Knesset Disperses New Elections Set for March 23
This week, two major issues have dominated our attention. The first is the ongoing Covid pandemic, as well as the coronavirus vaccines, which have arrived and are being administered to Israeli citizens. The second is the future of this government, which seems to be losing its senses along with its legitimacy. The 23rd Knesset is coming to a rapid end. A bill to avoid the dispersal of the Knesset failed Monday night, sealing its fate.
The conflict between Blue and White and the Likud party, or between Benny Gantz and Binyomin Netanyahu, has long been public. Their relationship has been plagued by mutual distrust since the outset, and without trust it is impossible to build a country or a government. The friction between Gantz and Netanyahu has grown progressively more intense over time, especially due to the conduct of Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn of the Blue and White party, who has been incessantly antagonizing the Likud. The latest bone of contention between was Nissenkorn’s pick for the office of state prosecutor. This issue has the country hurtling toward another election.
From Benny Gantz’s perspective, the main issues of contention are the rotation agreement and the 2020 budget. If a new budget isn’t passed by this Tuesday (which will have passed by the time you read these lines), then the government will automatically fall. Gantz was also demanding the passage of a budget for 2021. As for the rotation, Gantz is demanding additional guarantees that Netanyahu will keep his end of the agreement and will cede the office of prime minister to him in November. If the two parties reach an understanding, it will have to include the stipulation that the Knesset will complete its term so that Gantz can have his turn as prime minister.
Last week, Gantz mustered up the confidence to announce that he was willing to prepare for a new election if Netanyahu refused to go along with his demands. “I formed a unity government with Netanyahu because of two different plagues: the coronavirus and the plague of division and incitement,” Gantz declared. “We will allow the government to remain in power only if it works to fight on both these fronts: to address the economic impact of the coronavirus, which cannot be done without a stable budget, and to thwart the efforts to harm democracy and to undermine the agreement between us and the Likud. There will be no compromises. I repeat to the Likud that the era of lies is over, and the time has come for actions and results. If Netanyahu violates his agreement with us time and again, and if he does not go along with us, then we will go to elections and will see to it that he does not remain prime minister. We will continue holding all the key positions and using our equal power, the likes of which no other party in the center of the political map has possessed during the past decade.” In spite of Gantz’s bluster, the pollsters expect him to suffer a devastating loss in the next election….
Like Beached Whales
All of this reminds me of Chaim Ramon’s famous speech. Ramon was one of the most prominent members of the Labor party in his day, a close associate of both Shimon Peres and Yitzchok Rabin. He once delivered a speech at a Labor party conference that has gone down in history as one of the most famous speeches ever delivered in Israel. It was known as the “whales” speech. Ramon vividly described whales crashing into the beach and thus bringing death upon themselves, without understanding what they were doing. Ramon accused his colleagues in the Labor party of mimicking the deranged behavior of those whales—rushing headlong to their own political demise.
That is precisely what is happening now. People who definitely won’t make it into the next Knesset were fighting for the current Knesset to disband, even though they are the first ones who will suffer as a result. The polls show that were the country go to elections, the Blue and White party would be crushed, and the Labor party would be wiped off the map. Yet they are rushing toward political suicide, just as the whales would rush onto the beach in a move that would end their lives. An election at this point would also be a highly unwise move for the state as a whole. We are in the middle of a health crisis the likes of which we have never experienced before—and, with Hashem’s help, we will never experience again—along with a severe economic crisis. Why should we subject ourselves to another election now? Moreover, what will the election accomplish? The balance between the right-wing and left-wing blocs isn’t likely to change! But there is no responsible adult who will put an end to this madness.
A rift developed within the Blue and White party. Some members of the party wanted to reach a compromise with the Likud, while others insisted on prolonging their adversarial relationship. When the news of the discord within Blue and White became public, the party responded with a statement denying the problem: “The false discourse in the media does not indicate the conduct of Blue and White. Internal wars are reserved for other parties; we are working together to achieve the goals of Blue and White. We will not give up on having a functioning government that preserves democracy and the rule of law, and guaranteeing the state budget to deal with the economic disaster of coronavirus. Any report or spin invented by parties with ulterior motives is the opinion of its writer alone. Enough of the lies,”
Forced Quarantine for Travelers Returning from England
Now, on to the coronavirus. First of all, the arrival of the vaccines should be a cause of celebration. Here in Israel, there is a general feeling that we have reached the beginning of the end of this horrible pandemic, which has taken so many victims. On motzoei Shabbos, Netanyahu received his injection on camera and announced, “One small shot for a pandemic, one great leap for mankind.” I am sure you are familiar with the original version of this brilliant comment….
Many other public figures went on to receive shots while the cameras rolled, including President Rivlin and Rav Yisroel Meir Lau, the current chief rabbi of Tel Aviv. Why were they inoculated in public? Because some have argued that the vaccine was approved only under pressure, that it isn’t guaranteed to be effective, and, worst of all, that it causes dangerous side effects. These public figures hope to set an example for the rest of society to brush aside those concerns.
If the chareidi community receives the vaccine, however, it won’t be due to Netanyahu’s actions on camera; it will be the result of a directive from the gedolei Yisroel.
In the meantime, the contagion rate has risen again. This time, the spike in infections is mainly within the chareidi community. Unfortunately, we are returning to the numbers that existed at the beginning of the pandemic, when the chareidi community was leading the country in infection rates. Of course, that makes for a very sad situation.
Many Israelis returning from abroad have also tested positive for the coronavirus. This is especially true of travelers returning from Turkey, which is a favored tourist destination for many Israelis, and from Dubai, which recently became a new center of Israeli tourism. It has also come to light that when travelers return to Israel, they encounter extremely long lines and an ineffective Covid testing system. Returning travelers have been able to go about their business without entering quarantine, even if they had confirmed cases of coronavirus. In recent days, the government decided to tighten its oversight of travelers. It is even considering obligating all arriving passengers, without exception, to be placed in quarantine—even if they are completely healthy, and even if they have already had the coronavirus and recovered. Netanyahu has made an even more dramatic suggestion: to shut down Ben Gurion Airport completely. On Sunday, there was a major uproar in the airport when all the passengers arriving on flights from London were sent to hotels, accompanied by police escorts.
Covid Cases in the Knesset
A bid topic of debate in Israel right now is whether the public should be forced to take the coronavirus vaccine. Ostensibly, a properly run democratic state should not coerce its citizens to do anything, even to preserve their health. For instance, I believe that the government does not have a legal right to forcibly hospitalize a person. Nevertheless, this situation may be different. If a person does not appreciate the threat posed by the coronavirus and is unwilling to participate in an effort to end the pandemic, he can be viewed as harming others. According to that argument, it would certainly be possible to force the vaccine on unwilling citizens.
For the time being, the supply of vaccines is not sufficient for the entire country. The inoculation campaign is beginning with the elderly and with people at risk. This has created enormous pressure on the health funds. At this point, every vaccine recipient is supposed to sign up with his or her health fund to receive an injection. (Israel has four health funds: Clalit, Meuchedet, Maccabi, and Leumit.) As it turns out, however, it has already become impossible to register for vaccination.
The Coronavirus Cabinet, which met on Sunday, discussed whether the vaccine should be made mandatory. The cabinet also discussed imposing heightened restrictions in response to the rising infection rate and ultimately settled on “tight restraint,” which is somewhat less stringent than a lockdown. The Health Ministry advised a complete shutdown of the retail sector, as well as the closure of parts of the school system in red and orange cities. At the previous cabinet meeting, the ministers had decided that restrictions would be imposed only if the country reached an average of 2500 new infections in a week. Unfortunately, that is precisely what is happening. The Ministry of Health announced that out of 61,962 tests performed on a single day at the end of last week, 1,866 were found to be positive. The percentage of positive tests currently stands at 3.1 percent; there are 447 COVID patients who are categorized as seriously ill, and 110 on ventilators. The total death toll since the beginning of the pandemic has reached 3,074. The cities of Bnei Brak, Elad, Beitar Illit, and Givat Zeev, along with certain neighborhoods in Yerushalayim, have been labeled red on account of the increase in infections. Likewise, the cities of Ashdod, Beit Shemesh, Chadera, Taibe, Yavneh, Petach Tikvah, and Kiryat Shemonah have turned orange.
The Ministry of Health has recommended that foreigners from Great Britain, Denmark, and South Africa should not be permitted to enter Israel. This is due to a new mutation of the coronavirus that was recently discovered and has prompted a lockdown in London and other parts of Great Britain. Israelis returning from those countries will be required to undergo coronavirus tests and to enter quarantine. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Netanyahu is urging the government to close the Israeli borders completely to visitors from anywhere in the world!
The dire situation has made itself felt in the Knesset as well. The Sergeant-at-Arms of the Knesset has announced that several new confirmed cases have surfaced there. One of the new Covid patients is the manager of the Likud party. Another is MK Yaakov Asher. Last week, MK David Biton of the Likud party contracted the virus; his condition has worsened steadily, and he is now listed in life-threatening condition. Biton’s family members asked Rav Chaim Kanievsky to daven for him, and Rav Chaim decided to bestow an additional name on him.
An Appalling Lapse in the Police Force
Two weeks ago, we were deeply pained by the news that two children had died in a tragic car accident on Route One. Last week, our society suffered yet another painful blow when we learned that a married couple, Moshe and Simcha Nizri, had died in a collision on Route 90 (the Jordan Valley Road), which is known as an extremely dangerous highway with only one lane in each direction. Moshe was a former police officer who became a baal teshuvah after his retirement and was one of the most prominent members of the religious community in Migdal HaEmek. He donated part of his home to be used as a shul, while he dedicated his own time to chessed, Torah, and spreading Yiddishkeit. The couple was returning from a vacation at the Dead Sea and was hurrying to get back to Migdal HaEmek, where their grandchildren had gathered for a Chanukah celebration. The mayor of Migdal HaEmek, Eli Barda, announced after the tragic accident that “the Migdal HaEmek family mourns the tragedy that has befallen the Nizri family, one of the most respected and founding families of the city. The residents of the city extend their embrace to the family.”
Another sad story, this one of a slightly different kind, involved the police. Two police officers came to the home of a man suffering from mental deficiencies and arrested him. He was hauled out of his house in the middle of a cold night, without shoes or appropriate clothes to protect him from the elements. After he arrived at the police station, it didn’t take long for them to realize that they had made a mistake and that the man was incapable of committing a crime. The man was quickly released … onto the street. This man is not capable of caring for himself, and he remained lying in the street for many hours while a frantic search was conducted. When he was finally found, he was suffering from hypothermia and was rushed to the hospital.
This was an act of mind-boggling negligence on the part of the police, which sparked outrage both within the chareidi community and in the secular media. The outcry led Amir Ohana, the Minister of Internal Security, to visit the man in the hospital in order to apologize to him. A high-ranking officer was also assigned to investigate the incident. But will this put an end to the shameful behavior of the Israeli police? Of course not!
Parenthetically, my sons are familiar with this man, who collects tzedokah in the vicinity of the Mir yeshiva every day. He emits such a foul odor that it is difficult even to stand near him. They insist that it should have been immediately evident that he couldn’t have harmed anyone, and that the order to arrest him had been a mistake. They also feel that the police released him because of the stench, not because they realized their error. In any event, Rav Dovid Lau, who visited Shaare Zedek Hospital in order to receive his coronavirus vaccine, went to visit the patient, along with MK Yitzchok Pindrus. Both men left the patient’s room in a state of shock.
On a similar note, police officers in Cholon arrested a young man who resides in a hostel for people with special needs. The police demanded an extension of his remand; fortunately for the detainee, the judge was wise enough to reject their request. “In light of the special situation of the suspect,” she wrote, “I did not find it appropriate to grant this request. I agree with the defense that this is a person who should not be in custody even for a single moment.” The young man suffers from autism and had been acting in an unruly fashion in his hostel, even threatening the staff. The defense attorney explained that the young man is cognitively limited and that it would have been impossible for him to act on his threats. The judge pointed out that he cannot be expected to take responsibility for himself.
In this case, the judge was intelligent and discerning. But how much longer will the Israeli public have to suffer from police officers who don’t understand how to deal with autistic people? It is the police themselves who should be overseen by professionals!
Avrohom Wolfson’s Keen Perception
Since the petirah of Avrohom “Avreimi” Wolfson last week, I have been inundated with incredible stories about him. Many people who know that I write for Yated Neeman have asked me to write more about him. These requests came from a wide range of people, including Rav Yosef Chevroni, the rosh yeshiva of Chevron; Rav Aharon Dov Freund, the director of Mosdos Bais Abba in Kiryat Sefer; Shas Deputy Minister Meshullam Nahari; and many other individuals who benefited from Avrohom’s graciousness and benevolence. Allow me to share a small sampling of the material that reached me this week.
Reb Avrohom was known for his exceptional dedication to orphans and widows. He also had a great affinity for visiting hospitals, nursing homes, and institutions for the disabled. I happen to know that he made a point of visiting the great Rav Tzvi Eliach (one of the leaders of Lev L’Achim who has suffered from paralysis for several years, and who recently had a miraculous recovery from Covid) on every one of his visits to Eretz Yisroel. This week, Rabbi Yaakov Romm, the head of Kollel Halacha L’Moshe, shared several of his own memories on that subject. The kollel, which also includes a well-known shul, is located on Rechov Sorotzkin, near Reb Avrohom Wolfson’s Israeli home. “On Tisha B’Av, he davened with us as usual,” Rabbi Romm related. “After the Kinnos, he asked me to take him to the Shomrei HaChomos facility so that he could visit a certain talmid chochom. We went there together, and I discovered that he was personally acquainted with almost all the elderly residents of the home, whom he visited at every possible opportunity. He was able to point out all the residents with numbers on their arms [i.e., all the Holocaust survivors in the home]. ‘As you certainly know, any Jew with a number on his arm is worthy of giving out brachos,’ Reb Avrohom told me…. On the way, he also called a widow in Yerushalayim to ask if she needed any help.”
Rabbi Romm, who was a close friend of Reb Avrohom and, like many others, has been devastated by his passing, went on to share another story: “One day, Reb Avrohom came over to me after davening and pointed to one of the boys who davened in the shul. ‘Is that child an orphan?’ he asked. I replied that he was. I was somewhat surprised, because the year of aveilus had already passed and the boy wasn’t reciting Kaddish. How had he known that this child was orphaned? Apparently, Reb Avrohom’s keen eye had managed to detect that the child was in pain. He asked me about the boy’s age, and I told him that he was approaching his bar mitzvah. Reb Avrohom then handed me a sum of money and told me to buy a set of Mishnayos for the boy for his bar mitzvah.
“Reb Avrohom made every effort to pursue opportunities for mitzvos and chesed,” he added. “He once asked me if he could have the privilege of lighting the menorah in the shul, so that he would be able to recite two more brachos that day.”
His final story took place in Manhattan: “We once left the Wolfson offices in Manhattan together. I was surprised when Reb Avrohom took the back elevators, which were used for deliveries, workers, and trash removal. Of course, I asked him to explain his behavior, but he tried to evade the question. Finally, he admitted that since it was the summertime, he wished to avoid using the regular elevators, where he might be exposed to immodesty.”
History Repeats Itself in France
Last week, I wrote about an article that I had discovered in an Israeli chareidi newspaper published 40 years ago. I had been searching for articles published at the time of Rav Yitzchok Hutner’s petirah, but I came across a different report that attracted my attention.
I came across another fascinating article, this one from December 1981, which bears the title, “100,000 People Protest the Spread of Anti-Semitism in France.” The body of the article reads: “Paris, Tuesday. About 100,000 people, all members of Jewish organizations, political groups, professional associations, and organizations of discharged soldiers held a march in Paris on Tuesday, as a protest against anti-Semitism and against the wave of terror attacks on ethnic background, which climaxed with an explosion near a shul in Paris on Friday night in which four men were killed. A sea of people filled the Place de la Nacion in eastern Paris, where the march began and slowly made its way toward Bastille Square. This is the traditional route for mass protests in Paris. The participants included members of the French Communist Party carrying large signs, which included demands for the resignation of President Valery Giscard d’Estaing and Interior Minister Christian Bonnet. The latter was subjected to fierce criticism for his alleged refusal to take action against what has been described as a neo-Nazi infiltration of the French police force. The protest also included representatives of Jewish youth movements whose placards announced that ‘the government is to blame’ and who accused the government of collaborating with murderers….
“A mere few hours before the march got underway,” the article continues, “the police revealed that there had been a series of additional attacks against Jews. On Tuesday evening, a firecracker was thrown at demonstrators protesting anti-Semitism in the city of Nice in the French Riviera; no one was injured. In the same city, anonymous vandals raided a Jewish-owned butcher shop and sprayed the walls with anti-Semitic graffiti. In Marseilles, the police discovered a manufactured explosive outside a Jewish-owned restaurant near the old port in the city. The bomb did not detonate. The owner of the restaurant and other Jewish business owners in the vicinity of the old port had recently received threatening letters from a neo-Nazi organization. The same group claimed responsibility for smashing the display window of a Jewish-owned clothing store in the city of Troyes in eastern France. In another city in southern France, Montpelier, about a dozen anti-Semitic incidents took place on Monday evening, and hateful graffiti was scrawled on the homes and offices of respected Jews.”
It is amazing to observe how history repeats itself, and anti-Semitism continues to rear its ugly head in France. How do you say “Eisav hates Yaakov” in French?
A Visit Before Kol Nidrei
Rav Binyomin Zev Pappenheim, the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Chemdas Moshe in Kiryat Sefer, related to me that he once spent time in Flatbush and developed a close rapport with Reb Avrohom. The two had actually known each other earlier, since Chemdas Moshe is one of the most sought-after yeshivos ketanos in Kiryat Sefer, and the demand for placement in the yeshiva every year is extremely high. On quite a few occasions, Rav Pappenheim had received calls from Reb Avrohom asking him to accept certain bochurim (mostly Sephardic boys) who hadn’t been able to secure places in any yeshiva. “I always acceded to his requests,” the rosh yeshiva related to me, “because I felt that they came from a pure place. Whenever he felt that a bochur had no recourse of his own, he would make it his personal objective to help him. He would always preface his requests by telling me that he knew that it might cost him money, but he felt obligated to ask.”
Rav Pappenheim went on to relate, “I spent a short period of time in America about five years ago, and I stayed at someone’s home in Flatbush. During the Yomim Noraim, I served as the baal tefillah at Rav Avrohom Schorr’s shul on the corner of Coney Island Avenue and Avenue J. On erev Yom Kippur, before Kol Nidrei, I had put on my kittel and was preparing to leave for shul, when I suddenly heard someone calling my name. I was astonished to find Reb Avreimi Wolfson standing outside my host’s home, holding a honey cake. ‘This is for you,’ he said, holding out the cake toward me. ‘I want you to forgive me.’
“Why did he feel the need to ask for my forgiveness? I had visited his home and had brought him a bottle of wine from Eretz Yisroel as a gift, and he had refused to accept it. He was concerned that I might still be feeling ill will as a result of that encounter. That was what was troubling him before Kol Nidrei.”
Of course, I was curious about some of the details of this story: Why had Rav Pappenheim wished to give him a bottle of wine, and why had Reb Avrohom declined the gift? The rosh yeshiva explained, “Every once in a while, I tried to make a point of showing up at his home with a gift for him. He declined the gift because his health conditions made it impossible for him to drink wine, and he didn’t think it was proper for him to accept it if he knew that he wouldn’t drink it.”
A Siyum at Rav Eliezer Yehuda Finkel’s Home
This Chanukah, I attended a deeply moving event. I happened to find out that a particular chaburah in Yeshivas Mir (one of over 200 chaburos in the botei medrash of the yeshiva) would be celebrating a siyum at the rosh yeshiva’s home.
Every year on Chanukah, there are dozens of siyumim and mesibos held in the Mir yeshiva for its talmidim—the members of its various learning programs, whether they are Israeli or foreign students, yungerleit or bochurim. A large event is also held in the dining room for all the talmidim. Chanukah is an uplifting time for all bnei Torah, and it is especially inspiring for the thousands of talmidim in this famous yeshiva. This year, however, it seemed unlikely that any such events would be held, due to the coronavirus pandemic. I decided nonetheless to find out if there would be any special events in spite of the situation, in the hope that I might be able to soak up some of the emotional impact of these days.
I became personally acquainted with this particular chaburah not long ago. It is a group of dozens of yungerleit, led by Rav Nosson Abramovsky, who spend their days immersed in the intricacies of practical halacha. Anyone who knows the distinguished Abramovsky family of rabbonim will understand the caliber of Rav Nosson’s chaburah. Every week, the chaburah puts out a small publication containing comments, chiddushim, and questions for further contemplation. The members of this chaburah inhabit an entirely different plane. In their world, center stage is occupied by the intricacies of the halachos of the brocha of hatov v’hameitiv; politics and other mundane matters are the furthest things from their minds.
The Mir yeshiva contains hundreds of chaburos, each with its own rosh chaburah, its own program of learning, its own tests and objectives, and its own yungeleit with their unique ambitions. Every chaburah features a different style of learning. A visitor to one of the botei medrash will hear the loud roar of hundreds of voices engaged in debate; he may not realize that the powerful kol Torah consists of numerous individual groups of bochurim and yungeleit, each with its own unique structure. Every group within the yeshiva is overseen by someone; every yungerman or bochur is acquainted with someone who is constantly aware of his progress and individual needs. And then there is the rosh yeshiva, who oversees this entire colossal institution, along with the other rabbeim.
Ten years ago, during the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah in the year 5771, I visited Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel’s home for the siyum held by Rav Yisroel Meir Brettler’s “amud chaburah,” of which my eldest son was a member. (That group has since become Rav Moshe Finkel’s chaburah, which is located in the Slonim bais medrash.) The chaburah had completed Maseches Bava Kamma half a year after the rest of the yeshiva. The siyum was an unforgettable experience for me; I could not tear my gaze away from Rav Nosson Tzvi himself. I do not remember much of what he said, but I will never forget the way he spoke.
Now that a decade had passed, I felt compelled to visit the yeshiva again and witness the endurance of its glory. At the siyum held at Rav Eliezer Yehuda’s home, I sensed the same elevation and witnessed the love for every yungerman. The siyum in Kislev 5781 was a remarkable echo of the event I had witnessed in Tishrei 5771. The rosh yeshiva’s living room is simple; on the wall was a photograph of Rav Nosson Tzvi, the man who had borne the full weight of the empire of Mir on his shoulders. The walls were lined with seforim, and two boxes of copies of Chidushei Rav Nochum on Bava Metzia sat in a corner.
When I arrived at two minutes after 12:30, the participants in the siyum were singing the words “mah ahavti Torasecha, kol hayom hi sichasi.” The members of the chaburah were arrayed around the table, upon which sat a tray piled high with doughnuts. The participants all wore masks and exercised all the proper precautions. They were a study in diversity: Some wore long coats while others sported jackets, they ranged from young to old, and they wore many styles of hats. But they all shared one common denominator: their drive to plumb the depths of halacha, leaving no detail unexplored. The menu included kugel and bourekas, and I imagine that the yungerleit delved into the halachic question of which food should be used to recite the brocha. On that note, Rav Nosson Abramovsky exclaimed in his speech, “A person could live for 120 years without knowing that in addition to the halacha of choviv, there is also a consideration of shaleim!”
Rav Eliezer Yehuda Finkel sat in his own “capsule.” He scanned the faces of the chaburah members, nodding at some of them and waving to others, motioning to them to help themselves to the refreshments and joining them in song. Finally, the room fell silent and he began to speak. “My father, the rosh yeshiva, always used to say that Chanukah is the holiday of bnei Torah,” he said. “On Chanukah, there was a terrible decree against the ruchniyus of every individual. The war against that decree has continued to this day…. When there is a decree against the neshomah, it isn’t enough to fast and daven. One must also perform an act of mesirus nefesh…. The great miracle of Chanukah was the revelation of the hidden light of Hashem’s presence in the midst of the people’s impurity…. The Yevonim tried to abolish the korban tamid because they knew that when we do things consistently, day after day, we cannot be defeated. That is why there is such a great imperative for us to learn with consistency and without interruption, during every available moment, and to cover every paragraph.”
When the rosh yeshiva had finished his drosha, the assembled yungeleit began to sing again. Before long, the siyum drew to an end. It was short yet memorable, just like the event I had witnessed ten years earlier. The rosh yeshiva concluded the evening with words of praise for the chaburah and its leader. “You are upholding the world during a time of miracles,” he asserted. “That is a tremendous privilege and a tremendous responsibility. We are the last link in the chain of ikvesa d’meshicha. Hold on to your strength and do not allow yourselves to weaken until the hidden light is revealed to all of us,” he told them.