My Take on the News

Our Problems Keep Mounting

Here in Israel, we have been dealing with a steadily growing array of problems. Unfortunately, as new problems arise, the old ones do not simply fade away. Instead, the list of woes facing our country merely keeps growing.

Do you remember the Arab member of the Knesset who smuggled cell phones into the cells of imprisoned terrorists? This past week, the attorney general officially notified the Knesset speaker that he plans to press charges against him. As for the struggle over the Kosel, we are approaching the date when the matter will be discussed in the Supreme Court. Then there is Elor Azariah, the soldier who shot a terrorist in Chevron; this past week, he was convicted of manslaughter. The result was a tremendous uproar: demonstrations outside the military court, mass sanctions, and even scathing public statements issued by government ministers and members of the Knesset. The vast majority of the people support Azariah; a survey found that 70 percent of the Israeli public supports granting him clemency. This is a saga that is bound to become even more painful and divisive.

I have reported to you in the past about the scandal surrounding the disappearance of Yemenite children decades ago and the government’s decision to declassify all of the documents pertaining to their fate. Those materials have now been opened to the public. Everyone is now able to view the thousands of documents, including the protocols of the various investigative commissions that have dealt with the matter. But did that quiet the raging passions of the Yemenite community in Israel? Absolutely not. On the contrary, they have been able to prove from the documents that the children who were reported to have died are actually still alive. Those children were stolen from their parents, with cruelty that defies description. Of course, their abductors thought that it would benefit the children to be raised by “Israeli” families, rather than growing up in the company of their “backward” biological relatives. It is a sad saga, indeed.

And then there is the new law that forbids supermarkets to give out plastic shopping bags for free. From now on, every bag will cost ten agurot. The purpose of this is to protect the environment. It sounds like a trivial matter, but for tens of thousands of families, including many bnei Torah, it is an unpleasant and aggravating new reality.

Other developments include some smaller things, as well as the investigation surrounding Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu. It has now been revealed that Netanyahu is suspected of receiving prohibited gifts, mainly during his visits to America. I will update you when I receive more information.

Rav Shteinman Takes Ill

Despite all the turmoil that has gripped the State of Israel, the one thing that cast the greatest pall over the country was the illness of Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman. Our concern for him accompanied us from the moment we woke up in the morning until we went to sleep at night. Groups were organized to recite Tehillim at the Kosel, and three perakim of Tehillim were recited in every shul. We felt a terrible sense of dread.

One of the most agonizing moments was at the beginning of Shabbos Chanukah, when it was reported that four doctors – the director of Maayanei Hayeshuah Hospital, the director of the intensive care unit there, the director of the emergency room, and Rav Shteinman’s personal physician – had all pronounced the situation “extremely worrisome.” We went into Shabbos that week with horrendous trepidation; Tehillim were recited even on Shabbos itself.

Last Wednesday, when we learned that Rav Shteinman had returned home, the entire chareidi populace of the State of Israel let out a sigh of relief. We were buoyed by the knowledge that Rav Shteinman had regained at least some of his strength and had returned home.

A Modern-Day Sar Hamashkim Affair

For an entire week, this country and the prime minister suffered from the vocal condemnations of the United Nations and John Kerry. Meanwhile, President Barack Obama expelled a number of Russian diplomats, a move to which Vladimir Putin responded by declaring it the final gasp of a dying presidency.

Parenthetically, I would like to point something out: Israel has no basis for a grievance against Obama. America, under the leadership of Barack Hussein Obama, has related to the State Israel in exactly the same way that the previous Israeli government dealt with the chareidi populace of the country. The State of Israel views the chareidim as a burden and has exhibited overt, merciless hostility and suspicion toward them, and that is precisely the way the United States has dealt with Israel itself. The same animosity they showed toward us has now been turned against them.

Meanwhile, the new state budget has also been passed, with all its benefits for the chareidim, without attracting much attention at all within Israel. These days, everyone’s attention is focused on America. Everything that has been happening is unmistakable Hashgachah Pratis.

When the Torah describes the imprisonment of two of the top officials in Paroh’s government, the Sar Hamashkim and the Sar Ha’ofim, Rashi explains, “Since that accursed woman [Potifar’s wife] caused everyone to speak about him [Yosef], Hashem brought about their perfidy so that people would focus on them and not on him.” Rav Yerucham Levovitz zt”l comments on this, “This should give a person an entirely new outlook on the sensational news that appears in newspapers every day, for all these things happen with the express planning and intent of Hashem, the Master of intrigues and the One Who knows all hidden things, Who is the Cause of everything in the world that is publicized, whether it is large or small. Here we see that it is possible that two such prominent and distinguished officials made an error that was brought to the attention of the public for the specific purpose of removing the shame of disgrace from that tzaddik. Both the offenses and the publicity were calculated from Above.”

The same can be said of the many events that have shaken this country and the world in recent weeks: the Knesset member who was caught smuggling cell phones into prisons, the Russian ambassador who was murdered on camera in Turkey, the terror attack in Germany from which the terrorist escaped, the UN’s solid opposition to Israel, Kerry’s grudges and Obama’s revenge. It is possible that all these things took place so that our adversaries would be distracted from the budget as it was passed here in Israel, including a large amount of money for the chareidim.

Yaakov Neeman z”l

A week has now passed since the petirah of Professor Yaakov Neeman, a Torah-observant lawyer and a former minister in the Israeli government. Neeman served as Minister of Finance in 1997 and as Minister of Justice twice, in 1996 and in 2009. During his tenure as finance minister, Neeman tried to represent the interests of the Torah world in his ministry. With his religious education, he was respectful and deferential toward rabbonim. During his tenure as Minister of Justice, I used to see him very often in the Knesset shul, where he was always studying from a sefer. He was a devoted learner of Daf Yomi and could often be found perusing a copy of Meoros Hadaf Hayomi.

When Neeman began serving as Minister of Justice, we hoped that his appointment would herald a new era in the relations between the state and religion, which had always been a source of difficulty. There were times when he disappointed us, especially with his zigzagging attitude toward the talmidim of our yeshivos and his accommodation of the Reform movement. Nevertheless, he was clearly one of the better officials to occupy this position. It was only this week that I learned that his full name was Yaakov Yisroel.

With the yarmulka on his head and the views on the “rule of law” that he espoused, Neeman was viewed as a threat by the establishment. After his appointment in the first Netanyahu government, he was targeted by a criminal investigation, which forced him to retire. A year later, he was exonerated of the charges against him – making a false affidavit to a court and delivering false testimony to the police. Neeman was a man of the utmost decency, whose state repaid his devotion to it with cruelty, rubbing salt in wounds that never healed. Neeman neither forgot nor forgave the wrongs that had been committed against him, harboring perpetual resentment toward the “rule of law” in the State of Israel and Attorney General Ben-Yair, who had launched the investigation against him. Neeman’s experience added him to the long list of people who have suffered from persecution at the hands of the Israeli government.

“Targeted killings” is the term used by Professor Daniel Friedmann to describe the reign of terror of the judicial system of this country. “The technique of ‘targeted killings’ of appointed government officials was developed by the state prosecution,” Friedmann wrote. “Yaakov Neeman was forced to resign in August 1996 from the position of Minister of Justice after a criminal case was concocted against him, accusing him of delivering false testimony. Ruvi Rivlin’s appointment to the same position was thwarted in 2001, when unfounded criminal charges were leveled against him as well. The prosecution of Neeman, one of the most egregious judicial travesties ever to take place in Israel, should have come under intense scrutiny. But as in many other cases when the prosecution failed to justify its case, the subject was never investigated or examined.” After Ehud Olmert’s resignation and Netanyahu’s appointment, Friedmann was succeeded as Minister of Justice by Yaakov Neeman.

Friedmann, the political foe of Justice Aharon Barak, was appointed to the position of Minister of Justice by Ehud Olmert. The Supreme Court and the Ministry of Justice, along with the attorney general’s office, viewed him as a threat, but Friedmann had come from an academic background and had an untarnished record. He was a legal expert no less admired – and perhaps even more admired – than the judges of the Supreme Court and the officials of the ministry themselves. He attested that he sensed an “atmosphere of fear” during cabinet meetings attended by the attorney general. “One of the ministers of the Shas party told me that they had no wish to enter into a conflict with Mazuz,” he related. The latter, who is now a justice of the Supreme Court, sharply criticized his own predecessor, Ben-Yair, for filing criminal charges against Yaakov Neeman. The current justice minister, Ayelet Shaked, has also been cautioned that she might find herself facing trumped-up criminal charges due to her fearless criticism of the Supreme Court and the “rule of law.”

“Immediately after Netanyahu established his first government,” Professor Friedmann related, “Minister of Justice Yaakov Neeman, presumably in collaboration with the prime minister, attempted to replace Attorney General Michael Ben-Yair, who had been appointed by the Rabin government. However, before Neeman had a chance to replace Ben-Yair, it turned out that Neeman himself had to be replaced, when he was removed from his position because of a criminal charge sheet that had no basis. Within a very short amount of time, it became clear who was getting rid of whom: It was the Minister of Justice who was leaving office, in a process that served the interests of the judicial system.”

Later in his life, Yaakov Neeman became a different man. The distinguished-looking attorney in his tailored suit was gone, replaced by a man who wore sneakers and jogging suits and who radiated apathy, melancholy, and, above all, disappointment in the way his country had treated him. He was not the same attorney with the aura of success whom I had met twenty years earlier, in 1990, when he represented Aryeh Deri. At that time, I myself was facing criminal charges and I turned to him for help. I had been accused of giving a bribe to a lieutenant colonel for the army in exchange for his assisting yeshiva students who had run into trouble with the draft authorities. Neeman agreed with a broad smile to examine the charges against me. This was before he discovered that the judicial system is evil and corrupt. I received similar reactions at the time from several other well-known attorneys: Weinroth, Avi Yitzchak, and Yigal Neeman. The judge in my case, Oded Mudrick, a right-wing figure and close confidant of the Minister of the Police, Roni Milo, found me guilty, although he rightly exonerated the officer. I should add that the charges against Deri can also be catalogued among the “targeted killings” noted by Friedmann.

In any event, that experience taught me a little bit about Neeman’s qualities as a lawyer, and even more so as a human being. Years later, I met him again at Deri’s civilian offices in the Jerusalem Post building. Neeman used to visit Deri regularly on Friday afternoons, showing up alone in his black BMW. The two of them spent hours together, which was probably connected to their shared bitter experiences, but the visits always involved a learning seder. It seemed that they drew encouragement from each other, and their shared learning certainly helped to reduce their sense of distress. In those days, Neeman emerged as a man of great emunah in Hashem as the ultimate cause of all events. But no one dreamed that both displaced politicians would one day return to the government.

Yaakov Yisroel Neeman was a loyal friend and a man known for his legal brilliance. (Abba Eban once said that Neeman saved him from a huge tax liability, only to collect the same sum as his fee.) His close relationships with the gedolei Yisroel were legendary. His many acts of chesed and assistance for the poor took place behind the scenes, without any fanfare. His meetings with Deri led to additional acts of tzedakah, and in both of his ministerial positions, as the Minister of Finance and the Minister of Justice, Neeman assisted many yungeleit in dire straits. I am personally aware of a number of orphans whom he helped marry off. His generosity extended to every person in need.

Good Intentions in Achisamach

This week, I read that there are several large apartments left in Achisamach – first come, first served. I learned long ago that real estate advertisements are not to be trusted, and that sometimes there is no connection at all between their promises and the reality. Nevertheless, there are still times when those promises are fulfilled, and I am hoping that this will be one of those times.

I have a habit of saving old advertisements, such as the one that promised, “In two years, thousands of families will celebrate the Seder night in Maalot Har Yonah.” That promise was made in Nissan 5773. And then there is the confident assertion, “Today, everyone knows that there is only one practical, true, and immediate solution to the housing shortage that can be attained at the least expensive price.” Again, this is a reference to Maalot Har Yonah. One of the supposed advantages of the offer was the builder’s guarantee that residents would be able to occupy their new apartments in less than two years. But that is not exactly what happened.

The promises of real estate agents and developers sometimes turn out to be empty reassurances, albeit often not through any fault of their own. In many cases, it is the fault of the market. There is also a worse scenario, though, in which the developers turn out to be charlatans seeking to line their own pockets at the expense of parents desperate for a roof over the heads of their newly married children. The widespread practice of “purchasing” a chosson by buying an apartment has created an environment ripe for exploitation by unscrupulous contractors. Just recently, we watched as a group of buyers who had organized a purchasing group in Modiin Illit fell prey to this sort of situation, although the allegations against the leaders of the group may be unfounded. I believe that the rabbonim who investigated the situation concluded that they were not the ones at fault.

The Achisamach project, which was intended to establish a large chareidi neighborhood near the city of Lod, adjacent to the Yerushalayim-Tel Aviv highway, is one of the major missed opportunities of the previous decade. I remember when I myself considered joining the project. There was a tremendous rush to sign up for it. Sometime later, I served as an advisor to the group that had spearheaded the initiative. Most of its members were business magnates from America whose intent was not to profit from the venture, but simply to ease the burden of struggling Israeli parents. I also remember the impassioned speech delivered by Micah Rothschild, who was driven by purely altruistic motives. In the years that followed, though, the political establishment placed every obstacle imaginable in the path of the project. It may have been the result of animosity or simply the blindness of bureaucracy, but it was certainly a display of cruelty.

Two years ago, on the 23rd of Nissan, 5774, I read that the mayor of Lod had assured MK Yaakov Asher that construction was soon to begin in Achisamach. That did not happen. This week, it was announced once again that construction would soon begin and that the final apartments are now being marketed. I hope that these plans will finally become a reality. The good people who launched the Achisamach project deserve to see their good intentions finally come to fruition.

The Tears of a
Tinok Shenishbah

The Knesset plenum is not a place where sincerity is often seen, but there is no greater indicator of sincerity than tears, and this past week, I watched a veteran MK weep with great emotion. For a long time, I have felt that Shlomo Hamelech teaches that “it is better to go to a house of mourning than to a house of revelry” (Koheles 7:2) because truth prevails in a place of mourning. When people weep at a house of mourning, it is because they truly feel grief. At a party, on the other hand, rejoicing can be faked, and the exchange of embraces may be insincere.

I have been in the Knesset for a long time, but I have never seen anyone shed as many tears as Ilan Gilaon did when the majority voted in favor of his proposal to make the disability stipend paid by the National Insurance Institute commensurate with the country’s minimum wage.

The sixty-year-old Gilaon was born in Romania, the son of Avrohom and Rochel Goldstein. He has been in the Knesset since the Fifteenth Knesset, as a member of the Meretz party. He is highly active in promoting social causes in general, and he advocates for the rights of the disabled in particular. Gilaon himself is disabled, having suffered from polio in his childhood. He walked with a cane until a few years ago. Now he moves around the Knesset on a special motorized scooter. Unfortunately, he is a tinok shenishbah. His connection with Yiddishkeit was severed by Hashomer Hatzair. Gilaon is loyal to his party with respect to religious issues as well, which has placed him at odds with us, unfortunately, on many occasions. If only Rabbi Avrohom Ravitz was still among us, with his unique ability to touch the deadened souls of his colleagues…

Gilaon mentioned his own disability when he presented his bill. “Yesterday, the Knesset of Israel marked the International Day for People with Disabilities,” he remarked. “At the event, there were people who walk more slowly than others, people whose hearing is impaired, people whose vision is impaired, and people whose mental faculties are impaired. There were some among them who are destined to stumble throughout their lives, just like me. Whenever I come to this podium, I always fear that I might be about to fall.” Rather than speaking, Gilaon decided to express himself through silence. “I do not practice gimmicks; I do not rip up papers at this podium, and I have never used any props or accessories of any sort, so I will use the tools that the podium allows me. I have another 4.8 minutes, and I will use that time in silence. Believe me,” he added, “it takes much more effort for me to stand than it does to speak. My power of speech is much better than my ability to stand.” He proceeded to stand in silence until Betzalel Smotrich, who was chairing the session, announced, “MK Gilaon, you have another ten seconds to conclude your silence.”

The government’s response was delivered by Chaim Katz, the Minister of Welfare, and it seemed as if he invited his own defeat. “You are correct in proposing this law,” he said, addressing Gilaon and MK Dov Khenin, both of whom had submitted identical bills. “There is simply no money for this, though. This bill will cost the state 7 billion shekels. Are you prepared to declare that this is the ultimate law needed for a social cause, and that there is no more important cause?” he challenged the two. “I do not want to defeat this proposal,” he added. “I would have asked the two of you not to submit it at all. Even though Ilan and Dov Khenin want the disabled to receive what they deserve, and I want that just as much as Ilan and Dov want it, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation has decided differently. Therefore, I call on the Knesset of Israel to vote against this law. Thank you.”

The vote was held, and the results were in favor of the proposal: 42 votes were received to prepare the bill for its first reading, while 39 votes were entered against it. There was an uproar among the members of the coalition, while the opposition rejoiced and hastened to applaud Ilan Gilaon. At a certain point during the proceedings, Gilaon burst into tears. As he sat in his seat in the plenum, he covered his eyes with his hands. Those tears were among the most incredible things that I have seen in the Knesset over the many years that I have been there.

In all likelihood, the law will be rejected at its first reading. Even if Chaim Katz wants to help the disabled, he would prefer to take the credit himself. But nothing can erase the impression that has already been made by Gilaon’s tears. I am certain that his show of sincerity will yet have an effect on others as well.

An Unintended Bid

There is a wonderful young man I know who suffers from a stutter. He is a charming fellow, but that affliction is devastating to him. At the same time, Hashem has blessed him with extraordinary self-confidence, which effectively balances out the shame resulting from his stutter. He has overcome many obstacles in the course of his life; he relates that the period of shidduchim was absolute torment for him. Once, his embarrassment led him to stare at the floor during a meeting with a young lady. The next day, the other side called the shadchan and complained, “Not only does he stutter, but it looks like there is something wrong with his vision as well.” Still, he has never allowed the stutter to disrupt his life. In the yeshivos where he learned, he was always at the top of his shiurim. His stutter disappears when he speaks in learning.

“This week,” he told me, “my stutter caused me to have a shailah in halachah.” He explained that he had been in a shul in Yerushalayim and wished to purchase an aliyah, since he had a chiyuv. He doesn’t stutter when he recites the brachos on an aliyah; at most, he has difficulty with the first word. But it was the bidding that was troublesome for him.

“When the gabbai sold the aliyos, he said, ‘Shlishi, ten shekels going once,’ and I raised my hand,” the young man related. “He looked at me with a questioning look and asked, ‘How much?’ I motioned with my hands that I was offering ten shekels, but he insisted on hearing me say it. I didn’t mind if I had to pay 12 or 15 shekels instead, but he wouldn’t give up until I said a number.

“There was complete silence in the shul. Everyone was staring at me. I tried to say ‘twelve,’ but I couldn’t get the word out. I tried ‘fifteen,’ and that didn’t work either. Nor was I able to say ‘twenty.’ The only word I was able to utter was ‘thirty.’”

And that led to his shailah: After all was said and done, did he owe the shul 15 shekels, or 30?