Thursday, Dec 9, 2021

My Take On The News

Bennett Leaves for Climate Summit, Insists Budget Will Pass

This week, the opening topic for this column is obvious—the state budget. Will the budget pass? The answer to that question is probably yes. Will the government be able to make sure that no one betrays the coalition by voting against it? Again, yes. In the worst case scenario, the government will have to make a few more concessions to the Arabs, perhaps even to the Joint Arab List, and then it will secure a majority for the budget. The opposition will keep up its filibuster, but the budget will pass. The real question isn’t whether it will pass, but what will happen afterward. Will the government be able to strengthen itself and begin to work properly, or will that mark the beginning of its disintegration?

On Sunday, Prime Minister Bennett traveled to Scotland for a climate summit. As he strode toward the plane waiting to whisk him off to Europe, he sounded very sure of himself. “We are expecting a crazy week that will become increasingly wild as we approach the vote on the budget,” he told the press. “Once the budget is passed, the government will have guaranteed itself many years of stability. To the opposition, this spells their destruction; they understand that, and they are desperate. They want to topple the government and go to a fifth election. This will be the great week of fake news, but there is nothing they can do to bring down the government. Let them spare themselves the effort; the budget will pass. I would like to ask the Knesset members in the coalition to act with patience. This week will end with the passage of the budget.”

Bennett didn’t utter a word about the climate, which was really of no concern to him. All he wanted was to be able to return to Israel after having his picture taken with a few world leaders at the summit. Out of the 200 people who would be attending, he would surely find a few who would be interested in a shared photo-op. In response to his statement, the Likud party announced, “The only thing that is continuing to be shattered to pieces is the public standing of Naftoli Bennett, who is falling more and more. Bennett isn’t even passing the electoral threshold [in the latest polls]. He is lower than the level of the Dead Sea.”

Indeed, according to a poll released last Friday, Bennett and his party would not make it across the electoral threshold if an election were held today. That means that the prime minister of Israel doesn’t have a country behind him. He has no support and no party backing him. This is utterly unprecedented.

The Government Fights for Survival

Bennett was right about one thing: The state budget is bound to be the topic of the week.

By law, the budget must be passed by November 13. If the budget isn’t passed by that deadline, then the government will fall automatically. This year, November 13 falls on Shabbos, which means that the budget will have to be passed by the previous Thursday. This has the government feeling intense pressure, which has led it to take unprecedented steps to guarantee its survival.

For instance, on Monday the Knesset began its sitting at 10:00 in the morning. This has never happened before; the Knesset always convenes at 4:00 in the afternoon on Mondays. Why did the Knesset speaker move up the beginning of the session? Because he was scared of the opposition’s filibuster! Opposition MKs in the opposition submitted thousands of reservations on the budget bill, and every reservation entitles the lawmaker who filed it to three minutes at the Knesset podium. Multiply those three minutes by several thousand, and you will see that the opposition secured itself hundreds of speaking hours. If they so desire, they can signifyingly  delay the budget vote.

The proposed budget has already earned the government heaping doses of criticism and scorn. To placate every member of the coalition and ensure that no coalition MKs would vote against the bill, the government made enormous concessions to every party on its roster. When Yair Lapid was in the opposition, he always would decry the distribution of coalition funds as if it was a form of corruption, yet he is now copying the same behavior that he always condemned. Even the media, which usually fawns over Lapid, somehow found it within itself to lambast him for his blatant hypocrisy.

The one provision of the budget that captured the country’s attention was the allocation of 12 million shekels for the benefit of street cats (see below). The government was able to come up with this money even while it claimed that it doesn’t have the funds to fulfill other obligations, such as its pledge to increase the wages of soldiers in compulsory army service. (That should not be confused with the salaries paid to officers in the army, which are quite generous and include pension benefits.)

The state budget is bad for the weaker sectors of society and for the country’s bnei Torah. I have written in the past about the cuts in day care subsidies targeting kollel yungeleit; as you may recall, Finance Minister Lieberman decided to pull the subsidies from families in which only the mother is employed—in other words, families in which the father learns in kollel. The Finance Ministry is now preparing to strike another blow at yungeleit by limiting discounts on property taxes, which are given to low income families, by reducing the onerous tax only for  families in which both parents work. And that is aside from the draconian cuts to government funding for yeshivos and kollelim.

Sparks Fly Between Israel and Washington

The budget may be the dominant issue this week, but it is far from the only cause for concern. The rising diplomatic tensions between Israel and America are another major issue. Defense Minister Benny Gantz angered Washington by labeling six Palestinian groups as terror organizations; this led Bennett to send a special emissary to Washington to explain Israel’s move. The government’s decision to build 3000 new apartments in Yehuda and the Shomron also evoked a fierce reaction from Washington; that response has been echoed so far by 16 countries in Europe. The planned reopening of the United States consulate in East Yerushalayim has been another point of contention between Israel and America.

In addition to all that, there was no small measure of embarrassment when Ayelet Shaked was recorded fiercely criticizing Yair Lapid in a closed conversation, in which she accused him of creating a new diplomatic debacle every week. As humiliating as this may have been, her assessment also seems to be on target. Lapid appears to be a complete novice who is wreaking havoc with everything he does.

At the same time, there may be some good news with regard to Israeli-American relations. Rumor has it that the American policy will soon be changed to permit Israelis to enter the country without visas. That development would be welcomed by everyone in Israel, since it is not easy to procure an American visa.

Meanwhile, the Israeli government was shamed by another incident this week as well: An investigative report revealed that Raam, the Arab party that received 53 billion shekels in funding for the Arab sector in exchange for its membership in the government, has been maintaining close ties with Hamas in Gaza. In fact, some of the funds that it received are being channeled to Gaza and will even be used for payments to the families of terrorist murderers. This was deeply embarrassing to the Israeli government, to say the least.

And then there is the coronavirus. The virus seems to be on the decline in Israel, boruch Hashem, but it is also obvious that the government does not have the faintest idea of what it is doing. Every move seems to be arbitrary; the government appears to lack a coherent strategy for dealing with the pandemic. Now, the government decided to permit gatherings in open areas and to allow tourists to enter the country. Israel has also acquired millions of vaccines for children, and the government intends to begin inoculating children soon. At the same time, there is great concern that the new variant of the virus will enter the country, and it isn’t clear how effective the vaccines will be against this latest strain.

Ambassador Erdan Upbraids the UN

What else is in the news this week? For one thing, Israel has changed the clocks. We have officially returned to standard time, which makes a difference primarily regarding the zmanim for tefillah and Krias Shema. I still remember the fierce battles that were fought in the government in previous years over the changing of the clocks.

Then there was an ominous development in Greece., The Greek government recently decided to outlaw Jewish shechitah, claiming that it violates the laws of the European Union. Greece may not be one of the world’s most powerful countries, but there is no telling how far the effects of its actions will ripple.

In other news, the United Nations has always been hostile to Israel, but it seems to be setting a new record for antagonism. Last week, the Israeli ambassador to the UN, Gilad Erdan, spoke out harshly against the United Nations Human Rights Council and its annual report. Speaking to the General Assembly, he declared, “The Human Rights Council has disappointed all of us once again; it has disappointed people throughout the world who are suffering from violations of their rights, and whose voices are not being heard…. Ever since the council was established about 15 years ago, it has condemned Israel in 95 different resolutions, as opposed to the total of 142 resolutions condemning other countries in the world. The State of Israel has always given, and will always continue to give, vital aid to the countries of the world. Nevertheless, Israel is the country that the Human Rights Council has chosen to continue attacking with its displays of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic hatred.”

At the end of his speech, Ambassador Erdan mentioned that one of his predecessors in the position, Chaim Herzog, had torn up the UN resolution equating Zionism with racism. “At this very podium in this very organization,” Erdan said, “the right of the Jewish nation to a national home was declared to be racist. Just as the Israeli ambassador at the time tore up that resolution at this podium, the same should be done to the anti-Semitic and one-sided report that you are presenting. It belongs in the dustbin of anti-Semitism, and that is exactly how we will relate to it.”

After he had finished speaking, Erdan proceeded to tear up the report and then left the podium.

Criminal Terror and Loss of Control

The plague of violence is spreading in Israel. It is mainly in the Arab sector, but it has also spread to Bat Yam, Nahariya, and Kiryat Motzkin. People have been murdered in the streets; one of Israel’s newspapers decried the wave of crime in large, red letters as “criminal terror.” Another media outlet viewed it as a sign that the police are losing control. But the police are only part of the problem; callous disregard for human life is becoming increasingly widespread. This is an eerie echo of the events of a recent parshah; Avrohom Avinu feared that the lack of yiras Shomayim in Gerar would cost him his life, and yiras Shomayim is likewise absent on the streets of Israel.

Remember the police officer who was bleeding on the streets of Kfar Kassem? This Israeli policeman was viciously beaten by Arab citizens. The attack sparked an outpouring of outrage, and Internal Security Minister Omar Bar-Lev responded with typical bravado, “The suspects who were arrested will be brought to justice, as will any person who thinks that he can raise his hand against a uniformed officer of the Israel police force.” But these were empty words.

During the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah this year, unidentified criminals opened fire at the home in Kfar Kana of Jamal Hakroush, the high-ranking Arab police official who was overseeing the fight against crime in Arab areas. This incident evoked the same display of resolve from Bar-Lev, who announced grimly, “The gunfire tonight was nothing less than an open declaration of war of the crime families against the Israel Police, the force that stands on the front lines of the battle to protect the State of Israel. This was a grave mistake on their part.” Once again, though, those words did not lead to actions of any kind.

These were far from the only times that the authorities have made empty threats. At the end of the month of Av, swastikas were scrawled on the walls of a Young Israel shul in Bnei Brak. Prime Minister Bennett reacted by announcing, “We will not let this pass in silence. The police will bring the perpetrators to justice; we will make sure that they pay for their crimes.” Bar-Lev similarly warned the criminals through the media, “We will get our hands on you, and you will pay for this. You should be ashamed!” Meanwhile, more shuls have been vandalized, and nothing has been done to stop it. It seems that the police themselves deserve a share of that shame!

Police Indifference to Desecration of Shuls

On a related note, three shuls in Har Nof were recently ransacked: the Yemenite shul, the Dabbach shul, and the Dutch shul. This time, the vandalism seemed to be criminal in nature rather than nationalistically motivated, but that does little to mitigate the distress and outrage that it has evoked. These three incidents are the latest in a long series of break-ins and desecrations of shuls in numerous cities throughout the country, including Lod, Yerushalayim, Haifa, and Petach Tikvah. At one of the shuls in Petach Tivkah, the recent vandalism was a repeat offense.

This is a sad condemnation of the police themselves. The police have the ability to show determination when it interests them, but when they do not wish to attend to something, they demonstrate laxity and indifference. And when the police broadcast a lack of concern, the atmosphere trickles down to others as well. The law enforcement system has sent a clear message to criminals that the desecration of a shul will not be taken seriously. After all, when was the last time that anyone was arrested, tried, or given a significant sentence for such a crime? Any one of those measures would have been a tool for deterrence, but when the criminals go uncaught and unpunished, the police and the courts themselves are to blame for the frequency of the crimes. They are indirectly abetting the desecration of shuls throughout Israel.

“May I Have a Smotrich?”

I would like to let you in on one of the code words employed in the lounge behind the Knesset’s main chamber. That code word is “Smotrich.”

Sounds cryptic? I will explain.

The lounge contains a coffee station that is used by everyone who is authorized to enter the room. Mrs. Tziona Tzairi is the dedicated worker who stands behind the counter, serving her customers faithfully. This week, Mrs. Tzairi celebrated her birthday and many members of the Knesset took advantage of the provision for one-minute speeches to congratulate her. After being praised by the full gamut of Israeli parliamentarians, from Bitton to Ginzburg and from Margi to Yitzchok Halevy, Mrs. Tzairi cried, “Stop; you are embarrassing me!”

Now, what is a “Smotrich”? It is a glass of warm milk sweetened with honey and cinnamon (without sugar), and it is Betzalel Smotrich’s beverage of choice; in fact, it has even acquired his name. Anyone who is interested in this drink knows to approach the counter and ask, “Tziona, may I have a Smotrich?”

An Advocate for Cats and Pigs

Last Tuesday, the world discovered that there is a woman in the Knesset by the name of Yasmin Sachs Fridman. This revelation came when the media announced her “achievement” in the state budget: an allocation of 12 million shekels for the benefit of the country’s stray cats. The news reports revealed, “MK Yasmin Sachs Fridman (Yesh Atid) and the other members of her party, in collaboration with Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Oded Forer, and with the help of the chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee, MK Alex Kushnir, have reached an agreement for this significant addition to the budget.” The announcement caused many eyebrows to rise around the country, with some of the saner members of the government hiding their faces in embarrassment. Unfortunately, the people who overflow with love for animals often tend to be far crueler to their fellow human beings.

MK Fridman actually made a name for herself in her maiden speech in the Knesset, when she announced that she is a third-generation cat feeder. Both her mother and her grandmother, she proclaimed, also made a habit of feeding stray cats. Now, I am not personally against feeding cats, but I find it hard to see why it should be flaunted as a major personal accomplishment. Fridman’s pet project, meanwhile, triggered an outpouring of outrage against the government, which is caring for stray animals on the streets at the expense of many people in Israel, such as the country’s soldiers. This government does not have the resources to raise the wages of its soldiers, yet it managed to cough up 12 million shekels for ownerless felines.

I can reveal to you that this isn’t Mrs. Fridman’s first outrageous initiative. She has already submitted a bill to the Knesset to protect the rights of pigs in Israel. Yes, you read that correctly. This bill specifies a minimum size for pigpens and even delineates the conditions under which the animals’ tails may be cut. Fridman wrote in the explanatory notes, “Pigs are sensitive and discerning creatures, even more so than dogs. Their level of intelligence is similar to that of a five-year-old child.”

To quote Prime Minister Bennett himself, I would respond to this, “Tell me something: Have you gone mad?”

Ministers Skip Debate on Compensation to Meron Victims

A motion for the agenda submitted by MK Michoel Malchieli has somehow managed to slip under the radar, in spite of its major importance and its bearing on a deeply sensitive issue for the chareidi community. “The victims of the Meron tragedy still haven’t been paid damages, in spite of the government’s commitment,” Malchieli reminded the Knesset. He went on to stir his listeners’ emotions by reading the names of the victims of the disaster aloud. Then he added, “Mr. Speaker, I have been contacted by individuals and families who are undergoing psychological treatments together with their small children. There are parents who have been forced to leave their jobs. Anyone who has dealt with bereaved families can tell you that their lives come to a halt, regardless of the cause of their loss. People are unable to go out to work. On the day they lose a relative, people’s lives simply stop. The family changes; the people are changed. There are people whom I know personally who lost a child in this terrible disaster; the mother does not leave her home. She remains at home all the time, mourning the loss of her child.”

Yet in spite of this agonizing situation, the government has not made good on its promises to help the shattered families. It has done nothing to help them with their struggle.

To make matters worse, there wasn’t a single government minister who appeared in the Knesset to listen to Malchieli’s speech. This is highly unusual, and it is a sign of cowardice and weakness on the part of the government. The Knesset decided unanimously to transfer the motion to the Interior Committee for further discussion. We can only hope that there will be a serious discussion there, with representatives of the families in attendance. And let us hope that the officials from the Treasury will not be able to avoid the meeting.

The Dangers of the Public Transportation Lane

Anyone who lives in Yerushalayim, or who has even visited the city, is aware that the traffic congestion has reached catastrophic levels. It is impossible to move even one centimeter on the streets—but then again, the day may come when we will be thankful for this period of road work. I still remember how motorists in Yerushalayim were outraged over the construction of the Begin Highway and the resulting traffic snarls, but no one denies today that the highway was the greatest boon for vehicle owners in the city. The road has shortened the drive from Ramot to Hadassah Hospital, for instance, from a full hour to fifteen minutes.

This week, the Ministry of Transportation proudly announced that it had completed the construction of a public transportation lane on Rechov Yirmiyohu. The notices added a word of caution: “Traffic will be coming from the right and the left.” And that is the problem. The public transportation lane features a green light for vehicles coming from both directions, at an intersection where pedestrians are accustomed to traffic coming only from one direction.

In Israel, we are used to expecting that when the light is green at an intersection for cars coming from one direction, it is red for those arriving from the other direction. If there is a green light for cars coming from the left, for instance, pedestrians do not expect vehicles to come from the right as well. For that reason, if they see that there are no cars coming from their left, they will automatically cross the street. Not that this is an acceptable practice, but it has become a habit. This habit has become dangerous with the advent of public transportation lanes, which contain vehicles coming from both directions at once. A child or an elderly person, or even the average adult, might not realize this and thus might find himself walking directly into the path of an oncoming bus. The danger is significant and obvious.

On Rechov Golda Meir, there have already been devastating accidents resulting from this problem. I am well aware of what has been happening there—on the bloodiest street in Yerushalayim, which has been discussed in the Knesset many times—and I can only daven that Rechov Yirmiyohu will not be plagued by a similar pattern of accidents.

Persecution of Sephardim Revealed

An article recently ran in Haaretz, the second in a series, revealing that the Shin Bet actively worked to prevent immigrants from eastern countries from becoming politically active in Israel in the early years of the state, on the orders of the Mapai and the government. The article featured a transcript of a conversation in 1959, in which the head of the Shin Bet at the time, Amos Manor, warned the government of the danger to its power posed by the immigration of communal leaders from Sephardic countries.

Personally, I wasn’t surprised at all by this revelation of political suppression. Thirty years from now, I will also not be surprised if the protocols from the era of Yitzchok Shamir are released and show that Dorit Beinish, the state prosecutor at the time, conspired with the justice minister (Dan Meridor) and the Minister of Police (Roni Milo) to prevent the rise of the Shas party. I am absolutely certain that the investigation into Aryeh Deri, which was unlike any other investigation before or since, was politically motivated. The investigation into Bibi Netanyahu would be a close second, in light of its scope and the expense involved. Someone even claimed that he heard Beinish explicitly declare, “We must get rid of that young man,” in a reference to Aryeh Deri. The authorities were stunned when the Shas party received 17 mandates after Deri’s conviction and his solid accusations of wrongdoing in the criminal justice system. They must have felt as if their entire world was falling apart around them. On the same note, I will be completely unsurprised if the Netanyahu investigation is eventually revealed to be a politically motivated witch hunt organized with the purpose of unseating him.

In any event, after the first article on this subject, a correspondent for Haaretz met with Morris Ben-Shushan, a 99-year-old who hails from Acco and was one of the targets of the Shin Bet and the Israeli establishment at the time. Ben-Shushan’s lucid mind and vivid memory did not fail him, and he revealed the unvarnished truth. “I wanted Moroccans to wake up; I wanted equality for our community, but they [the ruling echelons in Israel] wanted to kill me,” he said. “They saw me as a danger to the country.” He revealed that the army was heavily politicized and that soldiers were ordered by their commanders to physically beat the participants at rallies for Menachem Begin’s Cherut party. Ben-Shushan was the commander of a group of Polish-born soldiers, who thought that he was one of their own; as a result, he managed to find work. Most Moroccan immigrants had no choice but to work as menial laborers.

Ben-Shushan was targeted when he decided to lead an independent list in the elections for the city council of Acco. He managed to get two representatives elected, but the mayor of Acco refused to include them in the coalition. “Sephardim are not wanted,” the mayor told him candidly. Ben-Shushan was threatened, beaten, and even cajoled to leave the country, or at least to drop his political aspirations. Several Moroccans were involved in the conspiracy against him, and they revealed that the campaign to eliminate him was organized by a man who was a member of the Knesset and later a government minister on behalf of the Mapai party. Ben-Shushan and his interviewer did not reveal the man’s name, since he is no longer alive and they had no desire to tarnish his memory.

The article concludes by asserting, “We haven’t yet uncovered the full picture of the efforts of the authorities—Mapai, the police, and the Shin Bet—to prevent immigrants from countries in the east and in North Africa from becoming active in politics. Some of the evidence is still locked away in the Shin Bet archives.”

It is unsettling to think of the degree to which this country was rotten and corrupt in 1959, and perhaps in 1989 as well. And yes, possibly even in 2021!

The New Generation

Not long ago, Rav Uri Zohar excitedly showed me an essay written by the Chofetz Chaim, under the title “Maamar Chizuk Ha’Emunah.” The maamar is written in simple and easy language, and it almost reads like an open letter to our own generation. It begins with a lengthy description of the malachim’s announcement of Yitzchok’s impending birth and notes that Sarah Imeinu is faulted for laughing in response. “When I examined this parsha carefully,” the Chofetz Chaim continues, “I was very puzzled. Everyone knows that every word in the Torah has tremendous kedusha, beyond any measure or assessment, and that there isn’t a single letter or word in the Torah that is extraneous. They have all been counted and measured by Hashem, Who gave the Torah to us. Therefore, it is bewildering that the Torah discusses this story at such great length.”

The Chofetz Chaim’s answer to this question is itself quite long. “I felt that there must certainly be some great idea to which this parsha alludes,’ he continued, “and Hashem has enlightened me to explain it. It alludes to the period of ikvesa d’meshicha…. At that time, there will certainly be gedolei Yisroel, who are in place of the neviim of earlier generations, who will encourage the Jewish people to strengthen their emunah and to engage in teshuvah, for that is the only way that they will be redeemed.”

Indeed, anyone who regularly visits Rav Chaim Kanievsky’s home is accustomed to hearing him hint that Moshiach’s arrival is just around the corner. He has told various questioners to move to Eretz Yisroel, since Moshiach is practically on our doorstep. The imperative to wait eagerly for Moshiach’s arrival every day is observed in a tangible fashion on Rechov Rashbam. But what can we say for ourselves? Are we living up to that standard? Or will we be like the simple villager who asked for Moshiach to be delayed until his sheep had given birth?

“The Torah hints to us,” the Chofetz Chaim continues, “that there will be people of little faith at that time, who will not believe those who admonish them. They will say, ‘After such a long and bitter golus, when the Jewish people have been so downtrodden and oppressed, suffering from the greatest possible torment and from many hardships, how is it possible for us to be suddenly redeemed?’ Therefore, they will pay no heed to those who admonish them…. For this reason, the Torah hints to us tersely about the great debate that will take place during the ikvesa d’meshicha, when every person will rationalize that he does not doubt the truth of the possibility of geulah … and that he is simply dubious about the time when the geulah will take place. He will believe that it might occur after many years, but not immediately…. But every person must at least realize that it is possible for Moshiach to come on any day. This is even a matter of halacha, for the Gemara states that if a person says, ‘I will be a nazir on the day that the son of Dovid [i.e., Moshiach] comes,’ he must never drink wine on any day, in case Moshiach comes on that day. Therefore, a person should always be prepared with Torah and teshuvah, since it is possible that Moshiach will come at any time. Yet we see that we are not preparing ourselves to greet him at all; our readiness is not visible … and all our talk is only lip service.”

“Based on this, my brothers and friends, are we acting as we should? Let us look at the situation in which we are living today, in our times. Klal Yisroel is drowning in a sea of troubles in all the lands where we have been dispersed. The kedusha of the holy Torah is being lowered every day, due to our many sins, in a terrifying way, while enemies on all sides are rising up against us to destroy us with terrible decrees and orders attacking the existence of our people and the sacred Torah. The new generation is being raised without Torah and emunah, and they are becoming wayward sons who deny Hashem and His Torah. The foundations and most basic tenets of our Torah have become hefker, chas veshalom, to a large portion of our fellow Jews. If this situation continues for several more years, chas veshalom, there is no telling what sort of situation Klal Yisroel will reach. Logic demands that the arrival of Moshiach not be delayed any longer.”

Of course, the Chofetz Chaim explains that it is in our power to hasten the geulah, through Torah learning and acts of virtue.

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