The New Zman Begins
The new zman, as you certainly know, began this week. Under ordinary circumstances, the zman would have begun on Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan, or possibly even on Tuesday. This time, however, most yeshivos marked the beginning of the zman on Wednesday. The delay was due to the need to coordinate their arrangements for the zman with the demands of the “capsule plan” and with the Vaad HaYeshivos and Rabbi Binyomin Cohen, the man who is overseeing this entire process (whom you encountered in the Sukkos edition of this newspaper). Yesterday, Rabbi Cohen announced that everything was proceeding according to plan, and most of the yeshivos indeed began the zman with capsule programs in place, under the aegis of the Vaad HaYeshivos and thereby with the approval of all the professional authorities. I haven’t yet examined the specifics of the plan in depth; perhaps I will speak with Rabbi Cohen next week to learn more of the details.
The situation is more complicated for yeshivos which serve boys who have completed elementary school before they move on to yeshiva gedolah. Since these yeshivos do not have dormitories, the bochurim sleep in their homes at night, and it is more challenging for the administrations to supervise them. The same problem applies to the elementary schools. I wondered, however, why the government did not permit the high-school level yeshivos to open, whereas it allowed preschools to begin operating. What is the difference?
On motzoei Shabbos Prime Minister Netanyahu decided to deliver a speech to the nation, asking all of us to abide by the Health Ministry’s rules. When I say “us,” I am referring to the chareidi community. “I ask the chareidi public to obey the rules,” Netanyahu announced. “We have a Torah that guides our lives, and it commands us to protect our health. I would like to see the red cities turn green. We will maintain the closure around the red cities. I call upon the chareidi public to refrain from opening their yeshivos; I call on the leaders of the chareidi community not to do that. There is a mitzvah of ‘v’nishmartem me’od l’nafshoseichem.’ Our Torah sanctifies life, but they are endangering lives.”
The prime minister continued, “During the first wave of corona, the entire world followed us into lockdown. During the second wave, we entered a lockdown before anyone else. We are beginning to exit the lockdown while other countries are first entering it. I am glad that we insisted on this lockdown, because it worked. Every one of you determines that. We are moving out of it cautiously. There is an economic cost, which we limited through grants and loans. There are grounds for even more optimism today, as we are seeing the various companies moving toward a vaccine. This time, we will exit the lockdown with caution, and if we see that it isn’t working, we will tighten the restrictions again. To date, we have lost over 2000 people to this accursed plague. There are families that are without a father or mother, parents who have buried children without having the chance to say goodbye. I respect the chareidi leaders and rabbonim, but I ask them to call upon the community to obey these lifesaving guidelines; it is pikuach nefesh in every sense. It is important to stress that most of the Israeli public, and most of the chareidi community, has been observing the rules and saving lives; that is how we managed to lower the rate of infection. Only together, with mutual responsibility, will we win this battle.”
Gantz Threatens to Trigger an Election
In the realm of politics, the atmosphere has been poisoned by distrust. The Likud party is asserting that Blue and White has decided to break off their partnership. The Blue and White party, meanwhile, has threatened that if the state budget isn’t passed, they will dissolve the Knesset and call new elections in February.
This threat is already out in the open. Alternate Prime Minister and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, along with Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn, have decided that if the state budget for the years 2020 and 2021 isn’t brought to the government for approval within two weeks, their partnership with the Likud will be effectively ended, and Blue and White will act independently in the Knesset and in the government. As far as they are concerned, Netanyahu is not leading the country anywhere; he is interested only in his own criminal trial, he is not leading the battle against the coronavirus properly, and the only thing that motivates him is his standing in the polls. On that note, it should be pointed out that both Netanyahu and the Blue and White party are faring very poorly in the polls. For Gantz and his compatriots, that is yet another reason to flex their political muscles, in the hope that it will enhance their public image.
Netanyahu will not be able to dismiss the Blue and White ministers from the government unless the coalition is dismantled and early elections are called. If that happens, Blue and White will function as a miniature government within the government, and as an independent party that is not bound by any agreements or by coalition discipline. If that happens, the party’s leaders are already considering lending their support to proposed laws that would humiliate Netanyahu, such as a law that would bar a prime minister under indictment from serving in the post, a bill that would call for an investigation into the submarine affair, and other such proposals.
Netanyahu, meanwhile, is trying to restore calm. “We have been working decently with Blue and White in recent days, and we must continue in this direction with good spirits and partnership, and without threats,” he declared. Benny Gantz, for his part, has maintained his aggressive tone. “There cannot be two different states here,” he has insisted. “No group or individual in Israel is above the law—no one,” he added emphatically.
Was Mandelblit Blackmailed?
I have spared you from hearing about the hullabaloo surrounding Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who has been the focus of attention for many months already. Mandelblit is considered the head of the general prosecution, which means that he has signed on the criminal indictments faced by the prime minister. At the same time, Mandelblit is supposed to act as a legal advisor to the government and to Netanyahu himself. In fact, the prime minister himself worked hard to ensure that Mandelblit would receive his current position. It is quite surprising, then, that Mandelblit then turned on his former patron and ordered criminal charges against him—charges that many believe are groundless. Within the Likud, many believe that Mandelblit was somehow coerced to support the indictments by the leftist prosecution, especially Shai Nitzan, the former state prosecutor. Although Nitzan wears a yarmulke (a knitted yarmulke, to be precise, while Mandelblit sports a black kippah), he is still considered a member of the left.
Last week, a recording was publicized in which Mandelblit can be heard speaking harshly to a friend about Shai Nitzan. In the recording, the attorney general complains that “he has my hands tied” and “he is holding me by the throat.” This had to do with the Harpaz affair, an old scandal that took place when Mandelblit was the chief military prosecutor. Mandelblit asked for the Harpaz case to be officially closed due to a lack of guilt, rather than a lack of evidence. The distinction between the two rationales make a major difference for someone who aspires to occupy a seat on the Supreme Court. And the authority to decide on the official reason for closing a case rests with the state prosecutor.
Nitzan, who resigned recently from his position, left the case open until shortly before he stepped down. Mandelblit claimed—and others agreed with him—that this created a relationship in which Nitzan held sway over the attorney general. In other words, Mandelblit was vulnerable to extortion, and Shai Nitzan had the power to extort him. This week, Mandelblit was quick to claim that Nitzan’s power over him had nothing to do with his decisions concerning Netanyahu. But it was still very suspicious.
Meanwhile, the two “allies” leading the government are attempting to bully each other with criminal charges. Just this week, Mandelblit announced that he has no intention of pressing charges against Netanyahu in the submarine affair, since the prime minister had no connection to it and did not commit a crime. This infuriated the members of Blue and White, and certainly Yesh Atid. Ashkenazi and Yaalon both insisted that Netanyahu must be brought to trial in the case, and while Yaalon is part of the opposition, Gabi Ashkenazi is the foreign minister and Netanyahu’s partner in the government, which makes his position far more dramatic. The Likud party parried this blow with Amir Ohana’s call for an investigative committee to examine the Fifth Dimension affair, an old scandal in which the police force allegedly paid a large sum of money to a businessman by the name of Benny Gantz (currently the Minister of Defense) for a particular service, without taking bids from his competitors as required by law. Such is the relationship between the two partners in our government….
Eighty MKs Support Peace
Last Thursday, the Knesset held a special session to discuss the peace agreement with the United Arab Emirates. A record number of 110 ministers, deputy ministers, and members of the Knesset registered to speak at the event. Prime Minister Netanyahu opened the discussion, as well as delivering the closing address. He crossed swords several times during the day with members of the opposition, although most of the opposition hailed him for the accomplishment. At the end of the day, the peace agreement was approved by a majority vote of 80 to 13. The 13 opponents were the members of the Arab List, who voted against the treaty in an act of indescribable gall.
Just to give you a taste of their attitude, here is an excerpt from the speech delivered by Heba Yazbak, a militant Arab woman who is a member of the Knesset: “Look what praises Netanyahu has received today from the entire political spectrum, from everyone! When it comes to whitewashing the occupation, there is a consensus; there is unity. No one veers to the left; it is only to the right, to the right, and further to the right. Amazing! You know, I am in favor of a peace agreement; I am in favor of a just peace agreement that will end the occupation, of true peace that will remove the siege of Gaza, of peace that will not allow the continued violation of the human rights of Palestinians…. In short, the kind of peace that isn’t synonymous with oppression, militarism, and apartheid. What are all these agreements worth if they don’t contain a drop of morality? There isn’t a single drop of morality in this agreement. What are these agreements worth if they aren’t based on values of justice, if there is no promise of liberty and freedom for oppressed peoples, who have been ruled for many years by an oppressive occupying regime?” There was more, but you get the gist….
Even President Trump, if he had been present in the Knesset, would have blushed upon hearing the praises lavished upon him by the speakers. Benny Gantz said, for instance, “This agreement could not have been reached without the leadership of United States President Donald Trump and his staff, including his special advisor Jared Kushner, his ambassador, and special envoy Avi Berkowitz. The change of perspective that the American regime is leading will be forever recorded in the history books of the Middle East and the entire world.”
Uri Maklev declared, “I, too, must join in the congratulations for this important agreement, and I must praise the prime minister of Israel and the Israeli government, as well as the president of the United States and the American government, which is a government of kindness toward the Jewish nation and the State of Israel itself. Without getting into politics, we hope and pray that this atmosphere and these policies will continue. But to my chagrin, alongside our joy and satisfaction over this agreement, there is a bitter taste, a painful taste that clouds the occasion. There is peace between nations, and past hostilities have faded away—and it is no simple matter for there to be a possibility of peace between these peoples—but where is the peace within our nation itself? The dissension is especially visible at this time, and peace is especially important at this time.”
Yitzchok Pindrus remarked, “We see our ally, the United States, and President Trump, who takes pride in his faith and repeats it time after time. Sometimes, we even find ourselves embarrassed by the frequency with which he mentions faith, while some people here make less mention of it, but he speaks of it with great pride.”
Rav Ovadiah Yosef’s Parable
I must also quote MK Moshe Arbel, whom you certainly remember, who cited a charming parable developed by Rav Ovadiah Yosef. “Mr. Speaker, honored minister, and my colleagues, members of the Knesset,” he began, “when the novi Yeshayahu described his vision of the end of days, he said, ‘How lovely are the feet of the herald on the mountains, announcing peace, proclaiming good, announcing salvation, saying to Tzion: Your G-d has reigned.’ Next week there will be a day of commemoration for Rav Ovadiah Yosef, zecher tzaddik v’kadosh l’vrachah. The rov used to raise a question about this possuk: Why does the novi describe the future geulah as taking place in multiple stages—first announcing peace, then proclaiming good, and so forth? If Hashem wants to bring the geulah, He can bring it in a moment!
“As was his way, the rov illustrated this with a parable. He told a story of a person who used to purchase a lottery ticket every week. Like most people, he usually made this purchase in vain, as he failed time and again to win anything. One week, his wife was emptying his pockets when she found the lottery ticket, and she went to check the number. Their economic situation wasn’t very good, to say the least. After checking the ticket, the man at the lotto booth said to the woman, ‘Please sit down and have a drink of water. You have won the first prize, which amounts to 40 million shekels!’
“The woman’s next step was to inform her husband of their winnings, but she was concerned about the possible effect on his heart. She asked her neighbor, who was a psychologist, to take care of the job for her. The psychologist began by asking the husband a few questions. ‘My dear neighbor,’ he said, ‘if I were to tell you that you had won 100,000 shekels in the lottery, what would you do?’ The man described a particular car that he would buy. The psychologist went on to ask the same question again, raising the sum repeatedly. ‘If you won 500,000 shekels, what would you do?’ The man replied that he would pay off his mortgage. ‘And what if you won a million shekels?’ the neighbor persisted. ‘I would buy a small business in addition,’ the husband said.
“Finally, the psychologist asked, ‘What if I told you that you had won the first prize of 40 million shekels? What would you do then?’
“The neighbor stood up, grasped the psychologist’s hand, and said to him, ‘I take a vow that I would give 20 million shekels to you and keep the other 20 million for myself.’
“The psychologist fainted on the spot!” Arbel continued.
The message of the story is clear. “We all want good things,” Arbel said, “but we aren’t always capable of receiving all the light at once. It has to come in stages.”
On Monday, I was present at the purportedly festive opening of the Knesset’s winter session. A large arrangement of flowers had been placed in the Knesset in honor of the occasion, but there was very little to celebrate. As usual, the top officials addressed the parliament: Yariv Levin, the Knesset speaker; Reuven Rivlin, the president; Prime Minister Netanyahu, and Yair Lapid, the opposition leader. Chief Justice Esther Chayut sat in the VIP gallery.
The Knesset also listened to motions of no confidence in the government, and all the usual speeches were delivered. In a completely disingenuous move, Yair Lapid announced that he had come up with a novel idea: a “constructive no-confidence motion.” He explained that if his proposal was accepted, the Knesset would not dissolve and go to elections; instead, a new government would be formed immediately, with himself at its helm.
Lapid’s entire performance was an act of misdirection, since every motion of no confidence is the same! There was nothing new or different about his proposal. Several years ago, the law was changed to require a majority of 61, rather than any majority vote, to endorse a motion of no confidence. In addition, a no-confidence motion must be submitted by a group of at least 10 MKs (rather than any party of any size), and the motion must present a candidate for the office of prime minister. If the no-confidence motion is accepted by a vote of 61 Knesset members, the law states that the alternate government will immediately be formed, rather than elections being held. When Lapid boasted that he was submitting a special “constructive” no-confidence motion that would lead to the immediate formation of a new government, he was brazenly trying to hoodwink the entire Knesset. Moreover, I discovered that Lapid did not even submit a list of ministers or present himself as an alternate candidate for prime minister; instead, he relied on similar documents that he had submitted in a no-confidence motion two months earlier.
Speaking of no-confidence motions, Minister Akunis, who responded on behalf of the government, used a tactic that has been employed by several Knesset members in recent discussions. He began his speech with a statement that shocked the Knesset, only to reveal that he was quoting a different politician. Alex Kushnir did the same thing not long ago, when he made a statement disparaging large families and outraged the chareidi members of the Knesset—and then he revealed that he was quoting Prime Minister Netanyahu. In this case, Akunis announced, “I was sick with corona, and I didn’t even visit my parents.” As the other Knesset members stared at him in astonishment, he added, “That is actually an exact quote from Uri Zachi.” Zachi, a member of the Meretz party, confessed that the lockdown had saved his parents’ lives.
The Kosel Is Open Again!
Once again, the two topics that have preoccupied the Israeli public over the past week are the coronavirus and the political situation—the same two subjects that have dominated everyone’s attention for many months. Both of these issues have a common denominator: They are creating chaos and despondency. The shaky state of the government is the product of the distrust between the two “Binyomins” at its helm: Binyomin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz. And the government’s failure to quash the corona pandemic has also led to deep-seated distrust. The public in general, and the chareidi community in particular, has lost its faith in Israel’s decision makers.
It is true that the pandemic was growing progressively worse until a week ago, and the trend of infection in the chareidi community was even more pronounced. Still, there was a general sense that the authorities were too quick to pull the proverbial trigger whenever chareidim were concerned. Most of the cities that were placed under lockdown were populated by chareidim, and several of the mayors of those cities managed to have the lockdowns lifted after they presented the real facts to the government—leading one to wonder why the government didn’t examine the data closely enough in the first place.
On motzoei Shabbos, thanks to some slightly encouraging developments, the Health Ministry decided to begin its “exit plan” by loosening some of the nationwide lockdown restrictions. The new leniencies did not include cities with high infection rates such as Bnei Brak, Beitar Illit, Modiin Illit, Elad, and Rechasim, as well as the neighborhoods of Ramat Shlomo, Ramat Eshkol, Maalot Dafna, and Romema in Yerushalayim. In all of these areas, the lockdown will continue and will become even stricter. There were some highly disturbing scenes in Bnei Brak this week, including passengers being removed from buses. The anti-Netanyahu protestors advised the residents of Bnei Brak to place black flags, the symbol of their movement, on their cars, suggesting that they would enjoy free passage as long as their vehicles displayed the flags. Under other circumstances, this might have been amusing.
In the rest of the country, several of the restrictions have been loosened. Businesses that do not receive customers are now permitted to open, and takeout food may be picked up from restaurants. Day care centers and preschools for children until the age of six are permitted to operate. Nature reserves, national parks, and beaches have reopened, and citizens may now leave their homes freely. The prohibition to visit other homes has also been rescinded, provided that limits on crowding are observed. Gatherings of up to 20 people are permitted in open spaces, and up to ten people may gather in closed areas. Athletes in the major leagues are also permitted to train.
Most importantly, the Kosel plaza has been opened to the public once again. Of course, it was divided into capsules at the behest of the Health Ministry, but the main thing is that it is open to visitors. I have already seen pictures of people arriving at the Kosel and swelling with joy. For many people here in Israel, especially those who frequent the Kosel regularly, the separation was painful, and their relief at being reunited with it was palpable.
At the same time, police officers sealed the entrance to the tomb of Shimon Hatzaddik on Sunday evening. This sad situation hasn’t completely ended yet.
Phony Immigration Comes with a Price Tag
In the year 5780, Yvette the Horrible—otherwise known as Avigdor Lieberman—positioned himself as the enemy of everything holy. This was highly uncharacteristic, but we know there is a Supreme Being Who manages the world and controls the hearts of kings, ministers, and members of the Knesset alike. Lieberman has always been close to tradition. He always loves to point out that two members of his family are Shabbos observant. Suddenly, however, he became an implacable enemy of Yiddishkeit, not only in word but in deed as well, although, like Lapid, he is more a man of words than a man of action. But even negative words are unpleasant and require a response. Unfortunately, Lieberman has also influenced other members of his party who used to be much more sympathetic to chareidim, especially Oded Forer and Eli Avidar, men who are typically much more levelheaded.
On a related note, the government has begun to discover that many immigrants have been defrauding the State of Israel. They come to Israel, receive their benefits and their passports, and then leave to settle in a third country. For many of them, Israel is nothing but a way station on their journey from Russia or Ukraine to Germany, Canada, or some other destination.
Compounding this issue is the fact that many of the immigrants are not even Jewish. Some of them have forged their certificates of Jewishness. This year, Rav Yitzchak Yosef had the courage to speak about the non-Jewish immigrants who have flooded the state, sparking massive public outrage. As it turned out, the facts were on his side. The vast majority of immigrants from the former Soviet Union are indeed full-fledged non-Jews. The rest have only some Jewish ancestry.
The time has come for someone to fight back. The Knesset has a Research and Information Center whose purpose is to provide data to the members of the Knesset. Someone needs to ask this office for two reports. First, they must determine the cost to the state of the ongoing aliyah from the former Soviet Union, especially Russia. These immigrants receive not only aliyah benefits and housing but also, in many cases, stipends from the National Insurance Institute, including disability grants and single parent stipends. I predict that the country will be shocked when it discovers the staggering costs of revolving door immigration, and that Lieberman and his cronies will be silenced once and for all. The statistics regarding crime among the immigrants should also be exposed; this phenomenon is a well-known “secret” that no one seems to discuss. The crime rate among immigrants is much higher than the rate among Israelis. That is not only a stain on the country but an outright assault on its populace, not to mention a significant economic burden for the State of Israel—including the cost of housing prisoners.
With regard to the immigrants who used their time in Israel to collect benefits before leaving the country for their final destinations, this week I received a copy of an internal document signed by Penina Tamano-Shatta, the Minister of Immigrant Absorption. It began with her reporting ebulliently that “over the past two years, there has been a welcome increase in the number of Jews from the Diaspora who chose to immigrate to Israel.” The minister reported exultantly that in the year 2019, Israel received 35,000 new immigrants: 15,000 from Russia, 6,265 from Ukraine, about 3000 from America, 2,363 from France, and 663 from Ethiopia. Personally, I would have asked her to cool her enthusiasm, especially in light of the next statistic: “According to the data possessed by the Ministry of Immigration and Absorption, in the year 2019, about 25 percent of the immigrants from Russia left the country again within less than a month. Among the entire body of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, the rate is 17 percent. Among the immigrants from America and France, 5 to 7 percent leave the country shorty after their arrival.” Tamano-Shatta admits that this is a worrying trend. Yet these immigrants and their representatives in the Knesset have the gall to denigrate the chareidi public!
Moshe Gafni’s Brush with Disaster
Here are two other small yet interesting tidbits.
First, last Friday a lengthy interview with MK Moshe Gafni appeared in Yisroel HaYom. The article was fascinating, and Gafni revealed that he had experienced a major miracle: “One Shabbos, shortly before Mincha, I was in my home when I suddenly felt that I was unable to walk. I fell and hit my head on the windowsill, sustaining a gash above my eye. My wife, Chana, held my head and ordered me to remain awake and not to close my eyes…. On motzoei Shabbos, my children suggested that I should go to Ezer Mizion in Bnei Brak in order to have the gash above my eye glued shut. I wanted to go alone, but my son Eliyohu insisted on coming along. When we arrived, they told me that they wanted to perform an EKG. I protested that I had come only to treat the gash on my forehead, but they insisted on doing the test. As soon as they saw the results, they said to me, ‘You are going to the emergency room right now!’ I was brought to Maayanei HaYeshuah, where I met Dr. Zahalka, a senior doctor there with whom I am acquainted. He looked at the results and said, ‘Are these your tests results? Are you sure you didn’t exchange them with someone else’s results? According to this, you are in the middle of having a heart attack!’”
Gafni immediately had a catheterization, and some believe that the treatment saved his life.
As for my second observation, this week I happened to visit Rav Yitzchak Yosef’s office. I was surprised to discover that in addition to teaching Torah and issuing halachic rulings for Jews both in Israel and abroad, as well as overseeing dayanim, rabbonim, hechsherim, and a wealth of religious institutions, Rav Yitzchok has also placed his office at the disposal of the public, fielding numerous complaints and requests for assistance from private individuals. The staff of his office works to serve everyone who seeks their help. Every call or request they receive is documented and recorded, and the outcome is monitored. For instance, I discovered a folder filled with requests from inmates in prison. One example of many is a letter received by the rov’s office from a resident of Ramat Gan: “I would like to point out that a terrible chillul Hashem is bound to take place due to the metro tracks being dug beneath the graves of gedolei Yisroel. The plans can be found in the engineering department of the Ramat Gan municipality.”
A Timely Gift
The following is a true story about the family of a yungerman in Beit Shemesh.
In Elul, the children agreed that the family was going to buy a set of magnetic building tiles for Sukkos. These would not be ordinary tiles, of course, but a special set that could be used to construct a magnetic highway with a battery-operated car that would tirelessly travel up and down the road throughout Chol Hamoed. The entire family, from Rocheli through Yaeli, including Moishy and Yossi in the middle, eagerly counted the minutes until they could obtain their new toy. But their dream was soon shattered. First of all, the coveted toy was too expensive. Furthermore, there would be an obvious problem using the toy on Shabbos and Yom Tov. And to make matters worse, all the stores in Beit Shemesh were closed due to the lockdown, so there was nowhere for them to purchase the toy even if they could have afforded it. There was one store in Beit Shemesh, Bedek Bayit, which was accepting telephone orders and had distributed catalogs to every home. There was indeed a set of magnetic tiles in the catalog, but it wasn’t the one the children desired, and it was also too costly. To make a long story short, there would be no new magnetic toy on Sukkos—neither the expensive set with the battery-powered car nor the simple one with all the colorful squares and triangles.
Everything is min haShomayim, the children understood, and the disappointment was hardly on the level of a tragedy. Nevertheless, they found it difficult to make peace with the letdown, as did their parents.
On Thursday, the day before erev Sukkos, there was a knock at the door. The anonymous visitor did not even wait for someone to open the door; he was a courier who had a long list of addresses to visit. Instead, he left a bag at the door containing a gift for the children—a large, exquisite set of magnetic building tiles, with a miniature playground and tiny balls that rolled and slid in every direction. The toy was accompanied by a letter from the Siach Yitzchok network of kollelim, headed by the brothers Reb Shaya and Reb Menachem Levenstein, wishing the family a good Yom Tov. They added that the toy was a gift from an anonymous donor, who had asked for the recipients to daven for him to succeed in his endeavors.
The New Zman Begins