My Take on the News

Israelis Are Tired of Politics

In some ways, it is utterly incomprehensible. The next election in Israel will be held in one month—on Monday, 6 Adar/March 2—but there is hardly a sign of it anywhere in the country. Then again, perhaps this makes sense. The citizens of Israel are tired of hearing about elections. By now, the subject has probably become repulsive to them. Over the past year and a half, the people of this country have gone to the polls three times, expending time and energy to fulfill their civic obligations. The first election was for the municipal governments, and the two following elections were for the Knesset. We are now approaching the third Knesset election, and everyone has had enough, especially since it isn’t even clear that this will be the end of the saga. The greater likelihood is that we will find ourselves in precisely the same situation once again, at an impasse and without a national government. And when what will happen?

The most amazing thing is that this election, like the previous two, is unlike any other election in Israeli history. The main issue at stake isn’t the choice between the Likud and Blue and White, or between Binyomin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz. The real issue is the question of whether either of the two political blocs will be able to muster a majority. The likelihood of Blue and White and the political left (i.e., the Joint Arab List and the Labor-Gesher-Meretz party) amassing 61 mandates is slim to nil. The polls show Blue and White leading by a margin of three or four mandates, but even if they receive 33 or 34 mandates, and the Arabs win 15 while the leftist party receives eight or nine, they will still fail to reach the threshold of 61.

At the same time, it seems equally unlikely that the right will achieve that goal. Even if the Likud party manages to rise to 33 or 34 mandates in Trump’s merit, and the chareidi parties (UTJ and Shas) receive a combined total of 15 or 16, with another eight or nine mandates going to the unified right-wing party, they will still fail to meet the threshold. And there is no telling how many votes will be squandered due to Otzma Yehudit’s insistence on remaining in the race. So the greatest likelihood is that the outcome of this election will leave us precisely where we were before it began.

Netanyahu Not Yet Dealing with Indictments

The most absurd aspect of all this is that Lieberman still seems poised to remain the kingmaker. Everyone’s greatest concern, which might well be justified in light of his contemptible behavior in recent days (see below for details), is that Lieberman will ultimately have no qualms about joining a coalition along with Blue and White, the Left, and the Arabs. How could he betray his right-wing voters? Well, for one thing, it seems that his voters are more anti-religious than they are right-wing. Furthermore, it seems that his loathing for Bibi is leading him to make the most irrational decisions.

Meanwhile, the subject that has dominated all the headlines in Israel, as well as the political discourse, is Trump’s “deal of the century.” Netanyahu returned from his trip to Washington priding himself on his accomplishment. Moreover, he made sure to pass through Moscow on his way back to Israel so that he could pick up the young lady who was jailed in a Russian prison. Her release was a gesture made by Putin to Netanyahu and Israel (although, as usual, Putin was able to wring some important concessions out of Israel in exchange for that gesture). Netanyahu drew accolades for securing the young lady’s freedom, as well. Amusingly, when she was seen entering her family’s car after her return to Israel, it was impossible not to notice the bumper sticker on the car that declared support for the Blue and White party.

Yet while it would seem that Netanyahu should be rising in the polls, he is actually treading water. The only explanation, in my view, is that he would actually have been sinking at this point, but his recent accomplishments—the visits of numerous world leaders to Yerushalayim, the exchange of embraces at the White House, and the release of the young lady from Russian prison—managed to keep him afloat.

There is also an amusing irony in the current campaign. It seems that the Blue and White party decided to adopt a simple mantra: that Netanyahu cannot serve as prime minister. With three criminal indictments hanging over his head that are occupying his attention at all times, they maintain, he cannot possibly run the country. As you know, the Blue and White party has four leaders: three former chiefs of staff (Gantz, Yaalon, and Ashkenazi), and one former magazine columnist (Yair Lapid). Lapid is essentially the party’s copywriter; it is likely that he came up with this mantra, and the others are merely parroting it. But the joke is on them. As it turns out, in spite of his three indictments, Netanyahu has been devoting his time to international diplomacy, while Gantz and his colleagues in Blue and White are the ones who have been obsessing over his criminal cases.

Playing the Underdog Helps Netanyahu

You may consider it a symptom of the typical instability of politics, or simply a chapter in the ongoing saga of the battles against Netanyahu, but it is also a stroke of hashgocha and a moral lesson. In future generations, the students of history will find this chain of events to be utterly astonishing. In short, we are likely to see Netanyahu back in the office of prime minister in the 23rd Knesset, not in spite of the criminal cases against him but because of them. And that is because the people tend to identify with the underdog.

In the Knesset last Tuesday, I found the lawmakers’ passion in their quest to destroy Netanyahu utterly repugnant. Politics may be the art of striking blows at one’s opponents, but how far should that be taken? The Knesset was discussing the establishment of a Knesset Committee at the request of the Arrangements Committee. (Those who reported that the Knesset was actually debating Netanyahu’s parliamentary immunity were mistaken.) The right-wing parties boycotted the discussion, and many from the left and center likewise absented themselves from the proceedings or simply chose to forgo their right to speak, yet the transcripts of the session are still dripping with hateful invective. And once again, the entire discussion was easy to anticipate, including the fact that MK Shaffir chose to continue pontificating from the podium in spite of the chairman’s pleas for her to conclude her address.

It wasn’t Yuli Edelstein who chaired this session; instead, it was Meir Cohen, who is effectively breathing down Edelstein’s neck as the Blue and White party’s choice for his position. When the discussion drew to an end, there were 60 votes in favor of convening the committee and no votes against it. The room was empty, and a sense of sorrow hung in the air. Everyone understood that this was not a real accomplishment. The people of Israel are not enjoying this obsessive persecution of the prime minister. If the country itself could be sent for a psychiatric evaluation, it would undoubtedly be hospitalized.

Yvette Lieberman rose from his seat and asked, “Are we finished?” He wore the expression of a person who is in the throes of mourning a family member’s death; he looked almost ill. But the proceedings weren’t over. Naftoli Bennett had to be sworn in to his position. Everyone else had taken care of that requirement at the beginning of the session, but Bennett was late. The chairman announced a five-minute break until he arrived. Finally, he appeared and was sworn in (two months late) and then he left immediately, without even shaking hands with anyone. The session ended, and Oded Forer complained to Avi Nissenkorn, “Why did Meir Cohen have to make that gesture to Bennett?”

My point in all of this is that events have been unfolding at an accelerated pace that boggles the mind. That includes the filing of the indictments against Netanyahu, which was done with haste that created a very unpleasant feeling. Why was it necessary for the charges to be submitted so quickly? Couldn’t they have waited a day or two?

And I have one more observation to make, this time about Itamar Ben-Gvir. Last week, Ben-Gvir scolded his colleague on the right, “Rabbi Rafi, this is all because you lack daas Torah.” Evidently, in addition to his law degree, Ben-Gvir also possesses a sense of humor.

Lieberman’s Incitement

It has become abundantly clear that Yvette Lieberman has decided to rake in votes by lambasting the chareidim. He probably remembers the other parties that built their success on fomenting hatred for chareidim: Tommy Lapid’s Shinui party, Rafael Eitan’s Tzomet party, and perhaps even Yesh Atid.

Unfortunately, it is clear to everyone that there is enough of an anti-chareidi vote in Israel to contribute several mandates to any political party; perhaps the religious community would be well-advised to reach out to those sectors and improve their public image, but that is a topic for a different time.

While most of Israel is preoccupied by the deal of the century and the question of whether to annex the settlements and the Jordan Valley immediately, Lieberman has nothing to say on that topic. Since no one is interested in his opinions, he has been left with no choice but to spread hateful discourse in order to maintain his political standing. The only thing that will boost his performance at the polls is fomenting tensions between chareidim and the Russian community, and he has therefore set his sights on achieving precisely that.

This week, Lieberman released a campaign video that seems downright anti-Semitic. And as we know, if something quacks like a duck and walks like a duck, then it is probably a duck….

The video begins with a black screen and the legend, “Not everything is black!” The next image shows patients lying on beds in hospital corridors, with a caption that reads, “The health system still has a chance.” The image then shifts to a picture of elderly men, this time with the caption, “Pensions can still be improved.” (The issue of pensions is one of the major topics of concern among elderly immigrants, who account for hundreds of thousands of Israeli voters.) The next picture shows a boy and a girl toting knapsacks and walking to school, as the caption reads, “The educational system can also still be saved.” (Once again, education, as a means of providing a young person with the necessary tools to earn a livelihood, is a major concern of every Russian immigrant.) This image fades to be replaced by the words, “And you have the money to do it.” The next screen bears another legend, which blares, “But guess where that money has gone!” Those words give way to an image of Aryeh Deri and Yaakov Litzman seated side by side, with Litzman making a peculiar motion as he moves his hat. It is the most distasteful image of the two men that could possibly be found, and I have no doubt that it was chosen with great care to elicit the greatest possible distaste among Lieberman’s supporters. But the video does not end there; this image is followed by the slogan, “Money for health care and young couples—not for yeshivos and draft dodgers.” The final image shows Lieberman on the right side of the screen, with the logo of his party and its designated letter, lamed, occupying the left.

UTJ Denounces Lieberman

The chareidi parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, are generally unsure of how to respond to Lieberman. Should they publicly refute his statements and expose him as a liar, or should they try to ignore him? Last Shabbos, Lieberman declared in an interview (which was conducted on Shabbos itself) that the people have no need to worry, because there will not be a fourth election. He claimed that he has a government already prepared to assume power after the election. Of course, this was nothing but empty boasting. He also took the opportunity to deride the chareidim for supporting Netanyahu. To that comment, United Torah Judaism chose to respond.

“This bizarre man, Yvette Lieberman, had kept the entire country in neutral for the past year and has dragged us time and again into unnecessary, wasteful elections, at the expense of the Israeli citizens,” the party proclaimed. “In contrast to him, Yadahut HaTorah [United Torah Judaism] does not zigzag; we are consistent in our support for a right-wing government under Netanyahu. As the most failed politician in Israel, without a single accomplishment in the past twenty years, Lieberman returned to the news studios with lies and with overt incitement against chareidim, the Likud, the Arabs, and everyone else possible. It is clear to the citizens of Israel that a vote for Lieberman at the polls is a vote for a fourth election and for an increase in the hostilities between the different populations.”

The Shas party had its own response: “Lieberman is lying, zigzagging, and continuing to deceive the entire Israeli people. After he promised a unity government and then nixed a unity government, he has come to understand that he is irrelevant in the upcoming election, and he has begun inventing stories about an imaginary government in order to draw votes. The Shas party, which established the bloc of right-wing parties, has supported and will continue to support Binyamin Netanyahu for prime minister in the upcoming elections as well.”

It seems inevitable that Lieberman will continue sowing discord as we draw closer to the election. He will feel compelled to create conflict between the religion and the state; that is the only way that he can hope to gather a few more mandates. The chareidi parties, meanwhile, will have to make a decision about how to respond to his rhetoric: by remaining silent and letting it fade away or by fighting back with statements of their own. That is indeed a difficult question to resolve.

Lieberman Equates the Chief Rabbi with Abu Mazen

Lieberman succeeded in eliciting the outrage of the chareidi community even before this video was released. Abu Mazen, the president of the Palestinian Authority, had publicly declared that Israel is not a Jewish state, since the majority of immigrants from the former Soviet Union and from Ethiopia are not Jewish. This was in the context of his response to President Trump’s peace plan; he declared, “They want me to recognize a Jewish state? Most of the immigrants from Russia are not Jewish. They paid money to be recognized as Jewish. The percentage of Jews among the immigrants from Ethiopia is also very low.” Of course, Abu Mazen was exploiting Rav Yitzchok Yosef’s remarks about the non-Jews who infiltrated the State of Israel during the great aliyah of the 1990s and the smaller waves of aliyah over the recent decades, which I have discussed in separate articles both this week and last week.

The Shas party, Agudas Yisroel, and even Prime Minister Netanyahu responded to Abu Mazen’s claims. “It seems that Abu Mazen hasn’t heard about the concept of the tribes of Israel,” one response declared. “The immigrants from the former Soviet Union and from Ethiopia are our brothers and sisters, our flesh and blood. They were born Jewish and have spent generations in the Diaspora dreaming of a return to Tzion, and they have now succeeded in fulfilling that dream.”

But Lieberman pounced on the comments for an entirely different reason. He was quick to denounce the Palestinian president, and then he added, “Abu Mazen has adopted Rav Yitzchok Yosef’s position about the immigrants from Russia. I must point out that from my perspective, every immigrant from Russia or Ethiopia who serves in the army is more of a Jew than Deri and Gafni, even if it is only his father who is Jewish. These people are simply being abused in the Ministry of the Interior.”

Rav Amar’s Address in Netivot

About a month ago, I wrote a tribute to Rav Yitzchok Grodzinsky and I mentioned that he had encountered Rav Shlomo Amar, the Rishon Letzion and rov of Yerushalayim (and former chief rabbi of Israel) several days before his passing, at the wedding of a granddaughter of Rav Benzoin Zilber. Rav Benzion, the son of Rav Yitzchok Zilber, is the son-in-law of Rav Boruch Rosenberg, whose rebbetzin was Rav Yitzchok’s sister. Four days after that wedding, Rav Yitzchok passed away. I wrote about the emotional reunion between Rav Amar and Rav Grodzinsky, who had been his rebbi in yeshiva ketanah, and on Wednesday night that same story was publicized by Rav Amar himself, who spoke at an event commemorating the hillula of the Baba Sali in Netivot. Here is an excerpt from his fascinating speech:

“I would like to say something that pains me very much, and I am certain that it pains not only me, but all of you and most of the Jewish people. We are in a terrible situation. There has never been a case like this in which elections were held over and over. I am not a man of politics and I haven’t spoken about this in the past, but we are going through one election after another with no end in sight. This is very perplexing. Who knows what Hashem is preparing for us? The same can be said of what was done by President Trump of the United States; he has done things that we never imagined in our most wonderful dreams, and he is continuing to add to them. And there were all the world leaders who came here, Putin and others. We cannot ignore these things. These are things that we never dreamed of seeing. Could this be the preparation for the arrival of Moshiach? This is certainly the preparation; I have no doubt of it.”

Uncertainty Ahead for Meitzad and Maaleh Amos

The hot topic of this week was the summit at the White House. I don’t know all the details of the “deal of the century,” even though I read much of what was publicized about it, but I can tell you that it has been a very dramatic week this week. No one could have imagined the upheavals that took place here in Israel: Netanyahu announced that he would forgo his parliamentary immunity, Mandelblit then submitted his indictments immediately, the Knesset approved the establishment of a Knesset Committee, and it has already scheduled a meeting to discuss the immunity of MK Chaim Katz. Rumor has it that the committee will decide against revoking Katz’s immunity!

As for the events on the diplomatic front, everyone knew that Trump’s peace plan would include the establishment of a Palestinian state, which has already met with opposition by forces on the right. The plan was also bound to include official recognition of the Israeli settlements, which is why it is opposed by the Palestinians. Netanyahu was ready to annex the settlements and the Jordan Valley immediately, but the Americans managed to cool off his enthusiasm.

If I understood the provisions correctly, some of the Arab settlements in Israel are slated to be placed under Arab sovereignty, but the residents of those villages actually prefer to remain part of the State of Israel. At the same time, there are certain Jewish settlements that are slated to be left as Jewish enclaves among the Arabs, which places them in a very dangerous position. This includes two chareidi communities: Meitzad and Maaleh Amos. Israel is clearly going to have to take care of those communities’ needs, and it is clear that we have much to daven for. Only Hashem can truly protect them—or anyone.

Tragedy in Beit Chanina

There were also two incidents that occupied the public attention this week, each concerning a child and a reservoir. One incident took place in Beit Shemesh and the other in Beit Chanina. In the former case, a winter coat belonging to a child was found, which gave rise to the concern that he might have taken off his coat and fallen into a reservoir filled with water. The emergency services were called and the search was joined by neighbors and other concerned citizens. This took place immediately before Shabbos, but it was clear that the search would continue even on Shabbos itself, since the child could have been in life-threatening danger. Somehow, the coat was identified and the parents of the child were notified, and they informed the searchers that he was safely at home; he had simply lost his coat. With that, the search parties returned to their own homes, and thousands of people breathed a sigh of relief.

In the second incident, an Arab child disappeared on a rainy evening just before the arrival of Shabbos. Rumor quickly spread through the child’s village that he had been kidnapped by Jews intent on murdering him, and hundreds of Arabs form the village of Beit Chanina marched toward the nearby neighborhood of Neve Yaakov to exact revenge. The police and rescue personnel who arrived to search for the child were attacked by hundreds of outraged Arab youths. Ultimately, the child’s lifeless body was found in a reservoir; he had apparently slipped and fallen into the pit, where he drowned.

These two stories had much in common: Each concerned a child who had disappeared, as well as a reservoir of water. But there was a world of difference between the reactions engendered in each case. And to think that anyone could believe that Jews would kidnap an Arab child! It is at once frightening, astounding, and incredibly sad.

600 Terror Attacks Thwarted

Another major topic this week is the global fear of the spread of the coronavirus. That fear has reached us here in Israel, and travelers arriving from China are being placed in quarantine. It is a frightening situation. We are taught that punishment comes to the world on account of Klal Yisroel; presumably, the terror of this new epidemic is meant to wake us up.

Israel also has its own fair share of ongoing terror, but Hashem’s chessed is also with us. On Shabbos, missiles were fired from Gaza into Jewish settlements in the south, forcing the residents to race to their bomb shelters. The balloon terror is also continuing, and there have been dozens of incidents of rock throwing in many places. Nadav Argaman, the director of the Shin Bet, spoke this week at an internal ceremony at which awards were distributed to members of the intelligence service, where he related, “This past year was filled with security challenges in all the areas in which we operate. Over the course of the year, we thwarted over 560 significant terror attacks, including 10 attempted suicide bombings, four attempted kidnappings, and over 300 attempting shootings. We were able to thwart those attacks due to the efforts of every single member of this service. It was thanks to the effort, the determination, the diligence, the professionalism, and the creativity that characterize your work and ours.” Unfortunately, he forgot to mention the most important ingredient in their success: the chessed of Hashem.

Then there is Ron Kobi, the bizarre man from Tiveria who was somehow elected to the office of mayor. Kobi surfed to his victory on the waves of anti-chareidi incitement, but after he was elected, it turned out that he knows how to talk and make noise but is incapable of actual accomplishment. He has been clinging to every last vestige of his power through appeals to the Supreme Court, but he has already been replaced by a government-appointed mayor. His current battle is over his car; Kobi is refusing to return the government-owned car that he was given as mayor of a city. All we can do is pity him.

The Deepest Darkness: Estrangement from Others

There are some insights that are so beautiful that I feel obligated to share them with others. Here are a few brief thoughts that I heard this week.

The Gemara states (Bava Kamma 92a), “Any person who davens for something for someone else and needs the same thing himself will be answered first.” A certain talmid chochom related to me that the Belzer Rebbe explains this to mean that if a person feels his fellow man’s need so deeply that he perceives it as his own personal need, he is guaranteed that his tefillah will be answered.

The publication Yabia Omer (published by Rav Yitzchak Bar-Zakkai) contained the following fascinating comment attributed to Rav Ovadiah Yosef: When the Torah relates that “the king of Mitzrayim died,” Rashi cites a Midrash that explains the posuk to mean that he developed tzoraas. This begs the question of why Rashi (and the Midrash) rejected the simpler explanation: that Pharaoh had actually died.

Rav Ovadiah explained, “When Dovid Hamelech was on his deathbed, the Novi relates, ‘The days of Dovid drew close to die.’ Chazal explain that it does not refer to him as Dovid Hamelech because a king is not considered to have power on the day of his death. Therefore, since the posuk states that ‘the king of Mitzrayim died,’ it indicates that it was not a true death.”

Accounting for Every Minute

One evening, a yungerman from Yerushalayim who teaches in the Beer Yaakov yeshiva asked me for a ride to Beer Yaakov (which is a drive of about 35 minutes) so that he could pay a shiva call at the home of Rav Moshe Shmuel Shapiro. The Shapiro family was mourning the passing of Rebbetzin Tzipporah Shapiro, the widow of the rosh yeshiva and daughter of Rav Aharon Weinstein, one of the foremost talmidim of Novardok.

I was surprised by his request. “Aren’t you in Beer Yaakov every day, at the yeshiva?” I asked.

“I am,” he confirmed, “but I travel there in a van that arrives in the middle of seder, and the van that takes me back to Yerushalayim leaves immediately after seder at seven o’clock, so I have no time to visit the family.”

“But you are in the yeshiva every day from four o’clock until seven o’clock,” I protested. “Why can’t you simply pay a visit to the rosh yeshiva’s family during that time?”

He was horrified at the suggestion. “How could I visit them during seder?” he exclaimed. “I have a responsibility to the bais medrash and the bochurim; besides, I am receiving a salary from the yeshiva for every moment of that time!”

The Baba Sali’s Coat

“I would like to tell you a personal story,” Rav Amar continued. “Several weeks ago, I attended a wedding in Bnei Brak. I was asked to deliver a dvar Torah during the wedding. I spoke, and then my mashgiach from my yeshiva, Tiferes Tzion, arrived. It was a yeshiva that was established by the Chazon Ish. I learned there, as did Rav Chaim Greineman, Rav Chaim Kanievsky, and others. Rabbosai, I hadn’t seen him in 51 years, since my wedding, and when he arrived and approached me, I was excited as if he had come from a different world. We sat together and talked for about two hours, and then I took him home. He was a great and holy man. When he left my car, I accompanied him, and he told me that he had wanted to travel abroad to raise funds for his kollel. He had gone to visit Rav Chaim Kanievsky and to inform him that he was making a trip, and Rav Chaim said to him, ‘Rav Yitzchok, you want to leave the country? Don’t you know that Moshiach is on the threshold?’ Rav Chaim told him to remain here, and he did.

“All the gedolei hador are telling us that Moshiach is on his way,” Rav Amar proclaimed. “All the signs that were given by the neviim, all the signs that appear in the Gemara, the Mishnah, and the Midrash, will all be fulfilled, one by one. We simply need more chizuk.”

The level of emotion in the room reached a crescendo. Never in the past had Rav Amar sounded so emotional. He went on to describe how the Baba Sali used to eagerly await the arrival of Moshiach. “Here, in his own place, we must ask him not to stop his tefillos,” the rov continued.

The Baba Sali’s son, Rav Baruch Abuchatzeirah, surprised Rav Amar by pointing out that this year’s hillula was linked to the concept of awaiting Moshiach’s arrival. “Here,” he said, “is the special coat that my father, the Baba Sali, prepared to wear when Moshiach comes. Let us daven that you will be privileged to wear it when we greet Moshiach tzidkeinu.”