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My Take On The News

Fear Keeps Visitors Away from Kosel

There is much to report from Yerushalayim. First of all, we celebrated Shavuos, the holiday of Mattan Torah, when the shuls are filled with people learning throughout the night. We arrive in shul only about midnight, and Shacharis begins at 5:00. There is also time spent on the consumption of coffee and cake during the night. For an added touch, some shuls prepare fruit platters as well, with a special emphasis on watermelon. And for those who walk to the Kosel to daven Shacharis—well, the night becomes extremely short. But we will not nitpick about these things. Fortunate are the people who show such love for the Torah.

This year, the scene at the Kosel was very disheartening. In an ordinary year, the Kosel receives tens of thousands of visitors on Shavuos. The plaza is typically so crowded on the morning of the Yom Tov that one would be hard-pressed to fit an extra pin into the area. This year, however, the crowd was much thinner than usual. For one thing, the rabbonim had advised the public not to come to the Kosel on account of the danger involved—partly due to the crowding, but mainly because of Arab violence in the area. Even without the rabbonim’s warnings, though, people were simply afraid to come. It has been very frightening to be in the vicinity of the Old City. As a result, the Kosel plaza was empty on Shavuos for the second year in a row. First it was the pandemic that kept visitors away, and now it was the fear of violence.

Unfortunately, Shavuos 5781 will be remembered for the tragedy at the Karlin bais medrash in Givat Zeev. The disaster took place before Yom Tov even began, and the news began to spread before sunset. However, there was only enough time for some sketchy accounts of the incident to emerge from the neighborhood before shekiyah, which left the rest of us with nothing but inconclusive and half-true rumors throughout the Yom Tov. In the Pressburg shul in Givat Shaul, we were aware that something had happened, since we heard the sirens of ambulances and Hatzolah vehicles blaring outside the shul, one after another; the road to Givat Zeev passes by the entrance to Yerushalayim. We were deeply fearful. Finally, someone reported that the bleachers in Karlin had collapsed. Tehillim was recited in our shul between Mincha and Maariv; we still didn’t know exactly what had happened, but we davened with enormous fervor for the victims to be well.

Backing from Biden

I will try to move from topic to topic in an orderly fashion. First, there is the latest news on the fighting between Israel and Hamas. The official ceasefire began on Friday morning. The ceasefire was brokered under pressure from the Egyptians, who had apparently received word from Hamas that they could no longer keep up with the pace of the destruction in Gaza. Indeed, the Israeli air force was bombing an enormous area. I couldn’t understand why Hamas didn’t begin pleading for a respite a week earlier, although it was probably a matter of pride. Fortunately for Israel and Netanyahu, President Biden seemed to be displaying the maximum possible understanding for the beleaguered country of Israel, which made it possible for Netanyahu to continue attacking Hamas.

During the recent spate of hostilities, Netanyahu found the defense minister, Benny Gantz, to be a loyal partner in his efforts to defend the country. In spite of the two men’s political differences, they worked hand in hand and with complete understanding, and what seemed to be a shared assessment of the situation, to protect the country’s security. Will this be a harbinger of political change? Will Benny Gantz have a change of heart regarding partnering with Netanyahu in a government? Gantz himself asserts that there isn’t the slightest chance of that happening. But in the world of politics, one can never know.

It was also a good thing that President Biden supported Israel. In fact, Biden even promised to replenish Israel’s supply of Iron Dome missiles. Had he visited Israel, he would undoubtedly have been even more supportive. That is exactly what happened when the foreign ministers of Germany, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic visited Israel last week, and Foreign Minister (and former IDF chief of staff) Gabi Ashkenazi took them to see a house in Petach Tikvah that had been destroyed by a missile from Gaza. The visitors suddenly realized exactly what our country has been going through. Petach Tikvah is in the center of Israel, a neighboring city to Bnei Brak. If a house could be destroyed in the Gush Dan region in central Israel, then it is easy to imagine the horrors that have been experienced by all the residents of Israel, and not just the residents of the south—although their security alone would have been sufficient reason to strike back against the terrorists in Gaza. The pictures of Gabi Ashkenazi and the three foreign visitors inspecting the ruined home speak volumes. The European officials agreed immediately that Israel has the absolute right to defend itself with all its power.

Unfortunately, this understanding hasn’t reached certain individuals in New York—namely, the United Nations. The UN secretary-general declared, “If there is any gehinnom on earth, it is the lives of children in Gaza.” He added that he was “shocked” by the Israeli aggression. The atmosphere in the UN is clearly permeated with anti-Israel sentiment, to the point that Gilad Erdan, the Israeli delegate to the UN (who is also serving as the ambassador to Washington, and was a minister in the government until recently) decided to leave the chamber in protest. Is it any wonder that Jews are being assaulted on the streets of Manhattan?

The Battle Within

This is a ceasefire with qualifications. The fighting between Israel and Hamas has been halted, but Hamas has warned that in spite of the ceasefire, it plans to continue firing rockets into Israel “here and there.” Netanyahu hurried to respond to that: “We will respond with all force even to the slightest drizzle.” But that is actually a secondary problem. A much greater problem is the war—in every sense of the word—that Israel is fighting against Arab rioters within the country.

This war began during Operation Guardian of the Walls, and it unfolded in all the cities in Israel that are shared by Jews and Arabs: Yaffo, Acco, Haifa, Ramle, and especially Lod. Of course, Yerushalayim was struck as well by the violence. And the situation was even worse in areas under Arab control, such as East Yerushalayim or Wadi Ara in the north. The police actually prevented Jews from setting foot in these areas, fearing that they would come to harm.

In several places in the country, Jews were lynched by Arab rioters. In one incident, in Lod, a man named Yigal Yehoshua was killed. In Acco, a man named Elad (ben Julia) Barzilai was severely wounded. A number of shuls were torched, many of them in Lod. Jews fled from Lod during this spate of violence, fearing that their lives were in danger, while Arab residents of the city roamed the streets with guns and shot at Jewish civilians, soldiers, and police officers.

The commissioner of the Israeli police force said this week, “The battle within the state is still not over.” He rejected the criticism of the police force’s failure to handle the situation, asserting that “we suppressed a violent uprising the likes of which has never taken place here before.” And he is probably correct; no one can remember witnessing such an insurgency in Israel before. We must hope that his prediction of the battle continuing in the future will be proven wrong; however, based on what I have seen in recent days in Yerushalayim, I fear that his grim prediction is justified. The battle has not ended. When the IDF conquered the Old City of Yerushalayim in 1967, Lieutenant General Motta Gur announced jubilantly, “Har Habayis is in our hands!” Based on the Palestinian rioting on Har Habayis in recent days, though, I would venture to say that it isn’t actually “in our hands” at all.

A False Equivalence

Last Tuesday, in an effort to restore calm and quell the raging passions, the commissioner of the Israeli police force gathered a group of Jewish and Arab public figures and tried to achieve a reconciliation. It isn’t clear if the Arab public figures have any control over the young rioters who have been whipped into a frenzy by Hamas, but any effort to restore peace must be appreciated. Unfortunately, the police commissioner, Yaakov “Kobi” Shabtai, showed some very poor judgment in choosing his words.

“In the violent clashes between Jews and Arabs throughout the country in recent days, there were terrorists on both sides, and we will bring all of them to justice,” the police chief declared. “Like it or not,” he added, “Jews and Arabs have lived together here before, and we will continue living together long after these times.” During the very moments when the Jew who was murdered in Lod was being laid to rest, the commissioner drew a comparison between countless lynches of Jews perpetrated by Arabs and one or two cases in which Jewish criminals had lynched Arabs. The equivalence implied by this statement infuriated many people throughout the country, especially due to its impact on his subordinates in the police force. How could anyone equate the Arabs’ actions with those of the Jews?

It is important to note that Kobi Shabtai is relatively new on the job. The police force actually lacked a commissioner for a very long time, since the paralyzed government was unable to appoint one. Ultimately, the members of the government managed to reach an agreement about several appointments, one of which was the new commissioner, Kobi Shabtai, who was brought to the police force from the Border Guard. His experience dealing with Arab crime in that capacity proved to be a valuable qualification for his new position. The Border Guard specializes in dealing with Arab disturbances; hence, large contingents of Border Guard officers were brought to Yerushalayim and Lod during the recent unrest.

The general sense was that Kobi Shabtai’s statement was a grievous error. Amir Ochana, the minister who had appointed him, responded to it immediately. “The police commissioner has made an infuriating statement that should not have been said,” he declared. “In order to deal with a problem, one must recognize it. The problem is that Arab rioters have attacked Jews, police officers, and shuls. Our policy is to respond with force to acts of terror. There is no equivalence, and there never will be. It is true that the few individuals who attacked Arabs will be dealt with in the strictest fashion. But there is a long road from there to equating the two sides.”

Ochana’s response was as forceful and vehement as could be. But many have gone further, calling for the police chief to resign.

Deterrence for Arab Rioters

Forgive me for dwelling on the police commissioner’s comparison, but here in Israel, these issues can be matters of life and death. This week, for instance, two Jews were indicted for lynching an Arab in Bat Yam (who was severely injured in the assault). At the same time, indictments were filed against Arabs who lynched a Jew (who was also critically wounded). There is a marked difference between the two charge sheets, both of which were submitted by the state prosecution. The charges against the Jewish defendants are much more severe. The Arabs were charged with assault leading to bodily injury and theft. (They had stolen a club from the Jew and used it to attack him.) The Jews, on the other hand, were charged with “attempting to cause harm due to racist motivations,” which is considered a much more severe crime. The Arabs were not charged with a hate crime.

Unfortunately, the recent wave of violence might create some difficulties during the upcoming shemittah year. What is the connection between shemittah and the events in the south? The answer is that it is always difficult for farmers to observe shemittah, which is a major nisayon for them under ordinary circumstances, but now, after a long period in which they were unable to work their fields, it will be much more difficult for them to commit to observing shemittah and to join the kollelim of Keren Hashviis.

Before we move on to other topics, I want to make one more observation. As you know, one of Israel’s tactics to deter terror attacks is demolishing the homes of terrorists. Experience has shown that this serves as a major deterrent to Arabs who are considering perpetrating acts of terrorism. Their homes are the most important things in their lives. If a terrorist knows that his actions will lead to the destruction of his home (if he is married) or his parents’ home (if he is single), he will think twice before giving in to the appeals of terrorist leaders to carry out an attack against Israelis. Following the deadly lynch in Lod, MK Moshe Arbel has called on law enforcement agencies to apply the same policy to the perpetrators of the lynch and to have their homes in Lod demolished. It will be interesting to see if this idea is accepted.

Still Haunted by the Disaster in Meron

Even our more recent troubles haven’t erased our memories of the terrible tragedy in Meron on Lag Ba’Omer. Many of us feel as if our hearts are filled with so much sorrow that there can be no room for more. May Hashem protect us.

Personally, I feel as if I am still (metaphorically) in Meron. I cannot tear my thoughts away from those stairs of death. I am continually thinking about the people who were crushed and those who fell on top of them, and my heart goes out to them all. Here in Israel, we are all still profoundly aware of the tragedy in Meron and the 45 Jews who were killed, whose shloshim is now approaching.

On the subject of Meron, I have a few pieces of information to share with you. First, last week the Knesset Finance Committee met to discuss compensation for the families of the victims of the tragedy. It was a very difficult and painful session, since it was attended by several of the families of the victims. This week, the Knesset will also discuss appointing a commission of inquiry. There are several different types of commissions that might be formed, and the religious parties are pushing for a committee that will be able to make decisions for the future—such as changing the layout of the mountaintop and allocating funds for its development. The chilonim, on the other hand, prefer a committee whose job will be confined to finding someone to blame for the disaster.

Personally, I do not see any point in determining that one particular police officer or another was “at fault” for the catastrophe. Besides, regardless of whether the exit from the passageway was blocked, the officers who were standing at its entrance certainly should have been alert enough to prevent more and more people from entering the area that quickly became a death trap. The real culprit here is actually the State of Israel itself, which failed to prepare the area to receive hundreds of thousands of visitors. Every year, the government has allocated meager sums for insignificant improvements here and there at the site, and even those pitiful funds come only after the religious parties beg or scream for the allocations.

After this year’s tragic events, everyone has come to agree that a site that will be occupied by tens of thousands of people should look very different. The passageways are dangerous, and the authorities were warned every year about the hazards on the steps where the tragedy took place. The area for public use has actually been doubled, but the facts are inescapable. The tragedy of this past Lag Ba’Omer attests that much more needs to be done.

Bennett’s Reversals

Now for some brief political news. The mandate to form the next government was given at first to Binyamin Netanyahu, who failed to assemble a coalition. Betazlel Smotrich refused to allow him to form a government with the support of Mansour Abbas and his colleagues, and Gideon Saar remained adamant in his refusal to sit under Netanyahu. Netanyahu refused to cede his place to anyone else from the Likud party, and Naftoli Bennett continued to spout right-wing rhetoric while appearing to be more closely allied with Lapid. After 28 days had passed, the mandate was transferred to Lapid, who seemed to have reached an agreement with Bennett in advance. And then the violence began. With the sudden outbreak of fighting, Bennett became afraid to lose his right-wing supporters and announced that the “government of change” was dead.

Actually, Bennett made a trip to the south to show his support for the residents, but the hostility he encountered there made him realize what lay in store for him if he betrayed the political right. At the same time, he was lambasted in the right-wing media. “It is shocking to see how a distinctly right-wing party, most of whose members are affiliated with religious Zionism, has deteriorated to the point of collaborating with the extreme left solely because of the unchecked personal ambitions of the party’s leader,” the editor of B’Sheva observed caustically.

Naftoli Bennett is a peculiar phenomenon. There has never been a politician so devious, who so blatantly violated such vehement promises in such a short time. Before the election, Bennett pledged, both verbally and in writing, that he would never allow Yair Lapid to become prime minister. “I am a man of the right,” he insisted, “and he is a man of the left.” But now it seems that Bennett’s pledge was insincere and that he had a secret agreement with Lapid, Labor, and Meretz all along. True, he wouldn’t be the first Israeli politician to do something of the sort. Yitzchok Shamir likewise lied to his partners in the government (but not to his voters) and argued that it is permissible to lie for the benefit of the state. That idea needs to be evaluated on its own merits, but even Shamir never claimed that a person may lie in order to land the office of prime minister.

There are two weeks left until the mandate expires. In some ways, that is very little time; in other ways, it can be an eternity. Pressure is mounting on Bennett from the right; they suspect that he will rejoin Lapid and the left as soon as the tensions with Gaza abate, and they are urging him to keep to his promises. In any event, Lapid and Bennett have plenty of things to fight over. Everyone wants control of the education and justice ministries, and every player on the political field has his own ego to feed. B’ezras Hashem, whatever happens will be for the best.

Supreme Court Overturns Knesset Budget Decision

As of Sunday, it seems that a new front has opened in the war between the Knesset and the Supreme Court. In what might seem to be an insignificant decision with no practical ramifications, the Supreme Court decided to overturn a law passed by the Knesset. This was a Basic Law, which can be passed only by a majority of all the members of the Knesset (rather than a majority of the MKs who happen to be present for the vote). It has always been accepted that the Supreme Court is not authorized to strike down a Basic Law, but the court chose to expand its own authority once again. The law in question, which was passed last year as an amendment to an existing Basic Law, increased the interim national budget by 11 billion shekels. Six Supreme Court justices ruled that the law was unconstitutional; the other three, who issued the minority opinion, maintained that it was dangerous for the Supreme Court to intervene in the matter. The law was passed at the time in order to make it possible for the Netanyahu-Gantz government to be established.

The year 2020 began without a budget approved by the government. In lieu of an actual budget, the government relied on a provision that allowed it to distribute one twelfth of the previous year’s budget every month to every government ministry. This arrangement remains in force for 100 days after the establishment of a new government; if a new budget isn’t approved by that time, the law requires the Knesset to dissolve and elections to be called. The 35th government (the current transitional government) was established in May 2020, and in accordance with the Basic Law concerning the Knesset, the proposed budget for the year 2020 was required to be brought to the Knesset for approval no later than August 25. On August 24, in an attempt to prevent the Knesset from dissolving, two amendments were added to the Basic Law as a stopgap measure: The date of the Knesset’s dissolution was postponed by four months, and the sum of 11 billion shekels was added to the interim budget, in order to cover coalition funds and various other expenses. The Supreme Court ruled that since the Knesset disbanded at the end of 2020 and the elections were moved up, the petition that was filed against the postponement of the deadline for a budget became theoretical. The judges in the minority maintained that the same was true of the appeal against the budget increase, but the majority of the judges felt that that petition merited discussion. And they ruled that the Knesset’s decision was unconstitutional.

This was yet another battle cry in the ongoing struggle for superiority between the Knesset and the Supreme Court. It has always been accepted that the court would not meddle in the Basic Laws—until now. And the court chose to weigh in on a highly political issue, to boot. This has ramped up the conflict between the two branches of the government to another record high.

Yariv Levin Denounces the Court’s Decision

The three judges who issued the minority opinion (who happen to be the three conservative judges who were appointed during Ayelet Shaked’s tenure as justice minister) argued that the court should not set a precedent by interfering with a Basic Law. Judicial oversight of Basic Laws, they maintained, would raise fundamental questions about the parameters of the court’s authority and might be construed as misuse of the court’s authority. They maintained that the court had no business entering the political arena and interfering with the passage of legislation, which should remain in the purview of elected officials who are accountable to the voters.

I admit that I am not familiar with all the details of the issue, aside from the fact that this is the fiercest clash between the Supreme Court and the Knesset since the founding of the state. But all I needed to appreciate the situation was to read the unprecedented statement issued by the Knesset speaker within minutes after the court released its ruling: “The Supreme Court’s decision to issue a notice of disqualification for a Basic Law is a decision that is completely unauthorized and shocking. We are witnessing an insane event, in which a small group of six people have cloaked themselves in judicial robes in order to carry out a coup. This is a decision lacking any validity, as it is opposed to the basic principles of national sovereignty, separation of powers, and the rule of law. I will forcefully oppose this effort to override our democracy, and I will protect the standing and authority of the Knesset.”

MK Ayelet Shaked, who served in the past as justice minister, also responded to the ruling: “The court has exceeded its authority in an outrageous decision that is another step toward a coup. The differences of opinion among the judges in this ruling are not surprising, and this attests to the need to continue appointing conservative justices who will preserve the principle of separation of powers.”

Shabbos Lobby Head Doesn’t Count His Words

Boruch Hashem, the coronavirus situation is continuing to improve and more restrictions are being lifted. Meanwhile, here is a small anecdote from the Knesset. MK Moshe Abutbul took the podium in the Knesset this week to praise Israir Airlines for its decision to stop operating flights on Shabbos. Abutbul is the leader of the Caucus for Preserving Shabbos. “Israir Airlines announced that it would stop flying on Shabbos,” he began. “This was a courageous and positive step that was taken four months after the deal was sealed by businessmen Rami Levi and Shalom Chaim to assume ownership of the airline. It was exciting to hear Mr. Shalom Chaim’s declaration: ‘I am a religious Jew, a shomer Shabbos, and all of my businesses are closed on Shabbos.’ This wasn’t a personal whim; it was part of the DNA of the Jewish people. Israir was joined in this decision by Sun D’Or, the subsidiary of El Al, which took its policies one step further with the transfer of ownership to Eli Rosenberg and decided to cease its Shabbos flights on Sun D’Or as well. This is definitely a breath of fresh air with respect to Shabbos, which is the source of all brocha and parnossah. As the chairman of the Caucus for the Preservation of Shabbos, I congratulate you….”

Getting the Story Straight

In his introduction to the Oz V’Hadar edition of the Mishnah Berurah, Rav Avrohom Yitzchok Rothenstein explains that reproducing a fundamental halachic text is a tremendous responsibility. Altering even a single word, a letter, or even a punctuation mark can corrupt the text and render it difficult to understand or even misleading. Even expanding Hebrew abbreviations is fraught with potential for trouble; the phrase “ayin shom” can be inadvertently rendered “Olas Shabbos,” and the abbreviation for “v’ein lomar” might be changed to “v’efshar lomar,” a phrase that has the opposite meaning.

I recently discovered that one must also be very careful when drawing a halachic conclusion from an actual incident. Rav Yaakov Katz of Amsterdam, the author of Leket Hakemach Hachodosh, once wrote in a letter to Rav Sraya Deblitzky: “In Hilchos Tzitzis, I wrote the following: Once, [the Chazon Ish] arrived at Mincha on Shabbos wearing his tallis, and I presumed that since the Sephardim customarily wear talleisim at Mincha, the Chazon Ish wished to do the same on this one occasion. However, when I davened with him in his home almost every day, morning and night, I never saw him do this on another occasion.” This letter was printed in Yeshurun, accompanied by a footnote that placed the incident in an entirely different light: “Maaseh Ish, vol. 2, p. 94, quotes Rav Chaim Kanievsky as relating that [the Chazon Ish’s] hat once became dirty, and he wore a tallis in its place to cover his head. However, he did not do this as a regular practice.”

A Meeting at the Kosel

Anyone who paid a shiva call to the family of Rav Ariel Tzadik was bound to be overcome by emotion and admiration. Rav Ariel was a pure and holy man who was taken from our midst in the tragedy in Meron. His family leads a simple life, serving Hashem with faith and sincerity. Rav Ariel’s son Mendy related that his father used to attend a shiur every Friday in the Old City, and that he would then go to the Kosel and help visitors put on tefillin.

One time, Rabbi Tzadik asked a man at the Kosel if he wanted to put on tefillin, but he received an angry shout in response. “First go to the army and then tell people to wear tefillin!” the man rebuked him.

“Do you know the number 32586?” Rabbi Tzadik asked him, citing his ID number form his period of service in the army. Every soldier in the Israeli army receives a personal military ID number, which is also engraved on a dog tag that he is required to wear throughout his service. The main purpose is to enable a body to be identified in the event of a soldier’s death, chas v’shalom, and thus to spare the soldier’s wife from becoming an agunah. Reb Ariel later confessed to his children that he had no idea why he had asked that particular question, and that He felt that Hashem had placed the words in his mouth.

The other man was shocked. He seized Rabbi Tzadik’s shoulders and demanded, “Why did you ask me about that number?”

“Why? What’s the matter?” Ariel asked in alarm.

“It is almost identical to my military number,” the stranger replied.

“It is my own military number,” Ariel explained. “I am not sure why I said it.”

“And my number is 32587,” the other man said in wonder.

As you can imagine, he proceeded to put on tefillin with great emotion.