Thursday, May 30, 2024

My Take On The News

The Winter Zman Begins

Well, here we are. The Yomim Tovim are over, our sukkos have been dismantled, and we have all returned our s’chach to various places of storage. It is the time known is Israel as acharei hachagim—after the holidays—and we are now beginning our journey into the winter of 5782.

The Yom Tov season was a joyous and enriching time for all of us; according to the statistics held by the Kosel Heritage Foundation, one million people visited the Kosel during the month of Tishrei this year. Of course, some of those visitors arrived during the nighttime hours, when tens of thousands of people descend on the Kosel for Selichos, and many others were there on Chol Hamoed. But regardless of how the visits were distributed across the month, it is still a staggering number.

I wrote in a separate article this week about some of my own experiences this Chol Hamoed, but there is much more that I could write about. Personally, I enjoyed the company of the talmidim of Yeshivas Ner Moshe, which is located in my neighborhood of Givat Shaul, on the Yom Tov of Simchas Torah. I met several bochurim from Lakewood and Brooklyn (and one from London, as well) who joined us in the Pressburg shul for the hakafos and enhanced the experience.

I also found myself in Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital at one point during the holiday, and I was impressed by the massive sukkah constructed on the hospital’s grounds. I found it deeply moving to watch patients “dancing” in their wheelchairs with the guests who had come to visit them. Of course, I could always write at great length about the wonderful chesed organizations that operate in the hospitals of Yerushalayim every day, bringing joy to the patients confined to their wards or even to their rooms. I watched the volunteers from several of these organizations in action, and I was literally moved to tears. This was true chesed at its best. These people come to the hospitals even at the most hectic and challenging times in their own lives, such as erev Yom Kippur and Chol Hamoed. They will certainly reap enormous reward for their prodigious acts of kindness.

May we all have a healthy, productive, and successful winter.

Bennett at the UN: An Empty Speech in an Empty Hall

Naftoli Bennett visited New York on Hoshana Rabbah to deliver a speech to the United Nations. (Unfortunately, he flew back to Israel on the second day of Yom Tov; although it was already Isru Chag here in Israel, it was Yom Tov in America). He mouthed the expected platitudes about Iran, as could be expected, but he said very little aside from that. He discussed the coronavirus pandemic, and he saw fit, for some reason, to attack the medical professionals in Israel. His speech evoked heaping doses of criticism, both for the things he said and for the things he didn’t say.

Bennett was roundly derided from many directions for delivering a meaningless speech. “It was an empty speech delivered in an empty hall,” the Likud party commented scathingly. Even the American press chose to ignore his appearance almost entirely. Bennett actually said very little, and even the things that he said were untrue. He spoke about the coronavirus and claimed, “We established a national task force that meets every day and is intended to make rapid decisions.” This was a lie; the Coronavirus Cabinet does not meet nearly that often. In fact, it was strange that Bennett made that claim, since no rational person would try to get away with a lie that can easily be exposed, and certainly not one that is patently false. It seems, however, that Bennett does not operate under the same rules as the average person…. In any event, he was heavily criticized for his comments regarding the pandemic. At this point, Israel cannot possibly take pride in its handling of the coronavirus. Unfortunately, in light of his failures on that front, Israel is no longer relevant as a leading force in the battle against Covid-19.

Bennett was also criticized for failing to mention the Palestinians. On that count, however, I can actually explain his reticence. Bennett’s supporters claim that he deliberately ignored the Palestinian issue in order to communicate to the United Nations that they should not meddle in the matter. Personally, I think the explanation is far simpler: Bennett was aware that anything that he would say would anger someone in the impossible coalition of right-wing and left-wing parties that makes up Israel’s government today. Anything he said in New York was bound to create trouble for him in Yerushalayim. In fact, Naftoli Bennett is basically incapable of speaking about any matter of substance without claiming to one faction in his coalition that he lied to the other. But if he does that, then none of the coalition members will be able to be certain that they themselves were not betrayed. Bennett’s problem is that no one believes him today; he has completely lost the country’s trust. Even when he says nothing, he is suspected of lying.

Problematic Clauses in the Budget

And now for some political news.

This week, the Knesset began its winter session. That means that we will be returning to the endless war of attrition between the opposition and the government, with its all-night debates in the Knesset and the ongoing efforts to embarrass the coalition. During the coming month, the government is required to pass its budget in its final two readings. (It passed the first reading with relative ease before Rosh Hashanah.) This might be challenging, since the Arabs are irked by the fact that the government’s exorbitant promises to their sector haven’t been fulfilled in their entirety—and the government relies on the Arabs’ support for its continued existence. Nevertheless, the Arabs will almost certainly get anything they demand. The government has very little choice in the matter; the alternative is political suicide. Ironically, the Finance Ministry is headed by Yvette Lieberman, who has always been considered (at least until the current government was formed) to be the Arab’s most ardent enemy. Until just a few months ago, the very thought of Lieberman making concessions to the Arabs would have been unimaginable. Apparently, the need for political survival has trumped his ideology, if he has one….

The budget bill has been expanded to include several other issues that are completely unrelated to the state budget. One of those topics is the overhaul of the kashrus system, a plan that the chareidi parties intend to fight with all their strength. It is still possible that the kashrus reform will fail; Matan Kahana, the Minister of Religious Affairs, has begun to buckle slightly under the onslaught of opposition from every direction. Last motzoei Shabbos, Rav Yitzchak Yosef, the Rishon Letzion and Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, spoke out harshly against Kahana and his kashrus plan. Incidentally, the chareidi parties—United Torah Judaism and Shas—have made a sweeping decision to eschew any cooperation with the coalition on this subject. The chareidim are completely boycotting the meetings of the committee that is discussing the reforms, and they refuse to meet with Kahana for any purpose.

There are some issues that have bred dissonance within the coalition itself, and I am not certain that its members will manage to bridge these gaps. This government includes both staunchly right-wing politicians such as Bennett, Saar, and Elkin, and avowed liberals such as the Meretz and Labor parties. There are some clauses even within the budget itself, such as funding for roads in the settlements, that are bound to be subject to fierce controversy. The Minister of Transportation is the head of the Labor party, and she is adamantly opposed to anything that smacks of support for the settlements; it is hard to imagine that she will tolerate that clause. Incidentally, this woman also spent the past two months in America and chose to return to Israel on a flight that landed on Shabbos. This was both saddening and embarrassing for our country. The issue of Arab violence (which will be discussed in the following section) is also bound to be a hot topic, as well as the appointment of judges to the Supreme Court. We often hear predictions of a “hot winter” in the Knesset; this year, it seems inevitable that those predictions will come true.

A Near-Lynch Sparks an Uproar

This week, the country was in an uproar after a lynch was nearly perpetrated against police officers in an Arab settlement. The policemen arrived early on Friday morning at the office of a private security company in Kfar Kassem, a village in Israeli territory, where they attempted to search for a violent criminal who was reportedly hiding there. The police officers found themselves facing stiff opposition that rapidly spiraled into violence. At a court hearing after the arrest of several local residents, a police representative said, “I ask the court to recognize the severity of this incident. These are people who took the law into their own hands and decided that law enforcement personnel should not be permitted to enter a place where the law permits them to go. The resistance was extremely violent, and the officers were injured in the clashes.”

Pictures of a police officer with a bloodied face led to a storm of outrage. The general sense was that the Israeli police themselves are quaking in fear of the residents of Arab villages. Of course, the chareidim immediately noted the contrast between the events in Kfar Kassem and the incident in Bnei Brak last January, when a fight between a small group of bochurim and two plainclothes police officers led to a major police raid on the city. A huge battalion of police officers marched into Bnei Brak and went on a rampage that lasted throughout the night, purely to make a show of strength. Yet in Kfar Kassem, after police officers were attacked, there was no response at all.

Prime Minister Bennett reacted by announcing, “I stand with the police officers who were attacked with brutal violence in Kfar Kassem. The violence in Arab society has reached an intolerable point, and we will fight against it with all our strength. I expect the Arab community, which has asked the government to intervene, to give its full backing and support to the police. We will find the attackers and bring them to justice.”

The commissioner of the police force, Yaakov Shabtai, also issued a harsh statement condemning the attack: “We will not accept acts of violence against police officers such as the incident in Kfar Kassem. I have instructed the district police force to act forcefully and with determination and to apprehend anyone who took part in this incident. We will provide them with all the resources and reinforcements that they need.”

Of course, these were empty words. The police and the government alike are afraid of the Arab sector—especially considering that the government itself depends on the Arabs’ good graces for its very existence!

In any event, the contrast with the episode in Bnei Brak last winter only serves to illustrate the double standard facing the chareidi community in this country.

Horowitz Ducks a Tough Question

Much like Bennett’s “speech about nothing” in the United Nations, many of the government ministers’ responses to parliamentary queries are likewise devoid of any real content. When government officials want to evade a question, they often use highly verbose responses to mask the fact that they are not answering the question at all.

I came across a blatant example of this phenomenon in a recent exchange. A parliamentary query was submitted about the pressure brought to bear on the government to exclude Russia from the list of red countries, to which travel from Israel is prohibited. The text of the query read: “It was recently publicized that the Ministry of Health has come under pressure to exclude Russia from the list of red countries. Is this true? If so, who was responsible for that pressure, and did the pressure yield any results?”

I can easily speculate about the impetus for the query. When the media reported last year that chareidim had pressured the government for the right to travel to Uman for Rosh Hashanah and that “yungeleit from America” had brought the coronavirus into the country, it led to a major outcry. This time, however, the pressure to relax restrictions on travel from Russia did not evoke any protest. Why not? Was it simply because the pressure did not come from chareidim? In contrast, the government saw fit to adopt an aggressive stance toward Breslov chassidim who returned from Uman and were accused of fabricating negative coronavirus tests—allegations that were later determined to be false.

The question, in any event, was entirely valid, and it received a very long response from Nitzan Horowitz, the Minister of Health. Horowitz went into great detail in describing the entire history of the coronavirus, including an overview of the three models used throughout the world in the fight against the virus and a dire description of the situation in Russia. (“The percentage and scope of patients entering the country from there is continuing to rise,” he wrote, in a convoluted sentence whose meaning wasn’t entirely clear.) Horowitz also admitted that the rumors were true: “In recent days, the Ministry of Health has received many requests from various individuals, organizations, and private and public entities, including members of the Knesset and ministers in the government, to reevaluate the possibility of excluding Russia from the list of countries to which travel is limited, in light of the improvement in contagion levels.” Horowitz revealed that an astounding 90 percent of the requests submitted to the Exceptions Committee (which approves travel in exceptional cases to countries in the red category) came from people seeking to travel to Russia. But he did not answer the most important question: Who has been pressuring the government to lift the restrictions on travel from Russia?

Major Terror Attack Thwarted in Yerushalayim

The Israeli news reported that authorities uncovered a large quantity of explosives that had been designated for use in a major terror attack in Yerushalayim. This was frightening indeed. It reminded me of a famous comment on the posuk in Tehillim where Dovid Hamelech states, “Praise Hashem, all the nations … for His kindness has overcome us.” Why should the nations of the world praise Hashem for His kindness to Klal Yisroel? The answer is that they are the only ones who are aware of the true extent of their plots against the Jewish people. We are sometimes blissfully unaware of the dangers from which we have been saved.

The battle against terror, in Israel as a whole and in Yerushalayim in particular, takes place on a daily basis. Just before Yom Kippur this year, a terrorist attempted to murder two yeshiva bochurim in a stabbing outside the Central Bus Station in Yerushalayim. The victims were listed as lightly to moderately wounded, and the stabber was neutralized on the spot. Paramedics from Magen Dovid Adom were called immediately to the site of the attack, and the victims were evacuated to Shaare Zedek Hospital. The hospital later released a statement that their conditions had been stabilized, and they were suffering from wounds to their upper bodies. Baruch Hashem, the bochurim have since been released.

Last Thursday, another terror attack took place when an Arab attempted to stab police officers on Rechov Hashalsheles in the Old City of Yerushalayim. There were also several attempted incursions on the southern border, which were repelled by Israeli soldiers. In one incident, two soldiers were seriously wounded. But again, this is just the little that we know about the many disasters from which Hashem is constantly sparing us.

Another Act of Vandalism in Petach Tikvah

Another news article, citing a study conducted in Hebrew University, bore the headline, “After Riots, Mutual Fear Between Jews and Arabs.” Now, I can certainly understand why the Jews are afraid. We have seen pogroms carried out with blind, indiscriminate hatred; we have witnessed the torching of shuls in acts of pure, venomous hate. In the cities with mixed populations of Arabs and Jews—Yaffo, Akko, Haifa, even Yerushalayim, and, of course, Lod—the threat of violence is constant. I didn’t need the researchers from Hebrew University in Yerushalayim to tell me this. The article also related that the researchers had concluded that many more Jews than Arabs live in fear of violence. Once again, this was a fact that should have been plainly evident, even without the researchers’ contributions.

Meanwhile, we are all waiting to hear if the police investigations into the violence in Lod have borne fruit. Have the arsonists who torched shuls in Lod (and in Haifa, as well) been identified and captured? Will they be brought to justice for their crimes?

Speaking of shuls, I should add that the Chen Hatzafon shul in Petach Tikvah was ransacked on Shabbos Chol Hamoed. The vandals broke into the shul, opened the aron kodesh, ripped the covers off the sifrei Torah, and threw the sifrei Torah on the floor. This is the second time that the shul was desecrated; a similar incident took place in January, when both Chen Hatzafon and another shul in the area, Ahavas Yisroel, were vandalized. In that incident, the criminals also stole some valuable silver items. This time, the mispallelim discovered the vandalism when they arrived in the shul on Shabbos morning, and the police were notified about the incident.

Attacking Chareidim Isn’t a Separate Class of Crime

On a related note, one of the chareidi members of the Knesset sent the following parliamentary query to the Minister of Internal Security: “On July 26, it was reported that a man armed with a knife was arrested after he chased chareidim and tore a mezuzah off the door of a shul. Have the police observed a preponderance of incidents of violence against chareidim? What did the police find in their investigation of the man who was arrested?”

Perhaps I should let you draw your own conclusions from the minister’s response, which I will quote here: “This query was relayed to the relevant officials in the police force for their response. They replied that the police do not categorize crimes based on the victims’ affiliations with specific religious groups, and they are therefore unable to respond to the first question. As for the second question, the suspect was arrested during the course of the incident. Since the investigation is still continuing, the question cannot be answered at this time.”

This minister apparently does nothing but parrot the words of the police. We have learned in the past that vandalizing a shul does not qualify as a separate category of crime in Israel; any attack on a shul is grouped together in police records with crimes targeting churches or mosques, l’havdil—even though a Jewish state should take special interest in crimes affecting its shuls! And this latest response has exposed another shameful policy: The police do not monitor hate crimes against chareidim. That is unconscionable, and it is equally vexing that the minister himself merely relayed this statement without objecting to the policy itself. The response to the second question was also unreasonable; why couldn’t the police reveal the preliminary findings of their investigation?

A Rash of Smuggling of Treif Meat

Once we are discussing parliamentary queries, I can’t help but quote another recent response to a parliamentary query, which I believe places the very status of Israel as a Jewish state in doubt.

The question submitted to the minister was prompted by a report that the authorities had seized a shipment of treif meat from the Palestinian Authority that was intended to be sold in Israel. The agriculture minister was asked how many similar shipments had been apprehended in the past and what penalties had been given to the smugglers. For the chareidi lawmaker who was pursuing the matter, the crux of the matter wasn’t so much the sanitary standards of the meat; rather, it was the fact that this meat was likely to be sold with false kashrus certification to innocent Jews who wished to eat only kosher food.

The Minister of Agriculture claimed in his response that the shipment’s destination was unknown. This was a bit strange, but he claimed that if it were discovered, the Chief Rabbinate would have been notified about where the meat was headed. As for the penalty, it clearly provided nothing in the way of deterrence: The meat itself was destroyed and the perpetrators were fined a paltry 15,000 NIS. With such a low penalty, I can’t imagine what would deter a criminal from making another attempt. What is equally appalling is the fact that 81 such incidents took place between January and October of the year 2020. That should definitely call for a reckoning within the Israeli government.

Why do I say that I often have the feeling that we are not living in a Jewish state? Because there are ministers in the government and members of the Knesset who talk and think like non-Jews. Take this simple example: The Minister of Health recently ordered the Abu Kabir Forensic Institute to remain open on Shabbos. The institute’s work does not involve dealing with any life-threatening matters; Horowitz was simply upholding his own worldview, which does not consider Shabbos to be different from any other day of the week. And while the chareidi parties are in the opposition and limited in their influence, the one thing they can still do is object vociferously to this trampling of Jewish values. As the Chofetz Chaim reportedly once said to the rov of a city who described a flagrant violation of halacha that he was powerless to stop, “You were able to faint, weren’t you? Why didn’t you faint?”

An Event for Bnei Yeshivos at the Arena

There are plenty of topics in the news to discuss—politics, the coronavirus, the Knesset, Bennett, and so forth—but I must first draw your attention to the thousands upon thousands of bochurim and yungeleit who are returning to their yeshivos and kollelim as the winter z’man begins. They all enjoyed an interesting bein hazemanim, which consisted primarily of Yom Tov and Chol Hamoed, and now the time has come to return to their shtenders.

During the bein hazemanim vacation in Tishrei, it is a common practice for events to be organized for bnei yeshivos. In spite of the admission fees charged at some of the events, they are often filled to capacity. Other events are free of charge and sponsored by municipalities such as the cities of Modiin Illit, Ashdod, Beitar Illit, Beit Shemesh, and, of course, Yerushalayim. Mayor Moshe Leon of Yerushalayim has earmarked large sums of money for musical performances tailored to meet the standards of bnei yeshivos—and those events, too, tend to be packed with attendees.

The biggest event of this bein hazemanim was held on Sunday at the Arena Hall in Yerushalayim. While it featured some musical performances, the real reason for the overflowing crowd was that the event was also attended by the two leaders of our generation, Rav Chaim Kanievsky and Rav Gershon Edelstein. The event served as a sort of salute to the bnei Torah who were returning to the benches of the country’s botei medrash, and it was quite moving. The demand for tickets was sky-high. In every neighborhood of the city, the tickets were distributed by the local igud (a type of committee that works on behalf of local bnei Torah; the idea originated in Ramot Aleph, as I once reported here, and was copied in many other neighborhoods in the city). So let us, too, salute the bnei Torah who are about to embark on an unusually long winter zman, complete with an extra month of Adar.

A Blood Libel Against Travelers from Uman

On the coronavirus front, things seem to be worsening. There have been many fatalities here in Israel (and that is to say nothing of the situation in the world as a whole, which has already exceeded 5 million fatalities, with five people dying every minute). Nevertheless, I have two interesting observations to make.

First, as the Breslov chassidim who had traveled to Uman for Rosh Hashanah began returning to Israel, reports began to circulate that thousands of the travelers had faked their negative coronavirus test results in order to be allowed to return. The chassidim themselves denied the reports and claimed that the tests performed by MDA in Uman had resulted in false positive results, and that they had been retested and confirmed that they were not carrying the virus. In Israel, they were accused of lying and forging their test results, and even the prime minister attacked them. The police went so far as to announce a criminal investigation. But before long, it became clear that the chassidim were telling the truth; they had legitimately tested negative for corona before boarding their flights back to Israel. The police responded by sending messages to inform them that the investigations had been canceled and they were no longer required to show up for questioning; however, no apologies were offered.

On a similar note, you may recall that Rav Chaim Kanievsky ruled in the past that Talmudei Torah should remain open during the pandemic, even when the government insisted on closing all schools. Rav Chaim made his own calculations, and the chareidi community obeyed his instructions. Naturally, this led the chareidi community to be maligned viciously in the media. During the current wave of the pandemic, meanwhile, the government decided that all elementary schools should open at the beginning of the academic year in spite of the rising infection rates. The government’s about-face was mocked even in the secular media, which led to headlines that snickered that the government had decided to adopt Rav Chaim Kanievsky’s position after all. Once again, did this lead anyone to apologize to the chareidi community? Absolutely not!

A Fatal Accident Near Meron

Of course, there are other stories to discuss as well, such as the horrific accident in the Upper Galilee. Last Wednesday, a mother and her three children were killed in a horrific crash on the highway, while the father of the family was severely injured. This took place on Route 89 and claimed the lives of 35-year-old Moran Ben-Eli of Maalot and her three children, Dekel, Liam, Annael, who were 15, 12, and 5 years old, respectively. The family members were traveling in their car at the time. The fifth fatality was Asher Basson, the driver of a bus that was carrying a group of students in the Bnei Akiva movement. Three private cars, including a taxi, were involved in the accident, which also left five people critically wounded and another six in moderate condition. Over 20 other people were lightly injured and were taken to hospitals in Nahariya and Tzefas.

Traffic accidents are a terrible scourge in Israel (as in many other places in the world). According to the National Road Safety Authority, 270 people have been killed in traffic accidents since the beginning of the year 2021. Last year, there were 233 fatalities during the corresponding period.

There are many other topics that I should probably write about, such as the state inquiry commission that is still probing the Meron disaster and that heard the testimony of several senior police officials this week. I could also write about the ongoing saga of the draft for yeshiva bochurim, which has been brought to the Knesset for discussion. That, however, will require lengthier treatment; bli neder, I will report more fully on that issue in the near future.



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