My Take on the News

Lighting Up the Country

So Chanukah has arrived and I have a riddle for you: What do Chanukah and Sukkos have in common? There doesn’t seem to be much of a connection between them, but in Israel they do have one common factor: Both involve public displays of our observance. On Chanukah, we are meant to publicize the miracle that the holiday commemorates; that is why the menorah should be placed in a position where it can be seen by the maximum number of people. Sukkos, meanwhile, occurs in the fall in order to demonstrate to the world that we sit in our sukkos because of the Torah’s commandment, and not to enjoy the weather. And in this country, that means that the observance of each of these holidays is visible even to people outside the home.

Both of these holidays, with their public manifestations of Yiddishkeit, make it clear that the State of Israel does not fit the image that many try to attach to it. On Sukkos and on Chanukah, there are clear indications that the allegedly secular character of our country is based on inaccurate surveys. Or, to be more precise, the surveys are accurate, but they suffer from a simple flaw: They include all the non-Jews who have come to Israel over the past 30 years. That is the reason that the surveys show that most Israelis are neither chareidi nor religious. However, it should be clear that in order to obtain a true picture of the situation, we would have to exclude the non-Jews from these calculations. And there are over one million non-Jews in the State of Israel. Incredibly, most of them have the legal status of Jews. That is a terrible tragedy that deserves to be addressed in its own right, but it is not our subject at the moment.

The point I would like to make is the following: A person who walks down a street in Israel on Sukkos will see sukkos on every balcony. On Chanukah, he will see the lights of the menorah in every window. This will quickly lead him to the conclusion that despite the protestations of a handful of anti-religious agitators and an assortment of media pundits, the truth is clear: There is much more commitment to Yiddishkeit among the Israeli populace than those who profess to speak for it would care to admit. I am often reminded of an episode that took place one Lag Ba’omer night, when I was returning from a visit to America. As the plane approached Ben Gurion Airport for its landing, the El Al pilot became so excited by the scene below that he urged all the passengers to look out the windows and observe that the entire country had been lit up with bonfires.

There is more to talk about this week, of course. First, there is the story of the Arab Knesset member who smuggled cellular phones into the possession of imprisoned terrorists. There is also the state budget, which was approved not only for the coming year of 2017, but also for the following year. And then there are some smaller news stories, which I will endeavor to share with you.

Smuggler in the Knesset

Basel Ghattas is an Arab member of the Knesset, and a doctor, who was recently caught smuggling cell phones and documents into the cells of security prisoners in Ketziot Prison. How could he have committed such a grievous offense? I have written in the past about how the audacity of the Arab members of the Knesset has exceeded all reasonable limits, so this should not come as a surprise. Ghattas has a cousin, Azmi Bishara, who was also a member of the Knesset, and who was caught transferring information to enemies of the state. Bishara fled to Qatar in order to escape prosecution for his crimes. Ghattas himself might have done that as well, except that an order was issued immediately barring him from leaving the country. It appears that he had done the same thing many times before, and his sense of caution became dulled, leading to his capture. What led the Shin Bet to suspect him? That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise either; they are also aware of the increasing audacity of the Arab Knesset members. Moreover, Ghattas announced publicly to the Arab sector that he was prepared to bring letters to Palestinian prisoners. He was then caught in the act when his meeting with the prisoners was filmed and the prisoners themselves were searched after meeting with him.

The attorney general asked the Knesset to remove Ghattas’s parliamentary immunity. Until that step was taken, the police were not permitted to search his home and Ghattas himself could not be arrested for questioning. The attorney general’s request was specifically for his immunity to be revoked for these two purposes. The Knesset Interior Committee accepted the request unanimously, and in order for it to take effect, the Knesset convened on Thursday, in a highly unusual move, for a discussion and vote on the subject. Ghattas himself announced before the special sitting that he was prepared to voluntarily give up his immunity for those two purposes. Therefore, instead of the discussion and vote, his decision was announced to the plenum. The sitting took exactly nine minutes and was attended by less than ten Knesset members. Yuli Edelstein, the Knesset speaker, sounded sad. Indeed, it was a sad day. Several hours later, Ghattas was summoned for additional questioning, at which point it was legally permissible to arrest him.

Of course, it would be a good idea to discuss this matter at greater length. Perhaps I will write about it separately.

Chanukah Events

As everyone knows, Chanukah is a time for special events. If I were to enumerate all the events to which I have been personally invited, along with those that were advertised on the bulletin boards and in the newspapers I read, the list would be astonishingly long. I will mention only two of them. First of all, on Motzoei Shabbos, a new yeshiva that was founded in Beit Shemesh last year marked the anniversary of its establishment with a major event in the Tamir reception hall. The yeshiva is Kinyan Daas, and to give you an idea of what it is about, I will quote from the literature that was distributed at the event: “The learning style of the yeshiva entails studying iyun at a rapid pace, with the majority of the day devoted to a single topic, so that the talmidim amass knowledge of entire sugyos b’iyun, with the Rishonim and the Acharonim, in a very short time. This leads to a great sense of satisfaction and hasmadah, and the bochurim acquire a large body of knowledge. Roshei yeshivos and talmidim of all ages sense the need for a yeshiva where bochurim can learn in this fashion. The yeshiva was opened with the encouragement and at the personal urging of the gedolei Yisroel, led by Rav Moshe Hillel Hirsch. Its establishment was marked last year with a gathering at the home of Rav Dovid Cohen. The yeshiva maintains a constant connection with two prominent roshei yeshiva, Rav Yehoshua Eichenstein and Rav Boruch Soloveichik.”

Also on Motzoei Shabbos, I attended a festive event arranged by the Chayeinu organization at a hotel in Bayit Vegan, Yerushalayim. This reception followed two major events held elsewhere in the country: in Be’er Sheva in the south and in Petach Tikvah in central Israel. Chayeinu is an organization dedicated to helping the families of children suffering from serious illness. Once a year, the organization conducts a gift distribution after every patient and their families notify them of their wishes. This is a project that spans the globe, involves huge sums of money, and, most importantly, brings smiles to the faces of sick children. Sadly, we have witnessed an increase every year in the number of children suffering from illness.

This year, the gifts were distributed at the massive events to the thousands of children who were able to attend. In the days leading up to the events, messengers were sent to the homes or hospital rooms of other sick children to deliver their presents. At the event in Petach Tikvah, the gifts had to be delivered by truck, due to the large number of bicycles that were brought. Every gift bore a label that read, “This project is dedicated to the memory and for the elevation of the neshamah of our dear friend Shmulik Horowitz.” The same label appeared on the gifts that were delivered last year. Anyone who knew Shmulik will never forget him. He was a volunteer for Chayeinu, a young man with the soul of an angel and the abilities of a superhero.

On Motzoei Shabbos, at the event in Bayit Vegan, I found myself moved to tears by the sight of the children. I was also moved by the speech delivered by Rav Dovid Lau, the chief rabbi of Israel. But I was touched most profoundly when one of the children, who was blind last year because of his illness but has since regained his eyesight, approached Yaakov Pinsky, the director of this incredible organization, and said to him, “I am happy that this year I can see the people who are bringing me joy.”

A Color Blind Budget

As we turn our attention to the new state budget, I cannot help but quote a few lines from an address delivered by Finance Minister Moshe Kachlon when he presented the budget. That speech, which took place on Monday, saw Kachlon reach one of his oratorical heights. He appeared at the podium with a booklet containing a list of his own accomplishments in office, and he proceeded to excoriate the opposition for its frequent attacks on him. Citing the list of his activities, Kachlon proved that all the things he has done have been important measures that the opposition themselves wished to implement while they were in power, yet he succeeded while they failed to do so. In fact, Kachlon’s predecessor was none other than Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party, who is now a member of the opposition and regularly bashes the current government in general and the finance minister in particular.

Reading from his notes, Kachlon said, “A government-run pension track – did you speak about that? Did you? Open up Google. I want to see if I have made a mistake. You spoke about it? Well, we made it a reality. You also spoke about increasing the competition in choosing insurance agents. Did you actually do that? No, but we did. It has been accomplished. You spoke about private health insurance as well. It is all documented. I am reading from Yesh Atid’s proposals.”

Karin Elharrar of Yesh Atid interjected, “I am glad that you have come to share our principles.”

Kachlon replied, “I am happy to join you, yes, but I also want a bit of fairness. You are doing nothing but attacking and vilifying us, when you should be conceding that you failed to achieve your goals and giving us the opportunity to do so instead. You know how to talk, but when you are confronted with the reality, you simply dig in your heels and insist that you are right.

“I will give you half of my time now. Tell me if there is one thing I say that is inaccurate,” Kachlon went on. “You spoke about lowering auto insurance rates by 5 percent. We actually lowered them by 13 percent. You talked about increasing the competition in the telecommunications market. It was accomplished by Eitan Cabel. You wanted reforms on imports and product standards. I accomplished that. Where you merely talked, I made it happen. We added 6 billion shekels to the budget for small business growth and increasing the principal of loans. You talked about providing maternity pay for self-employed women. We actually did it. You also talked about reducing discrimination among business owners. We did that, too. We also arranged for factories to be connected to natural gas, which you also only discussed. Restoring vocational education is another accomplishment of ours that you only talked about. You spoke about retrieving one billion shekels from the budget of the Keren Kayemet L’Yisroel. We retrieved 2.2 billion. You talked about limiting the wages of senior officials, but then you ran away from the subject. We actually did it. You left it up to me to do that, to fight with all the bankers and all the strongest people in the economy. You couldn’t have fought them; they are your friends. Then there were the conclusions of the Sheshinski Commission; you talked about implementing them, but we did it. You talked about providing attainable housing; we did it. We established an urban renewal authority, where you merely talked about it. We continued your initiative of creating rental housing. Building 5,000 student residences – we have now approved 20,000. Raising the level of rental assistance for entitled parties – you talked about it, but we did it. Augmenting the budget for health services: I want to tell you that you talked about it a lot, and I see that the issue hasn’t ended yet.

“Now, I have another comment to make. You have criticized my budget cuts, but I will remind you that when Yair Lapid was the finance minister, he said that a budget cut across the board was absolutely necessary. Based on that, he implemented a 4 percent cut in July 2013 and a 2 percent cut on August 31, 2014. He said that the national deficit was a disaster. But when I do the same thing, Yair Lapid says that I am destroying the country. Apparently, when you slash funding, you save the country. When I do it, I destroy. That is the only difference.”

Kachlon’s words infuriated the opposition. Eventually, he announced that he did not have the energy to continue reading his list and that he would simply pass it on to the members of the opposition. But there is no question that he impressed his audience. He managed to completely silence even the most vocal members of the opposition. On Wednesday night, before the budget was approved (by a vote of 62 to 49), he continued his verbal barrage. Among his comments was the line, “The budget is color blind. It does not discriminate against anyone.”

The Media Against Netanyahu

The Israeli media is continuing its harassment of Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu. By this point, it has clearly become an obsession of theirs. Last weekend, Haaretz published a front page story revealing that Spencer Partridge, an American businessman who lives in a suburb of Detroit, purchased half of Netanyahu’s parents’ home on Rechov Haportzim in the Katamon neighborhood of Yerushalayim, paying over one million dollars for his acquisition. Partridge is a friend of Netanyahu, who paid the bill when he dined with the prime minister at a restaurant in New Jersey in 2014. I would surmise that the restaurant was not kosher. What is wrong with the fact that Partridge bought half of the Netanyahu estate? I have no idea, but apparently it justified a front page story.

But that is nothing compared to the front page story in Yediot Acharonot last Wednesday. In a highly unusual move, the newspaper devoted its entire front page to the meeting between Prime Minister Netanyahu and the residents of Amona. The headline quoted Netanyahu as telling the people of Amona, “I understand what it means to lose a home. After the 1996 elections, we were removed from the official prime minister’s residence and were forced to stay in the Sheraton Plaza.” Obviously, this was meant to portray Netanyahu as a man with absolutely no sympathy for the plight of others. And while that might have been an accurate portrayal if he had uttered those words, he did not actually make that comment. Even if it had been true, that remark would not have justified a headline on the front page – unless the newspaper’s agenda was to besmirch the prime minister’s name in any way possible.

That was the content of Netanyahu’s response to the story, which was delivered via his own newspaper, Yisroel Hayom, which is owned by Sheldon Adelson. Netanyahu condemned the editor of Yediot Acharonot for the headline, and the newspaper later quoted an Amona resident who was present at the meeting and asserted, “Netanyahu did not say those words in the context in which they were presented in the newspaper… In contrast to the way the meeting was presented, Prime Minister Netanyahu did not demonstrate contempt or apathy.”

Do you think Yediot Acharonot issued a retraction or even an apology? Not in the least. Last Thursday, the newspaper continued its offensive by noting, “Netanyahu did not deny making that statement. He contented himself merely with quoting the residents of Amona who said that he didn’t belittle their plight.” In its widely circulated Friday edition, Yediot Acharonot continued to bash the prime minister.

Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who supplanted Netanyahu in that position after the aforementioned elections and who aspires to reclaim the office, took advantage of the opportunity for publicity to make a derisive comment: “Netanyahu says that he was ousted from his home? The voters threw him out! It took him six weeks to clear out of the house at that time … and the time has come again for him to leave.”

Lamenting Rampant Counterfeiting

Last week, I wrote about the rampant counterfeiting of olive oil and the warning notices issued by the Rabbinate before Chanukah every year. This week, the national kashrus division of the Chief Rabbinate disseminated its annual warning. The e-mail from the Rabbinate came with images of bottles of ersatz olive oil that were intercepted bearing a forged hechsher and containing a liquid that was not actual olive oil. The counterfeiters have forged the logos of every hechsher imaginable: every rabbanut in the country, along with Chug Chasam Sofer, the Badatz of the Eidah Hachareidis, the OU, the OK, the Badatz of Nachalas Yitzchok, Yoreh Deah, and Bais Yosef. Aside from the fact that the oil isn’t kosher, it isn’t even olive oil, even though it is marketed as such. In general, the fake oils are made primarily of soy oil. They often contain orlah and tevel as well. Because of their low prices, the oils tend to be popular among less knowledgeable consumers.

Last week, the Minister of Religious Affairs was asked to explain what the inspectors of the Chief Rabbinate are doing about the situation, aside from merely warning the public about the forgeries. He was also asked to reveal how many cases of fake olive oil and forged hechsheirim have been discovered over the past five years and how many of the offenders were tried in criminal court for their actions.

The minister, Dovid Azulai, responded, “The computer records of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel reveal that over the past five years, there have been 49 documented cases of kashrus fraud in the marketing of olive oil. In 32 of those cases the perpetrators were given administrative fines and in the other 17 cases they were issued warnings. It is important to note that these forgeries were reported to the country’s mashgichim and to the public through the means of notification employed by the Chief Rabbinate… We are not aware of criminal charges being brought against any of the perpetrators. At this time, the Chief Rabbinate is holding a tender to recruit prosecuting attorneys who will press charges in cases of counterfeiting. The Chief Rabbinate will begin advancing criminal charges once that system is in place.”

Azulai then added, “To my chagrin, we do not have enough manpower now to deal with these issues. One of the things that distresses me, and that I also pointed out in the past, is the fact that no criminal charges have been brought against any of the counterfeiters. No complaints have been received by the police. As a result, there are still people who are prepared to pay the fines and to continue producing forgeries and deceiving the public… We are working to bring a team of attorneys into the Chief Rabbinate in order to press criminal charges against the counterfeiters. Once we began prosecuting the violators, and they realize that they will be placed on trial instead of merely paying a fine of 1,000 shekels, I hope that the situation will be different.”

Azulai may not be aware of this, but the attorney general’s office has already decided that these violations of the law do not justify the effort involved in pressing criminal charges against the offenders. As a result, a tender was recently issued for attorneys from outside the government to manage the prosecution. I will report on that situation to you soon, bli neder.

The Contempt of the Court

Last week, I interviewed Uri Ariel, the Minister of Agriculture and a representative of the political right. Ariel made an effort to give our readers an understanding of why the residents of Amona agreed to evacuate their community, and I believe that he conveyed a clear picture of the situation. During our interview, the minister outlined two possible scenarios that might cause the deal with Amona to collapse.

First, he explained, the agreement calls for all the residents of Amona to be resettled on the other side of the hilltop, where prefab structures (caravans and the like) will be erected for them within 45 days and permanent buildings will gradually be constructed as well. Uri Ariel remarked that it was quite plausible that a petition might be submitted to the Supreme Court claiming that that land, as well, is owned by a particular Arab. It wouldn’t be sufficient to argue that the land may have once belonged to Arabs who fled, since the law now stipulates that the Arab former owners may receive only monetary compensation if they reappear in the future. Nevertheless, if a specific Arab with a claim to the land were to be named before the homes were constructed, then the deal would be jeopardized. As it turned out, Ariel was correct. On the day after my interview with him, a petition was filed with the Supreme Court claiming that the entire hill is owned by a specific Arab whose identity is known and who can easily be found.

The second factor that might jeopardize the deal, in Ariel’s view, was the possibility that the Supreme Court might not agree to the government’s request for a 45-day extension prior to the demolition of Amona. Indeed, the government filed a request with the court last week for an additional extension, but the court announced on Thursday that it was not satisfied with the guarantee from the governing council of Amona that the residents would leave the settlement voluntarily. Instead, it demanded that each member of the community sign an individual letter guaranteeing a peaceful evacuation. The court gave the residents until the end of the same day to notify it of their position. The residents felt that the court’s request was a show of contempt. After all, the settlement’s council had already guaranteed that there would be no resistance. The Israeli public took a similarly dim view of the court’s stipulation.

On Thursday night, the people of Amona relented, albeit partially. Although they acceded to the court’s request for a pledge of nonviolence, they all signed a single collective letter rather than a group of individual pledges.

The Cat, the Mouse, and the Judges of the Supreme Court

Here is another story that concerns the Supreme Court: In the coming days, a number of new justices are scheduled to be appointed, to replace those who have retired. Most of the candidates are judges in district courts throughout the country or practicing attorneys. The events surrounding these appointments have shown just how ugly the dealings within the Judicial Appointments Committee can be, even though its members include three Supreme Court justices, including Chief Justice Miriam Naor.

The committee consists of two government ministers – one of whom is the Minister of Justice, who is the chairwoman of the committee – three Supreme Court justices, two members of the Knesset, and two representatives of the Israel Bar Association. Until now, the Bar Association representatives always worked hand in hand with the judges on the committee, collaborating to ensure a majority vote for the candidates they favored. The other members of the committee never had a chance of appointing the candidates whom they considered appropriate. No one ever argued that this system was undemocratic or improper. This time around, though, the lawyers of the Bar Association are not in agreement with the judges, and the result has been an uproar. This time, the lawyers have made a pact instead with the politicians, with each group voting for the other’s favored candidates. The judges, meanwhile, have been entirely left out. And what has their reaction been? They have gone berserk with anger and have taken to shouting, ranting, and writing scathing letters. All of a sudden, it has become evident that they aren’t as enlightened as they pretend to be. It reminds me of the story of how Rav Yonason Eibschutz concealed a mouse in his snuff box and released it when a trained cat entered the room. The cat, which had been painstakingly taught to carry a tray and serve as a waiter, went wild at the sight of the mouse; its natural instincts kicked in, and it threw its tray aside and began to chase after the rodent. Apparently, the inherent nature of the Supreme Court justices can be unleashed by a simple provocation as well…

On that note, Chief Justice Miriam Naor made the following statement this past week: “Some identify democracy with the rule of the majority. There are those who claim that if a decision is made by a majority vote, it is automatically a democratic decision. But that is a mistake. The rule of the majority is a necessary condition for democracy, but it is not enough. Unless the power of the majority is kept in check, it is liable to become tyranny. Indeed, that has happened in the past.”

Of course, she was referring to the Knesset and the government, implying that their power must be limited. But one could apply almost the same words to the Supreme Court itself: “Some identify democracy with the decisions of the Supreme Court. There are those who claim that if the court issues a ruling, it is automatically a just and ethical decision. But that is a mistake. The existence of the Supreme Court may be a necessary precondition for justice, but it is not enough. Unless the power of the court is kept in check, it is liable to become tyranny. Indeed, that has happened in the past.”

“Chol Hamoed Chanukah”?

I will end with an observation that might have been amusing if not for the fact that it is so tragic. A certain clothing store in Eretz Yisroel announced a special sale this week, adapting the words of a popular children’s Chanukah song to inform the public that all of its merchandise was being sold at a 50 percent discount. In order to make it clear that the sale was limited to the eight days of Chanukah, it added in small print at the bottom of the ad, “Valid during Chol Hamoed Chanukah only.” It is a sad sign of the Jewish ignorance that is unfortunately rampant in Israeli secular society. It reminds me of an article that appeared in Haaretz several years ago before Sukkos. The writer meant to report on an expected shortage of esrogim, but substituted the word “agasim” (pears) for the fruit associated with the holiday.