My Take on the News

The Battles Continue

It has been another colorful week here in Israel, with the same issues still occupying the attention of the public. First of all, there is the community of Amona, the 40 families who are being forced by the Supreme Court, following a petition from the political left, to leave their homes and to return the land on which they were built to its Palestinian owners. Under right-wing pressure, the government tried to pass a new law preventing the settlement’s destruction, which has come to be known as the Regulation Law. The purpose of the law is to give the homes in Yehuda and the Shomron the same legal status as houses in Tel Aviv and Haifa. If it were discovered that a plot of land in one of those cities was owned by Arabs, no one would ever suggest demolishing the buildings it contains. Instead, the law dictates that the Arab owners should be compensated for their land. Israeli law, however, does not apply in Yehuda and the Shomron, where Amona is located. That is why the court was able to order the settlement’s destruction, and that is the situation that the Regulation Law is meant to rectify. In effect, the law is meant to apply Israeli law to these areas, which has long been the dream of all of their residents.

After the law was formulated, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced that it was illegal and that the Supreme Court was bound to disqualify it. He also warned that he himself would not be prepared to defend the law in court. Of course, that statement effectively invited petitions against the law. But the Knesset ignored Mandelblit’s warning, and the law was passed in its preliminary reading. Under pressure from the finance minister, a more delicately phrased version of the law was formulated. This was one of the topics that occupied our attention for a good part of this week.

Of course, the ongoing conflict with the Reform movement has not changed. I reported last week on the discussions on the matter that took place in the Knesset. This week, there was yet another major attack on the Reform movement, this time in the presence of the Knesset speaker and the prime minister. This time, it was Aryeh Deri who took advantage of an event held in the Knesset, attended by dozens of Sephardic rabbonim from throughout the world, to lambast the Reform movement.

And then there is the submarine scandal, which is continuing to occupy the media’s attention as speculation abounds over which of the parties to the deal were aware of the others’ involvement. The most recent revelation is that the factory where the submarines were produced is linked with Iran. In Israel, there are some people who make every possible effort to find a connection between Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu and anything shady or illegal. Netanyahu himself, meanwhile, has taken a lesson from Donald Trump and has begun attacking the media on a regular basis. This past week, there was a major protest of journalists against Netanyahu, but the prime minister did not seem particularly fazed.

For the time being, we have something far more sublime than the prime minister or the Supreme Court to occupy our attention: the approaching holiday of Chanukah, which will begin this year on a Motzoei Shabbos. I don’t know if your minhag is to light the menorah first or to recite Havdalah first. Either way, we will be reminded of the great miracle of Chanukah, the mesirus nefesh that led to it, and the unmistakable reality of what has truly sustained the Jewish people throughout the generations.

Parenthetically, I have always been troubled by a question about the tefillah of Al Hanissim, which we insert into Shemoneh Esrei and bentching. I can understand why we thank Hashem for “the miracles, the redemption, the might, and the salvations,” but why do we then add “and for the wars”? Why do we give thanks to Hashem for the peril and suffering of war? Clearly, the answer is that the wars themselves contribute to our development and cause us to grow. A war also puts things into perspective for us, reminding us of the truths we sometimes forget, such as the fact that only Hashem is “maoz tzur yeshuaseinu – the stronghold and rock of our salvation.”

Naftali Bennett’s Historic Day

Let us return to the subject of the Regulation Law. Last Wednesday, the Knesset plenum saw an increased presence of government officials, along with a higher tension level than usual. Prime Minister Netanyahu stood on the side of the room, conducting a conversation on his cell phone. The members of the Knesset appeared exhausted, as Education Minister Naftali Bennett was summoned to speak on behalf of the government. The debate over the Regulation Law had just concluded, after it had been hurriedly placed on the day’s agenda.

Actually, this was a different version of the Regulation Law. You may recall that the law was already approved one week earlier, and you may be wondering why it was debated again. The answer is that it was almost the same law, but paragraph 7 had been removed. Paragraph 7 was the clause stipulating that the law would apply to the residents of Amona, the community that the Supreme Court has ordered to be destroyed. In other words, the law was tantamount to a declaration of war on the Supreme Court. This led Finance Minister Moshe Kachlon to announce that he and the members of his party, Kulanu, would not support the bill. So a new bill was prepared, without the offending clause – which was also the reason that the attorney general had declared that he would not defend it – and the Knesset debated the new, softened version of the law. The discussion ended at night. The new law states that in the future, Jews will not be evicted from their homes even if they are found to have been built on Palestinian-owned land. Instead, the Palestinian owners will receive monetary compensation. It is, without question, a historic law.

There is no dispute that Naftali Bennett is the reason the law was passed. Bennett himself was placed under intense pressure by the political right, and he went on to exert the same pressure on Netanyahu to ensure that the law came into being. With the conclusion of the debate in the Knesset, Bennett appeared at the podium. “Mr. Speaker and my friends, members of the Knesset,” he began, “several years ago, I coined the expression, ‘A nation cannot be an occupier in its own land.’ On this historic day, we are enshrining that concept into law. For the first time, the legislature of the State of Israel is making the statement that the half a million residents of Israel who live in Yehuda and the Shomron are neither guests nor occupiers. For the very first time, the law recognizes those people as the rightful residents of the area.”

Bennett was immediately inundated by a flood of catcalls. “They are occupiers!” came the shouts from the plenum. “They will not have any recognition!”

Bennett continued, “Is anyone asking what is historic about this? It is indeed a historic moment. Today, in Yehuda and the Shomron – and I know that this bothers you, but it is the truth – there is not only the first generation of parents, the next generation of children, and the third generation of grandchildren, but there are even great-grandchildren of the people who first settled in Yehuda and the Shomron. I want to tell you this: This is a proud day. This is a day when the half a million residents of Yehuda and the Shomron, along with the rest of the citizens of Israel, can raise their heads proudly with the knowledge that it is not only the truth that this land belongs to our people, but that the laws of the State of Israel recognize that reality as well. But this, gentlemen, is only the beginning.”

Once again, the left-wing Knesset members and the Arabs heckled Bennett loudly.

“That is all right,” Bennett said. “You scream and we will build. You continue screaming, and we will erect more homes. Go on shouting, and with Hashem’s help, we will go on building. But I also want to thank a number of people. First of all, I must thank the prime minister, with whom we have been working very hard over the past few days.”

There was a cacophony of shouts from the left once again, and Bennett appeared to enjoy tormenting them. “But I want to say a different type of thank you altogether,” he went on, “and that is to the Peace Now movement. For decades, Peace Now has worked to document the Israeli settlement in Yehuda and the Shomron, and it is truly incredible. Someone had to create the narrative. Someone had to document every house and every tree. And for that, I thank Peace Now. But today we can thank them much more, because Peace Now has been sending us all these nuisances, like mosquitos, case after case in the Supreme Court. And today, thanks to the good people of Peace Now, we will no longer be fighting the mosquitos. Today we will be draining the swamp. The era of Supreme Court challenges has come to an end.”

With that, Bennett came to the bittersweet part of the law, the sting that accompanied his jubilation: The law is unlikely to save the residents of Amona. On December 25, the people of Amona will be evicted from their homes. This is a major source of distress to the right. “I would like one more minute,” Bennett said. “I also want to give special thanks to the people of Amona. Thanks to the people of Amona, we can be sure that we will not see another hundred cases like this one.”

Let There Be No Violence

Does this mean that we are finally seeing the end of the saga of Amona, which has accompanied us for the past two months and nearly led to the fall of the government? After this seemingly historic accomplishment, can Bennett and his friends finally relax?

That is not certain by any means. For one thing, when the day of the evacuation arrives, it will undoubtedly reopen the wounds of the Disengagement and the previous evacuation of Amona, which still have not healed. Once again, we will witness a fierce battle between the settlers of Amona and the police and soldiers who are sent to evacuate them. Even worse, on the day after the vote in the Knesset, the politicians of the right began trading accusations as to who was guilty of “abandoning” Amona. Several right-wing politicians were verbally attacked as early as this past Thursday, as others argued that the battle could have been fought more effectively and Amona itself could have been saved.

In the same speech, Bennett himself addressed the fears that the evacuation of Amona would be accompanied by violence. “I would like to tell you something very important,” he said. “In no situation and under no circumstances may any person in Eretz Yisroel raise his hand against someone else. There is to be no violence at all, without exception. Just a short while ago, there were attacks on some outstanding people, such as Zambish and Chaim Fogel. Chaim Fogel is the father of Udi Fogel z”l, who was murdered. The homes in Amona are very important. We have all invested tremendous amounts of time in this cause in recent months. But it is completely unacceptable for us to fight each other. When I see violence, my response is that we must not lose our sense of direction. We must remain faithful to our land, but not at the cost of violence.” Bennett concluded, “Today is a great day for the Jewish nation, but it is also a bittersweet time. We owe our achievements today to many people’s sacrifices, and we will continue to build on the progress we have made.”

The Knesset speaker waited for Bennett to return to his seat before announcing the vote. “Members of the Knesset,” he said, “we will now begin the vote. This is the Law of Regulation of the Settlements of Yehuda and the Shomron, 5777 – 2016, on its first reading. The debate has concluded. We have heard the government’s position and we are now voting. Who is in favor? Who is opposed? Please vote.”

Soon enough, the results were announced. There were 58 votes in favor of transferring the bill to the committees for further discussion, 51 against, and no abstentions. The Regulation Law was therefore transferred to the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, and to the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, and the Knesset sitting was closed for the day.

Who Has the Right to Give Up the Kosel?

Hundreds of Sephardic rabbonim from all over the world gathered in Eretz Yisroel last week to mark the founding of the World Union of Sephardic Rabbis. Their itinerary included visits to the mekomos kedoshim in the north and to the Kosel tunnels, as well as meetings with the members of the Moetzes Chachmei HaTorah. They also visited the President’s Residence, as well as the Knesset.

At the event held in the Knesset, speeches were delivered by Prime Minister Netanyahu, who was somewhat flustered when he realized that he had forgotten to bring a yarmulka, and Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein. The host was Aryeh Deri, chairman of the Shas party, who dedicated his own address to the subject of the struggle against the Reform movement.

“Compromising with them would be the easiest thing,” Deri asserted. “Why should we fight? It would be wonderful to settle for a compromise, but do we have the right to do that?”

I have heard Aryeh Deri speak many times, including on a number of historic occasions, but I must say that this was one of the best speeches he has ever delivered, despite the fact that he hadn’t prepared a transcript in advance – or perhaps precisely because of that.

Deri pointed to his own beard, which has turned gray with age, and said, “We are old already. The easiest thing for us to do would be to compromise. Who has the strength to fight? But then again, does the Kosel belong to us? Does it belong to anyone in this room? Does anyone have ownership over the Kosel and the right to give it up? How can we possibly give recognition to the Reform movement? How would a rov in a community in chutz la’aretz feel if he has been struggling to save the souls of Jewish children wavering in their faith and the State of Israel or its government decides to give recognition to the Reform?”

Deri went on to lambast the Reform movement. “They are responsible for the loss of millions of Jews to the scourge of assimilation,” he asserted. He looked at Yuli Edelstein, who was seated in the front row, and continued, “What has sustained our people for hundreds of years? Only our tradition. What kept Yuli strong in Russia and me in Morocco? It was the Shema, tefillin, bris milah, and Shabbos. Our religion is the only thing that has allowed the Jewish people to survive.”

Deri also pointed out that Rav Ovadiah Yosef was known for his pleasant disposition and his tremendous love for every Jew, yet he waged an uncompromising battle to preserve the Jewish character of the country, to strengthen its botei din and to uphold the standards of Yiddishkeit. “There is no contradiction between those things,” Deri asserted. “On the one hand, it is important to be pleasant and warm toward our fellow Jews, but at the same time, it is vital to uphold the path of halacha, which has protected us throughout the generations. We must not depart from the path that has protected us throughout all these years as a nation, that has shielded us from all of our enemies. Therefore, even though we have a powerful desire to involve ourselves in things that will unite our people, we must also not stray from the path we have always followed.”

Chillul Shabbos Doesn’t Pay

Let us move on to another subject: the phenomenon of chillul Shabbos in the State of Israel. This is a problem that arises frequently, leading us to become embroiled in battle after battle, in a different part of the country each time. Sometimes, though, it seems that our involvement accomplishes nothing and may even be detrimental to the cause. Take, for instance, the Sarona complex in Tel Aviv, a place that has come to represent blatant defiance of the laws of Shabbos and complete disrespect for its sanctity. The owners of the businesses in the complex, such as Yaron Tzidkiyahu’s pickle store, were coerced to sign a contract stipulating that their businesses would be open on Shabbos, even against the will of the business owners. In fact, the owner of Maadanei Tzidkiyahu refused to sign the contract, a move that earned him widespread publicity and acclaim. At the time, I reported to you on those events.

The chareidi community’s representatives in the government did not declare war on the Sarona complex. Part of the reason is that the complex is privately owned and is the project of a single individual, but it is mainly because we know that if the issue becomes a religious conflict, we will be attacked not only the anti-religious elements in the country, but also by those who are simply opposed to “coercion.” The only step we took was to introduce a law, proposed by MK Yigal Guetta, that prohibits including a requirement for chillul Shabbos in a store’s rental contract. The law was supported by the government and the Knesset, and it is now in the final stages of the legislative process. Guetta emphasized repeatedly that the law is socialist, not religious, in nature, thereby earning support for his proposal.

I recently read in an economic newspaper that the beautiful commercial complex has fallen on hard times. One of the storeowners related that the renters are running out of steam. Most of the businesses are losing money, and about ten stores have already closed. The director of the Sarona complex has announced that he is struggling to decipher the riddle of its failure. For my part, I don’t know what the winning formula would be, but I am certain I know what it is not. The idea of a “food market” may not be all that appealing to Israelis, and the combination of restaurants with historic sites may not have been the best idea either, but even more than that, it was definitely unwise for them to make Shabbos their enemy.

I have also learned about the newest site of a battle over Shabbos observance: In the chiloni city of Kfar Saba, hundreds of business owners are demanding the closure of a shopping mall on Shabbos. This mall, known as Oshiland, opened on the outskirts of the city half a year ago and contains many stores that are open on Shabbos. Dozens of owners of small businesses in the city have appealed to the district court in Lod to force the city of Kfar Saba to enforce the law that prohibits businesses to operate on Shabbos and to compel the stores in the mall to close.

The owner of a textile store on Rechov Weitzmann in Kfar Saba related that her own store has seen a 30 percent drop in business since the mall opened. “This has nothing to do with religion,” she insisted.

The proprietor of a clothing store, who is one of the leaders of the fight against the mall, added, “This is a struggle for equality, not for religious principles. It is not fair to us for the mall to be open on Shabbos, nor is it fair for the mall’s employees to be forced to be at work on a day that they should be spending with their families. This is a socialist issue.” Their efforts appear likely to bear fruit, without the intervention of any other forces.

Giving the Benefit of the Doubt

The following two anecdotes attest to the importance of the principle of being dan lekaf zechus, giving others the benefit of the doubt.

In the coffee room in a certain kollel, a piece of cardboard bears an unambiguous message, written in block letters: “The thick paper cups are for hot beverages only. Please do not use the thick cups for cold drinks.” The message could not possibly be made clearer. In fact, the repetition reminds me of a comment of the great tzaddik Rav Chaim Brim, who once noticed a sign on a mikvah that read, “The door will be closed 25 minutes before hadlokas neiros. There will be no entry after that time.” Rav Chaim asked, “Why isn’t this sign written in the positive, rather than the negative? It could just as easily have said, ‘The mikvah will be open until 25 minutes before hadlokas neiros. Entry is permitted until that time.’” Apparently, the person who is in charge of the cups at this kollel felt compelled to use both the positive and the negative, in order to avoid the slightest ambiguity.

In any event, one of the yungeleit took note of the sign in the coffee room and proceeded to take a thick paper cup and fill it from the cold water dispenser.

Another yungerman, standing nearby, rebuked him for his actions. “Why aren’t you using a simply plastic cup, as the sign says?”

“Wait a moment and you will see,” the “offender” replied. “I am about to make myself a cup of coffee. I simply like to drink water before I have my coffee.”

The second incident took place on Rechov Yechezkel, in the Geulah neighborhood of Yerushalayim, where a pedestrian was stopped by a man asking for tzedakah. The beggar was holding a cup containing a shake made from freshly squeezed fruits, a beverage that was typically sold for 15 shekels or more. The passerby could not help but let a current of disapproval run through him. Was the beggar asking for donations so that he could indulge in such extravagances? Despite his misgivings, the man gave the beggar a shekel, but he could not resist adding, “I want you to know that I never spend fifteen shekels on a beverage like that for myself.”

“Neither do I!” the beggar responded, to his surprise.

“But then why do you have one?”

“It’s simple,” the tzedakah collector said. “There is a store in Geulah where these beverages are sold. I go there every day to exchange the coins that I collect for larger bills. This benefits both the store owner and myself. And from time to time, he makes me a drink with an assortment of extra fruits.”