Sunday, Aug 1, 2021

My Take on the News

The Specter of the State Comptroller’s Report

There is a political explosion in the offing here in Israel, and it has to do with the state comptroller’s report on Operation Protective Edge. I promised in the past to explain why this report is so frightening to so many figures in the government, but first I must clarify what the state comptroller does.

The position of state comptroller is usually held by a retired judge, which has always created the impression that it is given as a gift to high-ranking officials in the twilight of their careers. The very first state comptroller was just such a person. The second person to hold the position, a religious man, was Dr. Yitzchok (better known as Ernst) Nebenzahl, the father of Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl, who is today the rov of the Old City and one of the most prominent talmidei chachomim in Yerushalayim. Rav Nebenzahl lives in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, at the end of the path leading down to the Kosel, in a building that was purchased and renovated by his father.

Dr. Nebenzahl, a man of great dignity and a Yekke by extraction, served in the position of state comptroller for twenty years, from 1961 until 1981. During his years in the position, he published an annual report on all the deficiencies that he identified in the ministries of the government. The ministries were supposed to correct the defects he discovered, although it is difficult to say whether anyone checked to see if the issues had been addressed. As a result, the comptroller’s reports were not taken very seriously – until recent times.

Several years ago, the rules of the game changed. The state comptroller began sending warnings to the ministries found to be lacking, even sometimes warning that his report might lead to a police investigation. In fact, in recent years, the comptroller has transferred certain cases to the attorney general and has demanded that a criminal investigation be opened. That is rather frightening to the ministers concerned. Several high-profile indictments in recent years have resulted from the comptroller’s annual report. The individuals named in the report sometimes consult with top-notch attorneys before responding to the report’s contents.

The state comptroller has the same standing as a government minister. His position comes with the same terms, and he is invited to the same official events as any other minister of the government. In years past, the comptroller was treated like an elderly relative who is humored but receives little attention, but that is no longer the case. The current comptroller is Dr. Yosef Shapira, who also served as a judge before he was appointed to the position. When Shapira was first appointed, there was much talk about his pleasant, kind demeanor. The longer he has occupied the post, though, the more it has become clear that regardless of how much he smiles, he can also bite.

Finding Fault with Ministers and the Army

This brings us to the report on Operation Protective Edge. While the report was being prepared, the comptroller announced that he would be investigating not only the government and the cabinet, including the prime minister, but also the army and its officers, including the chief of staff. That is why we have recently heard of many government ministers going to great lengths to explain that they warned the cabinet about potential dangers during the war. Some claim that even at the time of the operation itself, many ministers already feared the state comptroller’s wrath and made statements that they felt would reflect positively on them later.

This time, the comptroller reviewed the conduct of additional arms of the security apparatus, including the head of the Mossad, in addition to the government and the army. The reason this is important is that it is a known fact that the government was not prepared for the threat of the tunnels in the south that the terrorists used to infiltrate the country. There were multiple warnings that the tunnels were being constructed, but the government and the army did nothing about it – or, at least, they didn’t do enough. The comptroller investigated whether those claims were true and who was at fault for what was done, as well as what was not done. Was the army’s intelligence division aware of the threat from the tunnels being dug beneath our noses? And if they knew about the danger, did they warn the cabinet? And if they did, did the cabinet act in accordance with those warnings? If they weren’t warned, then was that itself an act of negligence on the army’s part? These are all questions that are very uncomfortable for the parties concerned.

The comptroller began investigating this subject as early as February 2014, as a continuation of a report issued in 2007 by his predecessor, who found that the government’s handling of the terror tunnels in the south was nothing short of a resounding failure. The comptroller’s work was suspended when Operation Protective Edge began in July 2014, and it resumed when the operation ended. However, in the aftermath of the war, Dr. Shapira decided to expand his investigation beyond the government itself, to encompass the security apparatus as well. This was a precedent-setting move that will go down in history as his own innovation.

Shuls in Jeopardy

I may work in the Knesset, but I am also part of the Israeli public, and I am a strong believer in the right to know. I have a particular interest in parliamentary queries, and in the responses delivered by government ministers to those queries. Naftali Bennett, who holds the positions of both Minister of Diaspora Affairs and Minister of Education, was recently asked for an official response to a plea for help received from the Jewish communities of Morocco, where the shuls are in dire need of renovations. His answer lay somewhere in the range between astounding and appalling: “The Ministry of Diaspora Affairs is not involved in the renovation of sacred sites in other parts of the world, and the ministry does not maintain any financial aid programs for this purpose.”

To take this one step further, here is what he wrote: “On October 6, 2015, the Knesset Research and Information Center published a document entitled, ‘Preservation of Sites in Israel: Preservation of Synagogues.’ The document briefly discusses the preservation and restoration of synagogues in the Diaspora, and the research center concludes that there is no entity in Israel that is involved in the restoration of synagogues in the Diaspora. In general, that restoration is performed voluntarily, with funding from Jewish philanthropists or from the governments of the jurisdictions in which the synagogues are located.” If a piece of paper could shed tears, this document itself would certainly weep.

But the surprises do not end there. The parliamentary query to which Bennett responded was submitted by none other than Zouheir Bahloul, an Arab member of the Knesset from the Zionist Camp party, who worked as a radio sports announcer before he was elected. I asked Bahloul why he was concerned about the fate of shuls in chutz la’aretz, and he explained that he had been part of a parliamentary delegation that visited Morocco and met with the leaders of the Jewish community in Marrakesh. The Jews of Morocco had told the visitors from Israel that their shuls are in a state of disrepair, and although King Mohammed VI supports the Jewish community, the funds they receive are not sufficient for the upkeep and refurbishment that the shuls need. They asked the visiting Knesset members to convey their plea for help to the Israeli government.

The text of Bahloul’s query was: “Does the Israeli government provide financial support for Jewish sites throughout the world? Is the difficult plight of the synagogues in Morocco known to the ministry, and if so, is there a plan for any sort of support for the Moroccan community?”

The response to Bahloul’s questions, as you have already seen, was a resounding rejection.

Watching the Rabbonim

Zoheir Bahloul’s query about the shuls in Morocco may have been a novelty in the Knesset, but there was nothing new or unusual about the parliamentary question submitted by Michal Rozin of the Meretz party. Meretz has a deep, abiding hatred for all things Jewish, and it should come as no surprise that Rozin asked the following: “The law provides a mechanism for municipal rabbonim to face disciplinary hearings if a complaint is filed by the Minister of Justice. I would like to know how many disciplinary proceedings have taken place over the past five years and which rabbonim they involved.”

The lady from Meretz went on to demand specific information: “What was the nature of the complaints filed by the Minister of Justice against municipal rabbonim? Against which rabbonim were complaints filed by the Minister of Justice? How many of the disciplinary hearings ended in a conviction?”

Some, however, may be surprised by the response of Ayelet Shaked, the Minister of Justice: “In response to this question, I am pleased to report that since the year 2010 until today, there have been no complaints filed against municipal rabbonim. One of the reasons for this is that there are certain difficulties involved in using this disciplinary tool.”

The Embassy Law

There has been an incredible amount of talk about the transfer of the United States embassy from Tel Aviv to Yerushalayim. It is as if people think that this will somehow lead to the geulah. Or as if it will increase our security here in Yerushalayim. Or as if – and excuse me for saying this – there will be some real benefit from it. But let us calm down. Let us not be carried away by the prevailing mood. The most amusing thing about this is that in the Senate in Washington, a law has already been passed requiring the embassy to be moved to Yerushalayim. You won’t believe this, and perhaps you have forgotten by now, but it happened in the year 1995. To be more precise, it was on October 24, 1995, over twenty years ago.

True, it came after four previous failed attempts, but in the end, it actually happened. One of the senators who was among the bill’s most enthusiastic supporters was a relatively unknown politician at the time by the name of Joe Biden. Yes, Joe Biden, the vice president of the United States until just over a month ago. At that time, he sounded very different from the way he sounds today. His stance was very different from Barack Obama’s. Here is what he said: “The only way to bring about peace in the Middle East is for the Arabs to understand that there are no disagreements between Israel and the United States. No disagreements at all. Zero… Over and over, empires have tried to attack the connection between the Jews and their capital city. They destroyed the Temple and displaced the Jews from Jerusalem; they limited the number of Jews who were allowed to live in the city, and in this century, they simply tried to destroy the Jews. But they have never been able to completely eliminate the Jewish presence in Jerusalem, or to sever the spiritual connection between the Jews and their capital city. Transferring the embassy to Jerusalem will send an appropriate message…”

Ted Kennedy and John Kerry also supported the law. Then-Senator Chuck Robb, a Democrat from Virginia, stressed that moving the embassy would not have any impact on the peace talks. Senator Orrin Hatch, a Republican from Utah, as well as Senator William Cohen, a Republican from Maine and later the Secretary of Defense, supported the law. Arlen Specter, a Jewish senator from Pennsylvania, also spoke in favor of the law and supported it. Naturally, it also had the support of other Jewish senators: Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, Carl Levin of Michigan, and, of course, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. Frank Lautenberg, yet another Jewish senator from New Jersey (and a Democrat), was particularly effusive, declaring that “Jerusalem will forever remain the undivided capital of Israel.” Incidentally, Lautenberg held onto his seat in the Senate for a record number of years; he passed away three years ago at the age of 90. The bill was formulated and championed by three leading senators at the time: Robert Dole, a Republican from Kansas and later a presidential nominee, and two Democratic senators, Daniel Inouye of Hawaii and Patrick Moynihan of New York.

The law was passed on November 8, 1995, and stated that the embassy should move to Yerushalayim no later than May 31, 1999. It included a qualification that authorized the president to delay the transfer, if necessary for American security, by half a year. The president would remain authorized to continue delaying the transfer every half year, if he saw fit, and that is precisely what has happened. I believe that Obama signed another six-month delay just before he left the White House. Since the law was passed, every president and presidential candidate has announced his support for transferring the embassy to Yerushalayim. That sentiment was expressed by George Bush, Bill Clinton, and Al Gore, yet every president has repeatedly delayed the law’s implementation.

As another aside, in June 1997, Congress – with a majority of 406 in favor versus 17 against – authorized an allocation of $100 million for the construction of the new embassy in Yerushalayim.

What Will We Gain if the Embassy Moves?

This brings us to Donald Trump. Do you remember the joint press conference he held with Netanyahu? One of the questions they were asked, of course, was whether Trump had changed his mind about moving the embassy to Yerushalayim. This question came from an Israeli journalist. Netanyahu and Trump took turns calling on reporters to ask questions, with Trump selecting American journalists while Netanyahu called on the Israeli reporters.

Trump answered the question exactly as he had been coached by his advisors, who calculate the impact of every word that the president will utter. His answer was that the United States is examining the matter closely and with great care. That is, they are weighing the potential benefits against the disadvantages to decide whether the move is worth the cost. Let us say that this move, which would essentially be for the purpose of making a statement, might lead to bloodshed in Yerushalayim, and it might even cause an explosion in the Middle East. Would it be worth the price? If even one person is murdered because the embassy is moved, would it be the right thing to do?

Now, some might say that if we think that way, we will never do anything at all. And it may be true that this calculation could deter us from much more than merely allowing the embassy to be moved. But we have to assess each potential action in its own right. If it is a step that is very important and can achieve something substantial, and certainly if it is meant to increase the security of the State of Israel, then perhaps we can disregard its negative potential. But if it will do nothing more than make a statement, then we should think twice about it. Or, as Trump would say, we should examine it closely and with great care.

One more point on this subject: In a conversation with Israeli journalists, high-ranking officials in the American government intimated that Trump has lost his enthusiasm for the move because senior Israeli officials are themselves not quite sanguine about it.

Allow me to guess what that means: The leaders of Israel’s various security services – i.e., the head of the Mossad, the head of the Shin Bet, and possibly the head of the Directorate of Military Intelligence as well – told the American government outright that transferring the embassy to Yerushalayim could lead to a full-scale conflagration. They probably warned Trump that the outcome might be similar to the intifada that broke out after Ariel Sharon’s ill-advised visit to Har Habayis.

Speaking of the Israeli influence on American policies, if Jonathan Pollard is not permitted to leave America and settle in Israel, I hope that it will not be due to Israeli intervention. I believe that there are still people in this country who fear what Pollard will say if he has the chance to open his mouth. And only they know what it is they have to fear.

A Circle is Closed

In conclusion, I would like to share with you a dialogue that took place between two people, a yungerman from Kiryat Sefer who volunteers for Lev L’Achim and a chiloni man from the center of the country who is his weekly chavrusah. This week, the chiloni managed to surprise his religious study partner.

“In general,” the irreligious man told his chavrusah when they first met, “when people approach me with tefillin and ask if I want to put them on, I tell them that I have already put on tefillin. It isn’t that I have anything against them, but I also have no reason to be in favor of them. I am happy that they are content in life, but I am also content, even without tefillin.”

“True,” the yungerman replied, “but it doesn’t befit a person like you to lie.”

“It’s just a white lie,” the other man said dismissively. “It isn’t a lie that causes any harm. Besides, it’s true that I already put on tefillin – at my bar mitzvah!”

Today, he wears tefillin every day, not to mention the tzitzis that sits beneath his expensive shirt. But he makes no effort to put his newfound religiosity on display. “I am doing fine without a kippah and a beard,” he asserts. “Let’s just say that I keep a large number of the 613 mitzvos, but without any fanfare.”

It all began with a visit to the Kosel. While he was there, someone tapped him on the shoulder and initiated a conversation. One thing led to another, and he received a telephone call that resulted in a weekly learning session with a yungerman from Kiryat Sefer. “Not just any avreich, but a ‘dos-dos,’” he reflects, indicating that he considers his learning partner to be ultra-religious. “I began learning with him out of curiosity about what he had to offer, and I continued it for the intellectual challenge. Today, I enjoy learning Talmudic sugyos.” Two months ago, he asked the coordinator at Lev L’Achim to increase his learning time to a two-hour session, twice a week. “If it’s too hard for my avreich,” he added, “I am willing to go to his house.” Never mind the fact that he lives in a spacious duplex in Shoham, while the yungerman resides in a tiny apartment in Kiryat Sefer.

This week, he asked his chavrusah to begin learning hilchos Shabbos with him, from any sefer of his choosing.

This gentleman is about forty years old, give or take, and a former member of one of Israel’s security agencies. Today, he runs a business that provides services to shield computers against digital threats. At any time, he may be found in Shoham or in a variety of locations abroad, from Sri Lanka to Ottawa, depending on a client’s needs and the price he is willing to pay.

As they began learning hilchos Shabbos, he commented to his chavrusah that it marked a sort of closing of a circle. “Twenty years ago,” he related, “I was an officer in an intelligence unit in the army, and a famous baal teshuvah came to deliver a speech. We weren’t all that eager to hear the speech, but since our superiors went into the lecture hall, we followed them. No one was forcing us, of course, but there was a sort of social pressure. It was also before Rosh Hashanah, so there might have been some Jewish instinct that drove us to listen as well. Someone in the audience asked a question: Why is it prohibited to turn on a light on Shabbos? After all, there is no effort or exertion involved. Does G-d really care if we press a button? The questioner’s intent, of course, was to mock his form of Judaism as something that remains stagnant and does not move forward with the times. Can you imagine what the army’s computers would look like today if we didn’t move along with the pace of the world? We live in a dynamic world, after all.”

“And what is the circle that is closing?” the yungerman asked him.

“Give me a moment,” the other man replied. “That baal teshuvah was Uri Zohar. When he heard the question, he was silent for a moment, and then he gave an answer that the person who had asked the question did not like. He explained that if you carry a heavy bench up five flights of stairs, you may be sweating profusely, but you will not violate the Shabbos. On the other hand, one tiny touch of a light switch can be an act of chillul Shabbos. The reason, he said, is that chillul Shabbos isn’t measured by the exertion involved. It is based on the situation. If you turn on a light, you have changed something. And if you turn off a light, you have created a new situation. That is the prohibition. Uri Zohar received a round of applause for that answer, but the original questioner shook his head. He wasn’t satisfied. Today, my work in computers has led me to appreciate just how much can change with the simple press of a button or switch.”

“But what did you mean about closing a circle?” his chavrusah asked again.

“Rabbi Uri Zohar is one of the leaders of Lev L’Achim, isn’t he? He is the one who founded the Kosel project, isn’t he?”

“Yes….”

“And who do you think asked that question all those years ago?” the computer specialist exclaimed triumphantly. “It was the very man who is now sitting across the table from you and learning the laws of Shabbos!”

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