Tuesday, Apr 13, 2021

My Take on the News

UTJ Rally in Bnei Brak

Once again, the top stories this week deal with the same topics as always: the coronavirus, the election, and the incitement against chareidim. Sadly, this is the reality in Israel. Netanyahu is trying to create the impression that the coronavirus crisis is behind us; in fact, he made that claim at a joint press conference with the chancellor of Austria and the prime minister of Denmark, both of whom visited Israel this week. He is also implementing policies in the country to reflect that presumption. The airport has reopened, and the Exceptions Committee has been dissolved. But just to be clear, that pertains only to arriving passengers, and only to Israeli citizens. Simcha halls have also reopened, and I have already been inundated with invitations to weddings next week. Mazel tov!

There is one piece of sad news, though. On Sunday, the government announced that the coefficient of infection in the chareidi community has jumped dramatically. I am not sure exactly what that means, but I do know that even after that massive leap, the figure is still lower in the chareidi sector than among the general public.

With regard to the election, we are entering the final stretch of the campaign. The tenth of Nissan will soon be upon us. United Torah Judaism has already woken up, and several videos were released by its public relations department. On motzoei Shabbos, its first campaign rally took place, attended by gedolei Yisroel and the party representatives. Rav Boruch Mordechai Ezrachi and Rav Dovid Cohen addressed the gathering, and Moshe Gafni spoke on behalf of the party.

The mood in Israel is somewhat dispiriting at this time. The Supreme Court’s decision to recognize Reform conversions is still ringing in our ears. We have discovered just how tenuous is the security of religious Judaism in Israel. If the chareidim do not have influence in the next government, there is no telling what may happen. There are still other issues hanging in the balance, such as the future of the Kosel and the draft law. We certainly need Hashem’s mercy.

Netanyahu’s Campaign Is in Full Gear

Netanyahu is also showing signs of apprehension. In addition to touring the cities of Israel, he has begun dedicating every spare moment to conversations with Israeli citizens. He has instructed his staff to organize three or four rallies every day, in locations as diverse as Netanya, Beer Sheva, and the Arab village of Rahat.

Netanyahu has adopted a simple strategy: He intends to reinforce the perception that there is only one other contender for the office of prime minister, and that is Yair Lapid—and that Lapid is a leftist. Lapid has been gaining strength in the polls as a result, but Netanyahu calculates that this tactic will keep him in office as prime minister. He knows that Lapid’s mandates will come at the expense of Gideon Saar and Naftoli Bennett; Yesh Atid will not draw any voters away from the Likud. Most of the voters who support Saar and Bennett are backing the “anyone but Bibi” camp; by strengthening Lapid, Netanyahu is therefore weakening his other opponents. If Bennett and Saar are reduced in strength, then they will have no choice but to join the right wing after the election. After all, if it comes down to a choice between Netanyahu and Lapid for prime minister, Gideon Saar will find it very hard to support Lapid, and Bennett will find it almost impossible, though don’t put it past them.

The picture would be very different if Saar himself, for instance, ends up with enough mandates to be a viable candidate for prime minister with the support of Lapid and the left. That is a feasible scenario, and Saar certainly wouldn’t mind taking the premiership for himself with the backing of the left.

In any event, Netanyahu has launched a propaganda blitz, which includes a chart contrasting his own accomplishments with those of Lapid. It is an incredible piece of propaganda, which lists their respective records in the military (where Lapid was a magazine correspondent while Netanyahu served in the Sayeret Matkal), higher education (Lapid hasn’t even completed the Bagrut matriculation exams), and foreign affairs. The differences between them are enormous.

Meanwhile, the prime minister is projecting the sense that business is continuing as usual. He hosted the prime minister of Denmark and the chancellor of Austria, both of whom praised him effusively for all of his accomplishments, especially in the fight against corona. Both leaders are known to be sworn adherents of Netanyahu. And in case you are interested, Netanyahu also had a conversation with Kamala Harris.

The Left Will Try to Woo Bennett

Fearing that Naftoli Bennett will ultimately join the right—as Netanyahu hopes—the left-wing bloc has come up with a new idea, which was announced on Sunday: offering Bennett the first rotation as prime minister. They believe that this temptation will outweigh Bennett’s hesitance to betray his right-wing voter base. Will this work? Personally, I am not sure that the left will be capable of unifying themselves enough to offer Bennett the office of prime minister, which would require the consent of Lieberman, Meretz, Saar, and Yair Lapid, with his enormous ego. Besides, most of Bennett’s voters wouldn’t allow him to take that step. And even some of the Knesset members from Bennett’s own party, Yamina, would refuse to follow him if he accepted an alliance with the left.

What is most important is that most of the polls are currently predicting—if we can rely on them—that the right, together with Bennett, will reach the threshold of 61 mandates. If Bennett refuses to join the coalition, things will be much harder. The Likud, the chareidim, and Betzalel Smotrich are expected to come very close to the minimum threshold of 61; if a miracle takes place, they might even reach it on their own. (The chareidim are davening for Smotrich to pass the electoral threshold, even if it means losing some of their own voters to him). But if Bennett is included in the alliance, then Netanyahu will certainly have the critical mass of 61 mandates.

For now, we must daven.

The Police Reveal Their Ignorance

In a separate article in this newspaper, I discussed the response of United Torah Judaism to the trumped-up report released by Channel 12 claiming that chareidim were manipulating the government’s Exceptions Committee. It is highly unusual for UTJ to issue a written statement to the press, and this one was even more unusual, since it addressed several topics at once.

The impetus for this statement was the fact that several issues arose, none of which could be allowed to pass in silence. The first was the Supreme Court decision on Reform conversions, and the second was the bogus news story that stirred up terrible hostility to chareidim. It was impossible to let the incident go unchallenged, especially since the reporters seemed to feel that they could slander the chareidi community without paying a price.

The third issue that gave rise to this unusual move was the behavior of the police and the Coronavirus Cabinet toward the chareidi community on Purim. I wrote about this subject last week, and I explained that the real injustice wasn’t the decision to impose limitations on travel, but the fact that they announced it only a few minutes before Shabbos on Purim itself. This last-minute decision prevented many Yerushalayim residents who had traveled to Bnei Brak for Shabbos from returning home on motzoei Shabbos. Without any warning, the government suddenly suspended all public transportation into the city on motzoei Shabbos and on Sunday morning. Private buses and cars were barred from entering Yerushalayim. The outrage with which this decision was met was entirely understandable. And the police officers stationed on the highway committed blatant acts of discrimination; chareidi motorists were ordered to turn around, while chilonim were permitted to enter Yerushalayim in their cars.

After the events of Purim, an internal document that had circulated within the police force came to light. The document, which contains instructions for police officers on Purim, includes an explanation of the holiday of Purim and the various events held by chareidim in honor of the occasion. Among other things, the document “explains” that the megillah would be read on Thursday night this year even in Yerushalayim, and that some chareidim have the custom of drinking to the point of inebriation when the megillah is read….

This document was a testament to the ignorance of the police force on Jewish matters, which may well account for many aspects of their treatment of the chareidi community.

An Unprecedented Statement from UTJ

This brings us to the fairly long statement issued by UTJ, which I will quote here in slightly abridged form:

“The members of the United Torah Judaism party convened today (Wednesday, March 3, 2021) for a special conference following the Supreme Court ruling on giyur and the continued abuse of the chareidi community by the Israel Police and the Coronavirus Cabinet. The United Torah Judaism party declares that it will consult with the gedolei Torah about its continued collaboration with the government and the Coronavirus Cabinet, whose decisions have been slanted against the chareidi community time and again, including the current concerns of a lockdown on the holiday of Pesach. The party is very hesitant to sever that connection; at this time, it is only a threat. UTJ feels that the decisions of the government and the Coronavirus Cabinet are abusive toward the chareidi public and ignore its needs due to the biases of the media and the incitement against the chareidi community, and it views this phenomenon with severity.

“At the same time, the party has decided to sever its ties with correspondents and media outlets that release false or biased ‘reports’ against the chareidi community.

“UTJ will refuse to collaborate with the Israel Police, and it asks all the chareidi heads of local governments to follow suit, until the police force apologizes for the false report that claimed that thousands of chareidim drink to the point of intoxication during the megillah reading and hold tishim in Beit Shemesh on Shushan Purim. Based on this false report, with its clear agenda, the decision was made to harass the chareidi community on Shushan Purim. The party demands an investigation into the suspension of public transportation to Yerushalayim on Shushan Purim, a decision that was made shortly before the beginning of Shabbos, when tens of thousands of people who were leaving or coming to Yerushalayim were on the road and were unaware that a decision had been made that would prevent them from returning to their homes.”

Regarding the court ruling on giyur, the statement added, “The party declares that the passage of a law requiring halachic conversion and of the Override Clause will be preconditions for joining any future coalition.” Between you and me, I am not sure if this demand is realistic. It is doubtful that the Likud and its other partners in the government will agree to this, but it would be a wonderful thing if they did.

Lieberman and Lapid Spout Madness

The Supreme Court’s ruling on Reform conversions indirectly led to another brouhaha. This began when UTJ released a video ridiculing the Reform movement. They showed a video that was released several years ago, in which Reform Jews were shown holding “bark mitzvah” ceremonies for their dogs, with the participation of a Reform rabbi. UTJ adapted this video, adding a few more dogs and depicting all of them with yarmulkes. In effect, they held a mirror up to the Reform movement to demonstrate the ludicrous nature of its practices.

The fierce responses came almost immediately. Yair Lapid’s response was the most vicious of all; as usual, it bordered on insanity. “My father told me that there was a sign in the parliament in Budapest,” Lapid related. “The sign said, ‘No Jews or dogs allowed.’ The Nazis equated Jews with dogs, and now UTJ is doing the same thing.” In other words, he accused the chareidim of anti-Semitism.

This was completely absurd. The video did not draw any comparisons between people and canines. It did nothing but poke fun at the Reform movement for holding bar mitzvah celebrations for their pets. Many secular Israelis also found the notion utterly comical. If there is anyone who equated dogs with people, it is the Reform Jews themselves. But when it comes to inciting against the chareidim, people like Lapid feel that they can say anything they please.

Meanwhile, MK Yitzchok Pindrus was interviewed by the media about the Supreme Court ruling on Reform giyur, and he declared that if a female soldier in the IDF undergoes an invalid conversion, she remains a non-Jew. To his misfortune, he used the word “shikse.” The furor that was evoked by that word was violent and astounding. Pindrus was skewered by the media and was forced to apologize, explaining that he hadn’t meant any offense and that a non-Jew who converts properly would certainly be Jewish. Nevertheless, Avigdor Lieberman declared scornfully, “The thousands of talmidim in Mir aren’t worth even a single soldier!” That should give you an idea of what the chareidi community in Israel is up against!

A Megillah Reading Before Deportation

The incitement apparatus is still working in full gear against the chareidi community. The entire country was infuriated by the slanderous news report on Channel 12 (discussed at length in a separate article) that alleged that the chareidim had somehow taken control of the Exceptions Committee, and that most of the travelers arriving in Israel during the lockdown were chareidim. Instead of apologizing for promulgating lies, Channel 12 decided to double down on its incitement. And this week, they found someone to quote: a member of the airport workers’ union, who claimed that Ruvi Shemesh, an aide to the Minister of the Interior, has been coming to the airport and exempting returning travelers from quarantine. This allegation received prominent coverage on the news program. Another reporter has already contradicted the report, announcing that it is completely untrue, that the requirement for home quarantine is under the sole jurisdiction of the Ministry of Health, and that Channel 12 had simply entangled itself in a feud between the airport workers and their employers. Furthermore, he added, the allegations against the Interior Ministry were made only because Shas, which controls the ministry, has declared its support for Bibi Netanyahu.

Professor Shlomo Mor Yosef is the director-general of the Population and Immigration Authority. (In the past, he served as the director of Hadassah Hospital; prior to that, he was the director-general of the National Insurance Institute. He was appointed to his current position by Ruvi Shemesh.) In response to the allegations, Mor Yosef declared, “I examined the claims made on the news program last night together with Amnon Shmueli, the Population Authority’s director of border control at Ben Gurion Airport. Our findings were unequivocal: The Interior Minister’s aide has never removed or erased passengers from the list of people to be sent to coronavirus hotels. This never happened, and it never could have happened, since the authority to do so rests solely with the Ministry of Health. The only thing that was correct in last night’s report was the story about the chareidi traveler whom we decided to deport from the country because he had entered illegally. While he was waiting in the airport for the results of an appeal submitted to the court on Purim night, the Interior Minister’s aide arranged for someone to read the megillah for him. That is all.”

Russian MKs and the Exceptions Committee

One more word on this subject: In addition to the fact that no one was disciplined or even forced to apologize for the fake news report, insult was added to injury when the Exceptions Committee revealed that it was actually the Russian members of the Knesset, rather than the chareidi MKs, who exerted the most pressure for it to approve specific requests. Somehow, the Russian contingent in the Knesset did not come under fire for this.

The message is loud and clear: There is no reason for anyone to fear abusing the chareidim. Chareidi blood is cheap; the community may be slandered, attacked, and vilified with impunity. After the assault on Yanky Rosenberg, the autistic youth who was beaten by the police, there were no reprisals; the police officers weren’t even punished for their actions. The politicians who blamed “Orthodox visitors from New York” for bringing the coronavirus to Israel were likewise able to make these slanderous claims with impunity. If there were no consequences for these deplorable incidents, then what message does that send about the value of chareidim as members of society?

The committee members protested the allegations against them, explaining that they had no way of knowing if an applicant was chareidi or chiloni, or right-wing or left-wing. But this made no difference to the incitement machine. The committee chairman protested that no more than 10 percent of the passengers on flights from Frankfurt were chareidi, and that it was impossible for chareidim to receive preferential treatment, yet no one paid attention to him. The attack against the aides of the chareidi MKs was completely unwarranted; they placed themselves at the service of anyone who requested their help, regardless of whether they were chareidi or completely irreligious. Moreover, all that they did was alert the committee to humanitarian situations that escaped their attention. What could possibly be wrong with that? Yet the news program saw this as corrupt behavior. And somehow, this contemptible report will not receive any more condemnation than the long list of past offenses against the religious sector.

Shilo Adler, the chairman of the committee, revealed that most of the MKs who contacted them with requests for help were Russian immigrants. Yet this fact was somehow forgotten, as the media delighted in lambasting the chareidi community. Lieberman threatened to arrange for an emergency session of the Knesset to deal with Channel 12’s revelations, while Oded Forer condemned the “backroom deals” that were allegedly worked out with the committee members. Then, when it was revealed that the Russian MKs were the militant ones who interceded repeatedly with the committee, the media suddenly fell silent. As far as they are concerned, Yisrael Beiteinu is not a legitimate target. Only the chareidim are acceptable targets of incitement. But that simply begs the question: Is there no one capable of fighting back for the chareidi community?

The Food Voucher Controversy

At the same time, the chareidi community came under fire on a completely different subject. When the coronavirus crisis was at its peak, Aryeh Deri fought to procure government aid for needy families. At the time, the government was coming up with various forms of assistance for people who had been harmed by the pandemic, including business owners who had been forced to close their stores and employees who lost their jobs. Deri added his own proposal: a one-time grant for needy families. The program would have required an allocation of 700 million shekels to be distributed among the poorest families in the country. Any family receiving a discount of 90 percent or more on their property taxes would be eligible for the program. This was certainly a valid barometer of poverty, since the municipal authorities scrutinize every application at great length before granting such a steep discount. Deri’s plan called for the money to be distributed in the form of vouchers for groceries that would be handed out by the local authorities.

However, the program faced stiff opposition. Appeals were submitted against it to the Supreme Court, but the attorney general asserted that it had met with his approval. The court was petitioned by various chessed organizations, as well as grocery chains that insisted that the vouchers should be usable in their stores as well. The government was forced to make the arrangement increasingly flexible, and the distribution began just last week. But then the same news channel claimed that the criteria for distributing the 700 million shekels of financial aid had been tailored to favor chareidim. The reporters derided this as a “disgrace.”

Interestingly, it was revealed that most of the recipients of the vouchers live in non-chareidi cities. I have no doubt that if someone digs a little deeper, they will find that most of the recipients are actually not chareidim. But does that mean that the people who chose to slander the chareidi community will suffer the consequences for making these claims? Obviously not!

Meoras Hamachpeilah Finally to Get Disabled Access

The saga of disabled access at Meoras Hamachpeilah may finally be approaching its end. This week, Judge Ram Vinograd of the Yerushalayim District Court rejected a petition from the Chevron municipality and various left-wing organizations against the plan to make the site accessible to the disabled. Vinograd ruled that the Civil Administration had acted properly in revoking the municipality’s authority to oversee the process, since the city of Chevron had refrained for years from making the modifications on its own. The judge also accepted the testimony of the government officials who repudiated the claims that the modifications would benefit only Jewish visitors to the site and not Muslims.

In his ruling, the judge wrote that the rights of the disabled to have access to a site sometimes take priority over other legitimate rights. He opined that the decisions made by the Planning Committee of the Civil Administration were appropriate and were calculated to minimize encroachment on the site itself and on the rights of the municipality of Chevron. By rejecting the petition, he paved the way for the construction to be performed. Vinograd’s ruling was a reversal of a decision he made just last month, when the District Court called for the construction to be halted.

Let us briefly review this story. Half a year ago, after a protracted struggle, the process of making Meoras Hamachpeilah accessible to the disabled was finally due to begin. As part of the process, it would be necessary to expropriate an area of land where an elevator would be constructed, as well as an area where a new path would lead from the road to the elevator. This was challenged by several petitioners, including the Chevron municipality and the associated left-wing organizations. The petitions argued that the use of this land would constitute a violation of the Muslims’ civil rights and their freedom of worship, as well as a breach of international agreements that prohibit the expropriation of land from an occupied nation. The petitioners also argued that the decision was political. Nevertheless, the court rejected these claims, and the plans were approved. The Chevron municipality and the Muslim Waqf responded by submitting an urgent petition for a temporary injunction to halt the work. The petitioners now claimed that the modifications wouldn’t serve the Muslim community and that the construction was actually a political ploy with the goal of seizing the land for the Jewish settlement.

In the previous court session, Judge Vinograd had approved the request for a temporary injunction to halt the work. He had voiced his displeasure with the intended land expropriation, and he had insisted that the government should minimize the amount of land it would acquire for this purpose to the greatest degree possible. He demanded clarifications from the government regarding whether it would agree to forgo the additional path and install a wheelchair lift instead, thus diminishing the area required for the construction. In spite of the arguments of engineers that the wheelchair lift would be uncomfortable and undignified, the judge insisted that the government was required to further limit its takeover of land at the site. This week, however, he reversed his decision. The development of disabled access at Meoras Hamachpeilah is finally due to get underway.

Monkey Business on Purim

This week, I heard two charming stories that I would like to quote for your benefit.

The first story involves the Alter of Novardok, who had earned his living as a merchant. The Alter was once traveling on a business trip by train when he encountered for the first time Rav Yisroel Salanter, at the train station. Rav Yisroel noticed that the merchant was in a hurry, and he asked, “Where are you rushing to?” The Alter replied that he was engaging in business so that he would have “something to live from.”

Rav Yisroel chided him, “A Jew must be concerned about having something to die with.”

This statement made a powerful impression on the Alter, and he very quickly left the world of business to prepare for his eternal life in the World to Come. The Yeshiva of Novardok owed its existence to that encounter.

The next story, which concerns Rav Ovadiah Yosef, is both amusing and edifying.

Tzuriel Krispel was a close talmid of Rav Ovadiah and the first mayor of the city of Elad; today, he is the director-general of the Cemeteries Council in Yerushalayim. He recalls that when Purim arrived several months after the passing of Rebbetzin Margalit, Rav Ovadiah Yosef was disconsolate. “I tried to come up with a way to lift his spirits,” Tzuriel relates. “Rav Ovadiah would learn throughout the night on Purim, and then he would drink a little bit after davening in the morning and would go to sleep to fulfill the requirement of ad delo yada. Then, after the noise in his house subsided, he would wake up and resume his learning.

“I had a friend who owned some animals, and I borrowed a monkey from him, dressed it in a shirt and cap, and brough it to the rov. I said, ‘Would the rov please give him a brocha?’ Without looking up from his sefer, the rov asked, ‘What is his name?’ I replied, ‘Chico.’

“At that point, the rov realized that something was peculiar about this, and he looked up from his sefer. I released the monkey, and it began prancing around the room. Rav Ovadiah laughed heartily. After I left his home, the rov suddenly called me. I was alarmed; I feared that he wanted to reprimand me for what I had done. But he said simply, ‘Tzuriel, thank you for bringing joy to me, but I forgot to recite the brocha upon seeing a monkey!’”

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