serves as the deputy foreign minister. Cohen praised Rabbi Yaakov Litzman, the Deputy Minister of Health, for his “special sensitivity to social issues,” as well as the director-general of the Health Ministry, who had previously worked in the Finance Ministry. He even hailed the Health Ministry itself as “the best in the world.” The interviewer asked if he had anything positive to say about the nurses, and Cohen surprised him with his response. “No one needs to tell me what it means to be a nurse and how much dedication it takes,” he asserted. “Both of my daughters-in-law are nurses!”

Lapid Proves That Silence Is Golden

Yair Lapid never ceases to astound us with his capacity for making a fool of himself. This week, he invited further ridicule with his response to the dismissal of Emi Palmor, the director-general of the Justice Ministry. Lapid claimed that his father had initially appointed Palmor to her first position in the ministry. The refutation was fast in coming: Palmor had taken that position in the year 2000, long before the senior Lapid entered the Ministry of Justice in the year 2003.

This is the latest in a long list of inaccuracies and contradictory statements that Lapid has delivered to the public. (He once asserted that there is “definitely” religious coercion in the country, and later insisted that there wasn’t. He also once claimed that only an economist may be the Minister of Finance, and later stated with equal vehemence, “There is no reason for the Minister of Finance to be an economist.”) Not long ago, he made a major misstep by calling for Israel to be a “country of all of its citizens,” and he even demonstrated poor reading comprehension. And that is to say nothing of his ludicrous English. Simply put, he is repeatedly proving himself to be an eccentric loudmouth and a ludicrous ignoramus. Yet he still insists on holding the office of prime minister in a rotation agreement!

Globes has a column dedicated to catching and correcting mistakes, and on Wednesday, Lapid was once again caught in a lack of understanding of economics. In an interview with the newspaper, he had said something about the rising public expenditures and the drop in revenues. Lapid cited the figures and added, “This is an absolutely ridiculous number.” Globes investigated the situation and determined that most of Lapid’s statements were not correct.

In short, Yair Lapid is the ultimate proof that silence is golden. If he were to remain silent, then there might be someone who considered him intelligent. But every time he opens his mouth, he proves that that is not the case.

The Magic Ingredient

Something occurred to me at a sheva brachos of the Wolbe family.

The father of the chosson, Reb Avrohom Wolbe of Monsey (the son of the renowned mashgiach Rav Shlomo Wolbe) is named for his maternal grandfather, Rav Avrohom Grodzinsky Hy”d of Slabodka-Kovno, whose 75th yahrtzeit is being marked this week. The chosson’s rosh yeshiva, Rav Yehoshua Eichenstein, arrived at the simcha and took a seat at the back of the room, where I was also sitting.

Rav Eichenstein is an incredible person. In Eretz Yisroel, he is a highly respected rosh yeshiva and is widely regarded as having a special understanding of the needs of our generation. He is unfailingly compassionate and automatically develops a keen understanding of every person he encounters. I watched him with admiration as he radiantly greeted every person who approached him. And there were many people who came to greet him. In his speech, he spoke highly of the family’s illustrious forebears, and quoted Chazal’s statement that in order for the nations not to have grounds to complain, Hashem gave them Bilam, a novi on a par with Moshe Rabbeinu. Then he asked the standard question concerning this maamar Chazal: If that is the case, when why was it specifically Bilam who caused them to sin? And the answer was simple: The nations of the world lack something that only the Jewish people possess—and that something is our Avos, Avrohom, Yitzchok, and Yaakov.

This, the rosh yeshiva added, is similar to the “spice known as Shabbos” with which our Shabbos delicacies are infused. The gentile nations can cook a dish consisting of potatoes, barley, and all the other ingredients of cholent, and they can even leave it to simmer overnight, but the resulting food will not be cholent; it will lack that all-important spice that lends our Shabbos foods their special quality.

At that point, I suddenly realized that I understood the secret to Israeli politics. We can see very clearly that Hashem is fighting the battle against evil on our behalf, while we are not even involved. One month ago, could anyone have imagined that Ehud Barak, the star of the election campaign, would become persona non grata? Would anyone have believed that Yair Lapid would become despised by his political allies and would make a fool of himself every day? Would anyone have dreamed that the calls for “equality in sharing the burden” would become completely marginalized? But the reason for this is simple: We have siyata d’shmaya, the magic “ingredient” that everyone else lacks….

A Mother’s Tears

This week, the mother of an autistic child received an invitation to the annual summer event of B’Lev Echad. The elegant invitation was a work of art in its own right. Every summer, Reb Dovid Weitman and the staff of B’Lev Echad take over the Yamit 2000 facility in Cholon for a day-long event for children with special needs and their families. For one day every summer, the entire park is filled with children suffering from autism or other maladies, along with their families. It is a scene that defies imagination.

From the organizers’ perspective, the logistics are extremely involved. Every child must be accompanied by a counselor, so that their families can relax and enjoy the event themselves. Then there are the first-class performers who are hired to entertain the attendees, and the food and drinks that are provided to all the participants. There are also snack stands, miniature petting zoos, swimming pools, special gifts, and other attractions. It is an event on a massive scale that requires an enormous investment of effort.

For the parents, it is an extraordinary experience. For one day every year, the child with special needs becomes the king of his family. The entire family is invited to an exclusive celebration purely on account of that child. I will probably write more about this event, which takes place immediately after Tisha B’Av. But what I wanted to mention now is that, although that mother certainly knew that B’Lev Echad would never forget her child or his siblings, the mere arrival of that invitation caused her to burst into tears. And they were tears of joy.

When the State Foots the Bill

Last month, Supreme Court Justices Hendel and Karra ordered the state to pay 10 million dollars to the people who had found the remains of Majdi Halabi, a soldier in the IDF who disappeared several years ago. The state had tried to evade the responsibility to pay the reward, claiming that the offer of a reward had expired and that the finders had merely stumbled across the body, which made them undeserving of the reward in any event. A compromise was initially proposed, but the representative of the state rejected it. The judges advised the attorney representing the state to consult with a senior official in the Treasury, since there was a significant risk that the government would be ordered to pay the full sum if the settlement was not accepted. The attorney consulted with her superior and then reported that the official refused to accept a compromise. Ultimately, the Supreme Court ruled that the government was obligated to pay the full 10 million dollars. The state, according to the judges, has no right to renege on its promises; it is obligated to keep its word.

By rejecting the proposed compromise, the Treasury official in question caused a major financial loss for the state. Will he be forced to pay out of his own pocket for his foolhardy decision? And if he isn’t required to pay for the harm he has caused, then what is the guarantee that he will not cause further damage in the future?

And this is not the only case in which one can ask that question. Last week, a correspondent for Galei Tzahal who was fined for libel petitioned for the government to be required to pay the fine, since she is a state employee. (Galei Tzahal is a division of the Ministry of Defense.) Again, I would ask the same question: If the government pays the fine that the court imposed on her, then what will make her be more careful in the future?

The same applies to the police officers in Beit Shemesh who beat a chareidi man who did not move out of their way fast enough for their liking, including one officer who pulled the man’s peyos. If these officers are convicted of crimes and are fined for their misdeeds, then the police force itself will pay the fines. And that simply means that the expense will be borne by the taxpayers. What, then, will prevent a police officer from abusing citizens as he sees fit?

In the past, when public officials were acquitted after being charged with crimes, I formulated a proposed law that stated that if a prosecutor initiates and oversees an investigation that leads to an indictment, he should personally be required to make restitution to the wrongly charged defendant. In a memorandum accompanying the proposal, we explained that only personal responsibility for such injustices will prevent a bureaucratic finger from being too quick on the trigger of prosecution. The bill was vehemently condemned by the Minister of Justice at the time.

Perhaps one of the heights of this absurdity was the case of Chananel Dayan. Dayan was a decorated soldier who refused to shake the hand of Dan Chalutz, the IDF Chief of Staff who presided over the Disengagement, at an official ceremony. General Elazar Stern, a current member of the Knesset (from Yesh Atid) who was the head of the IDF’s manpower division at the time, decided to retaliate against the soldier, and he provided Yair Lapid, who worked as a journalist, with a collection of personal documents that could be used against him. Lapid proceeded to tarnish Dayan’s name in his column, employing a wide assortment of derogatory statements and embarrassing quotes. Dayan responded by suing Stern, who admitted to transferring the documents to Lapid, and a settlement was reached whereby Stern would pay 31,000 shekels to Dayan. And who do you think paid the fine? The army!

Any official in the army or the police force, or any employee of the state, is automatically protected from his own errors. If he causes financial damage to others, even as a result of flagrant negligence, the government will pay for his mistakes. Until criminals such as Stern, the woman from Galei Tzahal, and the police officer from Beit Shemesh, and people guilty of extreme negligence such as the official from the Treasury, are required to pay for their own mistakes or deliberate injustices, this phenomenon is bound to continue.

Coveted Counselor Positions

In the yeshivos of Eretz Yisroel, the most serious bochurim are competing for positions as counselors in Ezer Mizion’s summer camps for children with special needs. Every special needs student—including those with Down syndrome, autism, or serious illnesses—receives a personal counselor, and sometimes two. Experience has shown that the bochurim who take these jobs grow tremendously from this experience, which tends to make them sought after even in the realm of shidduchim.

A person who has never seen these summer camps—whether as a counselor, a camper, or a visiting parent—cannot imagine the wondrous achievement they represent. These weeklong programs give the children, as well as their parents, strength that accompanies them for an entire year! This year, I heard that Reb Zev Shachter, who oversees the summer camp programs, found himself under an enormous amount of pressure in light of the volume of demand. I also heard a rumor that the number of campers has grown to such an extent that the organization can no longer suffice with providing one camp program for boys and another for girls; this time, there will have to be two camps for each gender. This week, I met Rav Chananya Chollak, the director of Ezer Mizion, at an event, and I asked him if it is true that Ezer Mizion will be running two boys’ camps and two girls’ camps this year. Rav Chollak looked at me benevolently and said, “No, it isn’t true.”

“You mean that I heard incorrectly?” I asked. “There isn’t such a great demand?”

“No, you were correct,” he said. “But by now, the volume of demand has led us to decide to open six camps—three for girls and three for boys.”

A Brocha Fulfilled

Many stories have been told of the wonders performed by Rav Ovadiah Yosef. Many of those stories are not even widely known. One of the less well-known stories was told by someone who had an extremely close connection to the rov and was responsible for transcribing Rav Ovadiah’s teshuvos.

“My sister-in-law and her husband waited many long years to be blessed with children,” he recalled. “In light of my connection to the rov, I offered to bring them to see him so that we could receive his brocha together. My wife and I appeared before the rov, along with my sister-in-law and her husband. When Rav Ovadiah saw my sister-in-law, he mistook her for my wife and said, ‘May you have much nachas from your children.’ My sister-in-law was flustered, since she had no children and the brocha for nachas seemed out of place. I realized the rov’s mistake and quickly explained the situation to him, adding that they had come for a brocha for children. The rov thought for a few moments and then turned to her and said, ‘Although you don’t have children, I have already given you a brocha for nachas from your children. With Hashem’s help, you will have children and you will derive nachas from them.’

“Sure enough,” he concluded, “the following year, my sister-in-law and her husband were finally blessed with a daughter.”

Passing in Front of a Person Who Is Davening

In honor of Rav Elyashiv’s seventh yahrtzeit, I will conclude with the following:

Rav Elyashiv was once asked if it is permissible to walk in front of a person who is davening, if one is doing so for the purpose of a mitzvah. Rav Elyashiv replied that it is permissible. In this case, the question was posed regarding a kohein who wishes to take three steps back at the conclusion of his own Shemoneh Esrei in order to wash his hands, or a levi who wishes to wash the hands of a kohein. Rav Elyashiv explained that there are two reasons for the prohibition of passing in front of a person who is davening: the fact that one will interpose between the person who is davening and the Shechinah, and the disruption of the kavanah of the person who is davening. The first reason, Rav Elyashiv explained, does not apply in a case when one’s intent is to perform a mitzvah, since that itself is a means of honoring the Shechinah. He explained this with an analogy: If a king is in the middle of a conversation with someone, and another person walks between them, that is certainly an affront to the king. However, if that person is a waiter who has come to offer drinks to the king and his companion, it is not considered a sign of disrespect. On the contrary, he is present solely for the purpose of honoring the king.

Now, you may be wondering how Rav Elyashiv explained that the second reason is not applicable. “Nowadays,” Rav Elyashiv said, “no one has kavanah anyway….”