My Take on the News

Two Prime Ministers and a New Speaker

It is Sunday. I am sitting in my office in the Knesset building, and excitement is running high two floors above me. Prime Minister Netanyahu has delivered a speech, and the alternate prime minister has also spoken. Even the designated leader of the opposition, Yair Lapid, has also delivered a speech. Netanyahu and Gantz have been sworn in as prime minister and alternate prime minister. It will take some time for us to internalize the fact that both men have been elected to both positions simultaneously.

There were plenty of speeches delivered by representatives of the various parties as well. There was a veritable world war today over permits to enter the Knesset building, followed by a second, even fiercer battle over permits to enter the main room where the speeches were to be delivered. And I will share a little secret with you: I gave my permit to someone else. I did not feel a burning desire to be present for the occasion; I didn’t need to witness the event, and I didn’t feel the need to be seen there either. I have passed that point in my life.

The Knesset convened at 1:00 p.m., and the sitting concluded exactly at 3:36. This Knesset sitting was devoted to the two most important things that can take place in the Knesset. First, there was the election of the Knesset speaker, and instead of Yuli Edelstein, the position was given to Yariv Levin. Edelstein has become the Minister of Health, replacing Yaakov Litzman, who took the position of Minister of Housing. It would be appropriate for me to write at greater length about Yariv Levin and his background; I plan to do so in the near future. I considered quoting some of the speeches that were made in the Knesset both in favor of the government and against it, but I had the feeling that it would be wiser to spare you the details. I will tell you only that there were some particularly stormy moments, and that several members of the Knesset were ejected from the room.

Three members of the Knesset presented themselves as candidates for the position of Knesset speaker. One was Ahmed Tibi of the Joint Arab List, who is one of the most veteran members of the Knesset. Another was Karin Elharar of Yesh Atid, who represented the Jewish parties in the opposition, and the third was Yariv Levin, who was nominated on behalf of the coalition. Everyone expected that Levin would receive the majority of the votes, he won by a landslide. Tibi received the votes of 20 MKs, Elharar received 23 votes, and Levin raked in 72 votes from his fellow members of the Knesset. He walked to the front of the room, took the gavel from the temporary speaker, and began his address. He was visibly emotional as he spoke.

Levin, who is one of the leading figures in the battle against the Supreme Court’s tyranny, was likely elected to his position precisely because of his outspoken critique of the judges. At the same time, he looked as docile and placid as could be. He is also fiercely loyal to Netanyahu. As far as the prime minister is concerned, Yariv Levin is the right man in the right place. In his opening speech, Levin advised all three branches of the government—the Knesset, the cabinet, and the judiciary—to be careful not to encroach on each other’s areas of jurisdiction.

Altering the Pledge

After his election, the new Knesset speaker called upon the two prime ministers and all the ministers of the government to be sworn in to their positions. The new government is the largest in the history of Israel, for which it has been sharply criticized. But all the condemnations did not seem to have fazed anyone, especially since the coalition encompasses more than 70 members of the Knesset. The government’s detractors may criticize it as much as they desire, but after all is said and done, this train will continue resolutely chugging on its way.

The new ministers were called to the podium in alphabetical order, and the first was Yaakov Avitan, a new and fairly obscure minister who is not even a member of the Knesset. Avitan serves as a rov in the vicinity of Ashkelon, and Aryeh Deri selected him to take the position of Minister of Religious Affairs on behalf of the Shas party. Avitan was clearly in the grip of emotion, and when he took the pledge upon assuming his new position, he made a minor addition to the standard formula: “I, Yaakov ben Harav Yitzchok … pledge, b’ezras Hashem, to do my duty in good faith.” The Knesset speaker seemed to deliberate over whether to react to the addition of the words “b’ezras Hashem,” but he ignored the deviation from protocol. This was a change: Many years ago, when Rabbi Meir Kahane added the words “b’ezras Hashem” to his own pledge of allegiance, the Knesset speaker at the time insisted that he repeat the formula without the additional phrase. In any event, Avitan’s addition of the words “b’ezras Hashem” created a ripple effect, and even the completely nonreligious government ministers added the words to their own pledges. Gabi Ashkenazi and Gilad Erdan even went so far as to put on yarmulkes to recite this phrase. Parenthetically, I should note that Erdan is slated to become the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations and then to Washington, instead of receiving a ministerial appointment. But until he takes over for Dani Danon at the United Nations (and then for Dermer in Washington), he will remain a minister.

Yariv Levin was very enthusiastic. After 500 days with no government, the State of Israel was finally ushering in an elected government. He praised Netanyahu, thanked his family, and then closed the Knesset sitting. It was an unusual day in the Knesset, and with a new government being installed, there was a certain measure of festivity in the air. If not for the coronavirus, the stands would certainly have been packed with onlookers, including family members and close friends of the government ministers, along with other members of their parties. There was also a heavy media presence at the Knesset, with almost every corner of the building having been transformed into a makeshift news studio.

So this is it; the long wait is over. We finally have a new government. Let us hope that it succeeds in its mission. One thing is clear: The large number of government ministers is bound to be to its detriment.

Shuls Set to Reopen Soon

Naturally, the coronavirus made its presence known in every possible way. Everyone was wearing a face mask, and the Knesset speaker asked the members of the Knesset to refrain from shaking hands with the ministers as they were sworn in. Similarly, all of the news reporters in the building were extremely vigilant about keeping their designated areas sanitized and sterile.

And that was not all. On account of the coronavirus and the record number of government ministers (32), the traditional group picture was canceled. The new ministers in a government traditionally gather at the President’s Residence on the evening after the swearing-in ceremony for a group photograph, but the ministers were informed today that the picture would be postponed at least until the coronavirus crisis has ended.

As for the coronavirus itself, there is a general sense that the pandemic has ended in Israel. The number of new cases is steadily declining, as the number of recovered patients is rising. The country has let out a collective sigh of relief, but there is also concern that the public will stop taking precautions and there will be another surge of cases. The government announced today that the shuls and lehavdil the beaches will be reopened soon. A conference was held today between the Ministry of Health and a representative of the Minister of the Interior to work out a plan for the reopening of shuls. According to the proposal that will soon be presented to the government for approval, only shuls with regular mispallelim will be allowed to reopen, and empty seats will have to be maintained between the occupants. All the participants in a minyan will also be required to wear face masks throughout the davening. The mispallelim will be required to bring their own siddurim and other tashmishei kedushah, and every shul will have a designated “coronavirus gabbai” who will be responsible for enforcing the government’s regulations. Shtieblach will still be closed because they are not large enough to be able to accommodate the distancing rules. The Ministry of the Interior announced that this plan was formulated on Aryeh Deri’s urging, as the Interior Minister insisted that the government must find some way to reopen the shuls. This is certainly good news, although it is unclear how communities will be able to abide by these restrictions.

The move to reopen shuls came in response to complaints that the government was relaxing all other restrictions, even permitting public concerts, while davening remained subject to draconian restrictions. The actual reason for this was that it would not be possible to maintain the requisite distance between mispallelim in a shul. Nevertheless, the pressure brought to bear on the government proved effective. Even the country’s hotels, which have been closed for the past two months, have begun to reopen, albeit with restrictions, such as a requirement for the guests to maintain distance in hotel dining rooms and swimming pools. Nevertheless, there is a general sense that we are looking at the end of the pandemic.

Our Enemies Do Not Stop Scheming

Unfortunately, Arab terrorists made several attempts to murder Jews this past week. Once again, we have been shown very clearly that our Arab neighbors are constantly plotting to murder Jews solely because they are Jewish. In one case, an Arab terrorist struck a soldier with his car at a checkpoint near Chevron. The victim was lightly wounded, and the other soldiers on the scene killed the terrorist. Another incident took place in Har Dov, where an alarm went off, signaling that the fence around the community had been breached, and a terrorist was captured after infiltrating Israeli territory.

There was also a fatal terror attack, which took the life of a soldier named Amit Ben-Yigal. The victim was killed by a stone tossed from a rooftop while he was carrying out a military operation along with a group of other soldiers. The IDF spokesman released the following statement: “Staff Sergeant Amit Ben-Yigal, a combatant in a reconnaissance unit of the Golani Brigade, was killed early Tuesday morning by a rock thrown by a terrorist from a rooftop during an arrest operation in the village of Yabed, near Jenin. The terrorist waited on the roof of the three-story building where one of the arrests was carried out. Initial assessments suggest that the terrorist waited for one of the soldiers to look up and then threw the stone at him. Staff Sergeant Amit Ben-Yigal’s funeral will take place tonight at 6:00 p.m. in the military section of the cemetery in Beer Yaakov.”

Baruch Ben-Yigal, the father of the murdered soldier, moved the country to tears with his speech at the funeral, when he addressed Hashem Himself directly. On Friday, he asked many people to sing Shabbos zemiros with him, since his son had been in the habit of singing at the Shabbos table.

For anyone who attended the funeral or watched a recording of it, it was impossible not to cry. The murdered soldier’s father turned his gaze toward the sky and cried out, “It isn’t the way of the world for me to bury my only son! Hashem, give me a reason to get up in the morning!” It was truly heartrending. Even the soldiers at the funeral were moved to tears.

A Puzzling Crime at the Soldier’s Grave

Amit Ben-Yigal’s father lives in Givatayim (where the family sat shivah), while his mother lives in Ramat Gan. You may be wondering, then, why he was buried in Beer Yaakov. The reason for this is that his extended family lives in Beer Yaakov, and his father often stays with his family members there. The Machlouf family (which is Ben-Yigal’s original name) is a prominent family in the community.

Two days after the funeral, a startling discovery was made: Someone had dug up the murdered soldier’s grave, exposing the coffin within it. Footage from the security cameras at a nearby construction site showed an unidentifiable woman digging up the grave. Her motives remain a mystery, although it is presumed that she is an inpatient in the nearby psychiatric hospital. The entire story is sad and chilling.

There is another chilling detail of this story, as well. Two days before Amit’s death, his father traveled to his army base and asked for permission to visit his son and to bring him a care package, but the commander refused to permit the father to enter the base. Ben-Yigal called MK Moshe Arbel of the Shas party (whom you probably remember from my previous articles), who interceded with the army and arranged for the visit to be permitted. Now, imagine what would have happened if Ben-Yigal had not been able to visit his son that day. The commander would never have been able to forgive himself! Both Arbel and Aryeh Deri visited the mourners during the shivah and were embraced warmly by the grieving father.

Police Failure in Meron

The time has come to report on the events of Lag Ba’oOmer in Meron. This year, there were only three hadlakos in Meron itself: the Boyaner Rebbe’s bonfire, another hadlokah conducted by Rav Shlomo Moshe Amar (the Rishon Letzion and chief rabbi of Yerushalayim), and a third bonfire conducted by Rav Shmuel Eliyahu (the rov of Tzefas and son of Rav Mordechai Eliyahu zt”l).

About forty invited guests were permitted to attend each bonfire, including a number of prominent rabbonim and admorim. For the rest of the country, participation in the festivities in Meron was limited to observing live broadcasts from afar. Unfortunately, the police behaved contemptibly in their interactions with the rabbinic dignitaries. At the same time, quite a few people with connections in high places managed to secure permission to be present in Meron, which evoked the envy of many others whose passion for Lag Ba’omer in Meron runs high, and who chafed at being forced to remain at home this year. There are some people in this country who hadn’t missed a single Lag Ba’omer in Meron for over 40 years until this year’s pandemic. The police were also mortified after they announced that no one would be allowed to enter the area and that there was no point in trying, yet hundreds of people managed to gain access to the tziyun on the day of Lag Ba’omer. In short, the police came across as a resounding failure.

The people of Israel may have been barred from visiting Rabbi Shimon on Lag Ba’omer, but Rabbi Shimon himself was with us nonetheless. We may have remained in Ofakim, in Yerushalayim, and even in Carmiel, but our hearts were in Meron. The efforts to allow everyone to experience Lag Ba’omer in Meron through radio broadcasts or other means turned out to be successful. In spite of the circumstances, we managed to rejoice. Personally, I was able to observe the festivities via a large screen that was mounted on a truck that drove through the streets of Bnei Brak, which should give you an idea of how the holiday itself was experienced in the city.

A Wedding with Face Masks

We learned that Lag Ba’Omer can be celebrated in the purest and most joyous way at home as well. Having our movements restricted does not mean that our joy must also be limited. Instead of packing into buses and climbing Mount Meron, we celebrated the holiday without the crowds and commotion of a typical Lag Ba’omer. We were alone with ourselves and with Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.

I also attended a small wedding on the roof of a yeshiva. From our position on the rooftop, we were able to see the dancing in Bais Meir and a small hadlokah conducted by a prominent rebbe. The chosson’s friends danced with great emotion at the rooftop wedding, giving me my first glimpse into Nesivos Eish, a yeshiva whose talmidim are distinguished by their ambition and the intensity of their learning. The rosh yeshiva is Rav Yechiel Raanan (hence the yeshiva’s nickname, “Yeshivas Raanan”), and Rav Uri Meir Grillus works alongside him. “It is a demanding yeshiva,” one of the bochurim explained to me when I questioned him about it, “but the atmosphere is tranquil and embracing.” Indeed, one could discern this in the expressions on the bochurim’s faces as they danced—in spite of the face masks that they wore.

Yair Lapid Exploits the Knesset Rules

Last week, when the Knesset was debating the new laws that were enacted due to the mutual distrust between Gantz and Netanyahu, MK Mickey Zohar addressed the Knesset to deliver a recap of the discussions. He took the opportunity to direct a warning to the Supreme Court to refrain from interfering with the new legislation. And at one point, he remarked, “There was a time when Yair Lapid was the Minister of Finance, and now he is here. And he wasn’t a very good finance minister.”

“I don’t want you to badmouth me behind my back,” Lapid, who was about to leave the room, called out. “I want to be here for it.”

“Then sit down,” Zohar replied, before continuing his speech. “He wasn’t a very good finance minister, and the prime minister saw that Yair Lapid was advancing a law against the Yisroel Hayom newspaper in the Knesset. He saw it; it happened before his eyes. Incidentally, this took place after some very, very strange things having to do with Yediot Acharonot. The prime minister did not want this law to be passed, and in addition, he saw that Yair Lapid was not a good finance minister. I am trying to preserve Yair Lapid’s dignity,” he added parenthetically. “You remember the Zero VAT Law and all those things. We will not review all of that history again. The Zero VAT Law was a disaster, Yair….”

And so it continued. At the end of the sitting, Yair Lapid took advantage of a clause in the Knesset rulebook that permits an MK who has been offended by another speech to deliver a “personal message.” MK Ginzburg, who was chairing the sitting, gave Lapid permission to speak in a highly valuable slot: on Thursday afternoon, immediately after the Knesset voted on an amendment to the Basic Law: The Government (which was passed by a majority vote of 70 to 28), just before the sitting was closed. Lapid proceeded to deliver the following diatribe: “Mr. Speaker and honored members of the Knesset, every member of the middle class in Israel serves in the army for everyone, pays taxes for everyone, and builds businesses that benefit everyone. Then, once in his life, when he needs help, the government disappears. These people have been given instructions on how to wash their hands but not on how to save their businesses. Over 80 percent of the small businesses that requested loans from the government did not succeed in dealing with the bureaucracy and did not receive a single cent. They were stuck somewhere between a faltering web site and a sleepy government clerk.”

In my opinion, Lapid was completely out of line.

The Knesset regulations state, “The speaker of the Knesset may permit a member of the Knesset, a minister, or a deputy minister to deliver a personal message upon his request in order to correct a misunderstanding regarding his remarks in the Knesset or to address an accusation that was made against him in the Knesset.” First of all, this doesn’t mean that a member of the Knesset has the right to speak whenever his name is mentioned. I truly doubt that Mickey Zohar’s description of Lapid as a failed finance minister could be considered an “accusation” that made him entitled to deliver a personal message. If that were true, then there would be a constant barrage of such messages. In addition, the regulations call for the MK in question to deliver a written copy of his message in advance to the chairman of the sitting (probably in order to verify that his intent is to debunk an accusation that was made against him), and Lapid did nothing of the sort. Finally, Lapid did not even bother to comment on the “accusation” that had supposedly prompted him to speak. He merely exploited an opportunity to launch another verbal attack against the government (and to direct a thinly veiled barb at the chareidim, who do not serve in the army).

We Will Believe It When We See It

In the final days of his tenure as Minister of Defense, Naftoli Bennett decided to finally start the process of making Meoras Hamachpeilah accessible to the disabled. For that decision, he was roundly praised. All the members of the Knesset were partners in the battle to have an elevator built at the site. I have written about this issue several times in the past.

But other defense ministers have also promised to construct an elevator at Meoras Hamachpeilah. Shai Glick’s organization, B’Tsalmo, and its attorney, Michael Litvak, have pursued the matter relentlessly, and Bennett attempted to create facts on the ground before his departure from the ministry. “I ask for this matter to be advanced without delay,” he wrote to the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories. Rumor has it that Bennett even gave orders for the appropriation of land to begin immediately. One can only hope that that is true. Kobi Eliraz, the advisor to Avigdor Lieberman during the latter’s stint as Minister of Defense, also made a promise to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that the renovations would take place, and even went so far as to set deadlines over and over for the work—which were repeatedly violated. Personally, I will not believe that the elevator will be built until I actually see it. The rule in politics is always the same: Nothing is over until it is over. In this case, one cannot presume that an elevator will exist until it has actually been built.

Bennett has been lauded by an endless array of government officials for his efforts, since almost all the ministers of the government and members of the Knesset have urged the prime minister and the various defense ministers to advance this project. The question is what will happen now. I cannot help but be reminded of the story of the elderly attorney who retired and passed his practice on to his son. One day, the son jubilantly informed his father that he had resolved a bitter estate feud that had been going on for 19 years. The father cried in consternation, “What have you done? Our office has survived on the fees we collect from that feud!”

A Worrying Rise in Anti-Semitism

The Anti-Defamation League has reported that there was a 12-percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents in the year 2019. Over the course of the year, over 2000 incidents of harassment against Jews were reported in America alone. It is extremely unnerving, to say the least.

This week, the Knesset marked the anniversary of the Allied victory over Nazi Germany on May 9. In his address to the Knesset, Moshe Arbel was quick to go on the offensive. “Those who commemorate the victory over the Nazis should be partners in the global effort to eradicate every trace of racism, hatred, or xenophobia, including anti-Semitism and hatred of Jews,” he asserted. “Unfortunately, even today, in the enlightened modern world, Jews are being persecuted solely because they are Jewish. In almost every country with a Jewish population, we have been hearing about the blight of anti-Semitism to one degree or another. Just this week, there was an attack on a Jewish restaurant in Amsterdam. Even in America, the land of tolerance, there are neo-Nazi cells whose members admit that they despise Jews because they are Jewish. Who would have believed that this would take place only 75 years after the defeat of Nazi Germany?

“My friends, members of the Knesset,” Arbel continued, “it is only because of the festive nature of this discussion that I do not want to add that even in the State of Israel, which was founded so that every Jew could have a safe haven, there are displays of racism. The words ‘Hitler was right’ were recently sprayed on a bridge in Tel Aviv. Two weeks ago, swastikas and racist epithets were sprayed on the walls of a shul in Kfar Saba.”

Although the defeat of Nazi Germany was commemorated on May 9, the Day of Liberation and Salvation will also be celebrated throughout the world on the 26th of Iyar. In Israel, the Hebrew date of the Allied victory has been enshrined in law as a day of commemoration, when a special event for tefillah and thanksgiving is held annually at the Kosel. The events held throughout the world on this date can be credited to German Zakharyaev, the vice president of the Russian Jewish Congress and leader of the Jewish community in the Caucasus. Zakharyaev’s lifelong aspiration was to arrange for a commemoration on the Hebrew date of the Nazis’ defeat and to organize Jewish-themed events in memory of the kedoshim. Several sifrei Torah have also been written in memory of the victims of the Holocaust. Zakharyaev was the driving force behind the law that was passed in the Knesset several years ago.

In his speech, Arbel commented, “This year, due to the circumstances, the event at the Kosel will take place in a special format on Tuesday, the 25th of Iyar, with the participation of Rav Yisroel Meir Lau, who is one of the living symbols of the Jewish victory over the Nazis, yemach shemam.”

Rav Shlomke’s Three Stories

Rav Shlomke of Zhvill passed away 75 years ago. He was a holy person, whose name is still uttered with the utmost reverence and awe. When he made his way from Zhvill to Eretz Yisroel, before he came ashore, he remarked to his companions, “This is it. I am casting my rabbinic position into the sea and becoming a simple Jew of Eretz Yisroel.” He then shook out the corners of his rabbinic coat as if he was performing Tashlich.

Rav Shlomke lived in a simple, single-story house near the Mir yeshiva. It is rumored that he personally carried the bricks for its construction and that he built the house with his own hands. Rav Elimelech Biderman often mentions him in his drashos.

Rav Shlomke frequently told three stories about his experiences in Zhvill. When it rained on Sukkos in Zhvill, he would relate, there was a certain man whose sukkah was never penetrated by the rain, to the point that his neighbors would leave their own sukkos and come to his. In addition, he related that he once knew a man in Zhvill who would fast every week, from one Shabbos until the next, without suffering any ill effects; in fact, he was healthier than anyone else. Finally, he would also recall that in Zhvill, it was customary for girls to become engaged at the age of 12 and for their weddings to be held when they were 15 years old. Throughout the intervening three years, their fathers would collect money to defray the expenses of the wedding. “I once knew a man whose daughter became engaged at the age of 12 and who collected a sizable sum of money,” he related, “but he distributed the money to the poor, explaining that he would have whatever was designated for him in Shomayim regardless of whether he kept the money in his possession.”

As you may have guessed, the protagonist in each of these stories was none other than Rav Shlomke himself. Several elderly chassidim in Yerushalayim who had also lived in Zhvill confirmed that these stories were true, but while Rav Shlomke would never admit it, he was actually speaking about himself.