My Take on the News

When Will the Netanyahu Trial Begin?

It has been a lively and eventful time in Israel, but not a happy one. The ongoing clashes within the Knesset do not bring joy to anyone. I wrote about this subject last week, but there have since been more developments.

According to the law, every member of the Knesset is entitled to parliamentary immunity. A member of the Knesset may not be placed on trial or indicted on criminal charges. The purpose of this law is to prevent legislators from being intimidated by the prospect of being sued for libel or other such offenses. If a Knesset member is accused of crimes such as financial misconduct, the Knesset must decide to revoke his or her immunity in order for an indictment to proceed. In general, the defendant will ask for the immunity to be removed, since it is not considered befitting for a suspected thief to hide behind immunity rather than paying the price for his crimes, or at least being tried in court and fighting to clear his name. Netanyahu, however, announced that he plans to ask the Knesset Committee to allow him to maintain his immunity, so that he would not be subject to indictment until the conclusion of the 23rd Knesset. He argued that this is precisely the purpose of immunity—to prevent his political opponents from removing him from power through fabricated criminal charges.

At this time, there is no Knesset Committee at all, since the Knesset has already dissolved itself. Blue and White, along with the other parties that are hostile to Netanyahu, are demanding that a committee be established immediately in order to revoke Netanyahu’s immunity. (They are likely to have a majority on any committee that is formed, especially since Lieberman is aligned with the left on this issue.) If that happens, then Netanyahu will be indicted immediately. The political left and the Blue and White party—and presumably Lieberman as well—have a vested interest in seeing the trial begin immediately. It would tarnish Netanyahu’s public image in advance of the elections, which is precisely the reason that Netanyahu has been fighting against the move.

A Petition to the Court

But then came the next development: The Likud argued that the Knesset Committee cannot legally be convened until after the election, since there is no Knesset at this time to appoint the committee. But then the Knesset legal advisor decided to meddle in the controversy, claiming that the committee can indeed be established. The Likud party countered that the legal advisor should recuse himself from the case, since his wife worked for the prosecution as a member of the team that assembled the charges against Netanyahu. The Likud also argued that Eyal Yinon, the Knesset legal advisor, is a witness for the prosecution against Netanyahu and therefore biased. That argument did not hold water, since a witness is not supposed to be partial in the case. Ministers Zeev Elkin and Tzachi Hanegbi are also listed as witnesses for the prosecution; sometimes, the testimony is merely a technical or marginal mater.

Eyal Yinon announced that he will not recuse himself, and the Likud appealed to the Supreme Court. The court asked for Yinon’s response, but Yinon declared that the court case would not deter him from publicizing his decision. On Sunday evening, he announced that he had determined that a Knesset Committee can be established at this time, but there is no obligation to do so. We will now have to wait and see what the Knesset does.

All of this has also taken place in conjunction with some more political turmoil. Netanyahu has been forced to give up the three ministerial portfolios that he has held in addition to the position of prime minister. He decided to appoint three ministers to these newly vacated positions. David Bittan of the Likud party was nominated to serve as Minister of Agriculture, and Itzik Cohen of the Shas party (currently the deputy finance minister) was tapped for the position of Minister of Housing and Construction. Since the decision was made, though, Bittan announced that he is not interested in a ministerial position, and the attorney general instructed Netanyahu to delay the appointments, since it is unclear if he has the legal authority to appoint ministers at this time. Meanwhile, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, the former leader of the Kulanu party, which later merged with the Likud, announced that he has decided to leave political life once again.

Meanwhile, with the election drawing steadily closer, both the right and the left are in disarray. It is still unclear if all the right-wing parties will run together, and there is great concern that votes will be squandered once again if the groups each run on their own. The left-wing parties, meanwhile, are attempting to work out new mergers. We will have a clearer picture of the situation by the end of the week, when the final party lists must be submitted.

The Hero from Nahariya

The stormy weather that shook the country last week has continued into this week. It was saddening to hear about another tragic death, this time an elderly woman in Netanya by the name of Mrs. Dahan, who lived on Rechov Menachem Begin. She passed away from smoke inhalation after the air conditioning unit in her home caught fire. The knowledge that this tragedy could have been prevented is distressing.

On the financial side of things, one newspaper estimated the cost of the damage caused by the storm at a total of 50 million shekels. Another newspaper cited a figure that was four times that number. At the same time, the heavy rainfall saved Israel from a drought; we cannot allow ourselves to calculate the financial damages without looking at the advantages as well.

What should still distress us, though, is the loss of life. Last week, I wrote about the couple who were trapped in an elevator in Tel Aviv. This week, a young baal teshuvah in Nahariya named Motti Ben-Shabbat became a hero to the entire country, when he saved a family who had become stuck in a flash flood in their car. The family nearly drowned, and Ben-Shabbat rushed to their aid. He managed to help them, but then was himself swept away in a whirlpool of sorts—on a main thoroughfare in the city, no less—and drowned. On Sunday, Prime Minister Netanyahu visited the house of mourning, along with Interior Minister Aryeh Deri and Minister Yisroel Katz. I, too, sent my own condolences to the family.

Extremist Agitators

Sometimes, it seems that Israel needs to be reminded that it is in the middle of an election period. The election will be held in only 45 days, but at this time, there is hardly any sign of it in the public domain. Still, in case we have forgotten, the extremist groups are working hard to remind us that it is “prohibited” to vote in the elections. This reminder came in the form of an anonymous e-mail filled with slanderous insults, kefirah, and disdain. These people become involved in every possible conflict, including those surrounding Chinuch Atzmai, the core curriculum, the Vaad HaYeshivos, the cemeteries in Beit Shemesh and in Uman, and other ideas. They have the audacity to oppose the gedolei Yisroel. They view the chareidi politicians as sinners, ignoring the fact that the political leadership operates under the authority of our gedolim.

Their newsletter, which constantly reports on alleged cases of attempts by the IDF to entrap and secularize yeshiva bochurim, is absurd. Over and over, they use convoluted terms to explain the arrests of yeshiva bochurim, claiming that the boys “became entangled in legal troubles regarding their status.” They accuse the army of persecuting these youths and attempting to transform them into chilonim. But the truth is that the bochurim would never have faced any troubles with the army if they had gone through the proper procedures to secure deferments. Occasionally, the newsletter mentions bochurim who transferred to different yeshivos and did not report the change, or “a precious yungerman who went out to work.” These cases translate as instances in which bnei yeshivos ignored the army’s rules; the law prohibits them to work or to leave the country without a permit.

Playing on their readers’ ignorance, the writers of this newsletter manage to contradict themselves repeatedly. “The distinguished yungerman Reb C.B. is the father of a child and learns in kollel,” one article states. “He submitted his last deferment to the army slightly late, since they sent the summons late, and therefore his status was canceled…. He appealed for his status to be reinstated, but in the meantime he received a draft order for the Thursday prior to the holiday of the Giving of our Torah, when he is to be forcibly inducted, Rachmana litzlan.” This incident, which is portrayed as part of a vicious campaign of shmad, could be resolved with a simple phone call to Rav Shlomo Goldenthal of Degel HaTorah or to Moshe Arbel of the Shas party.

A new publication recently sprang up, positioning itself as a competitor to the original sheet. Their writing is equally brutal, not to mention equally unconvincing.

An Outcry Against the Rishon Letzion

Meanwhile, the latest firestorm was sparked by the recent comments of Rav Yitzchak Yosef, the Rishon Letzion, in an address to delivered to rabbonim who were about to leave the country to take positions overseas. Rav Yitzchak asked in advance for his comments not to be recorded or publicized, but someone failed to comply. The result was a major story on Ynet, a widely read secular Internet site, written by its “correspondent on religious affairs,” a man who wears a yarmulke. The story read, “An unprecedented attack was made by the chief rabbi of Israel against immigrants from the former Soviet Union and the Yisroel Beiteinu party. Ynet has received documentation of Rav Yitzchak Yosef, the Rishon Letzion, claiming that the State of Israel has brought ‘masses of full-fledged goyim, who vote for all sorts of anti-religious parties,’ to Israel from Russia. He has even claimed that this was done deliberately, for the purpose of weakening the chareidi community’s political power.”

The article goes on to relate, “At a rabbinic convention held in Yerushalayim last week, Rav Yosef said, ‘Hundreds of thousands or tens of thousands of non-Jews have come to this country because of the ‘Who Is a Jew’ law.’ He was actually referring to a different law: the grandfather clause in the Law of Return. ‘There are many, many goyim here, some of whom are communists, who are hostile to religion and despise religion. They are not Jewish at all, and they vote for parties that incite against chareidim and against religion. They were brought to this country to outweigh the chareidim…. To our great dismay, we can see the fruits of their incitement here…. Some of these immigrant families even go to church every Sunday.”

The publication of the Rishon Letzion’s comments sparked a tidal wave of indignation. It was the subject of the front-page stories of all the country’s newspapers the next day, as well as the opening story on every news program on the radio and television. Everyone was quick to condemn the chief rabbi and to call for his dismissal; even the prime minister added his voice to the chorus of condemnations, and Avigdor Lieberman has already announced that he has new candidates in mind for the positions of Ashkenazic and Sephardic chief rabbi. Perhaps I will report on this at length next week.

What the Critics Forgot

There are a few things that the Rishon Letzion’s critics have forgotten. First, he did not say anything untrue. Everything that he said was an indisputable fact. But when people are determined to attack a man, the facts are often conveniently forgotten.

Second, these comments were made to a group of rabbonim who were about to travel abroad, and he made these statements because they were relevant. Rav Yosef was exhorting the rabbonim to take care to avoid converting non-Jews whose motivations for giyur are improper, in keeping with the halachic requirement to discourage potential converts. Third, everyone has also forgotten that Rav Yosef asked for his statements not to be publicized.

Most important of all, though, is another fact that everyone has ignored, perhaps deliberately: Rav Yosef was responding to the anti-Semitic videos circulated by Yisroel Beiteinu. If you have read my column over the past two weeks, you will know what I am referring to. Alex Kushnir, a member of Yisroel Beiteinu who is the most obscure member of the Knesset, claimed in a video broadcast that the country’s hospitals are lacking funds and their patients are dying because the health funds are covering the costs of medical care for chareidi women for halachic purposes. And I have quoted some other items of vicious slander over the past couple of weeks. Every religious or traditional Jew in the country was outraged by their vitriol. Against this backdrop, Rav Yitzchak Yosef’s harsh statements can be understood.

But even if it were true that the Rishon Letzion went too far, and that the widespread condemnation and calls for his dismissal were justified, there is something else to consider. Even Netanyahu, as I said, has joined the proverbial bandwagon. But where were all of Rav Yitzchak’s critics when the chareidi community itself was targeted with incitement and slander? Why did they remain silent at the time, instead of speaking up in protest? Why were they only galvanized into action by alleged incitement against non-Jewish immigrants?

Anti-Semitic Graffiti in Tel Aviv

MK Yoel Razvozov responded (in Russian) to Rav Yitzchak Yosef’s statements as follows: “Rav Yosef is permitting himself to incite against a million residents of the country who pay taxes from their salaries. Judaism does not belong only to him…. It is a shame to see a state employee bringing us back into the days of darkness solely because his neighbors are people who were not born in Israel. ‘Honored’ rabbi, is something dissatisfactory to you? Then please tell us!”

Meanwhile, on a wall in Tel Aviv, an unknown vandal scrawled the words “Hitler was right.” This unequivocally anti-Semitic statement was found beneath a bridge in Tel Aviv in the midst of this controversy. And since it was written in Russian, it left little doubt as to the affiliation of the perpetrator. But, of course, the incident was allowed to pass in silence.

This was a clear illustration of Rav Yosef’s comment that there are many thousands of non-Jews in this country, many of whom are openly hostile to Judaism. And again, what was incorrect about this?

But I have another question to ask: What happened to the sense of responsibility of the reporter who broke this story—who, as I pointed out, wears a yarmulke? The Rishon Letzion does not allow anyone to intimidate him or to prevent him from saying what needs to be said, and that is precisely as it should be. But what could anyone have hoped to gain by publicizing his statements in the media? And why did the writer of the article see fit to report on it? Shouldn’t a journalist have a sense of responsibility?

On Chanukah, I attended an event at a shul in Kiryat Menachem known as Zechor L’Avrohom. Rav Yitzchak Yosef was the guest of honor at this event. The mora d’asra of the shul is Rav Michael Amos, who is a close friend of Rav Yitzchak and his colleague on the Bais Din Hagadol. At this event, Rav Yitzchak spoke against people who demand that Sephardim adopt the practices of Ashkenazim. This isn’t the place to go into details, but I will point out that he used some very harsh language against certain well-known individuals. If I were to publicize his comments, I would have fodder for front-page stories for several days. But do you think that I had the slightest thought of doing that? Absolutely not! Because journalism must come along with responsibility!

Decent Men in the Prison Service

This week, the Minister of Internal Security announced that he has given up. He has been trying to appoint top officials for the police force and the Prison Service, but he has found himself facing an endless array of hurdles, as his efforts have been rejected on account of the transitional government. As the process seemed to be interminably stalled, he received special authorization to make a permanent appointment; this week, however, he saw that he was still going to be thwarted, and he decided that he had had enough.

As far as I am concerned, it is a good thing that the current temporary head of the Prison Service, Asher Vaknin, who holds the rank of commissioner rather than chief commissioner, is remaining in his position. In fact, he was one of the candidates for the top position itself; Minister Erdan submitted two names to the appointments committee, but they asked him to present only one candidate, and he was angered by the demand. Vaknin is a religious man who is sensitive to the plight of prison inmates, and I believe that he deserves to be permanently appointed to the post. He and his staff are not arrogant or hardhearted, which is something that cannot be taken for granted in the Prison Service.

I would also like to add a word of praise for the rov of the Prison Service, Rav Ofer (Moshe) Elmaliach, who has proven to be the right man in the right place for the inmates in the country’s prisons. With his dedication, his sense of responsibility, his concern for others, and his modesty, Rav Elmaliach can boast of incredible accomplishments, including in the realm of kiruv. He is available and attentive to every prisoner about any issue. He also insists that his staff must do everything in their power to help every inmate, as he oversees their work and does not find any task to be beneath him. Unfortunately, it was announced this week that he is suspected of taking bribes to advance the interests of various prisoners. He must be presumed innocent until proven guilty. We hope that the charges will be found to have been erroneous.

1418 Bills Gone to Waste

Over the past two weeks, I reported to you on an assortment of laws that were placed on the Knesset table. When a law is placed on the Knesset table, it means that it can be brought up for discussion in the Knesset after 45 days have passed. This will not happen now, though, since the Knesset has already dissolved itself. Furthermore, even if it hadn’t dissolved, the fvast majority of those proposed laws would not have been approved by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, and therefore would not have stood a chance of being passed. Aside from that, the Knesset discusses a maximum of ten bills every week, most of which are rejected. Since almost 1500 bills were submitted, you can imagine that only a small percentage of them would have been brought to a debate under the best of circumstances.

During the final week of the Knesset’s operation, 214 new bills were submitted. This is clear from the official records of the Knesset, as is the fact that a total of 1418 proposed laws were submitted over the past month. And at the moment that the Knesset dissolved itself, all of those bills were buried.

Here are a few examples of the most recent proposed laws, which will no longer see the light of day. MK Yinon Azulai (along with his colleagues in the Shas party and MK Sheetrit of the Likud) submitted a bill that would have extended the period in which a citizen can apply for a stipend from the National Insurance Institute, as well as the period of time in which it is paid. MK Michoel Malchieli had already submitted a series of bills dealing with taxation and payments to the National Insurance Institute; Azulai’s bill added another detail that hadn’t been included in the previous legislative work. Another bill dealt with overhead expenses of self-employed workers, while a third was intended to correct a major injustice in the tax laws concerning real estate purchase groups. MKs Yaakov Asher and Uri Maklev also submitted dozens of proposed new laws, many of which were intended to assist the needy, while others would have benefited the Torah world.

These potential laws were important and necessary, but, as I said, the Knesset has dissolved itself, and even if it had continued operating, the vast majority of appropriate laws are opposed by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation if they are deemed a drain on the country’s coffers. On the other hand, the Shas party has succeeded in previous years in opening fruitful dialogues with the National Insurance Institute and other such bodies; one wonders if some of their initiatives might have succeeded now, as well.

No Shtreimels Behind Bars

I have an interesting habit of monitoring the motions for the agenda and parliamentary queries filed by the members of the Knesset. Some of the details are available only to authorized users of the Knesset computer network. In any event, here is a direct parliamentary query (to which the minister delivers a written response, which is not read aloud in the Knesset), submitted by MK Samy Abu Shahadeh:

“It has been brought to my attention that in the Ayalon prison, there is religious discrimination between Arab prisoners and Jewish prisoners. According to the information given to me, Jewish inmates have access to a room for prayer and study where they pray three times a day. In contrast, Christian and Muslim inmates are not given similar accommodation, even though this demand has been raised more than once by Arab prisoners. 1. What are the religious services received by the inmates in Ayalon Prison? 2. If the situation is as described above, what is your ministry doing, or what does it plan to do, in order to create equality between the conditions for Arab prisoners and Jewish prisoners?”

Parenthetically, there is a room in the Knesset designated as a place of prayer for Muslims. My observations have shown that the room is almost always empty; the layers of dust can be seen even from the corridor outside.

In any event, I would present a question of my own to the Minister of Internal Security: The Jewish inmates have been barred from wearing special attire for Shabbos and davening. They are not permitted to wear bekeshes, shtreimels, or even gartels, to the best of my knowledge. Litvish prisoners are also prohibited to wear Shabbos clothes or even hats. This is a severe violation of human rights, especially the right to dignity. As one chareidi inmate asked me rhetorically, “Would they dare tell an Arab prisoner not to wear a keffiyeh?”

So before Erdan accounts for the discrimination against Arab prisoners, let him explain the discrimination against chareidi inmates!

Praise for Shmulik Litov

Here is another tidbit from the Knesset that I feel obligated to share: In general, the Knesset’s sittings on Wednesdays begin with urgent parliamentary queries, which involve mini-debates. Last week, Transportation Minister Betzalel Smotrich was addressing the Knesset on the subject of the “Netiv Plus” plan for carpool lanes, although he did not like the use of the word “plus,” which is an English word. Oded Forer and several other members of the Knesset suggested calling it “Netiv V’od,” but the others were dissatisfied. “In my ministry, there is a new initiative that some people wanted to name ‘Alternative,’” Smotrich related. “I told them that I am willing to approve the plan itself, but not the name.”

As for the query, Ram Shefa (Blue and White) decried the traffic congestion caused by the Netiv Plus program, to which Smotrich responded with much detail and knowledge of the situation. Mickey Levi took advantage of his right to an additional question to discuss a problem concerning the elevator at the train station in Bnei Brak. Edelstein asked Smotrich to keep his answers brief, and he promised that he would try. Smotrich responded first to Ram Shefa and then called out to MK Bitton, “Benny, where are you? You are so short that I can barely see you.”

Bitton responded, “I am right here, and my name is Michael. Benny Bitton is from Dimona.”

Finally, Smotrich responded to Mickey Levi. “Mickey, regarding the elevator in Bnei Brak, the incident there was the result of the division of responsibilities between the ministry and the municipality. We agreed to fund the construction of the elevator, and we requested—and rightly so, I believe—that the city take responsibility for maintaining it. After all, it services a commercial center that does not belong to us. True, the train station is there, and that is why we paid for the elevator to be installed. But someone had to take responsibility for the safety of the elevator. We are close to reaching an agreement; we have already reached an understanding in principle with the municipality. And I would like to add a few words in praise of the Bnei Brak municipality with its new composition,” he added. “The city understands public transportation very well; they appointed the director-general of the municipality, Shmulik Litov, to organize a planning committee to coordinate with us on public transportation, and we are receiving very different treatment there than in the past. I believe that the incident will be resolved within days. We have provided the funding, we will sign an agreement regarding the operation of the elevator, and it will be behind us.”

I didn’t understand much of what Smotrich said, but I understood one thing: In his new position in the Bnei Brak municipality under Rabbi Avrohom Rubinstein, Shmulik Litov, who served previously in the Ministry of the Negev and Galil under Aryeh Deri, and before that under Moshe Gafni in the Finance Committee, is continuing to succeed and to create a kiddush Hashem. Today, he has been appointed by Rubinstein as the director-general of the Bnei Brak municipality, and it has clearly been a successful appointment.

The Sights and Sounds of a Basement Bais Medrash

I believe that I haven’t yet told you about the basement bomb shelter-turned-bais medrash on Rechov Zichron Yaakov in Yerushalayim. This underground room has become a thriving center of Torah learning; it is the site of a nightly shiur on daf yomi, and Rav Uri Zohar, who lives in a nearby converted storage room, often shares with us the insights of the maggid shiur, Rav Gefen. Rav Uri Zohar once related that he had seen a father and son learning together in the makeshift bais medrash. The father related to the seven-year-old boy as if they were equals. “You had to be there; it was incredibly moving,” Rav Uri told us.

This week, I entered the basement shul to use one of its seforim, and a note on the bulletin board caught my attention: The neighborhood rabbonim were calling on parents to prevent small children from riding bicycles or scooters in the street, since the phenomenon had given rise to life-threatening danger. It is a fortunate community indeed that is blessed with such rabbonim.

I, too, witnessed an inspiring sight in the very same bais medrash. I once arrived early for my learning session with Rav Uri Zohar, and I entered the bais medrash to wait until the appointed hour arrived. There was one man sitting in the room, learning Gemara aloud in a captivatingly melodious tone. I could have watched the sight in silence for hours. An hour later, after my learning seder with Rav Uri had ended, I returned to the bais medrash and found the same person sitting in the same seat, still learning the same Gemara to the same tune. It was as if the intervening hour hadn’t passed at all. I would not be surprised to learn that he remained there for several hours afterward, as well. I watched him in amazement, and perhaps with some jealousy as well. The joy and pleasure that he derived from his learning was something I found myself envying.

The Boy Who Wept in Rav Ovadiah’s Study

Rav Yosef Anan, who spent many years serving Rav Ovadiah Yosef during the latter’s hours on Fridays for receiving the public, related the following: “A young man was once brought to Rav Ovadiah. It was clear that this boy had been through many tribulations; his external appearance said it all. He stood in the doorway, and Rav Ovadiah called out to him, ‘Come inside and I will give you a brocha.’ The boy approached the rov and kneeled, and Rav Ovadiah swiveled in his chair to face him, placed his hands on the boy’s head, and began to pronounce a brocha.

“I left the room to make some order in the line of people waiting outside. I returned a couple of minutes later, and I found the boy still on his knees, weeping copiously as the rov caressed his face, blessed him, and wept along with him. This continued for several more minutes, as the young man’s entire body trembled and Rav Ovadiah continued sharing his tears. Finally, the boy kissed the rov’s hand and left the room, and Rav Ovadiah collapsed against the back of his chair, completely drained, his face streaked with tears.”