My Take on the News

Coronavirus Chaos

The coronavirus is here. The virus has been found in Israel, and the country has gone into panic mode. The prime minister decided to open a “war room,” which is fitting, since this situation definitely constitutes a war. A group of ministers will meet every day, or perhaps several times a day, to decide how to proceed in the ongoing battle against the virus. Meanwhile, events are unfolding at a dizzying pace. It was recently announced that the government is considering enacting a temporary ban on visitors from several countries. By the end of the week, it is possible that the country’s borders will be closed to anyone who is not a resident of Israel, and that even the residents of Israel will be required to remain in quarantine if they arrive from any of the countries deemed dangerous. The panic has reached a peak.

It all began last weekend, when the BBC reported from Seoul that nine people in a group of Korean tourists who had visited Israel were diagnosed with the coronavirus. Israeli authorities announced that anyone who had come in contact with the group should report to the hospital immediately. As it turned out, these tourists were extremely active on their visit; they had been to many locations throughout Israel. The Israelis claim that there were actually 18 sick tourists in the group, rather than the nine reported in the news, and that hundreds of people had come in contact with them. This means that hundreds of Israelis must now be concerned that they may have been infected with the virus and must have themselves examined. Many are concerned that the people who may have been infected will fail to take this obligation seriously.

The Health Ministry quickly publicized the details of the group’s visit and their itinerary. The tourists had been taking part in a trip organized by their Catholic church, and they had shared their accommodations with 77 other people. The ministry also announced that the tourists had been in Israel from February 8 through February 15. Any person who was in close contact with the members of this group (which is defined as having been less than two meters away from them for a period of at least 15 minutes) is required to report the exposure and to remain quarantined at home until 14 days have passed since the last contact with them. To help people determine if they encountered these tourists, the ministry publicized a list of the locations visited by the tourists and the dates and times when they were present at each place. Anyone who was exposed to the group and develops symptoms of the coronavirus (a fever above 38 degrees Celsius, a cough, or other respiratory symptoms) is required to seek medical attention in accordance with the instructions of the Ministry of Health. Any person who was exposed to the tourists but was not in close contact with them is not required to be quarantined, but is nonetheless expected to remain alert in case they develop symptoms of the disease.

The destinations visited by the tourists include the Tower of David and Gallery hotels in Netanya, the city of Caesarea, the Ein Gev hotel, the Gabriel hotel, and many more such locations. They also visited 17 churches, as well as Har Hazeisim and an assortment of restaurants in Yerushalayim and in Beer Sheva. They also visited the Kosel and Mearas Hamachpeilah. Many Israelis hurried to be tested for the disease and to quarantine themselves. Thirty students from Beer Sheva who were in the Tel Beer Sheva national park at the same time as the Koreans were placed in quarantine, and many residents of the city hurried to Soroka Hospital.

The Virus in the Headlines

There is an inescapable mussar haskel that must be derived from recent events. It is as clear and powerful as if it were emblazoned in massive letters across a wall. The entire world values strength and power. First of all, there are the two world powers, America and Russia, whose competition has always revolved around which country will control more territory, which will possess nuclear arms, which will have better espionage, and so forth. The pursuit of power also lies at the core of every other conflict or struggle for superiority: between the Eastern and Western worlds, between religions, between countries, and, of course, between Israel and the nations that oppose it. Military might and power are the most prized assets of any country and are widely viewed as the key to security and stability. In recent times, Israel has been arming itself with the help of its ally, the United States, while Iran has been arming itself with the aid of its own allies, especially Russia. The countries rely on their weapons and armies to protect them. But now a microscopic organism known as the coronavirus has appeared on the world stage and has begun sowing madness and confusion throughout the world.

Think about it: What would happen if the coronavirus reached America, chas v’sholom? Even the most rigid border control policies would not be able to keep it out, nor would the most massive and heavily fortified wall between America and Mexico be capable of warding it off. Even Donald Trump, the unconventional president of the United States, would be helpless to combat it.

Now let us return to Israel. Before the outbreak of the virus, there were three major issues that dominated the headlines. First, of course, there was the upcoming election. The second topic was the upheaval in the state prosecution (see the next section for more details). And the third subject was the revelation that the number of chareidim drafted to the IDF had been falsely inflated (which will also be discussed below, and next week as well, bli neder). Last Thursday and Friday, these were the issues that filled the front pages of newspapers throughout the country.

But all of these things were eclipsed by the story of the Korean tourists who visited the country, as well as the report that an Israeli woman who had been on the cruise ship quarantined off the coast of Japan had tested positive for the virus after returning to Israel. Ever since these stories came to light, the coronavirus has been virtually the only subject discussed on the news. During the period before an election, we are used to being assailed by calls for bnei yeshivos to “share the burden” and join the army. The media would invariably unleash a hail of criticism against the chareidim at a time like this, but now the entire issue seems to have been forgotten. After all, who cares about drafting the chareidim when the coronavirus is on our country’s threshold? That is pure hashgachah pratis, wouldn’t you say?

To be fair, there was another topic that made its way into the headlines on Sunday evening: the rockets from Gaza. But there was certainly no talk about yeshiva bochurim and the draft.

Yvette Lieberman’s Hateful Response

Meanwhile, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri announced that he would approve a temporary extension of the permits for agricultural workers from Thailand to remain in Israel beyond the period ordinarily permitted by law. Deri will thereby use his authority under the Law of Entry to Israel to prevent foreigners who have been in Thailand from entering the country to replace leaving workers, while allowing laborers currently in Israel to remain here in order to avoid a shortage of workers. This order will allow 600 workers who came to the country for a period of 63 months to remain past the expiration of their visas.

There is also a link between the coronavirus scare and the upcoming election. The Minister of Internal Security announced that the police force, which is under his jurisdiction, will be working to prevent the panic over the virus from being exploited through fake news designed to affect the results of the election. Of course, the economy is also affected, especially in the travel industry, as hundreds of Israelis have canceled their plans to travel abroad and many tourists from outside the country have been barred from entering. Speculation has already begun that thousands of workers in the industry may lose their jobs as a result of the downturn in the field.

But there was another link between the virus and the election, as well. On Sunday night, Yvette Lieberman asserted on the news that the state must determine whether the “excessive” (in his view) panic of the Ministry of Health has been driven by political considerations. He suggested that Yaakov Litzman, the Minister of Health, might be interested in keeping chiloni voters away from the polls. “The chareidim will come anyway,” Lieberman added, in a comment that was sheer insanity.

The Police Will Investigate Themselves

The investigation concerning Fifth Dimension is a very complicated matter, since it revolves around the allegations of improper dealings between Gantz’s company and the police force itself, which was headed by Roni Alshich at the time. The police paid tens of millions of shekels to Fifth Dimension without holding a public tender and on the basis of false information. But who will investigate the police? Will they be tasked with examining their own conduct? For the time being, Commissioner Yigal Ben-Shalom, the director of the Lahav 433 anti-corruption unit, has been assigned to lead the investigation. Ben-Shalom is due to take over as director of the investigative branch of the police force in the near future. The current head of the Investigations and Intelligence Division, Gadi Sisu, is not permitted to be involved in the investigation, due to his close ties to the leading figures in the company.

The investigation is scheduled to begin this week, before the election for the 23rd Knesset. The investigators of Lahav 433 will be given access to all the evidence that was gathered in the past, and they will probably summon various individuals to give testimony as well. It is not clear if the testimonies themselves will be delivered before the election. Benny Gantz, the chairman of Blue and White and former head of Fifth Dimension, is not a suspect at this time. According to the allegations, senior figures in the company received payments under false pretenses, after they presented false information to the police concerning the number of customers of the company, its years of operation, and the readiness of the product itself, which was described as having been completed when it was still in development. The investigation will be supervised by Yigal Ben-Shalom and Yoav Telem, the director of the National Unit for Investigation of Fraud, with the assistance of a small team of investigators.

Benny Gantz responded to the probe with almost complete indifference. “I have great trust in the law enforcement system, and I have no problem with any inquiry they wish to conduct,” he asserted. “As far as I am concerned, there are no criminal elements in this story. This is the result of political pressure from the Likud. They understand that on March 17 [the date when Netanyahu’s trial is scheduled to begin], Netanyahu will not be a suspect, under investigation, or at a hearing. On March 17, Netanyahu, the chairman of the Likud, will be sitting on the defendant’s bench. That is where this commotion is coming from. I am certain that nothing will come of this, and I trust the law enforcement agencies.”

A Country in Panic

On Sunday, the prime minister visited the war room and addressed the citizens of Israel. He asserted that it is better to be too cautious than not to be cautious enough, and he is correct. The problem is that the public is being thrown into panic, although there may be no alternative. Meanwhile, a domino effect has begun. On Sunday, the Population and Immigration Authority announced that another group of South Korean tourists who were scheduled to arrive that day would not be permitted to enter the country. Officials in the Health Ministry reported that they were weighing the possibility of adding Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea to the list of countries from which anyone who returns to Israel must be quarantined for 14 days.

Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Yisroel Katz called for an urgent meeting in his ministry to determine the potential international repercussions of these decisions and to take the requisite steps to explain Israel’s actions to the rest of the world. Katz ordered his staff to support every directive issued by the Health Ministry with respect to preventing travelers from various countries, who might pose a danger to the health of the Israeli populace, from entering the country. Prime Minister Netanyahu also instructed the Foreign Ministry to issue warnings against traveling to those countries. The government is expected to release another warning against traveling to Thailand in the near future.

Rafi Peretz, the Minister of Education, also gave instructions for the delegations of students visiting Poland to be halted. At this point, the decision affects 29 groups of students, who were expected to leave for Poland over the course of the following week. This includes 3087 students altogether. Out of those groups, eight delegations, which consist of 687 students, who were supposed to leave the country tomorrow, received notice of the decision. “Throughout the current crisis, the Education Ministry is operating solely based on the instructions of the Ministry of Health,” Peretz stressed. “That is true of the schools that came in contact with the Korean tourists, and it is also true of the school trips to Poland. An excess of preparation is better than being underprepared.”

All-Out War in the Justice Ministry

Now it is time for a few words about what has been happening in the Ministry of Justice. The highest-ranking figure in the judicial system is the attorney general. The current attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, was once a close associate of Prime Minister Netanyahu and even served as the secretary of the cabinet. Since then, the two men have formed an antagonistic relationship. In the latest development, Mandelblit filed an indictment against Netanyahu at the most inopportune time possible for the prime minister, and the rift between them became permanent. Mandelblit thus became an enemy of the Likud.

The current Minister of Justice, a staunch Netanyahu ally, was appointed not long ago. He was marked for opposition before he even had a chance to open his mouth, and when he began to speak, his incessant attacks on the prosecution only served to earn him greater enmity. Meanwhile, the second highest figure in the hierarchy of the criminal justice system, the state prosecutor, resigned from his post. Justice Minister Ochana proceeded to appoint a particular woman to replace the former state prosecutor, in defiance of Mandelblit’s opinion and recommendation of a different candidate. By doing that, the minister effectively declared war against the attorney general. There was an uproar in the ministry, and Ochana’s candidate of choice became frightened and decided that she was not interested in the job. Ochana then appointed someone else, a man named Dan Eldad, to the post, and the battle moved to the next level.

At the same time, the Harpaz affair also exploded in Mandelblit’s face. This is an old story that has been discussed endlessly, in which the main figures are the chief of staff of the IDF from ten years ago and the chief military prosecutor at the time. The chief of staff in question was Gabi Ashkenazi, who holds the third highest position in the Blue and White party today, and the head military prosecutor was none other than Mandelblit himself, who was a close friend of Ashkenazi and is the man responsible today for blocking the investigation into Fifth Dimension, the company once headed by Benny Gantz. This week, the scandal was revived and created the clear impression that Mandelblit violated the law at the time. Perhaps there was good reason that the previous attorney general opposed Mandelblit’s appointment to his current position, on account of the Harpaz affair.

Now, imagine what would happen if Dan Eldad, as the state prosecutor, ordered the police to begin a criminal investigation into Mandelblit. The Likud party is already arguing that Mandelblit has a conflict of interest; after all, how can he make any impartial rulings concerning Blue and White when he and Ashkenazi are suspected of criminal collusion in the past? The Likud has also argued that the fact that Mandelblit chose to indict Netanyahu before the elections, while he refused to order a probe into Benny Gantz’s former company, shows that he is extremely biased in favor of Blue and White.

This week, Dan Eldad ordered the police to begin investigating Fifth Dimension. That was undoubtedly a bombshell that may have major ramifications for the election. But once again, the coronavirus stole the show, and the media did not devote nearly as much attention to this issue as it has to the investigations of Netanyahu. Nevertheless, within the Ministry of Justice itself, a full-scale war is being fought.

False Numbers or False Alarm?

Our next topic is the falsified numbers of chareidim enlisting in the army. I will not deal with this topic at great length here, since I plan to write a separate article about it, but I will give you a general overview of the subject.

About two months ago, the media reported with great drama that the army had falsified its figures concerning the number of yeshiva bochurim who had been drafted, and that the Knesset and the government had been deceived. The news reports noted that the draft law requires the army to submit an annual report to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee detailing the number of chareidim who are drafted each year. This requirement stems from a Supreme Court ruling that requires the army to set quotas for the chareidi draft that are to increase with every passing year. According to the news report, the number of chareidi enlistments had actually not risen, and the army falsified the figures in order to make it seem as if it had met the quotas.

If you had asked me whether it is a good thing that the number of chareidim enlisting hasn’t increased, I would have told you that it is inherently a good thing. At the same time, it had the potential to stoke the hostility of the politicians and the Supreme Court against the chareidi community to record heights—until the coronavirus came along and distracted everyone, of course.

The Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee held an urgent meeting to discuss the matter, and the representatives of the IDF claimed that the inflated figures resulted from a mistake. The chief of staff then appointed an investigative commission, and this week its findings were announced: The number of chareidi enlistments reported by the army had indeed been inaccurate, but it was not a deliberate misrepresentation. Instead, it was the result of errors, confusion, negligence, and, above all, a lack of clarity as to the definition of the term “chareidi.”

And that brings us to the main point. I examined the entire report, and I discovered that the number of chareidim joining the army has indeed increased. The problem is that the army’s list includes several hundred new recruits who are indeed chareidi, but who do not meet the definition of chareidim established by the Shaked Commission. Thus, in reality the army did not lie at all; there is simply a dispute as to what kind of person is considered chareidi. The army is required to abide by the legal criteria for that definition, regardless of how strange or misguided they are. The commission’s report also advises altering the definition of the term.

Answering the Call of the Gedolim

On that note, the election is due to be held this coming Monday, but the suspense, if you will forgive me for saying so, hasn’t exactly reached its peak. There is very little indication in the air of an impending election. The latest polls showed a minor rise for the Likud, which served to awaken the party’s dormant voter base—and they say that there are hundreds of thousands of apathetic potential Likud voters—but that is still not enough to boost the right-wing bloc to the degree that it needs. For now, the bloc still doesn’t seem poised to pass the threshold of 61 mandates.

Within the chareidi community, things seem to be in order. The understanding that there are many important principles at stake in this election seems to have penetrated everyone’s consciousness. Lieberman’s venomous rhetoric alone makes it all too evident that his inclusion in the government would create grave danger for all that is holy.

United Torah Judaism has been using the most powerful tool at their disposal to rally their voters: the influence of the gedolei Yisroel. Before the last election, Rav Chaim Kanievsky made the unusual move of leaving his home and interrupting his learning to make appearances around the country, including Teveria and Beer Sheva. This time, the admorim of Agudas Yisroel have done the same. Last Sunday, they visited Elad and Haifa. On Monday they traveled to Emanuel, Tuesday found them in Beit Shemesh and Beitar Illit, and on Wednesday they visited Kiryat Gat. The effect has been astounding; the people recognize that if the gedolim have been making such an uncharacteristic effort, then citizens are certainly obligated to go out of their way to vote for the chareidi parties. When a group of illustrious rabbonim can be found at a public event in a city such as Kiryat Gat, it is bound to have an impact on others.

Meanwhile, the Shas party has been working feverishly at the periphery of the country and within the traditional community, and it seems that they have managed to stir the emotions of many potential supporters. Let us daven that UTJ (the party consisting of Degel HaTorah and Agudas Yisroel) and Shas will achieve the maximum possible success, and that Likud and the right will likewise garner enough votes for the right-wing bloc to reach the 61 mandates it needs.

Rockets and Knives

If you thought that the terrorists would give us a reprieve in advance of the election, then you were wrong.

First of all, on Sunday, in the middle of the panic over the coronavirus, red alert sirens began sounding in the south. It seemed as if Hamas or Hezbollah was launching a major attack. A massive hail of rockets (over 20 launches, which is quite a lot) was directed toward the communities in the Gaza area and the city of Ashkelon. Sirens were heard in Ashkelon, Sderot, and many other communities in the vicinity of Gaza at 5:32 p.m. on Sunday evening. Five minutes later, sirens sounded in the Eshkol Regional Council, followed by the sounds of explosions in the area. The mayor of Ashkelon, Tomer Glam, responded to the sirens by ordering all the municipal bomb shelters opened. He also ordered the cancellation of the public events that were scheduled for that evening in all public buildings. The bomb shelters in Gan Yavneh were also opened to the public. The scent of war was in the air. Someone remarked that Hamas and Hezbollah are certainly aware that Netanyahu would not dare to begin a war against them just one week before an election.

Was it an unprovoked attack? It may have been a reaction to a “minor” incident that morning. On Sunday morning, IDF soldiers killed two Palestinian terrorists east of Khan Yunis, after the two appeared to have placed an explosive device on the border fence. After the terrorists were killed, riots broke out when the IDF soldiers prevented the bodies from being taken back to Gaza. After the incident, Hamas and Islamic Jihad threatened revenge.

Of course, the incident was bound to be politicized. Amir Peretz, a former defense minister and a resident of Sderot (and the man who occupies the top slot on the Labor-Gesher-Meretz list) declared that the rocket fire on Ashkelon and the communities in the Gaza envelope was another sign of the failures of Netanyahu and his defense ministers in recent years, who have been insisting on perpetuating the current reality rather than changing it. Yvette Lieberman was also quick to condemn the government for its weakness—as if he himself hadn’t held the post of defense minister. And Netanyahu had his own response. May Hashem protect us!

Then there were the “ordinary” terror attacks. On Shabbos morning, a Palestinian terrorist attempted to murder Jews near the Lions’ Gate. The terrorist was killed before he was able to carry out his intentions, although a woman was injured by a ricocheting bullet. On Friday, an Arab woman attempted to attack a Jew on the promenade in Armon Hanetziv. In both cases, the weapon was a knife. In the second incident as well, a civilian was lightly injured. According to some security officials, the sudden surge in terror attacks may be a response to Trump’s deal of the century.

Generals in the Army, Novices in Government

The account written by former Mossad agent “Dubi” is hair-raising. Dubi, who is also known by his professional name, “Alex,” has not been identified by his surname, even though he has been retired for many years. He was the handler of Ashraf Marwan, Israel’s most senior spy in Arab countries in general, and in Egypt in particular. Marwan was also a son-in-law of President Nasser of Egypt.

Dubi’s account paints a dismal picture of Israel’s security services. He reveals that Israeli military attaches in Europe received information from him and ignored it, and that the head of the Mossad met with him, in violation of the agency’s rules. He blames Eli Zeira, the head of the Military Intelligence Directorate, for exposing Marwan’s identity and role in Israel’s intelligence, which led to his murder. Dubi also mentions the government’s negligence in the Jonathan Pollard affair. And he raises the most painful and incriminating question of all: How is it that Israel ignored his warning about the imminent outbreak of the Yom Kippur War? On erev Yom Kippur in 1973, he advised the government that there was a 99 percent probability that war would begin that night. How many people lost their lives because of the government’s blatant disregard for his warnings?

When Rafael “Raful” Eitan was elected to the Knesset as the head of the Tzomet party and we were exposed to his personality, we were horrified at the thought that this shallow, unintelligent, and intractable man had commanded the Israeli army. Since that time, more former generals have joined the government, each of them seeming even less qualified than his predecessors. And now we have Benny Gantz. How is this possible? We recently discovered that the generals are novices in the business world as well. The business partners of another former chief of staff and defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, have accused him of defrauding them. Gabi Ashkenazi took over as chairman of a gas drilling company and its stocks plummeted by 90 percent. When former chief of staff Dan Chalutz became the CEO of Kamor, the company lost 40 percent of its assets. How were these people qualified to run the army? And is it possible that the prime ministers were equally incompetent?

The Old Woman in the Oncology Ward

The oncology ward in Ichilov Hospital is on the fifth floor. The elevator is an advanced model; you press the button for your destination before you enter it.

“You must listen to this story,” my son announced to me after spending Shabbos in Ichilov. “I was in the hospital on Friday, just before Shabbos, and I noticed an elderly woman with a walker who was barely able to move. She was laboriously making her way from her ward to the elevator, and I said to her, ‘Madam, by the time you get to the elevator, it will be Shabbos. What do you need?’ She told me that she needed grape juice for Kiddush. I was a bit surprised; she wasn’t covering her hair, but I was presumed that she was probably from a traditional family and that she made Kiddush at home on Shabbos as well. She didn’t know where to find the grape juice, and she was happy when I offered to obtain some for her. She told me that she needed only enough for Kiddush at night, and I presumed that she was in the habit of making Kiddush at home at night but not during the day. I ran to the office of Rav Avrohom Reznikov, the rov of the hospital, and I discovered that he had a few baskets containing bottles of grape juice that he had received from Mifal Chessed, the organization of Rav Weinreich. The woman was very happy when I brought a bottle back to her. She was a very interesting person. She was chiloni, but she had a Yechaveh Daas siddur and a volume of Tehillim next to her bed.”

“That is a wonderful story,” I replied. “Did you ask her to vote for Shas or UTJ?”

My son was flustered. “I thought about it, but I was uncomfortable with the idea,” he admitted. “It didn’t seem right for me to do a favor for her and then to seem to be asking for something in return.”

On Monday, we drove to the wedding of former MK Yair Levi and stopped at Ichilov Hospital on the way. The hospital is on Weitzmann Street, and I caught a glimpse of Heichal Hamishpot, the courthouse where my trial was held many years ago. I haven’t been on the street since that time.

In the hospital, I made my way to the woman’s room in the hope that I could convince her to perform the mitzvah of voting for a chareidi party. If she was Sephardic, I reasoned, it was possible that she could be persuaded to vote for Shas. There isn’t a single person who hasn’t been convinced when I quoted Rav Ovadiah’s famous drosha to them. (Rav Ovadiah told the story of a man who passes away and is praised in Shomayim for a variety of accomplishments, including the construction of shuls and mikvaos. The man protests that he never did anything of the sort, but then he is told, “You voted for Shas, and that made you a partner in these things!”)

My son and I made our way to the fifth floor and found the woman’s room empty. We questioned the nurses, but they did not remember her, even though she had been there just a couple of days earlier. “She had a walker and could barely move,” I said, trying to jog their memories. They looked at me blankly.

“She was an elderly woman. She was in the bed closer to the door, and she had a siddur and Tehillim on her nightstand,” my son said.

“Of course!” the nurses exclaimed. They gave us her name and added, “She was discharged this morning.”