Feverish Preparations in Meron
With preparations for Lag Ba’Omer in Meron complete, the masses begin arriving at the site on Wednesday, with the greatest influx of visitors coming Thursday, in advance of the nighttime bonfires. Several new lighting areas were added. There was some conflict regarding the food to be served to visitors; the chesed organizations wanted to provide food and drink to visitors as they do every year, but the police and Health Ministry said they are concerned about people sitting together under crowded conditions.
Meanwhile, all the usual preparations took place, and all the groups involved were busy making sure that the public will be aware of their existence. There are the chesed organizations that provide food for the visitors, and they certainly deserve recognition for their efforts. The country’s four health funds (Clalit, Meuhedet, Maccabi, and Leumit) prepared first aid stations on Meron to provide urgent medical care, and the emergency rescue organizations, United Hatzolah and Zaka, are heavily represented on Meron by volunteers, available to attend to any person who is injured. There is also a designated service for locating lost children. Imagine a panic-stricken father who had been separated from his little Moishele or Shimele; how could he possibly expect to find a lost child in an area crowded with 200,000 people? For that purpose, a station was been set up where any children who are separated from their parents are brought. Ezer Mizion made its ambulances available to transport disabled visitors from the last bus stop to the top of the mountain. Even the shaimos organizations have a role to play, as they prepared to collect lost shaimos and provide a respectful burial for it.
Alongside all the logistical preparations, we must daven for the day to pass without incident. The police confirm that the hillula of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in Meron is the largest event to take place in Israel every year, yet the government doesn’t provide adequate funding for the necessary safety measures. Bli neder, I hope to travel to Meron this week and to report on the events of this Lag Ba’Omer. Of course, I will have to receive a special permit in order to do that….
An Inside Man in the Transportation Ministry
The greatest threat to a safe and uneventful Lag Ba’Omer in Meron is the possibility of a collapse of the transportation system. There is good reason that government experts and professionals spend many hours meeting in advance of Lag Ba’Omer to work out the transportation arrangements for the day. The mishaps of the past have all been due to breakdowns of the transportation system. The more severe the failure, the greater the disasters have been. The reason is very simple: A traffic jam anywhere along the road to Meron can cause traffic to come to a standstill along the entire route. This can turn a day of spiritual election and enjoyment into a nightmarish experience for thousands of people. Frustrated travelers then become resentful of the police, and the efforts of the police to calm the disgruntled crowds often lead to violence.
This year, the chareidi community has an inside man in the Transportation Ministry: Uri Maklev serves as the deputy transportation minister. The Minister of Transportation herself, Maklev’s superior, is also a traditional Jew, which certainly has an impact on the ministry’s attitude toward Lag Ba’Omer. Today, Uri Maklev’s staff informed me that the ministry is preparing to transport hundreds of thousands of people to Meron on erev Lag Ba’Omer.
Passengers are permitted to board buses or trains to Meron on Lag Ba’Omer only with tickets purchased in advance. Direct bus lines to Meron will operate from central locations throughout the country including Yerushalayim, Bnei Brak, Haifa, Ashdod, Beit Shemesh, Teveria, Netanya, Modiin Illit, Netivot, Afula, Kiryat Gat, Ofakim, Elad, Rechasim, and Tzefas, as well as from the communities surrounding Meron in the Marom HaGalil Regional Council. There will also be 24 designated trains running throughout the day from the center of the country directly to Carmiel. From the train station in Carmiel, travelers will be able to take a free shuttle directly to the kever of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. The Ministry of Transportation allocated 420 shuttles to serve visitors to Meron who arrive in private vehicles. Visitors arriving on privately chartered buses will be directed to the nearby parking lots in Ein Chozim and Parod, and will be transported free of charge by shuttle to the center of the festivities. Motorists arriving in their own cars will be instructed to park in two other parking lots and will be allowed to continue to Meron on designated bus lines at their own expense. The police will not permit private vehicles to approach Meron.
“We are making enormous efforts to enable thousands of visitors to come to Meron for the hillula without violating the Health Ministry’s guidelines,” Uri Maklev explained. “The Ministry of Transportation is preparing an expanded format for the day to absorb tens of thousands of travelers and to bring them to their destination quickly, comfortably, and safely. I call upon the public to buy their tickets for public transportation in advance, at a reasonable price, and to make the trip to the hillula in comfort and safety.”
Protection During the Pandemic
Now for some news about the coronavirus pandemic. As you are probably aware, here in Israel we have all been allowed to walk around outdoors without wearing masks for almost two weeks already. The exemption from wearing a mask, however, does not apply to enclosed areas such as a store or office. The outdoor exemption isn’t exactly a major restoration of freedom, but it is at least a sign that the situation has improved. The government is already suggesting that the restrictions may be relaxed further; the limits on gatherings in open areas or on occupancy on public transportation may be reduced, and other changes might also be in the works. At this time, it seems that the situation in Israel is better than anywhere else in the world. However, Israeli health officials have just begun to worry about the new Indian variant of the virus. It would definitely be a disaster if a new strain of the virus arrived from India and we discovered that the vaccine is ineffective against it.
The situation in India itself is catastrophic. Over 300,000 new cases of Covid are being detected every day (accounting for 40 percent of the daily diagnoses throughout the world) and over 16 million Indians have already contracted the virus. Last week, India broke the global record for the number of daily cases of coronavirus. The country is witnessing over 2000 deaths every day. Within 15 days, the number of hospitalizations soared from 100,000 to 300,000. That should be a sign to us of how grateful we should be for the miracles we have witnessed here in Israel (and in America as well).
In Israel, as I noted, the situation is steadily improving, boruch Hashem. Just to remind you of how far we have come, here is an excerpt from a newspaper article published last April: “The coronavirus is continuing to spread in Israel. The death toll rose today [Shabbos] to 199 victims, including an 86-year-old woman who was a resident of the Ganei Orah nursing home in Yerushalayim. 15,298 people have been diagnosed with the disease, including 127 who have been hospitalized in serious condition, 99 of whom have been intubated. To date, 6,435 people have recovered from the virus. Over the past day, 1,251 fines were issued for violations of the coronavirus regulations, an increase of 190 since the previous day.”
The majority of Israel’s adult population has been vaccinated, and the government is warning people not to travel to certain other countries, where the situation is worse. The Ministry of Health is currently advising Israelis to avoid traveling to seven countries: Ukraine, Ethiopia, Brazil, South Africa, Turkey, Mexico, and, of course, India. But we must be thankful to Hashem for the major strides that our own country has made.
A Spiral of Riots
Last week, I remarked that I had a dilemma as to which topic should be the opening subject of my column: politics, the coronavirus, or perhaps the preparations for Lag Ba’Omer in Meron. In the end, I decided to begin with a different topic: a disturbing incident in which an Arab approached two yeshiva bochurim on the light rail in Yerushalayim and slapped one of them. The Arab assailant then proceeded to post a video of his actions on social media. I wrote that this appeared to be the beginning of a trend; little did I know how prescient my words would be. It has developed into a wave of violence against Jews. In one case, a Jewish man was actually lynched; a video shows a group of Arabs violently kicking the victim while he lies on the ground. The victim’s car was also set on fire, and he was somehow rescued and brought to the hospital in grave condition. The tragedy of the situation was compounded by the fact that the victim was a recent immigrant from Yemen. He works as a van driver and decided to daven at the Kosel between jobs. Unfortunately, the Waze application directed him into an Arab area. He could never have imagined that he would fall prey in Yerushalayim to a violent attack the likes of which he had never experienced in Yemen!
The focal point of the Arab violence is Shaar Shechem, the gate of the Old City through which the Arabs pass on their way to and from their religious services. Their gall is utterly astonishing; they have no qualms even about attacking policemen or soldiers or anyone else. The violence has spread to other Jewish areas near the Old City, including Rechov Shivtei Yisrael and Mea Shearim. Those streets have been the scenes of rock throwing attacks, along with the use of explosives that have caused life-threatening danger. On Sunday, newspaper headlines announced that we were witnessing “Arab terror in Yerushalayim,” and this was no understatement. The Arabs complained that the police set up roadblocks in the area that made it difficult for them to travel. It appears, however, that the police have since decided to remove those checkpoints, in what seems to be a hint of surrender.
I am sure that you are familiar with the area of Mea Shearim and Rechov Shivtei Yisroel, which is behind the bais medrash of Toldos Aharon and is essentially the backyard of Yeshivas Mir. The situation has become so sensitive and volatile that the rosh yeshiva of Mir, Rav Eliezer Yehuda Finkel, wrote a letter of warning to the bnei yeshiva on Sunday. “The enemies of Yisroel have raised their heads, and the violent and dangerous protests reached the vicinity of the sacred yeshiva last night,” he wrote. “Let no one dare take his life into his hands by approaching these places and events.” The rosh yeshiva warned that any talmid who approached the murderous Arab rioters would be endangering himself and the entire yeshiva.
The Arab violence also spilled out of the area of the Old City and spread to neighborhoods such as Armon Hanetziv, and even to other cities as well. In Ramle, a city with a mixed Arab and Jewish populace, three yeshiva bochurim were assaulted. Last week, I mentioned that Jews were attacked in Yaffo, which is also a city with a mixed population. It seems that any place where Jewish and Arab neighborhoods overlap tends to be ripe for trouble.
Unfortunately, this wave of violence has the potential to spread even further, to Haifa and other cities in the north, and essentially set the entire country on fire. That is the great fear at this time. The police are working diligently to suppress the violence, but their efforts sometimes have the opposite effect on the Arabs.
Missiles from Gaza
Add to this another troubling development: the recent missile fire from Hamas and Islamic Jihad into the Jewish communities in the Gaza envelope. Israel is certain that the missile fire is connected to the violence that has begun to rock our cities; IDF Chief of Staff Kochavi made an explicit statement to that effect. And if these terror organizations are indeed working together with the Arab rabble in East Yerushalayim, then the situation is very bad. This is precisely the way the intifada began: with ordinary Arabs in Yerushalayim receiving orders from the terror organizations. That is precisely what the Israeli government fears.
While the violence hasn’t caused any fatalities, it comes after a long period of quiet. Israeli defense experts are certain that there is a connection between the rioting of Arab youths throughout the country and the sudden firing of missiles from Gaza. On Friday, night, at least 36 missile launches into Israel were detected, some of which were intercepted by the Iron Dome system. After Shabbos, as well, red alert sirens were sounded in the communities in the Gaza envelope and in the city of Sderot. B’chasdei Hashem, none of the missiles caused damage; however, two youths from the city of Sderot were taken to Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon. A young girl had to be evacuated to the hospital due to hysteria, and a young male resident of Sderot fell and sustained a head injury while rushing to a safe room during an air raid siren. Israel decided to refrain from responding to the attacks, although Iron Dome batteries were deployed throughout the southern region on Shabbos.
In Yerushalayim, on the other hand, the police had no choice but to respond to the riots. It was impossible to allow Arab rioters to continue assaulting innocent civilians and soldiers at will. Hundreds of police officers and soldiers were deployed in the city on high alert to prevent further disturbances. Seventeen Arabs were arrested for committing acts of violence such as attacking police officers and throwing rocks and fireworks. During a police operation in Issawiya, a neighborhood in East Yerushalayim, about 15 masked Arabs were spotted heading toward Hadassah Har Hatzofim with the intent of attacking the hospital with firecrackers and Molotov cocktails. The rioters hurled explosives at the police themselves, injuring one officer in his hand. The police ultimately managed to disperse the mob using riot control measures. At the same time, a number of suspects who lived in the area began throwing stones at passing cars. Police managed to identify one rioter throwing fireworks at them, and the perpetrator was arrested in the act.
The Chief of Staff Cancels His Visit to Washington
I did not take these incidents lightly even last week, when the violence first began. This week, the rapid escalation of the violence has made it even more of a pressing cause for concern. Apparently, Prime Minister Netanyahu also recognized the dangerous trajectory of these events, and he convened the cabinet to discuss the matter.
Netanyahu tried to lower the tensions by announcing to the public, “Above all, we want to ensure law and order in Yerushalayim. We will ensure the freedom of worship as we do every year, for residents and visitors alike. At this time, we insist on compliance with the law. I call upon all sides to restore calm.”
Defense Minister Benny Gantz also became involved, conducting a series of security assessments and a conference call with the heads of the local governments in the Gaza envelope, along with Major General Uri Gordin, director of the Home Front Command. Gantz updated the heads of the local governments about the army’s efforts to maintain quiet along the border, and he promised to remain in constant contact with the area residents and to inform them about any developments. “The State of Israel respects the freedom of worship for people of every religion and faith, including the residents of East Yerushalayim and the Palestinians,” Gantz said. “There is quiet in the south right now, but if that quiet is not maintained, Gaza will be hit very hard in its economy, its security, and on the civilian level, and the responsibility will rest with the leaders of Hamas. The equation is very clear, and they are aware of it. The IDF is prepared for the possibility of escalation, and we will do anything that is necessary to maintain quiet.”
The degree of alarm within the defense establishment may be indicated by the fact that Aviv Kochavi, the chief of staff of the IDF, decided to cancel a planned visit to Washington. Kochavi had been scheduled to travel to America this week along with his colleagues, National Security Council director Meir Ben-Shabbat and Yossi Cohen, the head of the Mossad, for a series of meetings in the Pentagon and White House. Israel considered the meetings to be a groundbreaking effort, which it hoped would change America’s apathetic attitude toward Iran’s development of armaments. The Israeli embassy in Washington toiled endlessly to prepare for the visit of the chief of staff, yet Kochavi has decided to remain in Israel at this time. If the violence escalates, chas veshalom, he will have to be here. Other officials might choose to remain in Israel as well, due to the volatile nature of the situation. A number of senior figures in the defense establishment have already gathered for a meeting in the office of the chief of staff, where they came up with a proposal for a major attack on Hamas. The IDF officers maintained that missile fire of this intensity must not go unanswered, and that Hamas must be shown that if they take advantage of the spate of violence in Yerushalayim to attack Israel, they will pay a heavy price.
For now, Israel has been holding its fire, but we must daven for a peaceful resolution to this situation.
Bennett Backtracks on Promises
Let us move on to some political news. In politics, nothing is over until it is over. At this point, Netanyahu has a few days left until the mandate he was given by the president expires. And it seems very likely that he will be forced to admit to President Rivlin that he has failed to assemble a government. The question, then, is what will happen next.
Naftoli Bennett has been constantly declaring that he will support the Likud, but not unconditionally. He insists that if Netanyahu fails (and Bennett is doing everything possible to ensure that Netanyahu will fail) then we will not have a fifth election. In fact, Bennett claims to be working on a “unity government.” As far as Bennett is concerned, that means a government of all of Bibi’s opponents—Yamina, New Hope, Yesh Atid, Meretz, Yisroel Beiteinu, Labor, and … the Arabs.
Bennett’s problem is that he is planning to renege on the explicit promise he made before the election that he would not support a left-wing government or allow Yair Lapid to become prime minister. That is the reason for the enormous pressure that is being brought to bear on him; Bennett has been roundly castigated for proposing to violate his own promise. The problem is that the center-left has presented him with a temptation he cannot resist: the opportunity to have the first rotation as prime minister. After all, it has been Bennett’s lifelong dream to become the prime minister of Israel. Netanyahu has countered this temptation by offering Bennett everything imaginable, including a merger with the Likud that would place Bennett in the upper echelons of the party and would guarantee his own people choice positions on the Likud slate. This week, Netanyahu even sent a letter to Bennett informing him that he planned to convene the Likud leadership in order to formalize his offers.
Both Bennett and Betzalel Smotrich have been slammed by United Torah Judaism. The chareidi party announced that the two politicians will never be forgiven for their actions. “If Naftoli Bennett grants the Finance Ministry or any other senior portfolio to Avigdor Lieberman, he will be remembered in disgrace for all eternity as the person who destroyed the Torah world and the traditions of Israel,” UTJ proclaimed in a statement. “All of his efforts to cause everyone to forget his ‘brothers’ pact’ with Lapid, which he has described as a grave mistake, will go to waste, and he will be permanently shunned as a political partner. For this lowly act, there cannot be and never will be forgiveness.”
Moshe Gafni, the chairman of United Torah Judaism, also attacked Smotrich for his refusal to join a government led by Netanyahu with the support of the Arab party Raam. “Smotrich will crown Yair Lapid prime minister and Avigdor Lieberman finance minister and will bring harm to Eretz Yisroel, following in the footsteps of the sikrikim throughout history,” Gafni declared.
Netanyahu Promoting Direct Elections
Meanwhile, after preventing Netanyahu from forming a government with Bennett and the chareidim and with the support of Raam, Betzalel Smotrich went on the offensive against both Netanyahu and Bennett. “Sorry, but delivering the State of Israel and the security of its residents into the hands of Arab rioters isn’t part of my value system,” he said sardonically.
Meanwhile, Bennett doesn’t appear to be concerned. He is expected to take his negotiations with Lapid to the next level. Both Bennett and Lapid claim that they hope to reach an agreement by the end of the week, so that there will be a clear plan for the formation of a government even before Netanyahu returns the mandate to President Rivlin next Wednesday.
At this time, the talks between the various parties are taking place on several parallel tracks, but the main channel for dialogue is between Bennett and Lapid. Bennett is representing Gideon Saar’s party as well, while Lapid speaks on behalf of the other parties in the anti-Netanyahu bloc: Blue and White, Yisroel Beiteinu, Labor, and Meretz. If they succeed in forming a coalition, it will include all seven of these parties, each with its own expectations, conditions, and demands.
The agreement between Bennett and Lapid would establish a government modeled after the rotation agreement between Netanyahu and Benny Gantz. In this case, Bennett would serve as prime minister for the first two years, followed by Lapid. The two blocs would share power equally and each would have the right of veto, in spite of the vast gap between their numbers: Bennett and Saar have a total of only thirteen mandates between the two of them, whereas the center-left bloc possesses a total of 45. From the chareidi standpoint, the only consolation is that if such a government indeed takes power, it will probably not last long. The only glue holding the parties together would be their shared hatred for Bibi Netanyahu, which cannot be sufficient to maintain such an impossible alliance.
You may be wondering what Netanyahu is trying to accomplish by jockeying for Bennett’s support. What good will it do for him to retain Bennett if Smotrich will torpedo his only plan for a government? The answer is that Netanyahu hopes to promote a direct election for prime minister. He is currently trying to push a bill through the Knesset that would allow the country to vote directly for its prime minister. Netanyahu is confident that he would win such an election, and the law would enable him to remain in power without a coalition. A prime minister who is directly elected by the people would have much more latitude to act, without being constrained by the votes of the members of the Knesset.
To make a long story short, though, the government is still deadlocked. And if Bennett continues on this path and succeeds, it may well be a disaster for the religious community. Hashem yishmereinu.
The Iluy from Vishke
We tend to attach importance to the events that take place in venues such as the Knesset or the District Court of Yerushalayim, where Netanyahu’s trial is being held. But the boys who learn in Talmud Torah Shaarei Daas, in the neighborhood of Ramot in Yerushalayim, seem to know better than we do. These young children have never even heard of Gideon Saar or the Norwegian Law; their world is the world of Torah learning, and their aspirations lie exclusively in that area.
These young children, who are steeped in kedusha and purity and insulated from the outside world, were privileged to enjoy a visit from Rav Moshe Hillel Hirsch this week. The venerable rosh yeshiva shared the following story with them: “In the Chofetz Chaim’s yeshiva in Radin, the bochurim lived in dire poverty. Most of the talmidim slept on small piles of straw on the floor, with the exception of a few older bochurim, for whom the yeshiva rented beds in various homes in the town. One of the distinguished bochurim in the yeshiva was named Rav Yaakov Safsal and was known as the iluy from Vishke. He arrived in the yeshiva at the age of 14 and a half, suffering from an ailment in his lungs. The other bochurim approached the Chofetz Chaim and asked for the yeshiva to provide a bed for the new talmid so that his illness would not become more severe. The Chofetz Chaim thought for a moment and then said, ‘No. Yaakov Safsal will not lose the lights of the Torah. He will sleep on the floor and will be healthy.’
“That brocha was fulfilled,” Rav Moshe Hillel continued. “I met Rav Yaakov Safsal once in America when he was an elderly man who was constantly learning and developing chiddushim. But what did the Chofetz Chaim mean by the ‘lights of the Torah’? There is much evidence in Chazal,” he explained, “that when a person honors Hashem and the Torah, his reward is that Hashem teaches him, so to speak, and provides him with ‘light’ to understand the Torah better, to have a better grasp of Yiddishkeit, and to perform the mitzvos better.
“I heard today about the chazorah program in this cheder,” Rav Moshe Hillel continued. “Learning the same thing over and over can be one of the most difficult things to do; it is natural to feel that that there is no need to return to things that you have already learned. But the truth is that when you review the material you have learned, it brings tremendous honor to Hashem, and you will be given the same lights that the Chofetz Chaim described. That is my brocha to all of you.”
Still No Elevator at Meoras Hamachpeilah
Meoras Hamachpeilah is still in the headlines. I have written about this topic quite a few times in the past: Years ago, the government promised to make the site accessible to the disabled, but the work has yet to begin. This week, once again, a picture circulated of a person being carried up the steps in a wheelchair, by a group of six men, to daven at the site. Had the government honored its original promise, such scenes would not be witnessed today, as wheelchair-bound visitors would be able to ride an elevator up to the entrance to the site.
There was at least a tiny bit of movement on the issue this week, when Supreme Court Justice Alex Stein (who is American in origin and wears a yarmulke) rejected a petition from the Chevron municipality, the Waqf of Chevron, and the Committee for the Rehabilitation of the Old City of Chevron to prevent the modifications. This request was submitted after Judge Ram Vinograd of the District Court of Yerushalayim ruled several weeks ago that the government could carry out the modifications at Meoras Hamachpeilah in accordance with a plan approved by the Civil Administration. The petitioners at the time had objected that the work might cause irreversible damage to the site.
According to the petition, the construction of an elevator next to the “Yusufiya steps” would lead to the destruction of the wall next to the steps and would include “digging and laying a foundation on the remnants of antiquities that exist at the site, causing genuine harm to the holy site.” The Civil Administration denied that the work would create any irreversible changes, since the structure containing the elevator could be dismantled in the future. The judge noted in his ruling, “I was not convinced that to favor the requested injunction. The main argument of the petitioners is that building a structure with an elevator will constitute severe and irreversible damage to the site. I cannot accept that argument. The original court established it as a fact, based on the findings of the professional committees, that the elevator will be a structure that can be easily dismantled when necessary, without damaging the site.” In light of this ruling, Judge Stein rejected the petition and ordered the plaintiffs to pay 7000 shekels in legal fees to the state.
At this point, the proverbial ball is in the court of Defense Minister Benny Gantz. We will have to wait and see if he will finally put an end to this interminable and disgraceful saga.