Thursday, May 23, 2024

My Take on The News

Rely Only on Our Father in Heaven

We are living in a period of hester ponim (Divine concealment), and we have nowhere to turn for salvation other than to Hashem. We must realize by now that salvation will not come from mortal humans.

According to Prime Minister Bennett, we have entered the fifth wave of the coronavirus pandemic, and morbidity is rising. That alone is reason enough for concern. Last week, Israel closed its skies, turning Ben Gurion Airport into a ghost town once again. To make matters even worse for would-be travelers, Canada and the United States were added to the list of red countries, meaning that travel to both countries is prohibited, and any Israelis who are already there will be required to quarantine upon their return. At the beginning of this week, some of the government minsters argued that the blanket ban on travel was an overreaction and that it was unacceptable to prevent Israelis from traveling abroad (and Jews in other countries from visiting here). Several members of the Knesset wrote to the Minister of the Interior, calling on her to put an end to the policy (since the Interior Ministry is responsible for the borders).

What has made many people especially incensed is the return of the Exceptions Committee. This time, the committee’s function isn’t to grant permission to Israelis to return from abroad; instead, it evaluates the requests of Israelis who want to leave the country. No citizen is permitted to leave Israel without the approval of the Exceptions Committee. The committee represents several government agencies, but official requests must be submitted through the Population and Immigration Authority, which is a division of the Ministry of the Interior. Over 5,000 requests have already been submitted to the committee (mostly for travel to America), and many people have claimed that the committee is extremely slow to respond. The directors of the Population Authority even admitted to the Knesset Constitution Committee that there had been a “mishap.”

The public anger and irritation are understandable, but there may be another side to the coin. If coronavirus and omicron infections are truly climbing to the point of life-threatening danger (and, according to Minister Zeev Elkin, to the point that the government is weighing another lockdown), then perhaps a lenient approach would be out of place. The numbers we have seen over the past few days have indeed been frightening. Is it possible that draconian restrictions are actually necessary at this time?

Different Rules for the Knesset

Last Tuesday, the headlines in the Israeli press announced that Prime Minister Bennett was considering imposing new restrictions on gatherings in both enclosed and open areas. The health situation is frightening, even if it does not warrant the extreme panic that has been developing. But even if Bennett decides to go ahead with his new restrictions, under pressure from the mass hysteria he himself has fomented, the measures have to be approved by the Coronavirus Cabinet, then by the Constitution Committee, and then by the full Knesset. It is doubtful this process will actually end in success. Remember, the government recently tried to introduce cell phone tracking for coronavirus carriers — on the initiative of the Minister of Health, who had opposed the exact same tactic under the previous regime on the grounds that it was “undemocratic” — and then the idea was scrapped out of fear that the Knesset would not approve it. That is the way things work in Israel: The government considers ideas, and then the Knesset shoots them down. The Knesset is like a state within the state.

The Knesset is also the best possible indicator of the state of the pandemic. After a long time when we did not receive any of the dreaded notices from the Knesset Sergeant-at-Arms about Covid cases in the Knesset building, those messages began arriving at a rapid clip. Knesset employees, employees of the Central Elections Committee, members of the Knesset Guard, and even a correspondent for the Knesset Channel were found to be positive for the coronavirus, sending numerous others into quarantine. The reporter himself infected about a minyan of Knesset members, while dozens of employees, staffers, and security guards have also tested positive. Bibi Netanyahu, along with several others, was sent into quarantine when a personal trainer in the Knesset gym was found to have contracted the virus, and it is suspected that he might even have been infected with the omicron variant. However, it was somewhat inaccurate when Bennett claimed in his speech that omicron had reached the Knesset; it would have been better for him to qualify that statement as a suspicion rather than a verified fact.

A Confused and Incompetent Government

The real problem is that the majority of the Israeli public, or at least the Jewish citizenry, has lost all faith in the government. Everyone can see how one minister will make an argument and then another will make a statement directly contradicting it. It is clear that the government’s right hand does not know what its left hand is doing. The entire government is composed of a pack of troublemakers and clumsy incompetents who seem to have no idea how to achieve anything. And this problem extends all the way to the top. As I mentioned, on the very day that Prime Minister Bennett called on the citizens of Israel to refrain from traveling abroad, his own family flew out of the country. Two days later, the foreign minister also traveled out of Israel.

In general, the government seems to be plagued by misfortune. When Bennett returned from a visit to the United Arab Emirates, he found out that another passenger on his plane had contracted the coronavirus. Last week, he found out that his daughter tested positive for the virus, requiring him to be tested for the virus as well. Bad luck seems to be clinging to him. Rumor now has it that at the festive cabinet session in the Golan Heights, Bennett was already aware that his daughter had tested positive for the virus when he attended and addressed the cabinet ministers. In other words, Naftoli Bennett himself violated the law.

The following story can also be added to the government’s string of failures: An employee in the private home of Defense Minister Benny Gantz was recently exposed as a spy. He might have been a low-level spy, but he had been in contact with Iranian intelligence. This was a failure that boggles the mind: An employee in the home of Israel’s defense minister was willing to provide information to the Iranians! This week, it was also revealed that the man who is charged with handling the prime minister’s plane is suspected of crimes and corruption. This is yet another sign of this government’s run of bad luck and confusion.

No one should be surprised, then, by the fact that the government has lost all its credibility. Their recommendations are ignored and their decisions are disregarded. If they are themselves confused, if they change their opinions as often as a chameleon changes its colors, and if they also cannot succeed at anything they try to accomplish, then why should any of us trust them?

Biden Won’t Take Calls from Bennett

The conflict between Prime Minister Bennett and President Biden seems to be still in full swing. Rumor has it that Biden is uninterested in speaking to Bennett. It is said that Bennett has tried to schedule a phone call with the American president several times, only to be rebuffed. Bennett himself, however, claims that these rumors are untrue. He says he brought up the possibility of speaking to Biden, but that it never advanced to the stage of being a real consideration. Bennett has also taken pride in claiming that he is in possession of Biden’s personal cell phone number.

Nevertheless, that boast sounds a bit ridiculous. If Biden won’t answer the phone, what good does it do for Bennett to have his number? Think about it: When Netanyahu wanted to speak to Trump, all he needed to do was pick up the phone and call. There was no need for preliminary discussions between Israeli officials and White House personnel.

Despite Bennett’s protestations, the Israeli media claims that relations between the president and the prime minister are on the rocks. Last week, newspapers reported that for the past three weeks, the president of the United States has turned down Bennett’s request for a phone call to discuss the Iranian nuclear program, after the nuclear talks were renewed in Vienna. Political commentators believe that Biden’s unfriendly attitude is a result of the acrimonious exchange between Bennett and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken concerning Israeli construction in Yehuda and the Shomron. But Bennett still insists he has made no official request for a conversation with Biden, and that when such a request is made, it will surely be granted. “The topic came up during a diplomatic meeting,” he said, “but there hasn’t been an official request.”

In the middle of all this tension between Israel and the administration in the United States, we received a visit from Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security advisor. Sullivan met with a series of high-ranking officials in Israel, including President Yitzchok Herzog and Bennett. Herzog told Sullivan that the United States government should stop pressuring Israel to dismantle the yeshiva in Chomesh. This request came at the behest of the Dimentman family, to whom Herzog had paid a condolence call.

Buildings Demolished in Chomesh

Last week, I wrote about the tragic murder of Yehuda Dimentman. This week, I would like to focus on a related topic: the government’s atrocious handling of the situation in Chomesh as a whole. Naturally, the outrage against the government for abandoning the settlers reached record heights at Yehuda’s levayah. His community is even more furious than ever, since the current prime minister is (ostensibly) far to the right side of the political spectrum and has let down many people who considered him their ally. The community went so far as to hint that government ministers would not be welcome at the funeral.

After the levayah, the prime minister spoke with the mourning Dimentman family over the telephone. They had one request: that the yeshiva where Yehuda learned should not be demolished. Bennett did not promise them anything, and it will soon become clear that he had a reason for that.

President Yitzchok Herzog, who is considered to be aligned with the left, visited the mourning family in person (rather than expressing his condolences by phone). The family made the same request of the president: They asked him to see to it that the yeshiva would not be demolished, and that it would remain standing as a response to terror. Yehuda’s father said to Herzog, “Yehuda has left us a tzava’ah written in blood. Any attack on the Chomesh yeshiva will be seen as a personal attack on us. I would like to ask you to relay this message.”

Herzog replied, “There is logic in what you are saying.” And as I mentioned, Herzog made sure to convey the message to Jake Sullivan.

Meanwhile, while all eyes were fixed on Chomesh, security forces arrived at the settlement on Friday to evacuate a number of illegal structures that were built over the past week, including three wooden buildings and three other prefabricated structures. According to the security personnel — who belonged to the Border Guard and the local police division and were accompanied by representatives of the Civil Administration — there were no unusual incidents in the course of the evictions. On Thursday night, thousands of people attended a protest in Chomesh, including the Dimentman family, calling on the government to refrain from demolishing the yeshiva. The yeshiva building hasn’t been demolished, but the government did destroy several other buildings, which the army claimed were erected only during the two days prior to their destruction.

Of course, this elicited sharp protests from right-wing MKs. “Bennett is rewarding the murderers and has tricked a bereaved family, along with the rest of the people of Israel,” they declared. “The demolitions in Chomesh are signs of victory for the murderers.” The Yesha Council announced on Friday, “The demolitions this morning were tantamount to a show of support for the terrorists who want to harm us. We demand that the government refrain from lending a hand to this disgrace; the policy must be changed immediately. Everyone knows that throughout the 15 years since the expulsion, Torah learning has continued in the yeshiva without cease. The destruction of these homes will not stop the settlers. We will continue to work to support the yeshiva and strengthen this place.”

Yossi Dagan, the head of the Shomron Regional Council, denounced the government for demolishing the homes. “Bennett and Gantz,” he said, “thanks to you, the murderers are dancing while the Jews are crying. Yehuda’s blood hasn’t had time to dry, and you have already demolished houses in Chomesh this morning. What a disgrace!”

In the interest of fairness, I should point out that Chomesh is part of the West Bank and is plagued by constant conflict on account of its location. Moreover, the area was declared closed by a military order, which prohibited building new structures or moving existing buildings to the site. About 40 students and teachers in the yeshiva in Chomesh have been coming to the outpost and staying there throughout the week, with the backing of Yossi Dagan, who has also brought Knesset members and government ministers to tour the site.

Soldiers and Palestinians Clash

Unfortunately, the practitioners of terror have not been idle. On Motzoei Shabbos, Arab terrorists opened fire on a military outpost near Shechem. No one was wounded in the incident, and security forces immediately launched a search for the shooters. A spokesman for the IDF announced, “A report was received of an attempted shooting attack on a military outpost from a car traveling on a nearby road. Our forces suffered no casualties. Searches conducted by the IDF recovered dozens of bullet casings in the area. IDF forces are continuing to comb the area.”

On Wednesday night as well, a terrorist fired on military vehicles traveling on the outskirts of the village of Al-Bira, near the settlement of Psagot. The soldiers located the source of the gunfire and shot at the terrorist, striking him. The Palestinian health ministry later announced that he had been killed. There were no IDF casualties in the incident.

Meanwhile, an IDF soldier was lightly wounded during a violent disturbance perpetrated by dozens of Palestinians near the village of Burqa, in the northern Shomron. The soldier was treated on the spot. The Palestinians set tires ablaze and lobbed stones in the direction of IDF soldiers, and gunshots were heard at a certain point. The soldiers used riot control measures to disperse the protests, and the Palestinians reported that dozens of people were wounded. In one particular case, a terrorist was preparing to throw a homemade bomb at the soldiers but was spotted in time and was shot.

The clashes between the IDF and the Palestinians coincided with a melaveh malkah held in Sebastia, not far from Chomesh, which was near the site of Yehuda Dimentman’s murder. Dozens of settlers, including rabbeim and students, came to the site to show solidarity with the talmidim in the yeshiva where Dimentman had learned. The army stopped a convoy of about 80 cars near Chomesh, and some of the passengers continued to the outpost on foot. At the same time, the army was forced to fire back on the Palestinians who were attempting to harm the group.

Once again, I must repeat my conclusions from before. We have a confused and incompetent government, and there is only one place we can turn for salvation — to our Father in Heaven.

Aryeh Deri Leaves the Knesset

I generally do not write about crime. In this case, however, this is a major issue for the chareidi community in Eretz Yisroel. And as you will soon see, this isn’t exactly a story about crime.

This story began about six years ago, when the media triumphantly announced that Aryeh Deri was suspected of committing severe financial crimes. As usual, the words “bribery” and “fraud” featured prominently in the headlines.

Six years have passed since that day, and the prosecutors have nothing to show for their efforts. The attorney general recently commented that it can’t even be said that a mountain was made out of a molehill, since there was never a molehill to begin with. Deri did not commit any of the crimes attributed to him. Nevertheless, during the endless investigations, someone discovered that Deri had incorrectly registered a building he acquired and thus ended up not paying sufficient taxes.

Actually, this wasn’t even his doing; his brother was responsible, but they managed to come up with charges to bring against Deri himself. The attorney general admitted that if he had known all along that this was the issue, he would never have opened a case against Deri. For an ordinary citizen, this type of episode would have ended with the payment of a fine. But Aryeh Deri is subject to a different set of rules, because he is chareidi and because he is the head of the Shas party. He has been hounded by the authorities for 30 years already.

The attorney general will be finishing his term in another month. In an effort to clear out any outstanding business before he leaves office, he informed Deri that he had decided to indict him. It is a minor indictment concerning a tax offense, rather than charges of bribery and the like, but it is an indictment nonetheless. Mandelblit offered Deri a plea bargain, which Deri considered and ultimately decided to accept. His choice is completely understandable; I am not sure anyone could bear such treatment for much longer after six years of torment.

The plea bargain includes a provision for Deri to resign from the Knesset. He will be able to continue leading the Shas party, but he will not be able to serve as a member of the Knesset. This is a penalty of sorts (although Deri himself might consider it a gift). The bottom line is simple: Aryeh Deri is leaving the Knesset.

Encouragement from the Moetzes Chachmei HaTorah

The plea bargain agreement, reached last Wednesday, calls for Deri to confess to tax offenses, pay a fine of 180,000 shekels, and resign from the Knesset. The deal specifies that Deri will not face prison time, and therefore it will not be possible to block him from returning to the Knesset in its next term.

Deri’s resignation makes it unnecessary to determine whether his crimes bear the label of moral turpitude; if he had been found guilty of crimes of moral turpitude, he would have been automatically disqualified from political activity for a period of seven years. At the same time, if Deri is asked to serve as a government minister in the future, the question of moral turpitude will be reevaluated at that time. This is due to a ruling of the Supreme Court that a person who was indicted on criminal charges is not permitted to serve as a member of the government, as a minister or a deputy minister.

The negotiations between Deri’s lawyer Navot Tel-Tzur and Mandelblit spanned the past two months. The plea bargain will have to be approved by the court; in other words, the indictment will have to be filed (and it was filed on Sunday) and the judge will then have to accept the deal. The judge is not obligated to accept it, but it rarely happens that a plea bargain is rejected.

According to the indictment, Aryeh Deri is accused of committing three tax crimes in the sale of a property in Givat Shaul and of failing to report income in two cases. Mandelblit rejected the recommendation of the police in 2018 to charge Deri with fraud, breach of trust, money laundering, obstructing an investigation, and making false statements under oath. In fact, the attorney general wasn’t particularly pleased with this entire case. Public opinion is on Deri’s side; there is a widespread consensus that it was outrageous for the case to be drawn out for so many years, and that the authorities used the opportunity to hold the threat of conviction over Deri’s head.

After the plea bargain was announced, some people claimed the arrangement was too lenient, but most of the reactions were precisely the opposite — that Deri is the victim of injustice. The chareidi politicians issued statements supporting Deri, and the Moetzes Chachmei HaTorah (the council of Sephardic gedolei Torah that guides the Shas party) released an open letter filled with praise and encouragement for the beleaguered politician. Deri himself declared that he intends to continue leading the Shas party from outside the Knesset. Perhaps I will write about this issue in greater detail next week.

Litzman Steps Down

At the same time, Yaakov Litzman, who has been serving in the Knesset for the past 23 years, announced that he will not be part of the next Knesset. Whenever the 24th Knesset finishes its term, Litzman will not be a member of the 25th. He has had enough of life in the Knesset and as a politician.

Yaakov Litzman has held many positions, most notably serving as chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee. He has held the post of health minister more recently, and he was hailed as one of the best health ministers in Israel’s history. Together with Bibi Netanyahu, he led the initial battle against the coronavirus pandemic. And his long political career came to an end this week, when Litzman announced in an interview with the Knesset Channel, “If there are new elections, I won’t run. I will not return to the Knesset again.”

Litzman claimed that his decision was a matter of age. “I am approaching the age of 74,” he explained, “and I have been in the Knesset for 23 years. I think that at my age, there is no need for me to reach the point where I have to be dragged to the Knesset. I decided a long time ago that I would resign at the end of this Knesset’s term. I have decided not to run again; it is time to make room for younger people.”

Perhaps it should be noted that Yaakov Litzman is also the subject of an open file on the attorney general’s desk, and that Mandelblit will have to make a decision about him, as well, before stepping down from his position. Litzman claimed that his decision to leave the Knesset has nothing to do with the potential indictment against him. I won’t go into detail about the allegations, but I will say that it is an utterly bizarre case: Litzman somehow stands accused of using his position as Minister of Health to assist a chareidi takeout store near Rechov Ezras Torah (the street where he lives).

Most political pundits feel that the man who stands to lose the most from the departure of Deri and Litzman is Binyomin Netanyahu, the leader of the opposition, since the two men were among the leaders of his bloc. Deri served as a mediator when the Likud and the right-wing bloc entered into talks with the Joint Arab List headed by Ayman Oudeh, and he will now be playing that role from the outside. Moreover, Deri and Litzman both demonstrated blind loyalty to Netanyahu; now that they are exiting the political scene, the glue that holds Netanyahu’s bloc together will inevitably be weakened.

Personally, I am not so sure this is an accurate reading of the situation. Deri’s control over the Shas party will not be diminished in the slightest by the fact that he will be managing it from outside the Knesset. On the other hand, his absence from the Knesset might mean that the opposition will not be able to repeat some of its previous successes. From his seat in the Knesset, Deri often succeeded in closing critical deals with the Arabs within minutes, causing the government to be defeated time and again in Knesset votes. This may be an accomplishment that no one else will be able to duplicate.

A Trip to Ukraine for Families of the Meron Victims

The Treasury is a place of tyranny; the lack of initial aid for the families of the victims of the Meron tragedy is a badge of shame for this government. These families are in need of funds to help with their immediate needs, such as food and therapies. But the Treasury insists that monetary aid will not be released to the families as long as the commission of inquiry is still investigating the disaster. The families’ representatives were indignant when they received this response, and the members of the Knesset were outraged.

Miriam Naor, the former chief justice of the Supreme Court who is heading the commission of inquiry, announced publicly that her committee would not be dealing with the question of payments to the families, and that the aid should not be withheld on their account. The cruel and abusive posturing of the Treasury (in contrast to the National Insurance Institute, which was willing to release some initial aid to the families), which has dug in its heels even after receiving Naor’s letter, is almost impossible to believe. They will listen to no one; they are determined to leave the unfortunate families floundering for as long as it suits them.

The Meron tragedy will never leave us. Last weekend, Bnei Brak suffered the passing of Rav Sholom Seller, a distinguished talmid chochom and marbitz Torah in the city. Rav Seller was the father of Chaim Ozer Seller, an outstanding masmid who was killed in the Meron tragedy, two weeks after the birth of his first daughter. At the levayah, Rav Sholom cried out, “My Chaim Ozer! If Hashem chose you, that must be what is best for you!” They say that the bereaved father died of a broken heart.

Last Wednesday, just before Ben Gurion Airport closed its gates, dozens of widows and orphans set out for Ukraine. These women and children, who lost husbands and fathers in the Meron tragedy, visited the kivrei tzaddikim in Europe to weep over their graves. They also took part in a hachnosas sefer Torah in the town of Yampol, where they experienced an uplifting Shabbos.

I was informed by someone involved in arranging the trip that one of the fathers asked if the group would be insured; he was still haunted by the tragedy in Meron and feared that something terrible might befall them again. Another father suggested that the group should take three separate flights — again, fearing that a disaster might take place. As you can see, they are still deeply scarred by their losses.

New York Sets an Example

Eric Adams is the second African American mayor of New York; the first was David Dinkins, who made history when he was elected to that office. The difference between them lies in their respective attitudes toward the Jewish community. Adams was recently elected with sweeping support from the Jewish community, and the mayoral inauguration, which is usually held on January 1, was postponed by several hours this year to make it possible for Jewish public figures and the mayor’s Jewish friends to attend. (January 1 falls on Shabbos this year, which will end in New York at 5:45 p.m.). In the end the celebration will not be held because of the omicron variant which is sweeping New York.

It is saddening to note that even as the mayor of New York is postponing his inauguration out of respect for Shabbos, the vast majority of government officials in Israel, the Jewish state, relate to Shabbos as if it were merely another weekday, when they hold meetings and conduct phone conversations. This week, Moshe Abutbul voiced his objections to the fact that the Likud party’s public relations department has been releasing statements to the press on Shabbos. The Likud is an ally of the Shas party, but Abutbul had to speak up, and he deserves to be applauded for doing so. Will Israel ever learn from New York’s example?



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