The Hellenists of Our Day
There is a minority within the State of Israel that does not like religious Jews and takes every opportunity to lash out against them. This vocal minority might be described as an “eirev rav” or, to borrow some Chanukah-related terminology, as Misyavnim. Their criticism of the chareidi community shows their own conceit, ignorance, cruelty, and folly; they resort to the lowest possible form of character assassination. Among their canards is the accusation that the chareidi parties oppose the secular core curriculum in order to maintain control over their voters. This is an allegation that should be made only by a person who is mentally disturbed. Are the chareidi citizens apes? Are they sheep? The person who made this statement has effectively accused the entire chareidi community of being weak-minded—and has actually shown that he himself possesses that very flaw.
Of course, I am referring to Yvette Lieberman, who recently commented in an interview, “The askanim of Shas and United Torah Judaism are intentionally keeping the entire chareidi community poor and uneducated. A chareidi youth will never learn mathematics or English; what are his chances of finding a respectable source of livelihood? The chareidi politicians know that as soon as a person is financially independent and isn’t reliant on stipends and gemachim, they will not be able to dictate to him how to vote!” Would you ever have imagined that any person would speak this way? This is sheer madness!
Meanwhile, the ignorance of basic Jewish concepts in many parts of this country is accompanied by sheer apathy. Take this fact, for example: Positions at the Galei Tzahal radio station are in high demand, but the criteria for acceptance of a job applicant are rigid and demanding. One of the requirements for applying for a job with Galei Tzahal is to pass a test on general knowledge. Here are some sample questions from that test: “Who is the art director of the Batsheva Dance Company? In which election campaign was Yamina headed by Ayelet Shaked? Who originated the saying, ‘I think; therefore, I am’? In what year did the Berlin Wall fall? What is the official language of Portugal?”
The absence of any questions relating to Yiddishkeit or the origins, values, and heritage of the Jewish nation is particularly glaring—unless we count the questions “Who composed the song Adon Olam?” and “Who is called the ‘Rishon Letzion’?” There is one question on the test that relates to a holiday, but it isn’t a Jewish holiday: “When is Eid al-Fitr celebrated?”
Candle Lighting at the Knesset
As you know, I work in the Knesset. There is a Chanukah candle lighting ceremony held in the Knesset as well, and in recent years, I have been deeply pained by this ceremony, which has been completely divorced from the spirit of Yiddishkeit. Last year, the theme of the ceremony was “a rainbow of cultures,” and it included performances by various singers, including a choir from Jordan. The concept of mingling different cultures is the diametric opposite of the theme of Chanukah itself. In addition, the candles were lit at the 3:00 in the afternoon, which I believe was before plag haminchah and therefore a time when one is not supposed to light a Chanukah menorah at all. Oddly, this took place when the position of Knesset speaker was held by Yuli Edelstein, who is a good man and wears a yarmulka, and is one of the regular mispallelim in the Knesset shul. (Edelstein has since become the Minister of Health.)
Today, the Knesset speaker (Yariv Levin) is not religious, and the position of director-general of the Knesset has also changed hands. In place of an immigrant from the former Soviet Union, that position is now held by a Sephardic Jew who lives in Raanana (and is a talmid of the chief rabbi of Raanana, who was invited not long ago to install a mezuzah at his home). This week, the new director-general, Sammy Baklash, sent out an invitation to the Knesset employees to attend the Chanukah candle lighting ceremony in the Knesset on Wednesday, Rosh Chodesh Teves, which was to be held at 3:55 p.m. That alone was an encouraging sign of change: The candles were to be lit at a normal, halachically acceptable time. And the guest of honor is to be Rav Shmuel Rabinovich, the rov of the Kosel.
Meanwhile, I have come across some statistics that are indicative of the general attitudes toward Judaism in Israel. This week, in an article about the Chief Rabbinate, an interesting survey was quoted. The respondents were asked if they supported or opposed the institution of civil marriage, and the results showed a surprising split: 42.2 percent of the respondents were against the idea, 44.4 percent supported it, and 13.5 percent were uncertain. In spite of the fact that the chareidi community is a small minority of the Israeli populace, and there are about a million non-Jews or possible non-Jews in the country, the general populace was evenly split on this subject. That alone should indicate that Jewish sensitivities are more prevalent in Israel today than many people realize.
The respondents were also asked about their feelings regarding public transportation on Shabbos, and the results were split again: 35.1 percent were against it, 31.3 percent were in favor, and 33.6 percent opined that every city or local government should be left to make the determination for itself. Evidently, while the political center-left pompously proclaims that the majority of Israelis wish to see public transportation operating on Shabbos, those claims are not accurate. The opponents of the idea actually outnumbered its supporters in this survey.
The Vaccines Have Arrived
The coronavirus is still dominating the headlines here in Israel, not only because the infection rate is rising but also because the Pfizer vaccine has arrived in the country, and the Food and Drug Administration of the United States has approved it. After all is said and done, Israel still follows America’s lead. The Israeli government decided that, although the vaccine first arrived here last week, it would not be administered until after the American government approved it.
In Israel, 350,000 people have contracted Covid-19 and almost 3,000 have passed away. There are 338 Covid patients in serious condition, including 103 who are on respirators. At this moment, there are 18,000 active cases of the virus in the country, and the numbers are rising. Although the infection rate was highest in the Arab sector over the past two weeks, while it was slightly lower in the chiloni sector and impressively low in chareidi circles, the numbers have now begun to rise in the chareidi community as well.
Netanyahu has pinned his hopes on the vaccine. He made sure to be present at the airport along with the Minister of Health to have his photograph taken next to the plane that delivered the vaccines, and he made some festive proclamations about the momentous nature of the occasion. The arrival of the vaccines was a stroke of good fortune for the prime minister; while Yair Lapid and his fellow opposition members have derided Netanyahu, accusing him of lying to the nation about the vaccines, the arrival of the drugs proved them wrong. Of course, we are all davening that the vaccinations will be effective.
The main question now is how the government will proceed with its campaign to inoculate the nation. For one thing, the government has decided that vaccination will not be compulsory. In addition, the first people to receive the vaccine will be medical personnel, followed by the elderly and people with medical conditions. That is, priority will go to those who would be at the highest risk of ending up on respirators if they contract the disease. After these groups have received their inoculations, the rest of the country will be able to receive the vaccine through their health insurance funds. Meanwhile, there are some people who are hesitant to take the vaccine.
Curfew Zigzagging Confuses the Public
Days ago, we were warned that there was going to be a nighttime curfew during Chanukah. Before the holiday arrived, Prime Minister Netanyahu announced sternly that we would be permitted to celebrate Chanukah only with our nuclear families; people would not be permitted to visit each other or to spend time in the homes of others. The real purpose of this was to prevent the chassidish community from holding its customary large tishen on Chanukah. The professionals whom Netanyahu consulted had told him that those tishen could be extremely dangerous. That may be true, but if it is, then it is hard to understand why the Health Ministry opposed the nighttime curfew. This is what has been confusing the public.
How do we know that the Health Ministry was opposed to the curfew? Because the ministry’s position led the attorney general to decide that he was opposed to the idea as well, since it would not stand up to scrutiny in the Supreme Court. If any citizen of Israel petitioned the court against the curfew, then the state prosecution (which would respond on behalf of the government) would not be able to defend it. Of course, the mere fact that that information was conveyed to the public was enough to invite petitions to the Supreme Court. And when the attorney general made his opinion known to the public, the members of the Coronavirus Cabinet were effectively cornered; they couldn’t possibly vote in favor of a measure that had been deemed illegal by the attorney general and the state prosecution, who considered it a violation of the rights of all Israeli citizens. Every citizen has a fundamental right to leave his home and go anywhere he chooses, whenever he sees fit. If the medial professionals felt that a curfew would help stem the spread of the disease, then the breach of civil rights could have been justified. However, once the Health Ministry opposed the measure, there was no legal justification for violating the rights of Israeli citizens.
So there was no night curfew, but the government asked all of us to exercise caution even in the absence of a curfew. (The chareidi community is continuing to take precautions, although the infection rate within the community is beginning to rise, which is very unfortunate.) Nevertheless, this entire saga, in which the government first announced a curfew and then decided at the last moment that it was illegal and could not be implemented, had a highly detrimental impact. It led the government to be viewed in a very negative light, to say the least, and it eroded a good deal of the public’s faith in the government and in its decisions.
New Peace Agreements
This week has brought us a new peace agreement, this time with Morocco. If we are beginning to become acclimated to hearing about new peace agreements, it certainly behooves us to remember that all of these accomplishments would have been viewed as miraculous just a few years ago. Once again, the agreement was brokered by President Trump.
Even before the agreement was signed, Israelis were desired guests in Morocco; however, this was entirely unofficial. While people from Israel could visit Morocco, they were not able to fly there directly, and the countries did not exchange ambassadors. Trump persuaded the Moroccan government to change its official stance by offering it a diplomatic prize. Morocco, which is ruled by King Mohammed VI, has long been fighting for global recognition of its sovereignty over the disputed Western Sahara, an expanse of land with an area of 266,000 square kilometers, which was annexed by Morocco after the Spanish withdrawal from the territory. The territory is bordered by Morocco, Mauritania, and Algeria. Most of the countries in the world have not recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over the area, but in recent months the Americans have been promoting a compromise agreement whereby they would recognize Morocco’s rule over the Western Sahara in exchange for two things: a referendum on autonomy for the residents of the area and normalization of the country’s ties with Israel. King Mohammed VI understood that he would never be able to get a better deal under a Biden administration, and therefore he agreed to Trump’s proposal. The Moroccan foreign minister, Nasser al-Bourita, has been interviewed repeatedly in the media since the peace agreement was announced. In every interview, he has emphasized that the most important component of the deal was the American recognition of the Western Sahara, which he described as a turning point.
Before we could even get used to the idea of normalization with Morocco, another peace agreement was announced, this time with Bhutan. The agreement has already been signed in India by the Israeli and Bhutanese ambassadors, establishing full diplomatic ties between the countries. It is unfortunate, though, that the signing took place on Shabbos.
Last weekend, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi spoke with his Bhutanese counterpart, Tandy Dorji, and the two settled on a date for the signing and a plan for the countries to work together in the areas of water management, agriculture, and health. Unlike other peace processes in the Middle East, this one did not involve a third country as an intermediary. The Israeli and Bhutanese delegations met each other face to face, and the Israeli ambassador to India, Ron Malka, negotiated quietly with the Bhutanese ambassador to New Delhi to lay the groundwork for the deal. Bhutan is a small country, but it still occupies a larger area than the State of Israel; it has an area of 38,000 square kilometers, in contrast to Israel’s 22,000 square kilometers. On the other hand, Bhutan has a population of only about 800,000. Needless to say, Netanyahu’s political enemies are hardly impressed by his string of diplomatic successes.
The View from the Army
As of this week, Aviv Kochavi, the current chief of staff of the IDF, has held his position for a full two years. In honor of the second anniversary of his appointment, he met with a group of military reporters for an off-the-record conversation. Some of his remarks, however, were cleared for publication. Like many of his predecessors, as well as many other senior officials in Israel, Kochavi is somewhat conceited. In the interview, he boasted of his accomplishments and the IDF’s might, expressing the self-assured attitude that always leaves me unsettled.
Kochavi informed his interviewers that the IDF has resumed complete coordination with the Palestinian security services to prevent terror attacks against Israel. He also revealed that the army has attacked about 500 targets this year, aside from its many clandestine operations. According to the chief of staff, the most significant change in the nature of military operations this year was in the realm of cyber warfare, in which the IDF conducted numerous offensives. He also asserted that the IDF has succeeded in its primary mission: to provide protection and security for Israel. “We prevented attempts to infiltrate the State of Israel, and we have seen a reduction in casualties and rocket fire into Israel,” he said. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem to occur to him to use phrases such as “boruch Hashem” or “b’chasdei Shomayim” in conjunction with these developments.
The chief of staff explained that Israel operates intensively on six different fronts. Some require daily operations, while others require the army to operate only on a weekly or monthly basis. One of the main challenges facing the army, he explained, is the fact that most of the countries surrounding Israel contain areas that are not governed, which challenges the Israeli army to utilize what he described as “classic measures.” At the same time, he added that the army has been affected by the political crisis and the lack of a budget, which has stalled its plans in various areas, including the use of American aid funds, expanding the barrier to infiltrations in the north, closing the gaps in the Home Front Command’s civilian protection program, the establishment of bomb shelters, and the complete deployment of the Iron Dome. Let us just say, however, that I didn’t quite follow everything he said.
A Tragic Accident on Highway One
When something happens on Highway One, the road connecting Yerushalayim and Tel Aviv, I do not need to listen to the news in order to find out about it. (In fact, the radio in my house is never turned on.) All I need to do is look out my window. As I have mentioned in the past, my window overlooks the highway at the entrance to Yerushalayim. I can always see when Prime Minister Netanyahu is entering or leaving the city, and I have a clear view of the motorcade of every foreign dignitary visiting Yerushalayim. Whenever there is heavy traffic at the entrance to the city, I can also see it from my window. And when traffic is at a standstill, I know that something has happened.
Last Friday, shortly before Shabbos, a terrible accident took place on the highway, between Latrun and Shaar Hagai. You are probably familiar with the area; there is a gas station at Shaar Hagai, and Latrun is the next exit on the way to Tel Aviv. The accident on Friday claimed the lives of two small children: five-year-old Yedidya Chaim Jungreis of Beit El and his seven-year-old brother, Elyashiv. The boys’ uncle had been driving them to a relative’s home for Shabbos, since their mother had just given birth and was in the hospital. Another brother, Yair, was severely injured, but it was reported on Sunday that he was no longer in danger. The uncle who was driving the car was also severely wounded. We all entered Shabbos in a terrible state of sadness after hearing about this tragedy.
The heavy traffic prevented many people from reaching Yerushalayim in time for Shabbos, and a few families remained stranded on the road throughout Shabbos. These families were able to create a kiddush Hashem when they refused to allow nonobservant Jews to bring them food, blankets, and other supplies; they explained that they were not permitted to benefit from Shabbos desecration. Ultimately, the families were assisted by an Arab from Abu Ghosh.
Unfortunately, this was not the only accident last week with tragic results. Over the course of the week, a total of six people lost their lives in car accidents on the roads of Israel.
Gideon Saar’s New Party
The big news on the political front is that Gideon Saar resigned from the Likud party. Saar, who was considered a leading figure in the party, began his career as a journalist and was first elected to the Knesset in the year 2003. He has served as Minister of the Interior and as Minister of Education. His relationship with the chareidi community and its political representatives has been marked by ups and downs, but he is considered close to the chareidim today. His advancement in the Likud party was stalled because he did not receive Netanyahu’s favor.
In 2014, Saar announced that he had decided to take a break from political life, for reasons that were not clear. In April 2017, he announced that he planned to return to politics and to the Likud party. In November 2019, Saar called on Netanyahu to resign from his position as head of the Likud party due to his failure to form a government; Saar maintained that another election would not change that situation. In the Likud party’s internal primaries, he ran against Netanyahu and lost. Nevertheless, he received 27 percent of the vote (in contrast to Netanyahu’s 72 percent), which surprised many people and likely caused his own ego to become inflated. Netanyahu responded to Saar’s threat to his authority by refusing to appoint him to a ministerial position in the current government. Saar was relegated to a backseat role in the party, which seems to have left him stewing in frustration. Last week, he announced that he had decided to resign from the Likud party and to run on a separate list in the next election. He also vowed not to sit in a government under Netanyahu. In other words, in spite of his alignment with the political right, Saar appears to have joined the “anyone but Bibi” camp. To his credit, he has already resigned from the Knesset, demonstrating that he has no intention of holding on to a seat in the legislature that isn’t rightfully his.
Saar’s decision may seem like a political bombshell, but Netanyahu is projecting an air of cool indifference. The Likud party has attacked Saar for his move, but Netanyahu hasn’t personally responded. As far as the chareidi parties and the political right are concerned, it makes little difference, since Saar is expected to usurp mandates from Yesh Atid, Yamina, and Blue and White. In fact, his party may even benefit the right-wing bloc. The general hope is that when the time comes, Saar will join forces with the right, regardless of his earlier proclamations. But as you can see, Israel’s political world always generates plenty of exciting news.
The Potential of Zos Chanukah
It is always a pleasure to walk in the streets of Yerushalayim on Chanukah and to see the many menorahs positioned in windows or doorways. Those flickering flames are the signs of Klal Yisroel’s greatness, of our people’s dedication to their Creator.
There is something special about Chanukah, something exalted and elevated that I do not know how to express. The oil, the candles, and the flames are accompanied by powerful emotions that stir in our hearts. We give thanks for the miracles and wonders that we experienced long ago, and we are reminded to thank and praise Hashem every day for every breath we take. The candlelight in windows throughout Israel represents the true face of Klal Yisroel; the distorted picture of our nation presented in the media bears no resemblance to what we truly are.
This week, a newspaper article quoted a survey that found that the majority of the Israeli population, more than 74 percent of all Israelis, lights Chanukah candles. Personally, I didn’t need a survey to tell me that; I can see it for myself.
In advance of Chanukah, one of the religious members of the Knesset distributed copies of a pamphlet titled “Seder Hadlokas Neiros Chanukah.” In the introduction, the Abir Yaakov (Abuchatzeirah) quotes the Ruzhiner Rebbe: “The Rebbe of Ruzhin used to say that anything that the tzaddikim can elicit from Hashem on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur can also be achieved by an ordinary Jew on Zos Chanukah.”
At the same time, Chanukah has also given me reason to bemoan the state of our people. Upon reading about the Chanukah celebration in the White House, I found it impossible not to draw a contrast to the behavior of the heads of state in Israel. Unfortunately, that comparison did not reflect very positively on the Israeli leaders. I also noted that President Trump sent out a letter in which he declared, “My family and I send our warmest greetings to the millions of Jews in the United States and throughout the world as they begin the holiday of Chanukah and the miracle that kept the flames of the menorah burning in their Temple for eight nights. The candle-lighting tradition that began over 2,000 years ago is rooted in perseverance and faith—two virtues that are indicative of the Jewish culture and the Jewish faith.”
Joe Biden also issued Chanukah greetings to the Jewish people in America and throughout the world; however, his greetings were somewhat less warm and friendly. Presumably, the person who wrote the text felt less of a connection to the Jewish people. But what I noticed most acutely was the blatant difference between Trump’s attitude toward Chanukah and that of Israel’s prime minister, Binyomin Netanyahu.
The Budget Deadline Looms
Meanwhile, we are still living with the threat of the imminent collapse of the government. The relationship between Netanyahu and Gantz—and, by extension, between their respective parties—is on the rocks, and each is blaming the other for the breakdown in their ties. Netanyahu has complained that there has never been another situation anywhere in the world, and certainly not in Israel, in which a person who was a full-fledged partner in the government and a member of the coalition worked constantly to call for early elections. Gantz, for his part, has thrown every imaginable accusation at Netanyahu, especially the claim that the prime minister lied to him all along and never truly intended to cede the office of prime minister to him in November 2021. This week, Gantz announced, “After the next election, Netanyahu will no longer be prime minister.” These are harsh words, coming as they are from Netanyahu’s partner in the government.
I am sure you remember that a bill to dissolve the Knesset passed its initial reading two weeks ago, with the support of Blue and White. If the Blue and White party hadn’t voted in favor of the bill, it would have been scrapped immediately. After 61 members of the Knesset voted in favor of the bill, it was transferred to the Knesset Committee (which is headed by Eitan Ginzburg of Blue and White) for further discussion and then was approved in advance of its first reading. Presumably, the bill will be brought to a vote again this week and will be approved once again. This won’t be the final vote, but it would be a significant step, and it wouldn’t take more than a week for the bill to pass its second and third readings as well. As long as the Blue and White party remains in favor of the proposal, there will be a clear majority supporting it. And once this proposal makes it through the entire legislative process, the Knesset will dissolve and the country will head into another election. This is a bit of a strange move for Blue and White, though, since the polls have predicted that the party will suffer devastating losses in the next election.
At the same time, it may not be necessary for anyone to do anything out of the ordinary to bring down the government, since the Knesset will dissolve in any event if the budget is not passed before next Wednesday. This is required by law, and the members of Blue and White might prefer to see the Knesset disband for that reason rather than through the passage of their proposal; if that happens, Gantz can blame Netanyahu for the government’s dissolution and for reneging on his promise to pass the budget.
At the same time, Netanyahu might surprise us all by passing the budget after all. If he does that, then he will take away the opportunity for anyone to blame him for moving up the election. And most pundits believe that that is precisely the maneuver that Netanyahu will make.
Freed from Captivity
Forty years ago, shortly before Chanukah, the Jewish world mourned the passing of Rav Yitzchok Hutner, the master of machshovah and author of Pachad Yitzchok. This week, while I was searching through newspapers from that period for information about Rav Hutner, I came across an unrelated item that caught my attention: “Rabbi Meir Deutsch, a Breslover chosid from Yerushalayim, was released from imprisonment in the Soviet Union and arrived in Vienna on erev Shabbos. Rabbi Deutsch had traveled to the Soviet Union to daven at the kever of Rebbe Nachman of Bresolv for his mother to recover from an illness. Upon his arrival in Kiev, he was interrogated and arrested on the charge of using an American passport that was not his own. At the family’s request, the Israeli foreign ministry began intensive efforts to bring about his speedy release. The foreign minister of Israel, Mr. Yitzchok Shamir, was asked by MK Menachem Porush to intervene. Shamir spoke with the Dutch foreign minister about the subject during their meeting in Amsterdam several weeks ago. At the request of MK Porush, many people throughout the Jewish world leapt into action, including the chief rabbis of England and France; the president of Agudas Yisroel of America, Rabbi Moshe Sherer; Rabbi Arthur Shnier and Rabbi Pinchos Teitz of Elizabeth; and many others both in Europe and in the United States. One of the people whom Rabbi Porush recruited for this cause was Dr. Nochum Goldman. With his assistance, the family met with MKs Meir Vilner and Tawfik Toubi [who were members of the Jewish-Arab Communist List], who used their ties in Moscow to explain the situation and to expedite his release.”
On Chanukah, an article was published that reported on Rabbi Deutsch’s return to his home in Yerushalayim. He was quoted expressing his thanks to everyone who had assisted him. “I would like to add a special thanks to the government of the Soviet Union,” he added. “May we all be zocheh to the complete geulah.” Deutsch also voiced his objection to the fact that the Neturei Karta had announced that he had asked them to seek the help of Yasser Arafat. “This is absolutely untrue,” he insisted. “The person who made that claim is mentally disturbed!”
Rabbi Meir Deutsch was my neighbor and good friend. He passed away recently after contracting Covid and the entire neighborhood of Givat Shaul was plunged into mourning after his death. He was one of the luminaries of our neighborhood, a prodigious baal chessed and outstanding talmid chochom, who was one of the most prominent participants in Rav Eliyohu Yitzchok Pincus’s shiur on daf yomi. It is a loss that we all mourn.
The Hellenists of Our Day