My Take on the News

The Virus Has Moved to Tel Aviv

The coronavirus is refusing to leave us in peace.

We are not privy to Hashem’s calculations, but if Chazal tell us that thunder was created to instill fear in our hearts, then one can only imagine what the purpose of this virus might be. There has been a spike in the infection rate over the past few days, and the Ministry of Health has begun warning about a “second wave” of infections.

From my office in the Knesset, I can observe the hysteria spreading through the government. After a number of restrictions were loosened, the Knesset has suddenly tightened its own rules. A sweeping ban was imposed on allowing visitors into the building, the committees were frozen, the Knesset’s hours of operation were sharply curtailed, and the headquarters of Israel’s parliament has begun to resemble a ghost town. The panic mounted when we discovered that a Knesset member who was diagnosed with the virus had been present in the building for several days. This week, the stringent rules of the “corona routine” were reinstated. Of course, we are all obligated to wear face masks and to maintain our distance from each other.

There was (and still is) a popular habit in Israel of blaming the chareidim for everything. Last week, I reported to you that someone had decided to blame Orthodox visitors from America for spreading the coronavirus in Israel. Those allegations are completely absurd. And I must point out that the recent spate of infections in the community of Sanz in Netanya was actually traced back to a chiloni source. A midwife who worked in a hospital in Chadera contracted the virus from a nonreligious coworker and then passed it on to a chareidi family in Netanya, and the infection spread from there. Does that mean that the religious community should be pointing accusatory fingers at the midwives in Chadera? Absolutely not. We are people of emunah, and we live by our faith that everything that happens to us is Divinely ordained. There were also some other incidences of mass infection in chareidi areas that were each traced back to a single chiloni individual. But that does not mean that anyone in the religious sector plans to proclaim that the chilonim are at fault for spreading the disease.

Take the case of the Hebrew Gymnasium, for example. About 200 students in that secular school contracted the coronavirus and affected several thousand other people. There is no way to calculate how many people were infected with the virus because of them. But no one is blaming the chilonim in the Gymnasium for spreading the virus throughout Yerushalayim.

Hospital Directors Visit Bnei Brak

The city that has been hardest hit by the recent spike in infections is Tel Aviv. If there was an increase in the number of coronavirus cases in recent days (albeit not in the number of intubated patients, boruch Hashem), it has been in distinctly chiloni areas. Rafi Reshef, one of the most well-known reporters in the country, asked a chareidi interviewee this week if the chareidim are pleased that the tables have turned. The question was utterly ludicrous; no religious Jew would savor another person’s suffering. On the other hand, when the chareidim themselves were suffering from the onslaught of the virus, the incitement against our community was constant.

Not only don’t the chareidim enjoy the suffering of others, but it is quite likely that they will be the source of salvation for the virus’s victims. Many hospitals have announced that the coronavirus has driven them to the point of collapse. This is only to be expected; the coronavirus has created massive upheaval and has virtually put a halt to the ordinary functioning of the country’s hospitals, including the services that generally bring in profits, while creating many new and crushing expenses as well.

On Sunday, a group of hospital directors traveled to Bnei Brak to meet with Rabbi Moshe Gafni at the headquarters of the Degel HaTorah party. Gafni serves as the chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee, and hospital executives pleaded for his intervention to save their facilities. The group included a delegation from Hadassah as well as representatives of a Christian hospital in Nazareth. Of course, the chareidi directors of Laniado (Nadav Chen) and Maayanei HaYeshuah (Shlomo Rothschild) were also present. There was a degree of kiddush Hashem in this meeting; perhaps Moshe Gafni will play a crucial role in preserving the country’s health care system.

A Meeting with Ambassador Friedman

The coronavirus refuses to disappear from the public agenda or from the headlines in the country, but it is competing with the Trump peace plan for space on the front pages of our newspapers. Passions are still running high over the plan, and Netanyahu recently met with the leaders of the settlement communities in an effort to persuade them to agree to the first stage, which calls only for the annexation of 30 percent of the settlements. Netanyahu insisted that this would be a historic accomplishment. The settlement leaders did not disagree with him on that point, but they voiced their fears of the Palestinian state that is supposed to come on the heels of the annexation and that would surround a number of Jewish settlements. Netanyahu quietly assured them that the Palestinian state will never actually come into existence, since the Arabs will never agree to the conditions imposed by the United States. Nevertheless, the leaders from Yehuda and the Shomron are not willing to rely on his assurances.

Rumor has it that there are differences of opinion in America as well. One school of thought, led by Jared Kushner, advocates complete cooperation with the Palestinians and, if necessary, the postponement of the entire plan, including the annexation stage. The other school of thought, headed by Ambassador David Friedman, maintains that Israel should proceed with the annexation immediately and deal with the fallout afterward.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Netanyahu and Knesset speaker Yariv Levin (who is considered one of the most ardent members of the political right and a staunch supporter of the settlements) met with Ambassador Friedman. The meeting was also attended by Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi. At this time, few details of the meeting have been revealed to the public. But this is understandably an important topic in Israel at the moment.

Arson and Violence

You may recall that I recently wrote a lengthy article about the police force’s ill-fated interactions with autistic citizens. I began by quoting the plea of Amir Ohana, the Minister of Internal Security, for the scenes of rioting in Minneapolis not to be duplicated in Israel. Ohana was referring to the demonstrations of Arabs in East Yerushalayim who protested after an Arab suffering from mental deficits was killed by Israeli police. But while the Arabs’ protests did not spiral out of control as Ohana had feared, it seems that he should have been careful what he wished for. The city of Yaffo, near Tel Aviv, has been plagued by riots in recent days, specifically in the vicinity of the Clock Tower. Fortunately, the protests in Yaffo have not reached the scale of the riots in America, but the level of violence still exceeds anything we have experienced here. Windows have been smashed, fires set, and police officers beaten. The pretext for the riots was a construction project launched by the city, which allegedly took place on the grounds of a Muslim cemetery. And when Muslims are offended, they take to the streets, lighting fires and sowing destruction everywhere, as well as assaulting police officers.

In case anyone doubted the severity of the situation in Yaffo, the American embassy issued a travel warning to American citizens in Israel, urging them to avoid the city. These warnings are generally prompted by concern over potential terror attacks, and the United States government typically warns its citizens, based on intelligence information, to refrain from traveling to the Sinai Desert or to Egypt. But this time, the warning pertained to Yaffo, a city in the heart of Israel. The American advisory stated, “Protests continue this evening near the Clock Tower and throughout the city of Jaffa. Protests may turn violent to include vandalism, rock throwing, burning of tires, vehicles, and fire bombs. Embassy personnel have been advised to maintain situational awareness and avoid the area tonight. The Embassy strongly encourages U.S. citizens to remain vigilant and take appropriate steps to increase their security awareness. The Embassy will continue to review the security situation and will provide additional information as needed.” United States citizens were also advised to keep a low profile and to monitor all news reports.

The Israeli police are responding in the same way that the American police responded to rioting on their own soil. In other words, they are doing very little. Here is an official statement from the police force: “In light of the events on Friday night, the police increased their mounted patrols in the streets of Yaffo, but they haven’t yet moved to a state of alertness or announced an emergency situation. Since the events of Friday night, Yassam and Border Guard officers have been patrolling the streets along with the regular police force.” That is all.

Meanwhile, on Sunday the Minister of Internal Security announced that senior officials in the police force have decided to provide training courses for the police to learn how to deal with citizens with mental disabilities. I am not optimistic, though, about the odds of this program succeeding.

Where Are Lapid and Yaalon Today?

Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi are now full-fledged partners with Prime Minister Netanyahu in leading the country. They, too, will be called upon to decide whether to accept President Trump’s peace plan. It should be noted that until just recently, Gantz and Ashkenazi were partners with two other politicians, Yair Lapid and Moshe Yaalon. These four men were dubbed the “cockpit” of the Blue and White party. Today, however, Lapid and Yaalon have all but disappeared.

I have often observed that if a picture is worth a thousand words, a political cartoon is worth two thousand. This week, I saw a cartoon that illustrated the situation perfectly. It depicts the four members of the Yamina party who were supposed to become government ministers knocking on the door of Yair Lapid’s home, and Lapid answering the door in his pajamas. There is plenty to dissect in this cartoon. First of all, it shows that Lapid has been reduced to sitting at home and counting the floor tiles; he has been completely marginalized. The cartoon also shows Naftoli Bennett standing first in line to speak with him, followed by Ayelet Shaked. Those two, who suffered a loss at the polls and caused harm to the entire right-wing bloc, are still convinced that they deserve positions of prominence. Behind them are a tall Rafi Peretz and a short Betzalel Smotrich. In an allusion to the “brothers’ pact” between Bennett and Lapid many years ago, the cartoon shows Bennett saying to the surprised Lapid, “What’s happening, brother?” Apparently, this depicts Bennett as inviting Lapid to join him in opposing Netanyahu. This alludes to Yamina’s warning that it would join the opposition if its demands weren’t met—which, indeed, is exactly what came to pass. And the allusion to the unholy alliance between Bennett and Lapid is incredibly striking.

To be clear, the chareidi community wanted Yamina to be part of the coalition, and not because they felt threatened by the right-wing party’s posturing; they simply felt that Yamina deserved to be part of the government. The right-wing community is a large sector of the Israeli populace and includes many people of great caliber, and they do not deserve to be left out in the cold. There are some highly accomplished people in the party who could make major contributions. It is a shame that they joined the opposition. But the main message of this cartoon is a powerful one: It shows that people who were once immensely influential and nearly in control of the state have faded into irrelevance.

Conceit Leads to Tragedy

There is another interesting point to be made, as well. Moshe Yaalon has served both as the chief of staff of the IDF and as the Minister of Defense. Avigdor Lieberman was also the Minister of Defense at one point. People who hold positions of such great responsibility are often assumed to be intelligent and capable. How could men who served as generals in the IDF make political mistakes that are worthy of novices?

In my opinion, the answer to this question is sad but true: When they were in the army, people merely thought that they were brilliant, but they were much smaller than was believed.

This week, a new book was published under the title The Yom Kippur War—A Different Perspective. The author, Herzl Shapir, is a former general in the army as well as a former commissioner of the police force, yet he has been virtually forgotten in Israel. His new book shows, however, that he is still alive, not to mention still sharp-tongued at the age of 91. No one is spared from his harsh critique, as he identifies numerous missteps and failures of the IDF leadership. We have always known that the Bar-Lev Line was a failure, but Shapir introduces us to its architect, Chaim Bar-Lev, the onetime chief of staff of the IDF who later served as Minister of Trade and then Minister of Police. In Israel, when someone is a failure, they advance to a higher position.

The following excerpt from the book underscores the serious failings before the war that cost the lives of thousands of IDF soldiers and plunged the country into chaos and trauma:

“In a meeting with the prime minister, the opinions were presented as they had been in the General Staff. Toward the end of the meeting, Golda Meir asked Moshe Dayan for his contribution. Instead of giving his own opinion, he said, ‘You decide.’ … In that conference with the prime minister, the conceit, the condescension for political rivals, and the general arrogance of the participants was palpable.”

This is the testimony of a man who was a senior general in the army. The conceit and infighting within the government at the time brought untold suffering upon the people of Israel. And these were the actions of the leaders of Israel’s military. So you see, the rank of general in the IDF is not a sign of any great wisdom. And now that the generals have moved on to the world of politics, we are discovering this truth once again.

The Missionaries’ Audacity

In Israel, there is a radio station known as Galei Tzahal, which is owned by the IDF. A recent article about Galei Tzahal has been making waves, since some former executives from the station who identify with the right and even wear yarmulkes (of course, there are very few such people, and they hid their political leanings at the time) have announced that it is blatantly biased toward the left. That isn’t to say that anyone ever doubted that, but when a group of journalists who were part of the station’s management reveal hard facts, make specific accusations, and even name some guilty parties—and some of them even go on the record with their own names—it creates a much harsher picture of the situation.

The directors of Galei Tzahal are accused not only of having a leftist agenda but also of displaying ignorance of Judaism and even anti-religious sentiments. One reporter, a woman who has risen to the upper echelons of the radio station, is described as knowing nothing at all about Tisha B’Av. A senior editor reportedly needed help to find the answer to a crossword clue that read “the son of Yitzchok Avinu.” The station’s reporters were generally ignorant of all Jewish fast days, davening was foreign to them, and they did not even have a basic understanding of Shabbos. They even ate pork in the studio. Nor did they have any interest in learning more about their religion; when a correspondent was asked to organize a tour of certain chareidi neighborhoods, the editors had no interest in joining him. In general, religious people were excluded from the news. This was the result of the influence of the station’s executive at the time. Today, with Shimon Alkabetz at its helm, it is very likely that things are different.

Ziv Maor, an attorney who graduated from Galei Tzahal’s course for correspondents in 2000 (and today heads the Association for the Public’s Right to Know) added an astounding account of his own experiences as a marginalized religious reporter. “The second story I prepared was about a group of American financiers who subsidized a summer camp in the United States for Israeli youths from the city of Ariel,” he related. “Every Israeli camper was assigned to three priests in training, who studied the New Testament with them from morning until night. It was scandalous: missionary activities in the guise of philanthropy. But Abadi and Barzilai [two of the top executives at the radio station] said to me, ‘This might sound like an important story to you, but that is because you are religious. It would make an excellent story on a religious station, but you must understand that our listeners aren’t necessarily religious.’ Today, as an experienced journalist, I can tell you that it is a story worth broadcasting even on Galei Tzahal,” he concluded.

Maor is correct, and his story shows that there are journalists in Israel who lack even the tiniest shred of a connection to Judaism. But there is another point here: The long and dangerous reach of the missionaries is completely mind-boggling. This was a story about Israeli youths who were sent to a summer camp in America where they were fed a diet of heresy and Christian gospel.

Deaths on the Road

Every week, the Knesset’s sitting on Wednesday begins with urgent parliamentary queries. Every member of the Knesset is entitled to submit a single urgent query each week, but the odds of the queries being approved are fairly low. The Knesset speaker has the sole authority to determine which questions are to be accepted as urgent.

Last week, one of those queries dealt with the proliferation of road accidents involving electric scooters and motorcycles. The questioner pointed out that the news had reported on the previous night that yet another motorcyclist had been killed in an accident, and another had been critically wounded. The response came from Uri Maklev, the deputy transportation minister, who surprised his listeners by revealing that yet another fatality had been recorded just an hour earlier.

According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, there was a surge in road accidents involving electric scooters in 2019. There is also an accident involving a motorcyclist almost every day. “As you mentioned,” Maklev said in his response, “two motorcyclists were killed in accidents tonight, one in Yaffo and the other in Rishon Letzion. This morning, a thirty-year-old man was killed in another accident while riding an electric bicycle. In the year 2020, there has been a 100 percent increase in these accidents.” Maklev presented a series of shocking and saddening statistics, and went on to present a detailed plan that had been developed by the Ministry of Transportation.

Humor in the Knesset

While some of the discussions in the Knesset are saddening, there is also room for humor. Ram Ben-Barak is a member of the Knesset who recently served as the deputy director of the Mossad—a position that ostensibly requires a good deal of intelligence. But this week, Ben-Barak took his place at the Knesset podium and made an elementary error. “Mr. Chairman,” he began, “we have been witnessing a process in which more and more aspects of planning and construction are being placed under the jurisdiction of the Interior Minister….” At that moment, Ben-Barak realized that he was holding the wrong speech, but he quickly covered up his mistake. “I am sorry,” he said. “I didn’t start at the beginning.”

“You started at Aleinu,” came the wry response from Meir Cohen, who was chairing the sitting.

Ben-Barak accused the Interior Minister (Aryeh Deri) and the Minister of Housing (Yaakov Litzman) of representing narrow sectarian interests, and voiced his objections to the powers that had been granted to them. “I hope that I will be proven wrong,” he concluded.

“Promise us that when you are proven wrong, you will come back to the podium and say that you were mistaken,” Deri interjected.

“I promise that if I am proven wrong, I will admit it here,” Ben-Barak said.

“You will be doing that very soon,” Deri replied.

And here is one more vignette from the Knesset: Last Wednesday, MK Moshe Abutbul cited some horrifying statistics about the number of elderly people who have been living in complete solitude, leading to quite a few deaths that went undiscovered for days. “In 2019, the volunteers of ZAKA, under the leadership of Rabbi Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, dealt with 130 cases of elderly people who died alone in their homes,” he said. “In the first half of 2020, there have already been 65 additional cases.”

The deputy welfare minister, who responded on behalf of the government, decided to report on all of the government’s services for the elderly. He spoke at such great length that some of his listeners began complaining. “It is worth your while to listen,” he admonished them. “This way, when you become senior citizens, you will know where to seek help and what services are available to you.”

“At this rate, we will all be senior citizens before you finish!” Moshe Arbel, who was chairing the session, shot back.

A Brocha Under False Pretenses

In the Knesset, it is customary to fight over everything, including the copies of Hidabroot’s weekly publication, which is brought to the Knesset building by one of the employees. The pile of newsletters disappears almost as soon as it is left for the taking, due to the high demand for the publication. And there is good reason for that: The 24-page publication is always a masterpiece of illuminating content and powerful presentation. The cover page features short yet captivating articles by Rabbi Zamir Cohen and Rabbi Avraham Yosef. The rest of the newsletter consists of an assortment of articles on subjects such as Torah, chinuch, hashkofah, and general advice. Some of the country’s most prominent mashpiim—Rabbi Yitzchok Fanger, Rabbi Simcha Cohen, Rabbi Dov Tiomkin, and Rabbi Yaron Ashkenazi—grace its pages, along with Rebbetzin Batzri and Mrs. Menucha Fuchs. The newsletter reveals the breadth of Hidabroot’s services, which range from providing emotional support and fostering domestic harmony to adjudicating monetary disputes, brokering shidduchim, and even organizing online chavrusos. The newsletter also features a weekly story by Rabbi Chaim Walder. There have also been some fascinating feature stories, such as an article about Rabbi Yeshayahu Heber zt”l and his organization, Matnas Chaim, and a profile of a man who had been a close ally of former Teveria mayor Ron Kobi and had decided to become religious and dissociate himself from the failed mayor. The publication also contains several pages for children, including a comic story. The newsletter, which has a distribution of a quarter of a million copies every week, is not intended for chareidim.

The following fascinating story appeared in the most recent issue of the newsletter: Shortly after the passing of Rav Ovadiah Yosef, a bochur sent a letter to Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein that had clearly been stained with tears. “One Shabbos,” the bochur related, “I davened Shacharis in Rav Ovadiah Yosef’s shul. In order to prevent people from coming too close to the rov, a partition had been erected around him, and no one was allowed to pass it. However, I noticed that there were a few people who were able to walk past the partition and kiss the rov’s hands. Those fortunate few were the kohanim; after they had duchaned and were leaving the front of the shul, they passed before the rov and kissed his holy hand. I had a powerful urge to do the same, and during Mussaf, when I saw the kohanim washing their hands, I decided to join them, even though I am not a kohen. I washed my hands and ascended the duchan along with them. Of course, I didn’t recite the words of the brachos; I simply remained silent under the tallis and mimicked the motions of the kohanim. After the brocha, I approached the rov as well and received his brocha of ‘chazak u’baruch,’ and I, too, kissed his hand with great devotion.”

The bochur revealed that he had been suffering from terrible feelings of guilt over his act of deception. Rav Zilberstein’s lengthy response boils down to a simple answer: It wasn’t considered an act of falsehood and no one should be criticized for desiring the brocha of a tzaddik¸ but it was not a proper thing to do.

The Sagacity of the Chazon Ish

The following story should be required reading for anyone who deals with chinuch.

Many years ago, there was a bochur in the Ponovezh yeshiva who was learning very well but associated with a group of unsavory friends. The mashgiach, Rav Eliezer Dessler, admonished the young man to stop leading a double life. “You must choose between the yeshiva and your friends,” he said. “Light and darkness cannot coexist in the same place.”

“I can’t live without this group of friends,” the bochur protested.

“In that case,” the mashgiach said, “you do not belong in the yeshiva.”

The boy sat down on the steps of the yeshiva and began to weep. Dozens of other bochurim passed by and were saddened by the sight, and one bochur of about the same age, a young man by the name of Shmuel Tzvi Kovalsky, sat down beside him. Shmuel Tzvi managed to gain the disheartened boy’s trust and listened as he described his plight. After a moment of thought, he said, “Let’s go to the Chazon Ish.”

The Chazon Ish greeted them warmly and listened to the story. Then he instructed Shmuel Tzvi, “Both of you must go to Rav Gordon in Petach Tikvah and ask him on my behalf to accept this young man to his yeshiva. Rav Gordon is going to test him, but you must immediately answer every question that he asks.” The Chazon Ish wrote a letter of recommendation and sent them on their way.

Sure enough, Rav Gordon greeted them pleasantly and was duly impressed by the letter from the Chazon Ish. He began testing the young man, but Shmuel Tzvi hastened to answer every question before his friend could speak. “I am asking the bochur who wants to be accepted to the yeshiva; I am not asking you,” Rav Gordon admonished him, but Shmuel Tzvi could not be deterred from obeying the Chazon Ish’s instructions. At long last, the other bochur was accepted to the yeshiva, but he still could not detach himself from the friends who had caused his first expulsion. Once again, the roshei yeshiva discovered his association with them, and the same ultimatum was given: He would have to choose between the yeshiva and his friends. And once again, he chose his friends.

Once again, the young man shared his tale of woe with Shmuel Tzvi. They returned to the Chazon Ish, but this time the other bochur remained outside while Shmuel Tzvi conferred with the gadol. He described the situation and then asked the Chazon Ish for his advice.

“Bring him inside,” the Chazon Ish ordered.

Years later, Rav Shmuel Tzvi Kovalsky recalled, “The Chazon Ish greeted him radiantly and asked how he had acclimated to the yeshiva, what masechta they were learning, and what sugya they were studying. He asked to hear about the rosh yeshiva’s chiddushim and the bochur’s own chiddushim. They had a lengthy conversation, and then they agreed that he would return the following week to share more of his insights with the Chazon Ish.”

Rav Kovalsky waited until after his friend had left and then asked for an explanation. The Chazon Ish said, “This bochur derives satisfaction from associating with these friends. We cannot take the friends away from him without giving him something else in exchange. Of course, we have something to offer him: The Torah is vaster than the sea, more precious than the finest gold, and sweeter than honey. This bochur simply hasn’t yet come to appreciate that. He hasn’t been enlightened about it yet. I was gracious to him and I invited him to return next week, and now he will make a concerted effort to learn, to understand, and to formulate insights. He will come back and I will speak with him in learning once again, and then he will begin to experience the beauty and sweetness of the Torah. As a result, his connection to those friends will dissolve naturally.”

Two weeks later, the Chazon Ish passed away, but his prediction came true. That bochur embarked on a path of spiritual growth and ultimately became a prominent talmid chochom. (This story was told by Rav Nochum Ragoznitzky, who heard it from Rav Shmuel Tzvi Kovalsky and shared it with Rav Chananya Chollak in honor of Rav Kovalsky’s yahrtzeit. Rav Kovalsky passed away on Friday night, the 23rd of Sivan, 5753.)