My Take on the News

Bibi Waits for the Press

It is like something out of Megillas Esther. Events here in Israel—and in America too, I’m sure—are unfolding at an unbelievably rapid pace. We haven’t even recovered from the elections, and we still do not know how that story will end, but the panic over the coronavirus has already engulfed us. The entire country entered into a state of hysteria, perhaps justifiably. Perhaps you thought I was exaggerating when I wrote about it last week. If anything, this past week’s events have shown that I understated the situation.

Last Wednesday, the right-wing bloc met in the Knesset. This group consisted of the MKs and government ministers from the right-wing parties: Likud, Shas, UTJ, and Yamina. The meeting took place in the Yerushalayim Auditorium, which is perhaps the largest room in the Knesset building. I was there, as well.

Prime Minister Netanyahu was characteristically late; as soon as he entered the room, he hurried to the front. Yaakov Litzman and Naftoli Bennett were already there, each on opposite ends of a row of four chairs. The two chairs in the middle were designated for Netanyahu and Aryeh Deri, who is the leader of the largest right-wing party after the Likud. (On the left side of the spectrum, Blue and White and the Joint List are both larger than Shas.) On his way, Netanyahu noticed Uri Maklev and paused to thank him for something. I have no idea what he was referring to, but I did notice that they did not shake hands. In Israel today, handshakes are verboten.

Netanyahu was about to begin his speech, but he was interrupted by a shout from one of the reporters covering the event. “Mr. Prime Minister,” the man called out, “if you don’t mind, please wait one minute and twenty seconds until we begin our live broadcast.” This is the state of affairs in Israel today; the media runs the show. Netanyahu waited, and Yaakov Margi, who is a member of the Knesset, began singing “Shabchi Yerushalayim,” as everyone else joined in. That song was played in one of the campaign broadcasts starring Netanyahu himself.

The Anti-Netanyahu Law

The minute and twenty seconds drew to an end, and the media waited tensely for Netanyahu to begin speaking, as did the rest of us. He began by discussing the coronavirus and describing the steps that Israel had taken to halt its spread. Netanyahu claimed that, as always, he had been the first to identify the potential menace. “We seemed to be taking steps out of hysteria,” he said, “but it turns out that other countries in the world are following our example, even if they are lagging behind us.” There is some logic to his comments. Even the United States seems to have come to the conclusion that this situation is serious. After discussing the virus and relating that the Health Ministry has established a war room to manage the fight against it, he went on to talk about politics.

Netanyahu was furious with Benny Gantz and his party, Blue and White, for their efforts to promote an immediate new law that would prohibit a person who has been indicted on criminal charges to serve as prime minister. (In the current situation, Netanyahu could theoretically remain in the position of prime minister unless and until he is convicted.) “Gantz is leading a process that is undermining the foundations of democracy,” Netanyahu declared. “The people gave more votes to me than to any other candidate for prime minister. Under my leadership, the Likud became the largest party in the government, in a knockout victory. Before the election, Gantz said that the task of forming the government must go to whoever receives the largest number of mandates, even by a margin of a single mandate. We received much more than that. Gantz lost the election and lied to his voters; now he is attempting to steal the election and to harm me. My colleagues and I, along with millions of Israeli citizens, will not allow that to happen.”

It is actually quite possible that the law will pass, since Lieberman claims, at least for now, that he will support it. After all, Lieberman has the power to tip the scales in favor of the right or the left on any issue. At this time, he seems to be aligning himself with the left side of the political map, which could be very bad for the religious community. It was generally believed that even if he did not join a Netanyahu-led government, he would at least straddle the fence. But many believe that Lieberman will recommend Benny Gantz to President Rivlin as the candidate to form the next government. If that happens, then Gantz will be in control of the Knesset during the process. He would then be able to remove Moshe Gafni from the Finance Committee and Yuli Edelstein from his position as Knesset speaker. This makes for a complicated situation indeed.

At this time, Blue and White has announced that the law they plan to pass would affect Netanyahu only in the next Knesset, not in this one. But I do not understand why they would do that.

Euphoria Gives Way to Disappointment

So it is true: The two chareidi parties racked up more votes in the third election than in the first two rounds. But that is not surprising. Both parties have done their utmost to capitalize on the potential for success. They also reached out to new target populations. United Torah Judaism sought to recruit voters in the right-wing sector, and Shas worked to tap the potential in Sephardic communities that haven’t previously been affiliated with the party.

In the election for the 23rd Knesset, slightly more than 350,000 citizens voted for the Shas party. That is an enormous number. UTJ received slightly more than 340,000 votes, and that is a massive accomplishment. In the previous election, for the 22nd Knesset, Shas received 330,000 votes, while UTJ received only 268,000. All in all, this election was a much greater success for both parties; however, it did not make a difference in terms of the number of mandates they received. Each party fell slightly short of the threshold for adding to its mandates: UTJ almost reached the number of votes needed for an eighth seat in the Knesset, and Shas came very close to a tenth seat.

Actually, as I am writing this, a report has arrived to the effect that there is a chance, albeit a small one, that one mandate will be transferred from one party to another. Someone may be receiving another Knesset seat, presumably at the expense of Blue and White.

To be honest, we have been through a difficult two days here in Israel. The period after the election began on a euphoric note and ended with a sobering dose of realism. After every election, the exit polls tend to be mistaken regarding the chareidi parties. After a few hours, and sometimes after a day or two, it generally turns out that the chareidi parties earned one mandate more than the pollsters predicted. It is typically the Shas party that receives this extra mandate. But this time, the opposite took place: On the night of the election, the polls showed that the right-wing bloc had received 60 mandates, with Shas earning nine or ten and UTJ emerging with eight seats in the Knesset. That was perhaps the best possible scenario as far as the parties were concerned, or at least close to the best scenario. Of course, everyone would have preferred to see the right wing receiving a full 61 mandates. Even the fact that Lieberman seemed to have won only six mandates led everyone to breathe a sigh of relief.

Nevertheless, it gradually became clear that the reports were inaccurate. After all the votes were counted, including those of the soldiers, the double envelopes, and the ballots cast at the polling stations for people in quarantine, the picture changed. The final results showed the right-wing bloc reduced to only 58 mandates, while the left-wing bloc received 55.

Now that all the votes have been tallied, the Likud party emerged as the strongest party, with 36 mandates. Trailing behind it is the Blue and White party, with 33 Knesset seats, followed by the Joint Arab List with 15 mandates. The Shas party comes next, with nine seats in the Knesset, followed by UTJ, Yisroel Beiteinu, and Labor-Gesher-Meretz, with seven seats each. Yamina comes in last, with six mandates. Otzma Yehudit, led by Itamar Ben-Gvir, did not pass the electoral threshold. So the Likud party has outperformed Blue and White, but the right-wing bloc is left with only 58 mandates, and it will be very difficult to form a government under the circumstances.

With that, the anxiety levels in Israel have begun to mount.

Travelers Fear Isolation

Of course, the biggest topic of concern right now is the coronavirus, which may well have an impact on the outcome of the election. The country seems poised to enter a state of emergency that might force Netanyahu and Gantz to establish an emergency government, which would include all the parties. According to one conspiracy theory, the panic over the coronavirus is driven by the desire to push the establishment of a unity government.

There is little reason for me to report fully on the coronavirus, since there are constant new developments. I will tell you a little bit about the situation, including the announcements issued by the Health Ministry and the police force at the time of this writing.

In the chareidi community, there is an even greater sense of responsibility to exercise caution than in other sectors. For one thing, there is the halacha of v’nishmartem me’od l’nafshoseichem; protecting our health is a mitzvah no less important than any other mitzvah in the Torah. Furthermore, a religious Jew understands that he has a personal obligation to avoid causing harm to others, and in the case of the coronavirus, even if a person is willing to risk his own health, he could endanger others by passing the infection on to them.

For now, the question on the forefront of everyone’s minds is how the virus will affect the upcoming holidays of Purim and Pesach. If Israel’s national airport looked like a ghost town in recent days, what can we expect from the days to come? It is likely that many Israelis will cancel their plans to travel out of the country for Pesach.

But an even greater concern is the question of what will happen to the many people who planned to come here for Pesach. No one wants to arrive in Israel for Yom Tov and then be forced into isolation until after the Yom Tov.

On the same day that the right-wing bloc met in the Knesset, I sat in the office of the Interior Minister, Aryeh Deri, who is ultimately responsible for implementing the orders of the Ministry of Health. If the government decides to close the country’s borders, then the Population and Immigration Authority, which is a division of the Minister of the Interior, will have to carry out those instructions. Last Wednesday, the Ministry of Health announced that foreign citizens from several countries will not be permitted to enter Israel, and Professor Shlomo Mor-Yosef, the director of the Population and Immigration Authority, met with Deri to find out what to do. I listened to their conversation.

“We cannot close the gates of this country to any Jew, even one who is not an Israeli citizen,” Deri told his subordinate. “Many people will be coming here for Pesach now.” They discussed the matter for a while, and then Deri said, “Let’s decide on the following: Any foreigner who has relatives in Israel or an apartment in the country will be permitted to enter the country, and if he comes from one of the dangerous countries, he will have to be placed in isolation.”

In other words, anyone coming to Israel for Pesach will have to make sure to arrive early enough for their isolation period to end before the Seder night.

As the crisis continues, people have been flocking to Rav Chaim Kanievsky’s door to hear what he has to say about the situation.

No Mass Gatherings

The Ministry of Health has been tracking everyone who has contracted the virus and has been issuing constant updates on its instructions. The last notification we received, before Shabbos, was the following:

“Israelis returning from France, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, and Austria will be required to remain in home isolation for 14 days retroactively from the date of their departure from those countries. Foreigners from the aforementioned countries will not be permitted to enter Israel unless they demonstrate proven ability to enter home isolation. The implementation of this decision will go into effect in the coming days. There is a complete ban on international conventions in Israel. Residents of Israel returning from international conventions overseas will be required to remain in home isolation for 14 days. Health care workers in Israel are banned from leaving the country.

“Mass gatherings of more than 5,000 people are prohibited. Any person who has returned from out of the country within the past 14 days is prohibited to attend a gathering of over 100 people. It is recommended that the civil service commissioner prohibit government employees from leaving the country. For people over the age of 60 or any person suffering from a chronic condition such as heart disease, diabetes, elevated blood pressure, respiratory diseases, or immunosuppression, it is recommended that they avoid large gatherings, contact with people who have returned from any country overseas, or contact with people who are symptomatic or who are suspected of being ill. Tourists who have visited Iran, Iraq, Syria, or Lebanon during the past 14 days will not be permitted to enter the country. The Ministry of Health recommends being extremely meticulous about hygiene and refraining from shaking hands.”

In light of the current situation, many events have been canceled.

The citizens of Israel have been complying with the Health Ministry’s directives. Some Israelis need no more motivation than a sense of responsibility and a desire to guard their health and prevent the spread of the disease. Nevertheless, for those who do not take the health risk itself seriously, there is another reason to abide by the guidelines: the fear of criminal prosecution. Do you find that hard to believe? Then read on….

Police Threaten Quarantine Violators

Before Shabbos, the police force issued its own notice to the public: “As the coronavirus continues to spread in Israel and due to a series of incidents that took place in recent days since the virus first erupted, in which citizens deliberately ignored the directives of the Ministry of Health calling for them to remain in isolation, or committed crimes against inspectors from the Health Ministry, or misled inspectors from the Health Ministry when they were questioned, the Israel police force has decided to open several criminal investigations (eight) in accordance with the policies and instructions issued against those who violated their orders. We emphasize that combating the spread of the coronavirus and supervising citizens placed in isolation are the responsibility of the Ministry of Health. Violations of quarantine orders will be brought to the attention of the police to be handled, in keeping with the reports and figures provided by the Ministry of Health, only if the violations are committed by citizens who cannot be supervised by the Health Ministry for various reasons, including the subjects’ departure from the isolation areas where they are supposed to remain.

“Criminal investigations will be opened against citizens who knowingly choose to ignore the aforementioned instructions for the sake of their personal benefit, citizens who engage in actions that have the potential to spread the virus or who cause harm to public workers with the intent of infecting them, or people who mislead the Health Ministry’s inspectors when they are questioned for the purpose of mapping the possible spread of infection. We call upon the public to obey the instructions and orders of the Health Ministry, since ignoring or belittling those instructions will interfere with the national effort to fight the outbreak of the virus and its spread in Israel. Anyone who violates the Health Ministry’s isolation orders is liable to spread the disease and to infect and endanger the lives of other citizens without their knowledge. The police will work together with the state prosecutor in order to bring to justice anyone who chooses to disregard the Health Ministry’s orders and creates a danger, whether intentionally or through negligence, of additional spread of the coronavirus.”

The Battle Against Amulets

Returning to the topic of the election, I have two comments to make. The first concerns the election campaigns of United Torah Judaism and Shas.

The election propaganda of the chareidi parties was unique. It was entirely positive and highly meaningful. There were several different types of campaign videos and advertisements, each on a different theme. I will admit that when I saw the footage of Rav Gershon Edelstein reciting Tehillim for the chareidi parties’ success as he wiped away his tears, or the images of Rav Ovadiah Yosef zt”l weeping during past election campaigns, I found myself dissolving with emotion. And the Tehillim of Rav Chaim Kanievsky or the tears of Chacham Shalom Cohen had the same impact.

My second comment is on an unwelcome phenomenon: the petitions filed with Justice Hendel to bar the Shas party from distributing amulets for protection from the coronavirus. The ongoing interference of the “enlightened” sectors on religious society is something that must be brought to an end. I believe that the campaign against the “exclusion” of women, the efforts to enforce a secular core curriculum, the attempts to drive chareidim into the workforce, and the pretense of concern over chareidi poverty are also based on the same conceited and meddlesome tendencies of those who believe that it is their responsibility to “educate” the chareidim. This is severe prejudice and a disdainful attitude that must be eliminated. This is the basis of their fierce battle against amulets, segulos, and even tefillos. These champions of secular values mock anyone who “prostrates himself at the graves of tzaddikim and lights candles,” in their words. This battle has always had the same theme: It isn’t so much that they fear that the chareidi parties will expand their voter bases. It stems more from a conceited secularist approach that has it that they must teach the religious community not to have faith in anything.

Last Friday, I read the following passage in Haaretz, written by Nechemiah Strassler:

“In the election campaign run by Deri, Rav Ovadiah Yosef appears in a video in which he describes a Jewish person appearing before G-d at the age of 120 and being told, ‘You performed mitzvos and built shuls, and therefore your place is in Gan Eden.’ The confused Jew replies that he does not remember building anything, and G-d responds to him, ‘You voted for Shas and they built the shuls. It is all in your merit.’ Therefore, anyone who wishes to ascend to Gan Eden should vote for Shas.”

Apparently, Strassler did not listen carefully enough to the video. To the best of my recollection, Rav Ovadiah never described it as a conversation between Hashem Himself and the niftar. Furthermore, Rav Ovadiah told the story in a much more engaging way. Nevertheless, perhaps the Shas party should thank him for the free publicity, which may have led some of Haaretz’s readers to cast their ballots for Shas itself.

In any event, Strassler’s conclusion is appalling: “These are empty promises, accompanied by much talk of faith and prayer based on our fear of death. In essence, this is election propaganda that violates the Election Law. Take heed, police investigators.” What a pathetic reaction and an appalling display of hubris!

The secular elite in Israeli society is simply unable to grasp the meaning of Jewish faith. Strassler reminds me of the atheist who insisted that he did not believe in anything, and whose coworkers were surprised to discover a chamsa hanging on the wall of his office. “How could you have this symbol here?” they exclaimed. “You don’t believe in it!”

“True,” the atheist replied, “but I heard that it is helpful even for people who don’t believe in it…”

Teveria Rejects Ron Kobi

Everyone has his own hobbies. For me, one of my favorite pastimes is examining the tallies of the votes collected by the Central Elections Committee in each city. In Elad, for instance, I discovered that only seven people in the entire city voted for Mrs. Larissa Amir. I wondered how it was possible that Lieberman received six votes in the city and that Blue and White emerged with a total of 44. Perhaps it had something to do with Andrei Kozhinov, who occupied the 33rd slot on Blue and White’s list.

In Emanuel, the chareidi city in the Shomron, I discovered that Blue and White had received six votes. And how in the world did the anti-religious Yisroel Beiteinu end up with two votes in that city? I cannot fathom it.

Moving to the north, let us take a look at the results in Ohr Haganuz, a community near Meron. The Blue and White party received a single vote there, accounting for 0.54 percent of the total number of ballots cast. In this case, Labor-Gesher-Meretz—which, I believe, is far too long a name for such a small party—received twice the number of votes garnered by Blue and White, or, in other words, two votes. Meanwhile, UTJ received 83 votes in the community, while Shas received 58, the Likud earned 31, the foolish Otzma Yehudit party received six, and Yamina earned three.

Of course, I cannot disregard the city of Teveria. Yisroel Beiteinu, the anti-religious party with which Teveria’s former mayor, Ron Kobi, identified deeply—that is, if he is capable of any depth—received only 7.4 percent, or 1575, of the city’s votes. The voter turnout rate in Teveria was 60.61 percent, meaning that 21,251 out of its 35,000 residents showed up at the polls. Apparently, not only did Kobi fail to recruit supporters for Lieberman, but he actually drove away potential voters. Meanwhile, the Likud party emerged as a major winner in Teveria. It is clear to me that many Shas supporters felt pity for Bibi and decided at the last minute to switch their votes to the Likud instead. The party received a full 61 percent of the vote in Teveria. The second largest party in Teveria was Shas, which emerged from the elections with 3899 votes, or 18.4 percent of the total vote. The next most successful party in the city, somewhat surprisingly, was Blue and White, followed by Yisroel Beiteinu.

They Ruined Beer Yaakov

Beer Yaakov was my childhood home, and the results of the election have shown once again how it has been ruined.

When I was a child, Beer Yaakov was a small town that was home to a large transit camp. The community had been built by a group of immigrants who arrived from the Caucasus 120 years ago, led by their rov, Rav Yaakov Yitzchoki, after whom the town was named. There were two other settled areas in Beer Yaakov: Talmei Menashe, which was primarily home to a Yemenite community, and another section on the road leading to Ramle, which was also populated by many Yemenites. Then there was the Tunis Camp, which was home to many Ashkenazim who had immigrated in the sixties, and newcomers form the various waves of immigration, including Georgians, Russians, and Ethiopians.

Of course, Beer Yaakov had its yeshivos and its rabbonim. There was Yeshivas Sheeris Yosef, headed by Rav Nissim Toledano zt”l, as well as Yeshivas Neveh Eretz. And then there was the Yeshiva of Beer Yaakov, with the rabbonim who lived in its vicinity: Rav Moshe Shmuel Shapiro and Rav Shlomo Wolbe. There was also a girls’ school headed by my father, who was the rov of the town. It was a pleasant, tranquil, and friendly place to live, where the neighborhood was not marred by chillul Shabbos, mixed swimming pools, or the like. The various mayors always accepted the authority of the community’s rabbonim without question.

Looking at the statistics today, I cannot help but be saddened. Once upon a time, Beer Yaakov was a community where no one locked their doors and where everyone felt like brothers. Today, it has become almost a replica of Rishon Letzion. High-rise buildings have sprouted like mushrooms in every corner of the community, and instead of a small town with only 5,000 residents of voting age, it has become a large city that is home to 17,000 voters. The land occupied by the Tzrifin military base, which has since moved to the south, has now been added to Beer Yaakov as well. It is no longer the same place where I grew up. What is most incredible is that the Shas party is still the third most popular political party in the city: The Likud received 43 percent of the vote in this election, followed by Blue and White with 35 percent, and then Shas with 8 percent. The fourth most heavily supported party was Yisroel Beiteinu, which received 4 percent of the vote. The city still has a traditional character, but I cannot be sure if it will remain that way.

An Audacious Petition Against Rav Yitzchok Yosef

This isn’t a Purim spoof, my friends; it is a real story that took place in Eretz Yisroel several days before Purim. The following is an actual news report: “A complaint has been filed by the Yisroel Beiteinu party with the Ombudsman of the Israeli Judiciary concerning the statements made by Yitzchok Yosef, the chief rabbi of Israel, against the community of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. The ombudsman criticized the chief rabbi severely and announced, ‘The complaint has been found to be justified, and we recommend that the Minister of Religious Affairs summon the dayan to a disciplinary hearing in light of his repeated comments on issues of a political nature that are at the heart of a public controversy.’”

The complaint was referring to comments that Rav Yitzchok Yosef had made in a closed event for rabbonim: “There are very many goyim here [in Israel], some of whom are communists, who are hostile to religion and despise religion. They are not Jewish at all; they are goyim. And they vote for parties that incite against chareidim and against religion. They were brought here to this country to counteract the chareidi vote…. They are full-fledged goyim. Unfortunately, we have seen the fruits of their incitement.” These comments were leaked to the public and evoked many critical and even vicious responses. For my part, I could not understand what was incorrect about the rov’s statements.

In his battle to rack up votes from those very same “full-fledged goyim,” Yvette (Lieberman) the Terrible decided to use every weapon in his arsenal against the chief rabbi. He sent a letter to the attorney general asking him to open a criminal investigation against the rov, he wrote to the Minister of Justice and demanded that the Dayanim Appointment Committee meet and issue a formal complaint against Rav Yitzchok, and he appealed to the ombudsman of the Ministry of Justice to have the rov dismissed from his position. He also petitioned the Supreme Court, claiming that the government ministries to which he had directed his complaints were not responding to him. And his invective was as forceful and vitriolic as ever, as he accused the rov of “wild incitement,” “crass, discriminatory statements against women, against the judicial system, against Ethiopian immigrants, against religious Zionism and the founders of the state,” and “racism and anti-Semitism.” Imagine: Yvette Lieberman was complaining about racism and anti-Semitism! Somehow, the perpetrator has turned himself into the victim.

It is equally appalling that the ombudsman of the judiciary chose to accept Lieberman’s complaint. This is a blatant distortion of the facts: Rav Yitzchok Yosef did not speak against immigrants from the former Soviet Union at all. On the contrary, he spoke about the non-Jews, including many anti-Semites, who managed to infiltrate the country along with those immigrants. I do not remember Rav Yitzchok Yosef making the type of political statements for which the ombudsman excoriated him; all I heard were warnings against the anti-Semitic discourse stoked by Lieberman and his cohorts, and a word of caution to dayanim to make sure to conduct conversions properly.

Purim with Rav Shteinman

I will conclude with a firsthand account concerning Purim that is so remarkable that I could not resist sharing it with you. I discovered these recollections in a kuntres sent to me before Purim by Rav Moshe Sechayak, who was a frequent visitor to the home of Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman. This kuntres is on the topic of Purim in Rav Shteinman’s home, and here is a remarkable description of the festivities in the home of the gadol hador:

“One of the rov’s grandsons described to me how the Purim seudah was conducted along with the Berlin family. It was very long, unlike his usual Shabbos meals, and he drank more wine than usual, perhaps more than a full cup. The participants sang and he shared divrei Torah and various Talmudic chakiros, such as the subjects famously discussed by the sefer Manos Halevi and other such works. Rav Zev Berlin discussed various Torah topics with him at length, and they sang and rejoiced together; there was a large group of members of the extended family present. The seudah was calm, and they ate tranquilly and with all due solemnity. It continued for almost three hours.

“In general, Rav Shteinman would raise various questions that had occurred to him and would cite evidence for various resolutions, and his son-in-law would offer proofs of his own. They could often speak about a single subject for half an hour. Many subjects would come up, and it was only natural that they would discuss the halachos of tzedakah and kinyanim, which Rav Shteinman learned at length on Purim. Likewise, during part of the seudah, he would have his son-in-law take possession of various sums of tzedakah money on behalf of the poor. He would calculate the time in chutz la’aretz and would determine when the megillah had already been read in various places, and then he would determine that the time had come when he could transfer ownership of the money that various philanthropists had given him to distribute as matanos la’evyonim in Eretz Yisroel….

“Aside from the extensive discussions about halachic topics, he would also come up with concepts in mussar. He once said, ‘The Gemara states that the Jews were punished for enjoying Achashverosh’s banquet. This seems to lead to a question: If they sinned by participating in a feast, then shouldn’t that sin be rectified with a fast, rather than a celebratory meal?’ To answer this question, he said, ‘The wicked maskilim believed that non-Jews were born to derive pleasure from the world, but that Jews were not destined to enjoy this world. They felt that the Jews were unfortunate and deprived, but they were wrong. When a Jewish person eats and enjoys himself properly, in keeping with the Torah’s laws, he can even rectify an aveirah with those physical actions. A Jewish person can achieve major things simply by eating and rejoicing l’sheim Shomayim!’”