Friday, May 20, 2022

My Take On The News

Rocks Wrapped in Snow

So, what has happened last week? For one thing, there was snow!

You might find it amusing that snowfall is considered newsworthy, but it is a rare event in Eretz Yisroel, and there was much talk about the snow for a full two weeks before it happened. The snowfall began around the time that the forecasters had predicted; they were off by only two hours, at least in Yerushalayim. The weather report had predicted that the snow would begin falling at 4:00 p.m., but it waited until 6:00 to make its appearance. And just to give you an idea of how unusual this type of weather is, the Knesset ended its session last Wednesday at 3:00 in the afternoon, under pressure from members of the Knesset who were afraid to be stuck in the building with no way of getting home.

In a repeat of a scene that plays out every time snow falls in Yerushalayim (or in the north), which happens about once every seven years or so, thousands of people converged on the city as early as Wednesday morning in order to experience the snow and remained there until Thursday evening. The highway connecting Tel Aviv and Yerushalayim was closed to vehicular traffic fairly early in the storm, and Route 443, which leads from Yerushalayim to Bnei Brak via Modiin, was also closed before long. These highways were shut down because Israeli motorists are not accustomed to driving in the snow, and they tend to make every mistake possible under those hazardous conditions.

As I’ve mentioned here in the past, the entrance to Yerushalayim is visible from the balcony of my home. During the storm, it did not take long before I was able to see many cars stuck on the side of the road and jutting out into the highway itself. As a result, the roads remained impassable even after the snow melted; the drivers had abandoned their cars and left the highway blocked. Even before the snow began to pile up, though, I was able to witness another telling sight: Prime Minister Bennett’s motorcade driving out of the city as quickly as possible.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian rabble in the Old City of Yerushalayim took advantage of the weather conditions to invent a new and very dangerous game: They began lobbing rocks covered in snow at passersby, most of whom were religious Jews returning from the Kosel, and at passing buses and cars as well. And what did the police do? It seems that the police are afraid of the Arab rioters. In one incident, the Arabs set fire to a police car with the officers still inside. And these were only some of the terror attacks that the Arabs tried to perpetrate last week.

Bennett’s Approval Slides

I could easily write about the Covid pandemic without end. Every few days, we hear about another decision that seems utterly senseless. The quarantine for adults was shortened twice; it was first reduced from ten days to seven, and then was cut further to five days. Rumor has it that the government plans to eliminate quarantines altogether this week. And as you know, the airport is already open to travel from anywhere in the world.

Prime Minister Bennett has already realized that his public image is at an all-time low—and for good reason. The polls show that his party, Yamina, is on the verge of being crushed. Gideon Saar’s party, New Hope, is also suffering the same fate. This week, a poll showed that 36 percent of the Israeli public believes that Netanyahu would make the best candidate for prime minister, while Bennett was backed by only 4 percent of the people. I doubt that there was been a single prime minister in Israeli history in whom the public had so little confidence, with the possible exception of Ehud Barak. Barak is still viewed as the worst prime minister in the country’s history, but it seems that Bennett is about to usurp that distinction from him.

In a desperate bid to save his image, Bennett granted interviews to every newspaper in the country last weekend. If a prime minister ever agrees to a flurry of interviews, it would usually be in honor of a holiday such as Pesach or, l’havdil, Yom Haatzmaut. But in this case, Bennett apparently realized that he needed to launch a massive public relations campaign on his own behalf, for the sake of his own political survival. The problem is that he wasn’t very convincing, and he repeatedly made a laughingstock out of himself. Someone later reviewed all of Bennett’s interviews and found that the prime minister looked very bad in all of them.

The Government Begins to Crumble

It is very clear that this government is in very bad shape. For instance, its decision to establish a commission of inquiry regarding the submarine purchase from Germany was fraught with controversy. Bennett voted against the move in the cabinet last Sunday, while Lapid and Gantz opposed him. In fact, not only did they vote in favor of the inquiry, but the issue was actually at the top of their list of priorities. To make matters worse for him, Bennett himself was the defense minister at the time of the submarine purchase, which makes him very much biased in this respect. It was clear that the divisions within the government run deep.

There is no question that this government lacks unity more than anything else. For instance, a major conflict is erupting right now on the diplomatic front: Gantz and Lapid are in favor of continuing the diplomatic process with the Palestinians, while Bennett is completely opposed to it. That, at least, is in keeping with his presumed right-wing leanings. Bennett has already declared (in his interviews with the press) that he does not intend to make a single overture to the Palestinians. Lapid and Gantz, however, have a very different position. Bennett seems to be realizing that the government is on the verge of falling apart, or at least widening to include the Likud (if Netanyahu steps out of the picture), and therefore he feels that he must align himself firmly with the right in order to ensure that he will have a place in the government. That would explain his firm stance on this issue.

Gantz and Lapid, meanwhile, are also keenly aware of the political situation. Lapid seems to have realized that he will not become prime minister in the current government; Bennett certainly will not pass the mantle of leadership on to him. He is already thinking about the next election and hopes to have some sort of diplomatic achievement to show for himself by the time it arrives. This explains why he continues to push for diplomacy with the Palestinians.

To make a long story short, then, this government seems poised to be torn apart from the inside.

Bennett’s Nonsensical Speech

On Tu B’Shevat, as usual, the Knesset held a festive session in honor of the anniversary of its founding. The prime minister is traditionally the main speaker at these events, and Naftoli Bennett delivered a speech in which he sounded like a cross between an am haaretz and an apikorus. In an incoherent and muddled address, he expressed his hope that all debate in the Knesset would be “l’sheim Shomayim,” he drew a strange comparison between Torah learning and the world of hi-tech, and he formulated his own explanation for the principle that the halacha follows Bais Hillel. I found it very amusing to listen to him speak about the evils of polarization; it was almost like hearing Khameini preach about tolerance. I will quote only the portions of his speech that I feel comfortable excerpting, which will be significantly abridged.

“Today, when people learn Gemara,” Bennett said, “they do not study the halacha in order to reach the bottom line. The bottom line is already known; for that purpose, one would consult with a poseik. If you enter a yeshiva in Gush Etzion, in the center of the country, in Chevron, or anywhere else, you will see yeshiva bochurim debating with each other with great passion, while the practical halacha is the last thing that concerns them. The debate is for the sake of debate, to achieve greater depth, greater understanding, sharper comprehension, and a more polished grasp of our tradition and ideas.”

Bennett went on to explain why Chazal teach us that the halacha always follows the views of Bais Hillel. “Before Bais Hillel formulated their positions, they would first try to study Bais Shammai’s position in depth and with an open mind,” he said. “Only after they had learned their opponents’ positions in depth, with a willingness to be persuaded, would they reach the conclusion that those positions were incorrect.

“I think that the secret of the success of the State of Israel lies in that heritage, which we see everywhere from the Chevron yeshiva to the halls of the hi-tech industry in Tel Aviv and Herzliya. Anyone who makes the short trip to Chevron, which isn’t far from here, will hear shouting upon entering the building—the shouts of chavrusos arguing with each other. But these are shouts of love, not of people who despise each other, even if they are angry during their disagreements. Likewise, anyone who enters a hi-tech facility in Herzliya—and I have been there; I have been in yeshiva and in the hi-tech world—will hear shouting there as well: ‘What are you talking about?’ ‘This is the way it is supposed to be done!’ These disputes are l’sheim Shomayim…. This is one of the great secrets of the hi-tech nation, of our nation.

“Any dispute that is l’sheim Shomayim is destined to endure. That is the proper way…. The State of Israel must be a light unto the nations not just through Waze, through the hi-tech industry, through our air force and our medical advances, and through our advanced irrigation systems, but also through our demonstration of how a democratic state riddled with controversy can be managed in the correct way in the year 2021.”

If I had heard such a disjointed speech delivered by any other world leader, I would have laughed. Unfortunately, it came from Israel’s prime minister….

Herzog in the Emirates and Levi in Germany

Yitzchok Herzog, president of Israel, has quietly been taking his place on the diplomatic playing field. The president has recently spoken with a number of leaders in the Arab world, including Erdogan of Turkey, who insisted on speaking only with Herzog, and the king of Jordan, who is also very fond of Israel’s president. This week, Herzog left Israel to visit the United Arab Emirates, where he was treated to a royal reception. The religious community in Israel was pleased to see that he was sporting a beard, since he is observing the shloshim following his mother’s death. I am sure that there is some sort of reward in store for a man who is not ashamed to appear unshaven in public in order to meet the demands of halacha.

Herzog isn’t the only Israeli public figure to have traveled abroad. Last week, Knesset speaker Mickey Levi visited Germany on the occasion of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, where he spoke in the Bundestag in Berlin. At the end of his speech, which was delivered in Hebrew, Levi began reciting Kaddish and burst into tears in the middle of the tefillah. He explained afterward that his display of emotion was triggered by the siddur that he was using to recite the words. This siddur, he said, had been used by a Jewish boy in Germany at his bar mitzvah celebration on October 22, 1938, mere days before the events of Kristallnacht. Some people expressed surprise over the fact that Mickey Levi was not wearing a yarmulke when he recited Kaddish; Levi later explained that he had been carrying a yarmulke in his pocket, but he had been so overcome by emotion that he had forgotten to put it on.

The commemorative day was also marked by Foreign Minister Yair Lapid with a trip to Austria. Lapid attended a memorial ceremony at the Mauthausen concentration camp, which was also attended by the Austrian chancellor. During his visit, Lapid told his hosts that his father had been imprisoned in Mauthausen; I am not sure if that is correct, though, since Lapid makes so many mistakes that it is difficult to tell when he is being accurate. In any event, his trip abroad did not make it into the headlines in Israel at all.

Litzman to Pay a Fine

Aryeh Deri and Yaakov Litzman, the respective leaders of Shas and Agudas Yisroel, have spent several years at the mercy of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit. Each of these men was the subject of a criminal investigation, and as long as those investigations were underway, their political hands were tied; they did not dare speak out against the judicial system, lest they incur the investigators’ wrath. This is a well-known tactic employed by the Israeli government, and the state prosecution in particular, to silence politicians who might be tempted to criticize it.

Mandelblit completed his term this week, and until a permanent replacement is chosen, State Prosecutor Amit Aisman will take his place. According to the rules, Mandelblit is responsible to “clear his desk” of any outstanding cases before his departure, and he has made sure to do so. He first entered into a plea agreement with Aryeh Deri, who agreed to confess to some trivial offenses, which seemed particularly meaningless when contrasted with the initial allegations against him. By accepting the deal, Deri managed to save himself from the ordeal of a drawn-out court case and the need to pay a small fortune in legal fees to his lawyers.

Next in line was Yaakov Litzman, who was accused of pressuring his subordinates in the Ministry of Health to change certain decisions concerning a restaurant in the Bais Yisroel neighborhood and a woman who was facing extradition to face molestation charges. Litzman, who was accused of taking advantage of his position to help these people due to a conflict of interest, tried to explain that he helped anyone who sought his assistance and that he wasn’t acting out of bias. He was hounded by the prosecutors for years. He signed a plea agreement in which he confessed to minor charges and agreed to pay a fine of only 2800 shekels.

Of course, Mandelblit would have been all too happy to see the case against Netanyahu end in a plea agreement as well. But as you have probably heard, the former premier’s lawyers did not manage to reach an agreement with the prosecution. If Netanyahu does agree to a plea bargain, it will have to be overseen by Mandelblit’s successor.

Deri Plea Bargain Approved

Judge Shmuel Herbst of the Magistrates’ Court in Yerushalayim agreed on Tuesday to accept the plea agreement signed by Aryeh Deri and outgoing Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who stepped down from his position this week.

Deri was charged with tax offenses that Mandelblit dismissed in a private conversation. Behind closed doors, the attorney general was recorded commenting that the case had made a proverbial mountain out of an offense that didn’t even qualify as a molehill. The plea deal called for Deri to confess to two acts of incorrectly registering a property, resulting in a lower tax bill than was technically required, and both sides agreed on the penalty: a fine of 180,000 NIS and a suspended prison sentence (meaning that Deri would be imprisoned for this crime only if he commits a similar offense in the future). Upon accepting the plea deal, the judge explained that he was taking several factors into account in Deri’s favor: his resignation from the Knesset, his admission of guilt and acceptance of responsibility, the torturous delay of justice over the past seven years, his record as a public servant since his youth, the trivial nature of the crimes, and the fact that they were only passive offenses (meaning that Deri only knew about the crimes; he wasn’t actually the person who committed them). Notably, an ordinary citizen wouldn’t have been tried in court for such an offense at all; the entire story would have ended with a deal made with an official in the tax office.

Deri can now breathe a sigh of relief and return to the battle against the current government, as he promised. This week, Deri placed a new issue on the public agenda: the rapidly soaring cost of living, which has already created enormous pressure for the government. He also plans to work on developing the yeshivos and kiruv institutions affiliated with the Shas party.

Decision on Sandak Case Roils the Right

In the process of resolving all the outstanding cases on his desk, Mandelblit had to decide in some cases whether to press charges against a defendant or to close an investigation altogether. This week, he made the latter decision in the case of the police officers who allegedly killed Ahuvya Sandak.

You probably remember Ahuvya Sandak, whose father was interviewed in these pages not long ago. Ahuvya was a passenger in a car that was chased by the police, who suspected that its occupants, a few members of the hilltop youth movement, had been involved in violence against Arabs. The car overturned during the chase, and Ahuvya was pinned beneath it and bled to death. The incident sparked a series of right-wing demonstrations against the police, who were accused of murdering Ahuvya.

The case against the police officers was left open, but Mandelblit ultimately decided not to bring charges against them. That decision was enough to ignite the collective passions of the entire community of Yehuda and the Shomron. On motzoei Shabbos, when Mandelblit’s decision became public knowledge, the entrance to Yerushalayim was crowded with thousands of protestors, with Ahuvya’s father among them.

To add insult to injury, Mandelblit decided that there were indeed some individuals who deserved to be placed on trial for the incident—Ahuvya’s friends who were with him in the car. This was more than anyone could bear, and I will not be surprised if the right-wing demonstrations become even more vocal and voluminous. This pair of shocking decisions will be simply impossible for them to digest.

This Sunday, while I was on my way to the Knesset, I saw a massive protest taking place near the Chords Bridge. I asked a young man in the street if it was a protest over Ahuvya Sandak’s death, and he replied, “That is one of the reasons.” The main impetus for the demonstration, though, was the array of religious reforms spearheaded by Minister Matan Kahana, which would work to destroy the Jewish identity of the State of Israel.

The bottom line is that while Israel may have experienced a snowstorm last week, the atmosphere in this country is reaching a boiling point.

Major Charges Evaporate; Trivial Crimes Remain

Another word about Aryeh Deri: Last Tuesday, Deri appeared in court to present the plea agreement he had reached with the prosecution. He then flew with his wife to Switzerland to get away from everything for a couple of days. At the same time, the Shas party released a video that depicts a mother and son shopping in a supermarket and finding themselves unable to afford basic items—a commentary on the destructive policies of the current government. Several politicians, including Finance Minister Lieberman, derided Deri for claiming to be an advocate for the poor while he was enjoying a vacation in Switzerland. Aryeh Deri’s son Yanky responded by revealing that the Deri children had sponsored their parents’ vacation. “My father deserves a few days of rest after all that he has been through,” Yanky asserted.

Yanky Deri is absolutely correct. Any normal person would be outraged upon reading about the tactics employed by Lahav 433, the fraud investigation unit, which marshaled all the resources at its disposal to pursue a witch hunt against Binyomin Netanyahu. State witnesses were recruited through the most underhanded possible tactics, as the investigators made no secret of their rabid determination to remove Netanyahu from power. No deception was off limits and no expenditure too great in the quest to unseat the prime minister. (The Netanyahu investigation came with a price tag of millions of shekels!) And now it has been revealed that the police even used espionage software illegitimately to gather evidence against Netanyahu. It should come as no surprise that public confidence in the law enforcement system has plunged to a record low. It is also easy to understand why the prosecution was interested in a plea agreement, even if it meant admitting at least some mistakes; as long as Netanyahu confessed to something, they would have saved face. The bribery charge against Netanyahu, which represented the most serious crime possible for a public servant, gave way to a charge of breach of trust, which is one of the least significant criminal charges. Every intelligent person understands that Netanyahu was the victim of a witch hunt. At the same time, it seems that Netanyahu himself would be better off accepting a plea bargain, since his chances of being exonerated in the left-leaning Israeli court system are basically nil.

The case against Aryeh Deri was marked by the same aggressive excess. Decades ago, and again in recent years, hundreds of investigators in dozens of places questioned masses of people, and the threats, leaks to the media, dramatic headlines, and new probes emerged at a dizzying pace. And what emerged from all this? In the first criminal case against him, decades ago, Deri found himself facing a single, marginal charge, while he was exonerated of most of the allegations against him. All the inquiries and investigations were shown to be a progression of libels, many of which were leaked to the press by the police. And history has repeated itself. Once again, the charges of bribery and fraud somehow shrank to the dimensions of a single, scrawny mouse—to borrow the analogy used by Attorney General Mandelblit himself. The only infraction that the police could find to pin on Deri was a minor tax offense that would usually be punished with a monetary fine. But when Aryeh Deri is the accused, everything is different. When the entire state sets out to destroy someone, all the usual rules of the game are suspended or ignored.

Miriam Naor Replaced

Last week, Miriam Naor passed away. This was a major development, since Naor was heading the commission of inquiry into the disaster in Meron last Lag Ba’Omer. One can never know, but it is possible that she was heartbroken by everything that she heard in that capacity and that the horrific stories hastened her death. Perhaps she took the tragedy itself to heart, along with the painful testimonies that were presented to her. Dozens of witnesses testified before the committee, and some of their accounts were very chilling. On the day before her death, Naor presided over a committee session and listened to the witnesses. The next day, she was buried.

Of course, Naor was eulogized by many prominent public figures, including the leaders of the government. Many people extolled her as a unique judge and sang all sorts of inane praises, and there was much talk about her record as a former chief justice of the Supreme Court. Few people allowed themselves to speak negatively about her, but one such person was Betzalel Smotrich, who announced flatly that he could not bring himself to join the chorus of hypocrisy on the right (which included Ayelet Shaked, for instance) and that he felt compelled to point out that Naor had brutally hounded and oppressed the right wing, and especially the settlement movement, in her capacity as a judge. The chareidi political leadership, for its part, refrained from pointing out that Naor had also headed the panel of judges who had demanded that a mandatory draft be imposed on the country’s yeshiva bochurim. But while they did not speak ill of her, they also refrained from praising her.

The current chief justice of the Supreme Court replaced Naor as chair of the committee with another retired female judge. The other two members of the committee are Rabbi Mordechai Karelitz and former General Shlomo Yanai. The law requires the committee to be chaired by a retired judge. This significantly narrowed the list of possible candidates, and I can tell you only that none of Naor’s potential replacements were any better than she was.

Changes on the Horizon in Meron

Here is another item concerning Meron: This week, the District Committee for Planning and Construction in the North gave its final approval for a new master plan for the area of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s kever, with the intent of adapting it to be suitable to the large number of visitors it regularly receives and correcting the many deficiencies that were discovered at the sight. There are some people in the chareidi community who are not pleased with the changes, and some are far too hostile to the plan; however, in the aftermath of last year’s tragedy, no one dares argue with the powers that be.

The plan’s development first began almost a decade ago, but some members of the chareidi community made every effort to block it. In the wake of last year’s tragedy, and possibly due to the prevailing spirit in the current government as well, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked and Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana decided that the time had finally come to put the plan into action. This week, it was finally approved. The plan calls for new roads and access routes to Meron to be constructed, for an appropriate facility for davening and learning to be built, and for water and electric infrastructure to be developed. In addition, it calls for the preservation of historic sites on Meron and for appropriate areas for commerce and tourism to be established. The overriding goal is to prepare the site to be visited by about 2.25 million tourists every year, with 20 percent of the annual volume of visitors arriving for the hillula of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.

According to the plan, Meron will be divided into different areas, with the innermost area designated for davening, the next area set aside for learning and upsherins, and the third and outermost area to serve as the site for meals and other special events. In the first stage of the process, all the illegal structures at the site today are to be razed during the four months remaining until the next Lag Ba’Omer. (Some of those buildings, in fact, have already been demolished.) The master plan will then be implemented at an accelerated pace. According to professional estimates, it should take about a year for the required discussions to be completed and permits to be issued so that the work can begin, and the construction should be completed in about three years.

The best part of the plan is the fact that it requires 145 dunams to be taken from the Mount Meron nature reserve to contribute to the development of the site. The goal is to remove all illegal structures in the area and to clear out the area around the kever for various uses, including a hotel and a cemetery to be located at some distance from the tziyun.

High Praise from a Liberal Group

Sometimes, what sounds like a negative comment to one person may strike another as high praise. These things are often in the eye of the beholder. And a recent news story shows that this can be true on a communal level as well.

An organization calling itself Yisrael Chofshit recently decided to rank the progressiveness or conservativism of the cities of Israel. The ratings were assigned based on parameters defined by the organization, which included the existence of public transportation on Shabbos and restaurants offering treif fare. According to their secular, liberal standards, five cities appeared at the bottom of the scale: Bnei Brak, Modiin Illit, Beitar Illit, Beit Shemesh, and Ramle. The last one is certainly the most interesting of the bunch!

According to the organization, these cities are much more backward than “enlightened” locales such as Tel Aviv, Herzliya, Kfar Saba and Rishon Letzion, which they few as the epitome of liberalism. But while their intent was to paint a negative picture of these cities, we know that their findings only reflect positively on them. Let Beit Shemesh and Ramle take pride in their status as bastions of tradition!

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