The coronavirus is still on the top of the public agenda, not only because the virus is stubborn, but also because of the steadily growing number of cases in Israel. The infections at the Hebrew Gymnasium in Rechavia were the most prominent story of the past week, and as I mentioned at the time, one can barely begin to imagine the furious reactions that it would have evoked had it been a yeshiva or a kollel where the virus spread through the student body. The spate of infections has continued since then as well, and new coronavirus cases have been identified in nursing homes. Nine of those cases were discovered in a nursing home in the town of Ohr Yehuda in the center of the country.
As of this writing, there are about 18,000 coronavirus patients in the State of Israel. Over the course of the past week, about 730 new cases were added to the total. The number of deaths resulting from the virus in Israel has risen to almost 300. At this moment, there are about 30 patients in serious condition, about 25 of whom are intubated. There are approximately 2400 active cases of coronavirus in the country. Boruch Hashem, the number of recoveries is very high. At this point, about 15,000 people in the country have recovered from the illness.
Panic in the Knesset
This discussion about the coronavirus leads us directly to the Knesset. After a long period of calm, another member of the Knesset has been diagnosed with the virus, and the entire parliament has been plunged into hysteria.
It actually began with the driver of the unfortunate MK. Last week, the Sergeant-at-Arms of the Knesset announced that anyone who had come in contact with Saba Girais, the personal driver of MK Sami Abu Shahada, was required to enter isolation and to be tested for the coronavirus. MK Sami Abu Shahada had informed the Sergeant-at-Arms, Yossi Grif, that his personal driver was found to be infected with the virus. Interestingly, the driver himself hadn’t been in the Knesset since the Tuesday before the announcement. This left us with a somewhat disturbing question: If the driver discovered that he was sick with the coronavirus only on that day, why wasn’t he in the Knesset during the previous week? And if he had been diagnosed earlier, then why did his employer wait until that Tuesday to inform anyone? In any event, anyone who had come in contact with the driver was asked to contact the Health Ministry for further instructions.
Two days later, MK Sami Abu Shahada (of the Joint List) himself announced that he had tested positive for the coronavirus. With that, the Knesset entered a state of hysteria. It was revealed that Abu Shahada had been present in the Knesset after contracting the virus, and he is likely to be questioned about when he became aware that his driver was ill, and whether he had placed himself in isolation as is required.
Meanwhile, the entire Knesset is panicking. On Thursday morning, all non-essential workers were ordered not to come to the Knesset building. Later in the day, even the employees who came to work were asked to leave and return home. No one knows if the employees are being placed on forced leave without pay. The employees who were concerned about their own health were instructed to be tested for COVID-19 at their local health funds. It is very possible that the work of the Knesset will be disrupted this week on account of this story. In all likelihood, some of the sections of the building will be disinfected. Today, I noticed that a large sign bearing the words “No Entry” had been affixed to the door of the Joint Arab List’s office in the Knesset building. And it has already been announced that the implementation of the Norwegian Law will be postponed until next week.
Political Ups and Downs
The new government has come to power, and there is no question that the government will find it very hard to deal with the current painful reality—not only the coronavirus itself but everything that it has caused. Factories have shut down, small businesses are collapsing, and hundreds of thousands of people are unemployed. This country is dealing with innumerable problems.
Benny Gantz truly must be pitied. His former allies are attacking him relentlessly. He looked somewhat foolish when he asked for his agreement with Netanyahu to include a provision for an official residence for the alternate prime minister. It seemed like a bid for meaningless honor, and it was not befitting of a senior statesman. He managed to emerge from that episode without losing much respect, but it has now been revealed that he also asked for a motorcade identical to Netanyahu’s. This was definitely excessive. Gantz’s former colleagues reminded him of his campaign slogan: “Israel before all.” As it turns out, they claim, his true philosophy is “Gantz before all.”
Benny Gantz’s second-in-command is Gabi Ashkenazi, another former chief of staff of the IDF, who is currently serving as foreign minister. Ashkenazi’s first appearance in that capacity has been ruined by the corona pandemic; he was supposed to appear in the United Nations at its annual meeting, but the event will be taking place over Zoom rather than in person. Prime Minister Netanyahu also lost his annual opportunity to appear in New York. Such is life….
Yamina is still in the opposition, and they have been submitting motions of no confidence against the government. As I explained last week, these no-confidence motions are a farce, since they do not stand a chance of gaining the support of 61 MKs, without which the motions will not be accepted even by a majority vote of the Knesset members present. Yamina’s motion condemned the government for its failure to properly handle the coronavirus crisis, while Yesh Atid filed a motion accusing the government of failing to deal with the economic fallout. It is somewhat strange for Yamina to be accusing the government of mishandling the issue, when they themselves were part of the government until two weeks ago. Naftoli Bennett himself, in fact, oversaw the Home Front Command. But such is the world of politics.
There is also some news regarding terror in Israel. Last week, 23 guns were seized before they could be delivered to the Arab section of the city of Chevron. It is impossible to calculate how many tragedies were prevented by this seizure alone. And the terrorist who killed Amit Ben-Yigal was apprehended. Incidentally, I visited Ben-Yigal’s grave last week. But I will save that story for another time.
Trump Plan Opposed by Right and Left Alike
President Trump’s peace plan has sparked a major controversy. At first, it was portrayed as a historic accomplishment and one of the great successes of the political right. For the first time, the United States would recognize Israeli settlements. In the past, American presidents had always viewed the settlements as obstacles to peace and had argued that they should be dismantled; now the settlements were finally about to receive official recognition. It certainly seemed like an accomplishment—the recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and some of the settlements. The problem, however, was that the deal called for only some of the settlements to be recognized, not the rest. And there is a second problem as well: The Israeli right fears that the deal will lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state.
At this time, the right is sharply divided. Some of them are staunch supporters of the deal, while others are adamantly opposed to it. A group of settlement leaders has even organized a movement to protest the Trump plan and have posted large signs in the streets warning that “Yerushalayim will be divided, with a Palestinian state is on the other side of the fence.” One of the chief opponents of Trump’s plan is Shlomo Neeman, the chairman of the Gush Etzion Regional Council. You may remember that I once interviewed him for this newspaper. This week, we agreed that I would interview Neeman again so that he could explain his opposition to the “deal of the century.” For Shlomo Neeman and his colleagues, it is no small matter to launch an all-out war against Netanyahu, who has always been their ally and who supports Trump’s peace plan. In any event, Netanyahu has met with the leaders of the right; we will see what happens next.
Meanwhile, a demonstration was held on motzoei Shabbos in Malchei Yisroel Square (also known as Rabin Square) in Tel Aviv. This demonstration, which was also a protest against the Trump plan, was organized by the left, who are opposed to the plan for precisely the opposite reason: They feel that the annexation of the settlements will be a catastrophe for Israel, and that Trump’s peace plan will put an end to the so-called “vision” of two states for two peoples. The demonstration was also attended by a group of Arabs waving the PLO flag. The protestors made sure to mention the death of Iyad al-Chalak, the Palestinian youth who was killed by Israeli police and turned out to have been mentally disabled.
A New Play Center for Children with Special Needs
The subject of autism has received a good deal of attention in recent ways. With incredible serendipity, the organization B’Lev Echad recently inaugurated a new therapeutic play center for children with special needs. The guest of honor at the opening event was Rav Yisroel Meir Druk, who is a close confidant of Rav Chaim Kanievsky and serves as a rosh yeshiva and rosh kollel in Yerushalayim. (I once interviewed him for a Yom Tov edition of this newspaper.) This week, Rav Yisroel Meir married off a daughter, and the wedding was held at Yeshivas Aish HaTorah, near the Kosel. Rav Chaim Kanievsky was scheduled to attend the wedding, but he had a last-minute change of plans. Rav Yisroel Meir is the father of two children with special needs.
The play center, a magnificent new facility established in the neighborhood of Gush Shmonim in Yerushalayim, is likely to be a priceless resource for the children and families it serves. I have written in the past about B’Lev Echad, the wonderful organization headed by Reb Dovid Weitman. The organization provides a remarkable array of services for the ill and disabled, along with their families, throughout the year.
The opening of the play center at this time, after the coronavirus crisis, has provided a ray of light for the organization’s “clients.” After spending many long weeks in their homes, without the tiniest respite or even a chance to enjoy some fresh air, the families can finally allow their children to be watched and entertained by the dedicated volunteers of B’Lev Echad while they enjoy some much-needed rest or a chance to catch up on housework. The new play center is part of a network of such facilities that are scheduled to open in the near future in Yerushalayim and other chareidi population centers throughout the country. This center and the others like it will be equipped with a wealth of toys and other therapeutic equipment and will serve as a place for the children to enjoy enrichment and entertainment.
“We are very happy to have reached the point of inaugurating our first play center, which will serve children with special needs in the Yerushalayim area,” Dovid Weitman related. “Our organization, together with its volunteers and professional staff, is working with all of its energy to allow the other facilities to open without any further delay. We are aware of the fact that many families throughout the country need this project to begin immediately.”
Blaming the Jews from Brooklyn
Do you know who is being blamed for the coronavirus in Israel. You are!
Yes, you read that right. “Orthodox Jews from Brooklyn” are being blamed for bringing the virus to our country. Not the tourists from Korea or the Israelis who returned from visiting Italy, but the Jews from Brooklyn. Does that sound absurd? Well, that is precisely what was written in Maariv last Friday.
Perhaps it bears noting that Maariv was once the most widely read newspaper in Israel, but its popularity has been waning with every passing year. Over the past few years, it has become marginal. If anyone buys it, they purchase only the weekend edition, which is released on Fridays. But that is not relevant to our discussion. My purpose is to demonstrate how hate-filled minds have twisted the facts to create false narratives of chareidi guilt.
Let me quote the introductory blurb of this offensive article: “This is how the coronavirus was imported to Israel: A source who previously worked in the Health Ministry claims that Minister Yaakov Litzman encouraged uninsured American citizens threatened by the virus to come to Israel. About a quarter of them were diagnosed with the virus after they had arrived. Litzman responds, ‘All the travelers who arrived in Israel held Israeli citizenship.’”
Let us move on to the body of the article: “Former Health Minister MK Yaakov Litzman has been applying tremendous pressure since the beginning of the corona crisis in order to help thousands of Americans come to Israel to escape the threat of the virus, claims an official who worked for the Health Ministry during the period in question. According to this source, the tourists came to Israel because they did not possess American health insurance. Some of them were diagnosed with the disease in Israel and required medical treatment, which they received without cost. Most of these travelers came to Israel from Brooklyn. Many of them boarded flights to Ben Gurion before the restrictions were imposed on entering the country, during the month of March. The same source claims that Litzman, who served as Minister of Health at the time and has since become the Minister of Housing, later helped arrange for tourists who had come to Israel and had no family in the country to be provided with special transportation to the hotels that housed coronavirus patients and people who were required to be in isolation. Some of the arriving passengers stayed at the homes of relatives or friends but were not closely supervised. According to the source, this caused the virus to spread and the infection rates to rise dramatically. As you may recall, the original focal points of corona infection in Israel were mainly in chareidi neighborhoods throughout the country, and a temporary closure was imposed on some of those areas.”
Did you read that? Well, read it again. It is nothing short of a blood libel! The writer blames the spread of the coronavirus on travelers from Brooklyn who sought to escape from the virus in America because they lacked health insurance. Some of the facts are correct: Until March 18, any Jewish person was permitted to enter the country, although all arriving travelers were required to enter quarantine for 14 days. After March 18, entry to Israel was limited to Israeli citizens. In the month of March, 22,000 American tourists entered the country, whereas in April, only 300 American tourists (who had received special entry permits for various reasons) were permitted to enter Israel. But these allegations are completely unfounded. For one thing, Yaakov Litzman had no involvement in arranging for anyone to come to Israel. Moreover, most of those “tourists” actually live in Israel and are virtually Israeli themselves; they do not possess Israeli citizenship, but their homes are here. And above all, it is absolute nonsense to allege that anyone would leave America because of a lack of medical insurance and come to Israel to receive free treatment.
Aside from all that, it was also perfectly legal at the time for any Jew to enter Israel. What could be the problem with a Jewish visitor traveling to Israel from anywhere in the world, whether it was Brooklyn or India? Why is this portrayed as some sort of underhanded deed? This article, which occupied the front page of Maariv last Friday, smacks heavily of anti-religious bias.
Senior Citizens Dying Alone
There is a new horrific phenomenon in the State of Israel. The news reported this week, in the latest of many such cases, than the body of an 80-year-old man was found in an advanced state of decay, surrounded by piles of refuse, in his home in the Sharon. The article goes on to relate, “Since the beginning of the year, ZAKA volunteers have dealt with about 62 cases of elderly people who were childless and lived, whose bodies were discovered long after their deaths. Over the course of the past week alone, the volunteers of ZAKA dealt with eleven such cases. On erev Shavuos, around 3:30 p.m., the ZAKA hotline received a report of a body found in an advanced state of decay in Moshav Mishmeret in the Sharon.”
Last week, former Beit Shemesh mayor and current MK Moshe Abutbol (Shas) raised this issue in the Knesset, after the Knesset presidium approved it as a subject for urgent discussion. I will quote Abutbol verbatim, since the figures that he cited are astounding.
“Mr. Speaker and honored members of the Knesset,” he began, “I filed a motion for the agenda after being exposed to the tragic statistics about elderly people who have been found in their homes after their deaths, in a state of decay. First of all, our Jewish tradition teaches us about the greatest obligation we have—to protect and honor the elderly and the lonely. Dovid Hamelech says, ‘Do not cast me away from before You,’ and ‘When my strength is depleted, do not forsake me.’ We must honor the elderly not only when they are alive but also after their deaths. In recent days, several elderly and isolated people have been found in their homes in a state of decay days after their deaths. It is simply dreadful. We cannot allow such a thing to happen in our state. Based on the figures that I obtained—among other sources, from ZAKA, the organization headed by Rabbi Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, who performs incredible work in this area—in the year 2019, ZAKA dealt with 130 of these painful incidents. There have already been 65 such cases in the first half of the year 2020, in contrast to the same period in the previous year, when there were ‘only’ 44 such incidents. These were situations in which niftarim were found in states of decay, lo aleinu, in different places throughout the country—in Beer Sheva, Yerushalayim, and Petach Tikvah, along with other cities. The lifeless bodies were found in their own homes. In Beer Sheva alone, four bodies were discovered in a single week.”
The response on behalf of the government was delivered by Rabbi Meshullam Nahari, Abutbol’s colleague in the Shas party, who was recently appointed Deputy Minister of Labor and Welfare. Nahari didn’t have much good news to report, but I will quote his response anyway: “Our ministry has asked the police force to provide us with statistics concerning the past few years so that we will be able to formulate the best possible solutions, in coordination with the other ministries involved in caring for the senior citizens of the State of Israel. We also asked for identifying details about the deceased individuals in order to clarify with the local authorities if they were known, if they were entitled to welfare services, and if they had been offered solutions for their solitude, such as inclusion in community programs or placement in nursing homes or geriatric institutions. Increasing the budget in the requested areas will make it possible to serve a larger number of senior citizens by maintaining regular contact with them, as well as creating ways to locate the senior citizens who are not known to the authorities and connect them with services in their communities. In this way, we will be able to limit the unfortunate cases of senior citizens suffering from isolation and being unable to connect to the support networks in their lives.” This is a small excerpt of a much longer speech; Nahari concluded his remarks by thanking his listeners for their patience and for showing respect to the country’s senior citizens.
The Hypocrisy of Elazar Stern
Sometimes, one can find irony in the Knesset.
On Monday, MK Elazar Stern, who wears a yarmulke but is unfailingly anti-religious, was speaking at the Knesset podium. “Mr. Speaker,” he began, “I do not see the government of defectors here.”
Yariv Levin, the Knesset speaker, allowed his displeasure to show as he replied, “I see the government of Israel here.”
“Let me list the members of the government of defectors,” Stern began. He proceeded to enumerate the various government ministers who had defected from their own parties or political allies to join the government: Orly Levi, Yoaz Hendel, Penina Tamano-Shata, Amir Peretz, Itzik Shmuli, and, of course, Rafi Peretz. Stern’s vicious tongue has gotten him in trouble in the past, arousing the ire of his colleagues and forcing him to make public apologies. Who is he to criticize anyone for switching their party allegiances?
At the end of 2012, Elazar Stern was debating whether to enter the Knesset along with Chaim Amsalem of the Am Shalem party. (“We have many issues in common,” Stern claimed at the time.) Amsalem, another megalomaniac who had resigned from the Shas party, believed that he would receive five mandates in the election. Of course, he did not make it into the Knesset at all. Stern, who had first attempted to align himself with Amsalem, went on to negotiate with Yesh Atid, Bayit Yehudi, and Kadima. He examined every possibility and finally ended up in the Nineteenth Knesset as a member of Tzipi Livni’s party, Hatnuah. His ethical backbone seems to be completely absent, as he shifts his political character as often as a chameleon changes color. He should be the last person in the world to chastise others for changing their affiliations.
On Monday, Stern began his speech with a few words in Aramaic: “Ho’il v’yasvi rabbanan v’lo machu beih—Since the rabbonim were sitting there and did not protest….” It was a sly allusion to the fact that Netanyahu hadn’t spoken out against the virulent criticism of the country’s judicial system.
“Daf 53 of Maseches Gittin?” asked Moshe Arbel, who was serving as the chairman of the session.
“Yes,” Stern replied. “And do you know what it says there? This was the reason that Yerushalayim was destroyed.”
Stern was tricked into displaying his ignorance. The passage actually appears on daf 55….
MK Yoav Segalovitz, a former police commissioner who has publicly criticized Prime Minister Netanyahu, has been slammed in turn by Minister Dovid Amsalem. Segalovitz could never have dreamed of the ferocity of the reaction he would encounter. Amsalem has accused him of committing acts of corruption during his time in the police force and of shielding his colleagues in the Blue and White party from scrutiny. But I would like to focus on one specific detail that Amsalem mentioned.
“I have another comment to make to Mr. Segalovitz,” Amsalem remarked as he addressed the Knesset. “Last week, I received a phone call from a young man in Caesaria. I didn’t know him, but he left a message and I called him back. He said to me, ‘Listen, Dudi, I want to tell you about what is happening to me. I work in hi-tech; I provide services to many hi-tech companies, and because of the coronavirus, I was on a Zoom call with seven or eight company executives. During that meeting, one of them remarked casually that he was aware that I vote for the Likud. After that conversation, I received phone calls from two of the other executives informing me that they didn’t want to work with me anymore. When I asked why, they replied that they do not work with Likud supporters.’
“Gentlemen, I was appalled by this display of hatred,” Amsalem declared. “Two and a half million Israelis voted for Netanyahu and the Likud, and their opinion has no weight at all?”
Rav Nosson Tzvi’s Story
The yeshivos are coming back to life. Hundreds of talmidei yeshivos arrived in Israel last week after the Minister of the Interior excluded holders of student visas from the ban on foreigners entering the country. A new light seems to have begun to shine, but there is one thing that has cast a pall over the yeshiva world: The coronavirus has brought the business world to a halt, and there is great concern that the flow of funding to the yeshivos might be cut off.
Yeshivas Mir struggles to cover its massive expenses even under ordinary circumstances; there is no question that the era of corona will pose a daunting challenge. But we can turn to Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel for an illuminating perspective during these challenging times.
Rav Nosson Tzvi was once asked how he expected that the yeshiva would survive the hardships it was enduring at the time, when it faced harsh government regulations coupled with a decrease in donations. He responded by telling a story: One of the leaders of the Jewish community in America once traveled by ship to Israel on a mission to bring financial aid to the old yishuv. On the ship, he met an elderly woman from Chicago who was traveling to live out the rest of her life in Israel and to be buried there. She had no savings and did not know exactly where her relatives in Israel lived, and she was even surprised to hear that the cities of Israel were controlled by the British, but she trusted that Hashem would help her.
“Where will you go when the ship reaches the port?” the askan asked her. “What will you tell the British officials? If you don’t even know where your nephew lives, how will you find him?”
The woman shrugged. She had no idea how to answer his questions, but her bitachon was absolute.
“Aren’t you worried?” the askan pressed.
“Why should I be worried?” the woman replied. “I am ninety years old. If Hashem hasn’t abandoned me over the past ninety years, why would He abandon me now?”
One week later, the ship arrived in Yaffo. A group of journalists quickly swarmed around the prominent askan, who was too fatigued from his travels to be interviewed. One of them, however, was persistent. “Tell me where you are staying, and I will come tomorrow to interview you,” he said. The askan asked the reporter for his own name and address instead, and the man replied that his name was Sokolow.
The visiting askan paled. “Sokolow?” he repeated. “Do you have an aunt in Chicago?”
“Yes,” the journalist said. “She is very old.”
“And she is right here,” the askan said, pointing in the direction of the elderly woman as she disembarked from the ship.
Rav Nosson Tzvi concluded this story with the comment, “Hashem hasn’t abandoned the Mir yeshiva for 200 years. Why should we expect Him to abandon us now?”