My Take on the News

On the Threshold of Elul

It has been two weeks since we last “met” on the pages of this newspaper, and we are about the enter the month of Elul. Elul! It is hard to believe that the month is already upon us.

For the past few years, it has been a tradition of sorts for me to announce the arrival of Elul in my writings, in keeping with a promise that I made to Rav Chanoch Karelenstein shortly before his passing. Soon enough, the blasts of the shofar will be heard throughout the world. In just one more month, we will be davening fervently on Rosh Hashanah, and we will be building our sukkahs shortly thereafter. It is very difficult to believe that this season is already here, and that it will soon be time to usher in the year 5781.

As I said, it has now been two weeks since I last wrote this column. And if the State of Israel creates headlines in abundance in a single week, you can only imagine what two weeks have brought us.

The first story, of course, is about the government, which was on the verge of collapsing, and then did not collapse, and then nearly collapsed again. At this point, we are on standby; we are waiting to see whether the government will survive.

What is the problem, you ask? First of all, the relationship between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, the defense minister and alternate prime minister, is not very good. For some reason, their alliance hasn’t been very solid. They do not appear to trust each other. What has escalated this situation to crisis level is the law that states that if the Knesset does not approve an annual budget by a particular date (and the deadline is about a week from now) then the government will automatically be disbanded. There is no need for the government to actively dissolve itself; it is an automatic process.

Netanyahu and Gantz did not reach an agreement as to whether the government will establish a one-year budget (as Netanyahu demands) or a two-year budget (as Gantz insists). The basis of their dispute is a complicated story, which has to do with Netanyahu’s promise that Gantz will become prime minister in another year and a half. As both men dug in their heels, it became clear that the government was hurtling down the path to dissolution, and it seemed that we would soon be voting in another election. Last Wednesday, however, Minister Yoaz Hendel and his colleague Tzvi Hauser came up with a solution: A law was rapidly passed that would extend the deadline for passing a budget. The bill was signed into law last Wednesday, and Netanyahu and Gantz now have the opportunity to continue their conflict for another two months without bringing down the government in the process.

Meanwhile, Benny Gantz underwent an operation on his back this week, to deal with a medical issue that originated during his time in the army, which led to some jokes circulating at his expense throughout the country about doctors discovering that he had no backbone. And then there was the major story that has dominated the headlines since it broke: the new normalization between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. The agreement has been the talk of the country over the past couple of days, and I will report more on it at length when the opportunity arises.

Gloom Sets In as Corona Fails to Disappear

It has been a difficult couple of weeks for all of us in Israel. For one thing, this time has been marred by several tragedies, including the passing of gedolei Yisroel. One of the recent niftarim was the Sadigura Rebbe.

In addition, Prime Minister Netanyahu has continued clashing with the attorney general over his criminal trial, while yeshivos suffer from a lack of critical funding as the government continues to avoid approving a budget.

Then, of course, there is the coronavirus, which has shown no sign that it intends to leave us. During the first wave of the pandemic, Israel was in a better position than many other countries, and many heads of state sought Netanyahu’s advice as to how to contain the virus in their own countries. Now, during the second wave, it is said that the infection rate in Israel places the country in the worst position. It is possible that this is simply because more people are being tested, and therefore the number of confirmed cases has risen, but the general feeling among the Israeli people is one of despondence. The situation is utterly intolerable.

An Appeal to the Supreme Court Against American Yeshiva Bochurim

Of course, the issue was brought to the Supreme Court as well. Someone petitioned the court to overturn the government’s decision permitting yeshiva bochurim to enter the country, but the court rejected the appeal. That is not to say that the judges are in favor of Torah learning or that they had any interest in assisting yeshiva bochurim; the appeal was rejected purely on technical grounds. The judges explained that the petition had been submitted too late, that the petitioner had no connection to the issue, and that the appeal had failed to quote any person who might be harmed by the government’s decision. Had an Israeli bochur filed the petition, for instance, claiming that he feared he would contract Covid from other bochurim arriving from abroad, the court might indeed have accepted it.

The respondents named in the petition were Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, and Professor Roni Gamzu, the project manager of Israel’s fight against the coronavirus. Gamzu himself had originally opposed the decision, but he quickly changed his tune when he discovered that the arriving foreigners would be quarantined upon arrival, that they would be supervised by their respective institutions, and that the decision affected the month of Elul. The petitioner argued that allowing 12,000 yeshiva bochurim to enter the country during the second wave of the coronavirus has the potential to cause a dramatic increase in the spread of the virus in Israel. He also claimed that it is a violation of the principle of equality to allow yeshiva bochurim to enter the country at this time, when relatives of Israelis who are not in the country and do not possess Israeli passports are not granted similar rights to visit Israel. In addition to submitting the appeal, the petitioner asked the court to issue a temporary injunction barring yeshiva bochurim from entering the country until the court renders its decision. The government responded that the arriving bochurim would be placed in quarantine in order to prevent the spread of infection, and that barring them from entering the country would actually create inequality, since there are many other dispensations for foreigners to visit Israel.

The judge wrote in her ruling, “After examining the petition and the response to it, I have reached the conclusion that it should be rejected due to the delay in filing the appeal and the failure to exhaust all appropriate proceedings, even without addressing the remaining arguments detailed by the respondents [i.e., the government]. In addition, as the respondents indicated, with regard to the complainant’s arguments about a lack of equality, the complainant is involving himself in a conflict that does not concern him…. The petitioner argues that allowing talmidei yeshivos to enter Israel would be an assault on equality and would discriminate against relatives of Israelis, yet he does not represent any of the people who would allegedly be affected by the decision.”

The ruling makes it clear that, while the court did not accept the petition in its current form, it would not have taken much more effort for an appeal to be presented that would have passed muster in the judges’ eyes.

On the Agenda: Elul Zman and Shuls

The chareidi community in Israel has been locked in conflict with the Health Ministry over two issues: the Elul zman in yeshivos and the restrictions on davening in shuls. The dispute over the latter issue hasn’t been resolved yet, but it seems that an agreement will be reached soon. The chareidim’s complaints stemmed mainly from the apparent double standard whereby shuls were limited to an occupancy of ten people at a time, while restaurants and other such facilities were permitted to serve up to 30 occupants at once. In addition, it was absurd that shuls with large, spacious buildings were subject to the same limitations on occupancy applied to much smaller shuls. The community also argued that large shuls should be allowed to partition their space into separate areas, as is done at the Kosel, in order to accommodate more mispallelim. The community demanded explanations from the government and none were forthcoming. And the situation has begun to grow urgent, especially with the approach of the Yomim Noraim.

The community’s representatives in the Knesset have been working to change the situation. MK Yaakov Asher of Degel HaTorah is chairman of the Knesset Constitution Committee, a position that enables him to affect many of the government regulations. Since all the coronavirus laws pass through his committee, he pledged to improve the situation in the country’s shuls. The leaders of the chareidi parties (Deri, Litzman, and Gafni) raised the issue in a meeting with the Minister of Health. The regulations were slightly modified this week.

As for the upcoming Elul zman, on the other hand, there is great concern. The government is bound to impose an assortment of regulations to stem the spread of the coronavirus, including requiring every bochur to sign a statement affirming that he is not ill and that he will be extremely careful to avoid contagion. The matter has also been discussed by the gedolei Yisroel, who would be the first to insist on health precautions. The Vaad HaYeshivos, an official body that serves as a liaison between the yeshivos and the government, held internal discussions with several roshei yeshiva, followed by discussions with the gedolei hador. It seems likely that the bochurim will be divided into capsules again and that talmidim will be prohibited to leave the grounds of their yeshivos. However, this may make it impossible for the yeshivos to take in all of their talmidim, with some bochurim forced to remain at home. And the prospect of large numbers of yeshiva bochurim spending the Elul zman at home is highly discouraging.

Elul and Incitement Against Bnei Torah from America

As you are certainly aware, the government has decided to permit bnei yeshivos from other countries—mainly the United States—to return to Israel for the upcoming Elul zman. This undoubtedly has a direct impact on many of you and your families. Months ago, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri announced that any bochur or yungerman holding a student visa would be permitted to enter the country. That decision was changed immediately thereafter, when Deri announced that only foreigners who were married and lived in Israel would be allowed to enter the country; bochurim would be barred from Israel. Every decision was made in consultation with the roshei yeshiva. Two weeks ago, the government finally decided that it would permit bochurim from abroad to enter the country as well for the upcoming zman. I wrote about this at the time the decision was made, when Aryeh Deri asserted with complete confidence that it would not be changed, and it was featured on the front page of this newspaper.

Indeed, the government has not rescinded its decision, and we are all looking forward to the arrival of yeshiva bochurim and Bias Yaakov girls from America. Nevertheless, it evoked a hail of denunciations, to the point of vitriolic incitement. First of all, someone published a political cartoon that showed a chareidi traveler arriving from America and toting a large number of suitcases as he left the airport, with coronaviruses visibly protruding from each suitcase. The cartoon was apparently so blatantly hateful that Haaretz refused to publish it; it was instead disseminated privately by the cartoonist himself.

Another opprobrious example was a skit performed on a satire program on Kan 11, a television station that was recently transferred from government ownership to the private sector. The skit portrayed a frum person arriving from America and being questioned by an official in the airport. The arriving traveler admitted that he was suffering from corona, that he had also met with other corona patients in America, and that he planned to attend crowded events in Israel and had no intention of entering quarantine. After this series of revelations, the official replied, “Welcome to Israel!” He “explained” that he had been instructed to permit Orthodox people to enter the country freely, due to the pressure exerted by the chareidi ministers.

The country’s foremost purveyor of incitement, Yvette Lieberman, released his own statement denouncing the government for allowing “17,000 chareidim” to enter the country without being placed in quarantine. This took place in time for me to write about it two weeks ago, when I quoted the outraged reaction of the Minister of Health. In the interim, the issue was raised in the Knesset, where they spoke again about the imminent arrival of “17,000 avreichim.” (That is the term used by the chilonim in reference to all chareidim; they do not differentiate between bochurim or yungaleit.) Of course, the true number of yeshiva bochurim who will be entering the country is less than half that quantity; the rest of the 17,000 foreigners are university students, Bais Yaakov girls attending seminaries, and participants in Zionist programs such as Naaleh and Masa. The government’s response to this accusation was delivered by Deputy Minister Yoav Ben-Tzur, who presented the facts unambiguously.

Hostilities in the Knesset

This past week was marked by nonstop sparring in the Knesset. There were conflicts between the prime minister and the opposition, especially Yair Lapid, and between the chareidim and the enemies of Yiddishkeit. Let us ignore the prime minister for a moment and deal with the battles between the chareidim and their adversaries.

Here is a rule of thumb: If someone explodes in anger upon being called an anti-Semite, it signifies that the accusation is either absolutely false or absolutely true. And in today’s Knesset, it seems that there are some people who are most definitely anti-Semitic.

Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, who was elected to the Knesset by virtue of his battles against religion, used to become outraged whenever he was accused of anti-Semitism. And that was precisely because the accusations were correct. Once, in the makeup room of Popolitika—a television program featuring screaming matches and, thanks to Tommy Lapid, record heights of racism—Lapid encountered the late MK Dovid Tal of the Shas party, who was a guest on the program. “Last time, you called me an anti-Semite,” Lapid said. “I ask you to refrain from doing that again this time.” Like his son, the senior Lapid never displayed the slightest trace of compassion and publicly skewered his political opponents at every opportunity. Nevertheless, he had no qualms about pleading with others to be gentle with him whenever he felt the need.

When Dovid Tal told me this story, I asked him how he had reacted. He replied, “I said to him, ‘I will certainly call you an anti-Semite, because that is exactly what you are.’”

This past week, in a sense, has been a week of anti-Semitism in the Knesset. MK Shlomo Karai of the Likud party threw an accusation of anti-Semitism at Alex Kushnir of Yisroel Beiteinu, the man who released a hateful video before the previous election that seemed to make light of the halachos of taharah. Kushnir lost his temper in response to Karai’s claim and began screaming in outrage. Later in the same day, Moshe Gafni denounced the legislators who had tried to prevent coronavirus grants from being increased for families with many children. His comments, too, were aimed at Kushnir.

“You are a stain on this country,” Gafni declared. “Why do you have to block every bit of financial aid?”

Oded Forer shouted, “What audacity! Who do you think you are?”

“How many of the people here are married?” Gafni demanded. “How many have children?”

“Did you defend the State of Israel?” Forer shot back.

“Stop shouting!” Gafni castigated him.

I am a stain on the country? You are a stain on the country!” Forer continued. “You are a shame and a disgrace! You are a disgrace to this place and to the people who pay your salary!”

Then it was Yisroel Eichler’s turn to speak. “The anti-Semitic incitement today is being led by Yvette the Horrible,” he announced, “who has given permission for the blood of a million chareidi Jews to be spilled. He is a danger to the existence of this state and to the well-being of the people.”

You are the greatest danger to the State of Israel!” Forer interjected again. “I have never met a greater anti-Semite than you!”

“I would like to ask the anti-Semites to be silent and allow me to speak,” Eichler replied evenly. “You are a black stain on the State of Israel. You are trying to turn the entire country into enemies of chareidi Jewry, and we will not allow it.”

“That is not Judaism,” Kushnir announced. “No Jew calls another Jew an anti-Semite.”

“You released an anti-Semitic video,” Eichler reminded him.

“Who pays taxes, Eichler?” MK Avidar interjected. “Do you?”

The next speaker was Dudi Amsalem, who holds the post of Government-Knesset Liaison. He ignored the demands to condemn Eichler, and added fuel to the fire. “‘Who pays taxes?’” he repeated incredulously. “What a question! The chareidim pay taxes, just as you do…. I saw the videos you produced, and I was appalled by the hatred. Without two things, there would be no Yesh Atid and no Yisroel Beiteinu. If all the chareidim ceased being chareidim, and if Shabbos ceased being Shabbos, you would have nothing to sell to the public. Nothing! You have built yourselves on that hatred…. We wanted to pass the draft law, and you opposed it. If the law had passed, what would you have used to garner support? How would you have entered the Knesset? You never say, ‘Look at the things that we have done.’ All you say is, ‘Look at the chareidim,’ ‘Look at the Arabs,’ ‘They don’t pay taxes,’ ‘They don’t serve in the army,’ and so forth. That is all you talk about, from morning until night.”

From Prison in Ramle to a Bungalow in Tzefas

The plight of inmates in Israel’s prisons, to which I call attention from time to time in the media and in the Knesset, has begun to attract increasing public attention. This week, the announcers on Galei Tzahal reported with outrage that a prisoner had been punished for reporting to them about the injustices he had suffered in the prison. The newscasters were shocked by the response of the Prison Service: “The inmate had a record of negative behavior, including his attempts to affect the terms of his imprisonment through illegitimate means.”

“In other words, we are not legitimate!” one of the announcers exclaimed.

It should be noted that the prisoner in question is chareidi.

It has also emerged from this story that the Prison Service eavesdrops on the conversations of all prisoners, including “ordinary” inmates, even when they are conversing with their families or attorneys…

On a similar note, the Supreme Court recently issued a ruling against conditions of inhumane crowding in the prisons. This forced the Prison Service to cancel a planned freeze on all early administrative releases of prisoners. The freeze had been implemented as one of the emergency coronavirus regulations (even though that is quite illogical). Last week, the Prison Service assembled a list of inmates to be released. A certain chareidi inmate who met all the criteria was astounded to find that his name was not included on the list. While he remained behind bars, the inmate’s family traveled to Tzefas, with his encouragement, for a much-needed vacation.

On Tuesday, the inmate was summoned by the chief warden of the wing. “I received a second list of administrative releases, and you are on it,” the warden informed him. “Go pack your belongings and go home.” He hurried out of the prison and headed in the direction of Tzefas. While he was on the road, he called me, both because he is my friend and because I was somewhat involved in his case. Incidentally, he was imprisoned because of an incident involving some courses on Judaism that he organized on behalf of Rav Mordechai Eliyahu, which the government decided had involved fraud for the purpose of enhancing his income. One can certainly debate this point, but that is how the judge viewed it.

When I heard about his destination, I was surprised. “You are going directly to Tzefas?” I asked him. “Why don’t you come to Yerushalayim first, to pack your clothes and some other personal effects?”

He laughed. “You will find this unbelievable, but my rebbetzin has pure emunah,” he replied.

“What do you mean?”

“She had no doubt that I was going to be released, and she packed everything I needed to Tzefas. She even brought my driver’s license!”

No Progress Yet at Meoras Hamachpeilah

It is absolutely unbelievable. The government made many promises, including those of an IDF liaison who committed to two different target dates, both of which have since passed. The government even “caved in” to pressure and extended Israeli sovereignty over the site of Meoras Hamachpeilah. Moreover, both Binyomin Netanyahu (in Chevron) and Naftoli Bennett (in the Ministry of Defense), as well as Lieberman and his advisor before them, promised that the work would be done. But the planned construction to ensure accessibility for the disabled at Meoras Hamachpeilah has been delayed again. And why? Because although the area is now officially Israeli territory, it remains under the jurisdiction of the Civil Administration, which is a branch of the military. And this week, the Israeli left and the Arabs petitioned the Planning and Building Committee of the Civil Administration to prevent the construction. I will report on this at length in the near future; for now, I will give you a brief overview of the situation.

The issue was brought up in the Knesset last week, and Michael Bitton, who serves as a minister in the Defense Ministry, promised that the matter would be resolved soon. If only that were true…. At the request of three Knesset members, another discussion was scheduled in the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. I will monitor that as well. The indefatigable Shamai Glick, who has made this issue his life’s mission, quickly fired off a slew of letters to various recipients.

The entire situation reminds me of the joke about the young attorney who joined his father’s thriving law firm. Just a few months after settling into his new office, the industrious young man proudly announced, “Abba, I have succeeded where you failed!”

“What do you mean?” his father asked.

“I managed to resolve the longstanding inheritance feud between the two millionaire brothers!”

Oy vey,” his father replied with a sigh. “That feud kept our office in business for the past 22 years!”

Here is another amusing glimpse into the halls of government: Last Wednesday, Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn responded in the Knesset to several motions for the agenda and proposed laws. Nissenkorn is usually calm, but this time he flew into a rage after Naftoli Bennett criticized the government vociferously as he addressed the Knesset about the proposed Override Clause.

“I would like to say something in response to Naftoli Bennett, who spoke here before me,” Nissenkorn said. “I say to Naftoli Bennett: You yourself proclaimed that we must not speak about anything other than parnossah. You cannot make a mockery of the entire Knesset. How is it that you are not living up to your own pronouncement that nothing matters other than the livelihoods of the people? Just one month ago, you said, ‘If it isn’t about parnossah, it doesn’t interest me.’ Your voice was choked with emotion. Yet you stand here today and speak about a bill that has nothing to do with that subject.”

Moshe Arbel, who was chairing the session, immediately responded, “What do you want? This is his parnossah!”

An Encouraging Report from Djerba

Tunisia is a Muslim country, but it is home to a vibrant Jewish community where Torah learning flourishes. This week, we received some encouraging news on the community from Rabbi Moshe Levin of France, who visited Tunisia and returned with a glowing report and a collection of reassuring pictures. Rabbi Levin occupies two positions simultaneously: He is the vice president of the Conference of European Rabbis and is also an advisor to the chief rabbi of France. Rabbi Levin was present at the graduation ceremony of the Kanfei Yonah girls’ school in Tunisia, as the guest of the Jewish community and its rov, Rav Chaim Bittan.

The community is concentrated in the Jewish quarter of the island of Djerba. The quarter, which is populated entirely by religious Jews, is home to a community known for its steadfast adherence to Jewish tradition. Like every other community in the world, the Jewish community of Djerba suffered from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. About forty members of the community, including Rav Chaim Bittan, were forced to enter quarantine, while the Tunisian health ministry collaborated with the community council to come up with a number of measures to reduce the spread of the virus, including the closure of the shuls and botei medrash in the community. The education system was also shut down, cultural activities were suspended, and grocery stores, pharmacies, and medical service providers were placed under close supervision. “We are all right, boruch Hashem,” Rav Bittan told his visitors. “I call upon the entire Jewish people to strengthen their emunah, and Hashem will protect all of Am Yisroel, amein.”

After visiting the community’s religious schools and chesed institutions, the participants in the visit were escorted under heavy guard to the ancient Al Ghariba synagogue, which was opened in a special gesture for the evening davening. The tefillos were headed by Rav Chaim Bittan and attended by Rabbi Levin. Candles were lit, and the participants davened for the well-being of Jewish communities and the recovery of COVID-19 patients throughout the world.

About two years ago, a different delegation from the Conference of European Rabbis was invited by the Tunisian government to visit the city. Their purpose was to encourage the Jewish community and to bolster the collaboration between Jews and Muslims in the war against radical Islamic terror and anti-Semitism in Europe. The highlight of their visit was their experience on the island of Djerba. As the rabbonim walked through the streets, all the local residents came out to greet them, offering refreshments that they had baked or prepared in their own homes in honor of Shabbos and thanking their distinguished visitors for their presence. The delegation visited the local Talmud Torah, Ohr Torah, where the children of Djerba are educated fully in accordance with Jewish traditions dating back thousands of years, and the rabbonim listened in amazement as the children demonstrated their knowledge.

I found it heartening to once again hear about the thriving Jewish community in Djerba, where the fire of Jewish tradition has continued to burn throughout the centuries.