My Take on the News

The Gloves Are Off

This past week was overshadowed by the bitter conflict unfolding between the Israeli government and the outgoing president of the United States. It began with a UN resolution against Israel, when President Barack Obama knowingly and intentionally refrained from using the traditional American veto against resolutions in general and anti-Israel resolutions in particular. The passage of the resolution led to shock in Yerushalayim. Of course, we already knew that the United Nations is one of the most hostile entities toward Israel, but we had hoped that Obama would overcome his desire for revenge against Netanyahu. In other words, we knew that Barack Obama was not sympathetic toward Binyomin Netanyahu, but we didn’t realize that he actually loathed our prime minister. The only thing we can say in Obama’s defense is that the feelings are mutual.

I don’t know how carefully you examined UN Resolution 2334, which was passed two weeks ago. It reconfirms all of the other United Nations resolutions against Israel since 1967, but it takes the matter to an even greater extreme. It defines Israel’s activities as “terror against civilians,” and it labels all the settlements as part of an illegal occupation. More than that, it expressly includes Yerushalayim among the “illegal” settlements. In the very first paragraph, the resolution states, “The Security Council reaffirms that the establishment by Israel of settlements on Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, has no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law and a major obstacle to the achievement of the two-state solution and a just, lasting, and comprehensive peace.” To put it plainly, the resolution defines even the Kosel Hamaarovi as “occupied territory.” Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador to Washington, has claimed that he has evidence that the United States – meaning President Obama – not only refrained from vetoing the resolution, but actually instigated the condemnation of Israel. And it is somewhat dangerous for an ambassador to make such a statement publicly.

Of course, Netanyahu was enraged, as were all the other government ministers, Knesset members, and other public figures who reacted to the resolution. The Israeli left did not defend the resolution, but they did claim that Netanyahu was at fault for its passage, due to his contentious relationship with Obama. Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry delivered a speech in which he asserted that no other American regime has done as much for Israel as the Obama government, while at the same time he spoke about establishing two states – Israel and Palestine – and sharply criticized Israel’s settlements, sounding very much like a representative of the extreme left. Netanyahu responded by declaring that Kerry is obsessive and that his speech was biased and one-sided. This time, the Israeli left welcomed Kerry’s speech, which fits with their own approach, and accused Netanyahu again of ruining Israel’s relationship with the United States.

Finally, there was Trump’s response: “Israel, be strong. January 20 will be here soon!” Trump has thus inserted himself into the conflict between Netanyahu and Obama. To say the least, things have not been boring here.

The Prime Minister’s Blunder

The story is told of an Israeli man who went to shul for the first time in many years and was quickly exposed as a newcomer to the davening when he was called up for an aliyah. The gabbai asked for his name, which he supplied, and then the gabbai added, “Ben?” Thinking that he was being asked his age, the man replied, “Ben shloshim veshtayim.” The gabbai smiled and said, “No, your father!”

“Oh,” said the visitor. “He’s 76.”

I was reminded of this story when Prime Minister Netanyahu visited the Kosel this past week to participate in the Chanukah candle-lighting ceremony. At the Kosel, a large menorah is lit on every night of Chanukah by a different public official. Netanyahu never attends this event, but he asked to take part in it now as a show of defiance against the United Nations. The prime minister was about to light the candles before the rov of the Kosel, Rav Shmuel Rabinovich, recited the brachos, but the rov motioned for him to wait. When the brachos had been recited, Netanyahu began lighting the first candle, but Rav Rabinovich pushed his hand toward the candle added for the second night so that he would light it first. Netanyahu misinterpreted the hint, though, and proceeded to light the shamash. Like the hapless newcomer in shul, he unwittingly demonstrated his ignorance of the basics of the ritual.

No Discrimination Against the Reform

As usual, the Reform movement is at the top of the public agenda. This past week, a hearing took place in the Supreme Court, which is currently dealing with a petition from the Reform movement and the Women of the Wall, for the government to explain why it is not implementing its agreement concerning the Kosel. (The reason for this is that the chareidi parties notified the prime minister that they were retracting their support for the agreement.) During the hearing, Rav Shmuel Rabinovich, the rov of the Kosel, testified that even an Orthodox visitor to the Kosel would not be allowed to bring in a Sefer Torah without the authorization of the rov of the Kosel. Thus, this cannot be considered a case of discrimination against Reform Jews.

On that note, I have reported to you already about the booklet of “incitement” articles collected and published by the Reform movement. This was a collection of writings from chareidi sources that the Reform movement cited as evidence of “incitement” against them. All in all, it was little more than an assortment of ordinary newspaper articles. One of the items in the booklet, for instance, was a report from the Hebrew Yated Ne’eman on the Degel HaTorah conference in Kibbutz Chofetz Chaim, which included a session on the subject of the Reform movement. There were also several editorials from chareidi newspapers, and even a report on the response of the Knesset members of United Torah Judaism to the Knesset Ethics Committee, which demanded an explanation for their boycott of a tour of the area of the Kosel together with Reform representatives. The effort to accuse the chareidi community of incitement is quite laughable. In fact, the subject was brought up in a motion for the agenda in the Knesset plenum under the title, “The Reform Movement’s Incitement Booklet – the Blood Libel of 2017!”

The Reform Jews have monitored the reaction to their booklet, and they understand that it has worked against them. I have now learned from a reliable source that they are preparing a new booklet consisting of quotes from chareidi public officials who spoke against them. I could potentially offer them a citation from Aryeh Deri’s address to the Shuvu delegation that visited the Knesset last week; they are not yet aware of it, since his words haven’t yet been publicized. Their efforts are simply ludicrous. I have no doubt that the second booklet they release will ultimately work to their detriment, just as the first one did.

The Media’s Short Memory

The attorney general of the State of Israel recently announced that MK Basel Ghattas, who was arrested after smuggling cell phones into the cells of security prisoners, would not be permitted to participate in Knesset votes. This was a surprising decision, since it leaves the Knesset with only 119 members. Even more noteworthy, though, is the fact that before his decision was issued, many prominent journalists discussed a question that they deemed absolutely unprecedented: Would the imprisoned Knesset member be brought to the Knesset in handcuffs, accompanied by guards from the Prison Service, in order to participate in the proceedings? The most prestigious journalists in the country asserted that the phenomenon of a Knesset member being arrested during his service is unprecedented in the annals of Israeli history.

This gave me a good laugh, for it is completely untrue. In fact, there was once a member of the Knesset who was not only arrested but actually sentenced to prison while he was actively serving in the legislature. His name was Shlomo Rechtman, and he was a former mayor of Rechovot who was elected to the Ninth Knesset on the Likud list. In January 1979, Rechtman was found guilty of taking bribes from a building contractor in Rechovot and was sentenced to prison. He began serving his prison term in February of that year, but while his appeal was being considered in the Supreme Court, he refused to resign from his position in the Knesset. Thus, he remained a full-fledged Knesset member while in prison. His appeal was rejected in June of that year, but even then he refused to resign from the Knesset until his colleagues pressured him to do so, even threatening to enact a law on the subject. With that, Rechtman finally agreed to resign, having no desire to be known as the catalyst for a “Rechtman Law” governing the procedure when a Knesset member is imprisoned. Even this took place only after two of the senior members of the Knesset from the Likud party made the trip to Maasiyahu Prison to remonstrate with him. In any event, during the months between Rechtman’s imprisonment and the rejection of his appeal, he was brought from prison to the Knesset in order to vote on legislation.

This should give you an idea of just how reliable the statements of Israel’s journalists are and how short the memory of the Israeli public is.

A Surprisingly Peaceful Budget Passage

The state budget for 2017 and 2018 has now been approved. We, the chareidi parties, have an excellent reason to favor the adoption of a two-year budget. It is much better for us if the budget is passed for a period of two years than if it must be debated again in just one year, since we always find ourselves in the eye of the storm and in the crosshairs of the media during any debates over the national budget. The chareidim are vilified for everything, and when it comes to the state budget, we are accused of being responsible for unpopular measures such as the reduction of stipends for the elderly. We have long grown accustomed to serving as the national punching bag for the media and politicians who despise us.

Interestingly, none of that happened when the two-year budget was passed this year. There were some attempts here and there to vilify us, especially after the implementation of an across-the-board budget cut, but those slurs were properly dismissed. This time, the chilonim who derived some personal gain from the budget were actually the ones who were criticized. The secular Knesset members were the ones who absorbed the brunt of the national displeasure.

Take the following quote from the newspapers, for example: “A total of 125 million shekels in coalition funds will be transferred to the MKs who helped advance the budget.” This is a reference to Knesset members Moshe Gafni (the chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee), David Bittan (the chairman of the coalition), Yoav Kisch, Mickey Zohar, and Oren Hazan, all of whom (with the exception of Gafni) are members of the Likud, and all of whom are members of the Knesset Finance Committee. They all threatened that if they did not receive funding for the entities that are important to them, they would vote against the budget in the committee, and they, rather than the chareidi politicians, were lambasted publicly for their actions. To be honest, that is actually an injustice to them, since they were working to support vital projects: certain initiatives for youths, the establishment of hospitals on the country’s periphery, treatments for IDF veterans disabled in battle, restoration of cemeteries, and so forth.

The funding awarded to Gafni – which was actually for the benefit of the entire UTJ and Shas parties – is also not for his own benefit, but for the sake of causes such as transportation for students in chareidi schools, as well as other benefits associated with chareidi education. And it wasn’t Gafni himself who was owed this funding, but rather all the chareidi Knesset members, as a function of the coalition agreements. All of them, especially Gafni, deserve kudos for working quietly, under the radar, and without making excessive waves. And we have now discovered that a budget can be passed, even one that incorporated major achievements for us, without our representatives coming under fire.

Litzman Under Attack

Nevertheless, there had to be some mudslinging…

The following is an excerpt from an article in one of Israel’s financial magazines, which reminds me of the years of incitement surrounding the budget negotiations: “In the health system, there was no dismay when they learned yesterday about the sweeping budget cuts enacted by the government, which will reduce funding for health services by 26 million shekels. After all, among other things, over one billion shekels have been earmarked for chareidi educational institutions. Under ordinary circumstances, the Minister of Health would be the first to protest on behalf of the medical system and to oppose a blind, cruel budget cut that strikes indiscriminately at the most vital services. But the current health minister, Yaakov Litzman, has a clear conflict of interests: Before he is the Minister of Health, he is the chairman of United Torah Judaism. He is the one who pushed for additional funding for Torah institutions, and he will receive credit for it from his constituents.”

The article goes on to quote several officials within the Ministry of Health – anonymously, of course – who expressed criticism of their minister. The previous Minister of Health, Yael German of the Yesh Atid party, is also quoted as heaping criticism on Litzman.

The entire article is nothing more than shameless, unfounded character assassination. There is no reason to quote Yael German, now a member of the opposition in the Knesset, who was indisputably one of the worst health ministers ever to serve in this country. More than that, though, the article’s criticism of Litzman is based on a misrepresentation of the facts. For one thing, Litzman couldn’t have opposed the budget cuts if he had wanted to; no minister in the government had that ability. These cuts were made across the board, by the decision of the prime minister and the finance minister, and the rest of the government ministers had no choice but to go along with it.

The article is simply wrong. The funding that was cut equally from the budgets of all the government ministries was not intended to support Torah institutions. Rather, these funds were used for a long list of expenses that the government decided at the last moment to cover, such as the relocation of Amona and all the added expenses that go along with the agreement that was reached, or for radio programming. A small part of that sum was indeed earmarked for Torah institutions, but that was in keeping with the coalition agreements, which everyone agrees must be kept. None of that concerns the editors of that publication, though, who will take every opportunity to take a shot at the chareidim.

One Million Gentiles in the Jewish State

I have no doubt that some things are easier for you in America. For instance, every Jewish child knows that there are non-Jews living on his street, and he is well aware of the differences between a Jew and a non-Jew.

Here in Israel, we have a much more difficult situation. In this country, there are one million non-Jews who look like Jews, who speak Hebrew, and who send their children to Israeli schools.

Now this situation has created even more distressing complications.

The presence of one million non-Jews in our country was something we knew about. The fact that they would unabashedly try to change the character of the country was also something we anticipated, but we hoped would not come to pass. Last Wednesday, MK Yoel Razvozov sought to establish a new law defining the secular new year as a day when celebrations are permitted after 11:00 at night, when the legal prohibition against making noise generally goes into effect.

“Mr. Speaker and members of the Knesset,” Razvozov began, “every year, millions of people throughout the world celebrate the beginning of the new secular year. In Israel, the day is celebrated by over one million citizens, residents of the former Soviet Union. They are joined in their celebrations by many other citizens, who are merely looking for a reason to celebrate the current Israeli reality. Contrary to popular perception, the secular new year is a holiday with no religious or political significance. Everyone knows that the climax of the evening comes at midnight, when the new year arrives. We have all seen the images from the centers of cities throughout the world, where the celebrants count down the seconds until the end of the year. But there is one significant difference between our country and the rest of the world. Here, the law prohibits celebrating after the hour of 11:00 at night. All the citizens of this country, whether they immigrated to Israel or they were born here, deserve an opportunity to celebrate the beginning of the new year without having their parties shut down in the middle.” Razvozov asked the Knesset to assign the secular new year the same legal status as Lag Ba’omer.

He went on, “In the Soviet Union, it was forbidden to celebrate religious holidays; therefore, the new year became the most important holiday in Russian culture. Today, 25 years after the mass immigration from Russia, we should not have to apologize for our laws. We want the law to recognize the new year, and that is exactly what my bill would call for. This holiday is part of our culture. For 25 years, the Russian immigrants have been making major contributions to the economy and culture of the State of Israel. This holiday is an important part of our culture, and just as we respect other cultures, I ask you to respect ours. I know that many members of the coalition will find it difficult to vote against this bill. Do not vote against it! This is a completely tenable request; the country already recognizes this holiday. The Ministry of Education, for instance, has already adopted my recommendations on the subject, and immigrant students are now permitted to miss school on the first day of the secular year.”

A Modest Gift

When we switched our aging air conditioning unit to heating mode at the beginning of the winter, we were exposed once again to two issues that never seem to change: The heat emanating from the unit is dry and makes us fatigued, and water drips from it even when it is functioning as a heater. We had thought that we could finally put away the pail that sits on the floor throughout the summer to collect the steady flow of water droplets as the unit cools our home, but we soon learned that we would not have that opportunity. The pail was to be part of our lives during the winter as well. The truth is that we have already grown used to its presence. It sits in the middle of our hall, collecting the water droplets as they fall, and we have come to treat it like another member of the family.

Now, there are certain challenges or discomforts that we have all learned to expect from time to time. We all know that there will come a time when the water in our showers will suddenly turn cold, when a shopping cart in the supermarket will insist on turning left when we want to turn right, when our tzitzis will become awkwardly entangled in our seat belts, and when a glass dish will break only after we have finished scrubbing it to a shine. And there are more inevitable realities: the garbage bag that will suddenly tear and spill its contents in the hallway of the apartment building, the button that will be missing from a freshly ironed shirt, the mess that will have to be cleaned up on Motzoei Shabbos, the chazzan during the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah who will inadvertently skip one of the insertions in the Shemoneh Esrei, and the shower curtain that will fail to prevent a minor flood because it wasn’t properly tucked into its place in the bathtub. In our family, there is one more inexorable part of life that we have learned to expect every year: the telephone call from our cousin from Capetown and his wife, who want to know if we are planning to be home for Shabbos Chanukah.

Of course, we know exactly why they are calling on that Thursday night, during their annual visit to Eretz Yisroel. And we always respond with great enthusiasm, “Of course! You are welcome to come! We will be happy to have you!”

We inherited this cousin from his father, our uncle of blessed memory. Our cousin himself inherited something else from his father: a sum of millions of dollars. But that is where the similarity between them comes to an end. When our uncle used to visit Israel, he stayed in a luxury hotel in Yerushalayim and even invited his local relatives to join him. He was friendly and generous to his kin; he would never even have thought about staying in our fifth-floor apartment (with no elevator) in order to avoid the expense of a hotel room. His son, on the other hand, has a different mindset. And he has no idea that his visit on Shabbos Chanukah costs us the use of the boys’ bedroom, leaving them to bunk in the living room, which remains fully illuminated throughout the night.

“Are you sure?” he asks during that habitual phone call. “You were planning on having us? And no one is sick?”

Of course, we know that they will end up in our home on Shabbos regardless of how we answer them. Let them at least feel good about it! The only lamentable part of the situation, my wife pointed out after I hung up the phone this time, was that the air conditioner leaks. Actually, “leaks” is an exceptionally gentle word, when the water droplets actually pour out of the hose. We ourselves had grown used to circumnavigating the bucket in the hallway and listening to the maddening dripping sounds. But for our guests, it would be a different story. “It’s going to be very unpleasant,” my wife fretted. “What will they think of us?”

“It’s not the end of the world,” I reassured her. “Besides,” I added dryly, “who knows? Maybe they will buy us a new air conditioner!”

Somehow, we managed to make it through the Shabbos with our affluent relatives from South Africa. They are not exactly fluent in Hebrew, and our English is equally poor, but we managed to communicate. And as they watched the bucket in our hallway repeatedly filling with water and being emptied, they expressed unmistakable surprise. “That’s what happens when you have a 20-year-old air conditioner,” we stammered in response. Their expressions showed that they had caught the hint.

After Shabbos, we hurried to light the menorah for the last time, while they made their way to Bnei Brak to visit a different cousin. On Monday, before they returned to South Africa, they called to bid us farewell. “By the way,” they added, “we left you a small present with our cousins in Bnei Brak.”

My wife was overjoyed, and we hurried to Bnei Brak on that same day to collect the gift. We were expecting a new air conditioner, or perhaps a voucher to an appliance store. But when we arrived, we discovered that they had bought us….

A brand new, sparkling, blue pail.