The Pain of Losing Tzaddikim
This time, it will not be easy to write about our experiences over the past week. First of all, we have lost two of our venerable gedolei hador, Rav Meshullam Dovid Soloveichik and Rav Yitzchok Scheiner. Chazal teach us that the loss of tzaddikim is even more painful than the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash. Our tzaddikim protect us; when a tzaddik passes away, we truly feel that another brick has fallen out of the walls that give us shelter.
The levayos also brought us face to face once again with the challenges posed by the coronavirus. It was a foregone conclusion that the two massive levayos would be seized as a pretext to attack the religious community. On Sunday, while Rav Dovid Soloveichik’s levayah was ending and before Rav Scheiner’s levayah had begun, the Knesset was holding a special session; it would not be an exaggeration to say that at least half the speakers mentioned the huge levayos and decried the massive crowds.
Some people argued with me directly, and I tried to defend the participants. “Above all,” I demanded, “why haven’t you uttered a word of protest about the demonstrations on Rechov Balfour?”
In my view, the mass demonstrations against the prime minister on Rechov Balfour—where the protestors do not observe any of the rules to prevent the spread of coronavirus—are very significant in this context. Why are people allowed to stage protests at all? Because when a person is pained by something, he has a fundamental right to go out to the street and cry out about it. Depriving a person of that right is a violation of his basic entitlements as a member of society. Well, the pain that we feel after the passing of gedolei Yisroel is far more intense than the anguish that these demonstrators feel because Bibi has remained the prime minister. Depriving the chareidi community of the right to give voice to that pain is therefore a violation of their basic rights.
Why Does the Law Permit Demonstrations, After All?
Forgive me for harping on this point, but I knew as soon as the levayos took place that the media would soon be carrying pictures of the massive crowds, and I found it infuriating. On the night after the levayah, every news program began with aerial shots of the crowds, accompanied by the dramatic proclamation that “this funeral has brought mass violations committed by the chareidi community.” Of course, there was also an interview with a police official, Assistant Commissioner Ofer Shomer, who was berated by the reporter for the fact that the police did nothing to prevent the crowding. I must wonder what he wanted the police to do. Beat the participants? Spray water on them? Shomer explained that the issue had been discussed in advance and the attendance was cut to one third the size of the expected crowd, as many buses from other cities were intercepted on their way to Yerushalayim. Still, I could guarantee that this would not satisfy the media, and the story would dominate the news for the next two days as well.
The chareidi community’s detractors have only one argument to make against my comparison: The right to demonstrate is anchored in a law passed by the Knesset, while a levayah has no such legal validity. That is their only argument; there is no other conceivable difference between the two phenomena. Every motzoei Shabbos, thousands of people arrive on Rechov Balfour for the demonstrations, none of them wearing masks. The police do not ticket the protestors, and no one utters a peep. The media even encourages them. And there is only one reason the protests are accepted: They are against Netanyahu!
What is the answer to this argument? First of all, the coronavirus doesn’t exactly know the law. It infects its victims regardless of whether the law allows them to gather, so the law permitting demonstrations has no bearing on the public health. Besides, the very fact that protests are legal and levayos are not is infuriating. It is pure discrimination!
Kisch Calls Out Hypocrisy
The only person who called out the hypocrites in the Knesset was Yoav Kisch, the Deputy Minister of Health. He first voiced his objections to the massive levayah. But after he said that, he turned to the left-wing parties and Yisroel Beiteinu and shouted, “You are hypocrites! There is no difference between the protestors on Balfour and the people who attended the levayah, but it is only the levayah that bothers you. Why? Because they are chareidim!”
“But the law allows protests!” a few of his listeners shouted.
“And do you know why the law allows protests?” Kisch shot back. “Because Avi Nissenkorn, who was the Minister of Justice, insisted on permitting them. He threw everything away for this law, and I said to him, ‘Avi, this is going to cost lives!’ And he replied that it didn’t matter. You are hypocrites! You blame only the chareidi community, because of your hypocrisy. If you condemn the funerals, then you should condemn the protests as well. Don’t be populists, don’t be hypocritical, and don’t be racists. Don’t be anti-Semitic against the chareidim.”
“Don’t go off topic!” someone shouted. (The actual topic of discussion was the closure of the airport.) But Kisch was not deterred. “I had a response prepared,” he said, “but when I see this hypocrisy, and when I see the populist Yair Lapid calling on people to go to the protests at Balfour—protests where the virus infects people exactly as it does at the levayah that we saw today—I cannot help but tell you the truth. You are hypocrites!”
Hate in the Press
Of course, this leads directly to our next topic: We are living through one of the worst periods of incitement against chareidim in the history of the State of Israel. Of course, this isn’t unprecedented. There were times in the past when boys with yarmulkes and peyos couldn’t appear in the streets without being harassed. There were times when passersby would shout at chareidim in the streets and assault them and their children. We had thought that these images had disappeared from our world, but it seems that we were wrong. Hatred of Yiddishkeit and religious Jews is rampant in Israel today.
The secular newspapers in Israel carry articles dripping with venomous invective. They write that the time has come to put an end to what they call “chareidi autonomy,” and they call the chareidi community “a state within a state.” But while there are people within the chareidi community who break the laws, the percentage is no greater than in the general public, and possibly even lower. Every day, there are reports of large gatherings and parties taking place in violation of the law, often attended by people with active and verified cases of coronavirus. But somehow, the secular media does not make much of a fuss over these incidents. The phenomenon is mentioned in a forgiving tone, and the editors write opinion pieces explaining that the public has lost faith in the government’s decisions. But when the offenders are chareidim, when someone discovers a wedding with a handful of guests, the articles in the newspapers take on a different tone entirely; they become vicious, hateful, and unforgiving. The reason is clear: They simple despise chareidim. All they need is the slightest pretext, and all their preconceived notions and pent-up hatred come pouring out.
The caricatures that appear in the press are heartrending. The way they depict the gedolei Yisroel is like a knife in our collective heart, but there is nothing we can do about it. There are also some cynical cartoons that seek to play on the sensitivities of the chiloni public. One recent image showed a chiloni carrying a chareidi on his back and implied that the man had already borne the weight of several others. This material certainly has an impact, and the hatred has penetrated many hearts and minds. And once again, there is nothing that the chareidi community can do about it.
The Bus Arson
That isn’t to say that the chareidi community doesn’t try to defend itself against defamation. This isn’t even a matter of pride; this incitement has the potential to cost lives. But the voices of protest are often drowned out in a sea of despicable editorials, articles, speeches, and caricatures. Two weeks ago, however, the chareidim managed to score a modest achievement in the aftermath of the bus arson in Bnei Brak.
The episode began with a demonstration in Bnei Brak. A couple of police officers in civilian clothes had been attacked by a group of chareidim (who say they didn’t know that the officers were policemen). In response, hundreds of police officers stormed Bnei Brak on Thursday night, which caused hundreds of chareidim to take to the streets to protest against the violent rampage. Garbage dumpsters were set on fire in the streets, which is something that rarely happens in Bnei Brak. The tensions reached a peak when a bus was set on fire.
The bus burned for many hours, since the fire department in Bnei Brak refused to come to the scene and douse the flames. Fearing for their lives, the residents of the surrounding buildings pleaded with the firefighters to come, as the shutters in their homes melted from the heat. But the fire trucks did not show up. You can only imagine how severely this incident damaged the chareidi community’s public image. Pictures of the burning bus featured prominently throughout the media.
After these horrific pictures were released, a group of people decided to take action. They informed the secular media of the simple truth: The vandals who had set fire to the garbage bins and had dragged them into the street, and who had lit the fire that consumed the bus, were not residents of Bnei Brak. In fact, they weren’t chareidim at all; they did not wear yarmulkes. This was confirmed by footage from the security cameras that captured the incident. MK Moshe Gafni mentioned this point in an excellent speech. Within a day or two, that particular conflagration had been snuffed out. The chiloni media realized that it was a libel, and the reports stopped immediately. But this type of thing doesn’t happen often. In the vast majority of cases, even the most disgraceful lies against the chareidi community continue reverberating long after they are first hatched.
An Emergency Meeting of the Knesset
Is it the upcoming election that is causing tensions in Israel to heat up? That is almost certainly the case. We can see that political considerations are affecting every decision made by the government, even the extension of the nationwide lockdown and the increase in the fines for coronavirus violations.
Let me explain. The Coronavirus Cabinet has made two decisions: to extend the lockdown and to hike up the fines for violations of the rules. The increase in the fines was highly controversial, since the Arabs and the chareidim argued that it made for selective enforcement. The Blue and White party decided to use the issue as a bargaining chip: If the government refused to increase the fines, they would not agree to extend the lockdown.
Both of these measures had to be approved by the cabinet and then by the Knesset. The Knesset vote did not pose a problem; there was a majority in favor of the decision even without the participation of Blue and White, since most of the Knesset members (aside from the chareidim, who planned to absent themselves from the vote, and the Arabs, who planned to vote against it) were in favor of increasing the fines and prolonging the lockdown. But Blue and White refused to allow the issue to be brought up in the cabinet, and since they are partners in the government and the Likud is still “stuck” with them, they had the power to veto it.
Thus began a game of cat and mouse between the Likud and Blue and White. It was primarily a conflict between Benny Gantz and his right-hand man in the Knesset, Eitan Ginsburg, and two Likud figures, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein and Knesset speaker Yariv Levin. A Knesset sitting was scheduled at first for last Thursday—which was highly unusual, since the Knesset was in recess and generally does not meet on Thursdays at all—but the Arabs torpedoed it. According to the rules, an urgent Knesset sitting cannot be called during a recess unless all the parties agree to it. The Arab legislators claimed that the Arab sector has been mistreated. They were ultimately convinced to allow the Knesset to meet, even though they were opposed to raising the fines, and the Knesset met this Sunday.
One of the speakers was MK Oded Forer, who is a bit of an enigma; he always keeps a yarmulke in his pocket and helps complete minyanim in the Knesset shul, yet he also talks exactly like his boss, Yvette Lieberman. Forer spoke about Rav Chaim of Brisk, remarking that he had refused to permit a memorial service for Theodor Herzl to be held in the shul in Brisk—and that the locks of the shul were broken by the fathers of Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon (Scheinerman).
Levin Slams Gantz
Of course, the measures were passed in the Knesset. The chareidi parties, both UTJ and Shas, boycotted the debate, refusing to vote or to address the Knesset when they were called. They had no interest in protesting the hike or in explaining their position. Apparently, they had reached the limits of their tolerance. With my inside perspective, I can tell you that the lawmakers are tired of the prejudice and persecution that is their daily lot. How long can they continue being hated and reviled? What does Israel’s secular society want from them?
One of the first speakers was Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz, who took the podium to present the Blue and White party’s position. Before he could begin, the Knesset speaker, Yariv Levin, had a few choice words for him.
From his seat, Levin announced, “It isn’t a secret that I show you [Gantz] the respect that you deserve. That is certainly the way it should be, especially from my place as the Knesset speaker. But I think that you have failed. You have failed miserably to preserve the honor and dignity of the Knesset in the most basic sense. It is unheard of for anyone to place an ultimatum on my desk during a Knesset recess as you have done.
“I was asked to convene the Knesset last Thursday without any advance warning, on a day when the Knesset generally does not meet—and during a recess, when it was clear that some of the Knesset members would not be able to come. As the Speaker of the Knesset, I was faced with the challenge of you grasping the citizens of Israel and the Knesset by the throat and threatening to create a situation in which the coronavirus would spread unchecked. I was aware of your concern that the bill would not pass, and that is why I made the offer that I did…. Unfortunately, you rejected even that offer, which would have preserved the dignity of the Knesset and its protocols, and the things that I believed were no less important to you than to the rest of us, including the rights of the minority. I felt that it was wrong to exploit the Knesset for a political squabble. Unfortunately, I did not receive an answer from you. But I am happy to say that while you didn’t understand this, all the other party leaders understood it, including the parties that are opposed to the law itself and went beyond the call of duty to permit the Knesset to meet, to prevent the lockdown from being used as a bargaining chip in a cynical political game.”
Benny Gantz stood at the podium and listened in shock as Levin excoriated him. Finally, he responded, “That was a defamatory speech, which we do not expect of you. How is it possible that the Likud party, of which you are one of its senior members, has been blocking this process? For the past two months, this exact proposal had been prepared in the cabinet and was transferred to you, but you didn’t make sure that it would be brought to a vote in time. That is a shame.”
Appeal Against Food Vouchers for the Poor
The coronavirus is continuing to spawn dire situations. Infections are spreading and the death toll is rising, and all of that creates an atmosphere of despair. But in spite of what some might say, it isn’t really clear if the illness is more prevalent in the chareidi community.
One of the indicators cited by the Health Ministry is the ratio between the number of tests and verified coronavirus cases. For instance, if 100 people are tested in Bnei Brak and 30 are found to be positive for coronavirus, while another 100 people are tested in Herzliya and only ten of them are found to be infected, it is assumed that the situation is worse in Bnei Brak. This, however, isn’t necessarily true. It is possible that the only people who are being tested in Bnei Brak are those who are fairly certain that they are ill, while everyone in Herzliya is getting tested. Why should they do such a thing, you ask? Well, why not? And why shouldn’t people in Bnei Brak be tested if they are feeling well? Well, why should they? A chiloni in Bnei Brak might decide to be tested for no reason, just as he does many things for no reason. In the chareidi community, it is rare for people to do things without a reason. Therefore, it is possible that the chareidi communities do not have a higher prevalence of contagion; they simply test only the people who are likely to be ill. Nevertheless, we all know people who are struggling with the virus, and it is very sad.
There is something else that angered many people: Earlier in the crisis, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri pressured the government to include food vouchers for the poor in its aid package for citizens affected by the coronavirus crisis (such as the owners of small businesses that were forced to close and employees placed on unpaid leave). Poor families were defined by a criterion that could not be disputed: Any family that receives a 90 percent discount on its property tax would qualify for the vouchers. This discount is given to the most impoverished families, who must prove their financial situations to their municipalities. Those same families were to receive vouchers of several hundred shekels for food, in two or three installments. The grocery chain that would provide the vouchers was selected through a public tender. The entire plan was reviewed by the attorney general and found to be legally sound.
This benefit was slated to be given to about 300,000 families. Some of them, of course, were kollel families; most kollel yungeleit in the country receive a 90 percent discount on their property taxes. This week, a secular charitable organization—or, at least, that is what it claims to be—petitioned the Supreme Court against the food voucher program, claiming that it constituted “election fraud.” The court accepted the argument and ordered the distribution stopped.
This organization did not gain anything from preventing the distribution. It was simply the attitude of “if I can’t have it, then you can’t have it either.” The court’s ruling sparked fierce responses, but the damage has been done. The voucher program has been halted, at least for now.
Two Attempted Murders and a Bombing
The enemies of the Jews have still not forgotten us. On Sunday morning, a terrorist attempted to stab an Israeli soldier at the Gush Etzion Junction. The terrorist arrived on the scene, produced a makeshift weapon made of three knives attached to a stick, and raced toward a bus station where a soldier stood. The terrorist was shot and critically wounded by a combat soldier who was standing nearby. No one else was injured in the incident.
The soldier who neutralized the terrorist related, “I was standing at the northern hitchhiking station at the Gush Etzion Junction in order to protect the civilians there. I spotted the suspect as he walked along the road and then began rushing toward me and toward the civilians who were present, and I saw that he had taken out a knife. In response, I shot and neutralized the terrorist.” The soldier should have included two more words in his account: b’chasdei Hashem!
A similar incident took place last Tuesday, in which the terrorist was likewise neutralized (which is a polite way to say that he was killed). This time, the site was the Gitai Avishar Junction on Route 5, near Ariel. The terrorist was shot and killed on the spot, and no civilians or Israeli soldiers were injured. The incident began when the terrorist appeared at the junction and tried to attack a pair of soldiers. He focused his attack on a female soldier, whom he nearly succeeded in stabbing three times. The soldier managed to repel him with the handle of her gun, while her commander found a safe place to open fire and killed the terrorist. The two soldiers were unharmed.
There was an explosion on Friday near the Israeli embassy in New Delhi, India. It is still unclear if this was an Iranian act of revenge or something unrelated to the Israeli presence. There were no injuries and no damage was caused to the embassy building, but the incident is under investigation. It has also led Israeli embassies around the world to ramp up their security measures. The Israeli ambassador to India, Ron Malka, related that the explosion took place only a few meters from the embassy building. “We are relating to it as a terror attack, and we have entered emergency mode,” he declared. “We are always aware that we are a target for terrorists.”
After the incident, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi conferred with his Indian counterpart, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, who assured him that the Indian authorities consider themselves responsible for the safety of the embassy personnel and that they will make every effort to find the terrorists. Ajit Doval, the National Security Advisor of India, spoke with his own counterpart in Israel, Meir Ben-Shabbat, to keep him informed about the investigation.
Mergers Can Be Expected on the Left and Right
I have written a separate article about the election, but some developments need to be reported here. The most recent polls show that the right-wing bloc is in a fairly good position, while the left-wing and centrist parties do not appear to be faring very well. The greatest blow of all seems to have been delivered to the man who emerged on the scene as the new false messiah of the secular public: Ron Huldai, the mayor of Tel Aviv. In the most recent polls, Huldai has dropped to the vicinity of the electoral threshold, making it doubtful that his party will manage to enter the Knesset. The situation is apparently so bad that his erstwhile partner—Avi Nissenkorn, the former Minister of Justice, who defected from Blue and White to join Huldai—has announced his resignation from political life. Some believe that Huldai himself is about to make the same move and drop out of the race altogether. If the left-wing parties thought that they were paving the way for a new political reality in Israel, they are likely going to be disappointed.
It is most likely that all the left-wing parties will merge together: Labor, Ofer Shelach’s party, Yaron Zelika’s party, and possibly Huldai’s Yisroelim party, as well as Blue and White. All of these parties are performing very close to the electoral threshold in the polls, but if they unite, they will certainly make it into the Knesset. In fact, there is a reasonable likelihood that they could garner a decent number of votes by joining forces. If each party is close to the electoral threshold on its own, which puts each one at about four or five mandates, then they can certainly earn 15 mandates together. Of course, in order to do that, they would have to overcome plenty of personal vendettas and set a lot of egos aside.
Even an alliance wouldn’t help them actually take control of the government, though. Even if they were joined by Yair Lapid (who is polling between 13 and 19 mandates) and the Arab List (between 10 and 13 mandates), they would still fail to reach the crucial number of 61, even if Lieberman supports them. To make matters worse for them, Lieberman’s support is far from likely; as much as he hates Netanyahu, Lieberman would never join a coalition together with the Arabs—nor would they accept him. Naftoli Bennett will also definitely prefer a right-wing government over a left-wing one.
The main question, of course, is what Gideon Saar will do. This week, during a televised interview, Saar signed a document pledging that he would not join Netanyahu in the government. His actions are completely bewildering; after all, he comes from the right, as do his voters. How could he hand the keys to the government to the political left? Would he sacrifice his principles for a rotation agreement that will allow him to be prime minister for a year or two? Even if he would do that, would the Arabs agree to it? It is impossible to predict.
Of course, the right must also unite in order to succeed. Naftoli Bennett is pleased that the polls show his party receiving ten mandates, but we have already been through one election when Bennett failed to make it across the threshold after a similar early showing. The latest polls, in fact, show him dropping to four or five mandates. And Betzalel Smotrich is in a similar position. Of course, it would be best for everyone if they united, but that is unlikely, since Bennett is trying to appeal to the secular voters, while Smotrich cannot. At the very least, if Betzalel Smotrich and Otzma Yehudit reunite, the votes they receive will not be lost. That might well be the key to a right-wing government. And that is why Netanyahu is pushing for such an alliance.
By the time you read this, the final picture should be clear. On Wednesday and Thursday of this week, all the political parties in Israel must submit their final lists to the Central Elections Committee.
A Mir Connection
Let us conclude with a story of hashgocha protis.
There is a yungerman who lives in the neighborhood of Bayit Vegan in Yerushalayim. In the morning, he learns in Yeshivas Mir; during the afternoon hours, he serves as a shoel u’meishiv in a prominent yeshiva. One morning this week, he found himself in a quandary: He was davening Shacharis at a minyan that would end after his bus left for the Mir yeshiva, and he was unsure if he should remain until the end of the minyan or leave early in order to catch the bus. After some deliberation, he decided to remain until the very final Kaddish had concluded. “There was another yungerman standing next to me whom I recognized from the yeshiva,” he related. “I asked him how he was going to get there, and he told me that he planned to take a taxi. I asked if I could join him, and he replied, ‘With pleasure. Meet me in ten minutes at the end of Rechov Breuer.’
“I ran home to put away my tefillin and grab a quick breakfast,” he continued, “and as I was leaving the building, I bumped into a neighbor who also learns in Mir. He told me that he was rushing to catch the 39 bus, and I informed him about the taxi that would be leaving imminently from Rechov Breuer. We hurried there together, and the taxi arrived. Seconds later, the yungerman who had ordered it showed up. He took one look at me and my neighbor, and he began to laugh, with my neighbor following suit. I couldn’t understand what had amused them.”
The two yungeleit explained that they had been learning together every day on the bus to the yeshiva for three years. That day, they were both running late, and they were upset that their regular seder would not be able to take place. Thanks to the yungerman who had decided to remain until the end of Shacharis, they were able to learn together as usual. Beaming with pleasure, the two men learned throughout the taxi ride.
Of course, they were also pleased to split the 65-shekel fare three ways….