Friday, May 20, 2022

My Take on the News

Spyware Scandal Continues to Rock the Country

Last week, I wrote about the scandal that erupted due to the revelation that the police had hacked into numerous private cell phones. As the outrage gained traction, there were many calls for an official commission of inquiry to be established. Even Prime Minister Bennett called for an investigation. The Ministry of Justice formed an internal committee to probe the matter, and that committee has already decided that the situation isn’t nearly as severe as it has been made out to be. Perhaps there were some “exceptional” incidents, the committee members admitted, but they insist that there was no wide-scale spying. We will never really know whether this is the truth or it is merely an effort to cover up the misconduct of the police. The newspaper Calcalist, which first broke the news of the affair, will probably have to release all the information it has gathered.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s lawyers are calling for a total halt to his trial, since the state witness against him, Shlomo Filber, was one of the victims of the police force’s invasive tactics. If the police somehow managed to intimidate Filber or to blackmail him into serving as a witness by using information that they gathered with their espionage software, then that means that they violated the law and made use of material that should never have entered their possession. The judges asked the government to respond to the allegations against it, and for the time being, the prosecution has asked for an extension of the deadline for its response.

The bottom line is that this story isn’t over yet and will not be over anytime soon. The most important question is whether the police indeed engaged in wholesale hacking or there were truly no more than a few isolated incidents, as the committee claims. Of course, even a handful of incidents would be deplorable; it should be unthinkable for the agents of law enforcement to commit any crimes at all. But if the hacking was as widespread as many believe, that is a far more terrible commentary on the state of law enforcement in this country.

The Burden of Responsibility

The political representatives of the chareidi community have a tremendous burden of responsibility. Not many people are aware that the chareidi school networks and other organizations such as El Hamaayan, Todaah, and Torah V’Yahadut La’am are barely managing to survive financially, yet the heroic mechanchim never stop teaching. The special kollelim for the shemittah year are in the same situation. And with the chareidi parties now in the opposition, their responsibility to preserve these institutions is greater than ever. Behind the scenes, the chareidi parties are constantly standing guard to keep the community’s institutions running in the face of enormous hardship.

But that is only part of their responsibility. The religious MKs are also responsible for fighting to protect the most fundamental Jewish values. Even from their position outside the government, the chareidi representatives have been able to make tremendous achievements. Their goal is to stave off any breaches of the religious status quo for as long as possible, in the hope that a government will soon be formed that will end the current war against everything holy. There are many critical battles to be fought—for the sake of the sanctity of the Kosel, Shabbos in the public sphere, and the integrity of the giyur and kashrus systems—but the most crucial issue of all is likely the draft exemption for yeshiva bochurim. Last week, the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee met to discuss the new draft law, which was transferred to the committee from the Knesset to be prepared for its second and third readings. I sat through the committee session, and I can tell you that the mood was somber and serious. I was chagrined to hear the outpouring of hostility against the chareidi community from many of the speakers. Even MK Kalafon of Yamina sounded like one of the religious community’s most ardent foes. He attested that he had personally served in Nachal Chareidi, and he trotted out the old cliches about “generations of poverty” and “equality in sharing the burden.” He also quoted Rabbi Melamed as asserting that it is a mitzvah d’oraisa to serve in the IDF.

Moshe Arbel interrupted him with an incisive question: “If equality is so important to you, why did you serve only for two years and not for three?” Flustered, Kalafon did not know how to answer that question.

Uri Maklev also spoke from the depths of his heart, and Yaakov Asher demanded statistics about IDF conscription among Arabs. Meir Porush sat on the side and remained silent. He is actually the only chareidi MK who is a member of the committee, but it seems that he had received instructions to hold his tongue for the time being. Another speaker was Yossi Levi of Netzach Yehuda, who spoke without notes and was highly eloquent and extremely persuasive. He did not hesitate to tell the committee—including its chairman, MK Ram Ben-Barak—that the plan to lower the exemption age to 21 will only impair the effort to draft every person who isn’t learning. He also demonstrated quite convincingly that the plan hatched by Lapid and Lieberman is senseless and will only serve to harm the stated purpose of the bill rather than promoting it.

A Conflict of Interest in the Knesset

Last week, MK Moshe Arbel filed a motion for the agenda in the Knesset with the title, “The Need for a Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry into the Use of Spyware by the Police and the Invasion of the Privacy of Israeli Citizens Without a Warrant.” This motion was originally supposed to be heard during the previous week, but the heavy snow caused many debates in the Knesset to be postponed. A similar motion was filed by a group of three other Knesset members—MKs Gafni, Mickey Zohar, and Touma-Sliman.

As usual, Arbel made his case with exceptional clarity. One of the points that he raised was especially compelling: “At the discussion that was held in the Public Security Committee, I know that you, Deputy Minister Segalovich, approached the Knesset members in the coalition before the committee debate—which is legitimate for a politician—and asked them to make sure that the committee would not recommend forming a parliamentary commission of inquiry. However, I think that you should personally have excluded yourself from this issue. You are one of the people who should be probed. You were the chairman of the National Fraud Investigation Unit, and you should have nothing to do with this issue.”

Yoav Segalovich corrected the speaker, “I was the head of Lahav 433, the Investigations and Intelligence Division, and the Economics Unit.”

Segalovich did not realize that he was only digging a deeper hole for himself. Those past positions only made it more improper for him to be involved in the issue. Segalovich went on to deliver the response of the government and the police force, asking for the motions to be removed from the agenda. The government ought to be embarrassed by this response, but it worked; the motions were removed by a vote of 14 to 10. Even more incredibly, three of the people who voted against the motions were members of Yisrael Beiteinu—the same party whose chairman, Avigdor Lieberman, used to be one of the most vocal critics of unlawful wiretapping.

The Partisan Speaker of the Knesset

Segalovich isn’t the only political figure who acted out of clear bias. This week, Moshe Arbel tried to initiate another discussion in the Knesset about the spyware scandal. The Knesset speaker, Mickey Levi, rejected his request on the grounds that the issue was already discussed last week, and that the Knesset cannot be asked to debate the same matter in two consecutive weeks. This is technically true, but when the circumstances change from one week to the next, it is certainly acceptable to bring up an issue for renewed discussion. And in this case, the circumstances have been changing every day. Every day has brought new revelations about the extent of this massive breach of citizens’ privacy. While the affair began with allegations that the police were illegally spying on suspects in criminal cases (who certainly are entitled to their own rights) it has since been revealed that they also spied on people who were not suspected of any crimes, including journalists and directors of government ministries. Mickey Levi, himself a former police commander, used his power as the Knesset speaker to prevent Moshe Arbel from placing an issue on the Knesset agenda this week that deserved further discussion. And this time, the motion would undoubtedly have received a majority when it was put to a vote.

Speaking of Mickey Levi, I must tell you that he has become increasingly partisan in his role. For instance, the Knesset speaker has the exclusive authority to decide whether an urgent parliamentary query will be recognized as such. Last week, three urgent queries were submitted by members of the Shas party, and none of them were recognized. The bias in his decision should be clearly evident.

One question was directed at the Minister of Communications: “You have been fighting an uncompromising battle against kosher cell phones. You are throwing out the baby with the bathwater and trying to put an end to a kosher service that the rabbonim and most of the community want to have. I would like to ask the following: What is the reason for your stubborn insistence on ‘educating’ us and forcing us to accept a way of life that we resist? And is it true that a Reform organization asked you to take action on this matter?”

Another Knesset member sent the following question to the Minister of Religious Affairs: “It has been reported that the kashrus reform plan includes the elimination of the unit within the Chief Rabbinate that enforces the law against kashrus fraud. I would like to ask you: Is this true? Don’t you realize that eliminating the unit will help the distributors of treif meat and purveyors of kashrus forgeries? Do you have any other destructive initiatives in store for us?”

A third Knesset member directed his question to the Minister of Public Security: “A police officer by the name of A.E. [Ariel Elcharrar] was interrogated by the Department of Internal Police Investigations about the beating of Chaim Mizrachi. The police announced that the officers involved in the incident were removed from duties that involve contact with the public. Nevertheless, that officer was seen at a right-wing protest over the death of Ahuvya Sandak. I would like to ask: Is this true? And did the other police officers return to their usual duties as well?”

But as I mentioned, the Knesset speaker did not approve any of these queries as urgent, and therefore none of these questions received answers.

Mickey Levi’s Double Standard

More on the subject of our partisan Knesset speaker: Two weeks ago, Mickey Levi briefly suspended the Knesset sitting on Wednesday due to the absence of a minister who was supposed to respond to a parliamentary query. Every Wednesday, the Knesset deals with urgent parliamentary queries; the legislator who submits the question first presents it to the Knesset, and then the relevant minister responds on behalf of the government. If either the questioner or the responding minister is not present, the Knesset usually moves on to the next question, in the hope that the absent minister or lawmaker will arrive in the interim. This Wednesday, the first question was submitted by Yaakov Margi (about student trips to Poland) and received a response from the Minister of Education. The only two other questions were directed at the Minister of Transportation. The questioners, Boaz Toporovsky and Yariv Levin, were present; the minister herself, Merav Michaeli, was not.

After the education minister finished delivering her response, Mickey Levi asked, “Can anyone find out where the Minister of Transportation is? This is not acceptable. Is she on the way? That is what I want to know.” A few minutes later, he announced, “I must declare a recess of eight to ten minutes. I am sorry, but I am not prepared to continue when the minister isn’t here. The sitting will resume as soon as the minister arrives.” This was a relatively mild reaction by Mickey Levi’s standards. The Knesset paused its sitting at 10:07 a.m. and resumed at 10:14, when Merav Michaeli deigned to show up. At that point, Mickey Levi announced, “I am honored to resume the sitting. MK Boaz Toporovsky will now present urgent parliamentary query number 80, which is titled ‘A Lethal Day on the Roads.’ Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli, please respond.” We didn’t hear even a single word of rebuke for Michaeli’s tardiness.

Michaeli herself nonetheless acknowledged the delay. “I would like to tell you,” she said, beginning her speech, “that I am very sorry for the delay. I was across the street, where I was speaking in memory of Prime Minister Golda Meir, since we are marking the 43rd anniversary of her death today. Please forgive me for being late.”

Why am I telling you all of this? Because a similar incident took place two weeks ago, when a member of the Shas party arrived late to present his parliamentary query, which had been approved as an urgent question. In fact, that delay was also due to Golda Meir—in this case, the thoroughfare named for her rather than the onetime prime minister herself. Golda Meir Boulevard was clogged with extremely heavy traffic, and he was unable to get to the Knesset in time. When he arrived, Mickey Levi refused to accept his explanation or to change the order of speakers. He was boiling with rage, and he made sure that the Knesset knew about it. In the end, the question was presented only because of Uri Maklev, who was registered as an additional signer on the query.

When an Investigator Threatened Rabin

The State of Israel has repeatedly been rocked by outrage and shock, thanks to a cascade of revelations that have demonstrated that Israel is a police state in every sense. For me, these revelations bring back traumatic memories from years past, at the time of the infamous Deri case. Deri’s colleagues protested vociferously at the time that the police were using illegitimate tactics against him, deliberately targeting the innocent and trampling the rights of ordinary citizens—but no one paid attention to those complaints. The critics were accused of exaggerating the matter. It was widely believed that the police had engaged in illegal wiretapping at that time as well; they had embarked on a brutal witch hunt and used the entire surveillance apparatus of the Shin Bet for their own purposes, listening in on the private conversations of hundreds of people without bothering to receive a warrant for any of their activities. But those complaints fell on deaf ears; no one believed that the police could do anything wrong. And the outrage didn’t end there; even when the police did receive warrants, there were complaints that the judges had been too quick to accede to their requests, and that the police were deceiving them. And while these accusations were ignored at the time, the same type of behavior has surfaced again today.

Let me tell you a story: The Minister of Police at the time, Roni Milo, constantly defended the police force, arguing that there was no actual evidence of wrongdoing on their part. For instance, when the police were accused of leaking unfavorable reports about Deri to the press, Milo argued that the leaks could just as easily have come from Deri and his attorneys, since both sides had access to all the same material. (Of course, there was no logical reason for anyone on Deri’s side to leak information that would be harmful to him, but Milo ignored that inconvenient consideration.) Milo insisted on receiving incontrovertible evidence that the police were at fault, but even when the evidence seemed to be solid as rock, he managed to dismiss it. For instance, Reb Moishe Reich was questioned by the police (which was an outrage in its own right; the police made an effort to intimidate everyone who supported Deri) and everything that he said in the interrogation room was reported in the newspapers that same week. Obviously, this was the doing of the prosecutors and police themselves. Incidentally, Reich related that a certain reporter who slandered Deri relentlessly was present in the office of Assistant Commissioner Meir Gilboa, who oversaw the interrogation of Deri and his colleagues—a place where he had no business being. But Milo refused to investigate the improprieties, claiming that even this evidence of misconduct was inconclusive.

Here is another story, this one from my personal experience: As an aide to Aryeh Deri, I was interrogated by a vicious man by the name of Gary Litwin, who told me that he was a Reform Jew and despised chareidim. (This might have been a strategic move designed to cause the subject of his questioning—myself—to be thrown off balance.) When he told me that he considered chareidim to be draft dodgers, I replied that I had performed my mandatory service in the military rabbinate, and I was certain that he, as an immigrant to Israel, had served for less time than I had. He replied, “The soldiers in the military rabbinate are also draft dodgers. Who needs them in the army?”

When I got back to the Knesset, I made sure that someone in the Shas party filed a parliamentary query about Litwin’s behavior. The minister responded that according to the police, the exchange had never happened. I challenged Milo, “How can you tell me that it never happened? I was there!”

Milo shrugged and said, “So they are lying! What can I do about it?”

On that note, Shimon Shabas wrote in his memoirs, “When I saw how Deri fell into the jaws of the prosecution, and when I observed the determination with which they destroyed his good name through utterly baseless accusations, I realized that I needed to save every document and to receive approval for everything I would do. That was what saved me when they pressed charges against me…. In light of my experience with his interrogators, I realized that they weren’t really interested in the testimonies, the evidence, and the facts. I didn’t rule out the possibility that [Deri] was persecuted on account of his race, because he was different. I can attest that Meir Gilboa, the head of the investigative team, called me at that time and threatened me, ‘If you prevent us from investigating Aryeh Deri, we have plenty of material about you and about Rabin.’ I complained to Moshe Shachal, who was the Minister of Public Security at the time. Of course, nothing came of it….”

An entire book could be written about the crimes and abuses of the police during that affair. There was misconduct across the board, from the investigators themselves to the police chief (Turner), the Minister of Police (Milo), and the Minister of Justice (Meridor). If the Knesset manages to form a commission of inquiry now, it really should not limit itself to the latest revelations; it would be a very good idea to dig into the past and examine the behavior of the police during the Deri affair.

At the Pollard Shiva

I missed the birth of my own son, Aharon Yeshayahu. He was born on 18 Adar Rishon 5749/1989, and I was in the office of the Minister of the Interior, headed by Aryeh Deri, at the time. I promised my wife that I would rush to the hospital, which was only a short distance from Deri’s office, but by the time I arrived I could already hear the wailing of the newborn baby Today, that child is an outstanding yungerman in Yeshivas Mir and a father of five children. I had been attending a meeting with the parents of Jonathan Pollard.

The Pollards had come to seek the help of the young Interior Minister at the time, who had been dubbed “the director-general of the state.” Aryeh Deri had many strings to pull, and they hoped to avail themselves of his clout. It was an emotionally charged meeting saturated with hope and tears alike. If I am not mistaken, that meeting resulted in Pollard receiving Israeli citizenship.

Last week, when I went to pay a shiva call to Jonathan Pollard, I tried to dig up the picture that I had taken at that meeting long ago, but I was unable to find it. I was surprised to discover, though, that Pollard and I are neighbors. The Pollards took up residence at the corner of Reines Street and Beis Hashearim Street, just a two-minute walk from my home.

After that meeting with Aryeh Deri, it took 33 years for Jonathan Pollard to be able to visit the country for which he gave up decades of his life. This week, it was revealed that Israel actually had the opportunity to secure Pollard’s release nine years ago, in the context of a prisoner exchange. Ultimately, the deal was nixed.

One day, not long ago, I walked into the Stern watch store on Malchei Yisroel street and found the Pollards there. Mrs. Pollard was trying to have several watches repaired, and her husband stood beside her with a knapsack on his back, waiting for her to finish. I looked at him, with his mask on his face, and I said in my most innocent voice, “You look familiar to me.”

Megalomania in a Book

I recently asked a sharp-witted friend of mine to review the book How to Beat a Pandemic, which was published about a year ago by Naftoli Bennett. He came up with a few excerpts from the book that are clear indications of megalomania. Here are a couple of the most noteworthy passages:

“I remember where I was on the morning of February 27, 2020. It was an ordinary day in the Ministry of Defense. There were security assessments and operational approvals; it was just another day of work, from morning until night…. In the afternoon, I was informed that the first case of the coronavirus was detected in Israel…. During the past few months, the light in my office never went out. I was concerned about the citizens who were looking up and watching the leaders of the state fighting among themselves without cease and moving with the utmost sluggishness…. On that night, my schedule looked exactly like that of a defense minister during a war….

“On March 16, I worked until the wee hours of the night. Suddenly, I noticed a chart of the Covid fatalities in Italy listed by age group. The chart was astounding; it showed clearly that children were not dying from Covid, but adults and the elderly were dying in large numbers…. That was the moment of a dramatic revelation. This is clear to everyone today, but at that time it wasn’t nearly as well-known that the coronavirus distinguishes between the elderly and the young in such a dramatic fashion…. I immediately left a recording on our family Whatsapp group asking everyone to protect my mother. Just one moment later, another thought went through my mind: I was the defense minister of the State of Israel, and the same measures that I was taking to protect my own mother should be taken by everyone else to protect the entire elderly population of the country. We needed to save all of our grandfathers and grandmothers. I immediately recorded another WhatsApp message, which I directed to the entire Israeli public…. [At this point, Bennett quotes the message in its entirely.] When I finished the recording, I sent it to a few friends in the middle of the night, without editing it or recording another take. By 11:00 the next morning, almost the entire State of Israel had received that message. The Israeli public listened to the message and my explanation, they internalized it and acted incredibly in order to save the elderly population in Israel. Within a few hours, Operation Grandma had begun….”

There you have it. Bennett believes that he is the man who singlehandedly saved every senior citizen in the country.

There is room for debate over Bennett’s accomplishments during his time as Minister of Defense, but there is no denying that he has been an absolute failure as a prime minister. There is really only one accomplishment with which he can credit himself: He has robbed Ehud Barak of his title as the most failed prime minister in the history of the State of Israel.

This reminds me of the joke about the town where the residents refused to bury any deceased person without saying at least one good thing about him. One day, a man passed away after leading a life of pure evil. He didn’t have a single redeeming quality, and the townspeople were left scratching their heads as they struggled to come up with something positive to say about him. Finally, a clever young man got up and announced, “The deceased deserves to be praised for one thing: He was better than his son!” Indeed, the niftar’s son was even more of a deplorable character, and the people rejoiced over the fact that they were finally able to bury the father.

Years went by, and the son himself passed away. The funeral was delayed once again while the community struggled to think of something favorable to say about him, but there was nothing praiseworthy about the man. This time, it couldn’t even be said that the niftar was better than his own son. Finally, someone came up with the solution and announced, “The deceased deserves to be praised for being the reason that his father could be buried!”

Reform Interference

The extent to which the Reform movement has followed in the footsteps of Amalek, trying to strike at every vulnerability of the religious community, is utterly mind-boggling. For instance, they have declared war on kosher cell phones. What interest do the treif-eating Reform Jews have in the kosher phone industry? Why do they view this as their concern?

When a Knesset committee met to discuss the issue of disabled access at the mekomos kedoshim, a group calling itself Al Mishmar HaKnesset, which was founded by the Conservative Movement of Israel, sent a “position paper” filled with slander against the rov of the Kosel, Rav Shmuel Rabinovich (whom they called “Mr. Rabinovich”), who is known as a faithful emissary and confidant of the gedolei Yisroel. This was deplorable: What business did they have injecting their opinions into the committee session? Dudi Amsalem rightfully fired off an indignant memo to the Knesset speaker demanding that he put an end to the harassment. “I am not familiar with this institute,” Amsalem wrote, “but it is clear that they presented a one-sided document that does not properly reflect the facts, to put it mildly…. I am therefore asking you to bar this organization, which tried to pass off a false presentation to the members of the Knesset in the guise of background information, from distributing documents in the Knesset.”

Unfortunately, I fear that nothing will come of Amsalem’s efforts. I must also wonder why the Reform organizations are automatically invited to participate in all the sessions of the Knesset committees.

On the same note, this past week, the Economy Committee held a discussion titled “Housing Challenges in Chareidi Society.” For some reason, the committee saw fit to invite an assortment of people who have nothing to do with the chareidi sector. The community itself was well represented by the religious MKs, askonim from within the chareidi sector and researchers from the Chareidi Institute. But who else do you think sent a position paper to be read at the meeting? That’s right—the Reform movement!

The Folly of Blaming Chareidim

Watching the current government at work, one can see that there is a clear common denominator between the prime minister and the other ministers of the government: They are all completely detached from the realities of this country and utterly apathetic to those realities. That is why the Minister of Public Security was able to claim that everything is in order, the Minister of Religious Affairs can continue wreaking havoc and destruction in every area, the foreign minister can go on wrecking Israel’s relationships with all the countries in the world, and, of course, the finance minister was able to claim at the beginning of the social uprising that the economy is still in excellent shape and that Israel is in the best possible position on the global index. This week, Lieberman finally gave in to the ongoing protests—especially after the polls revealed that 70 percent of the citizens of Israel consider him an abject failure—and admitted that the economy is in in trouble. At the same time, he found an easy scapegoat, claiming that the chareidi community is responsible for the rise in the cost of living. This was the height of chutzpah, foolishness, and evil.

Lieberman repeated this abhorrent statement on motzoei Shabbos, when he appeared with Bennett to present a plan for economic recovery. The plan purports to offer benefits for Israeli citizens, but it turned out to be helpful only to the middle class. After the plan was publicized, Lieberman was slammed with wall-to-wall condemnation from professionals and the media alike.

On a related note, the media reported a couple of days ago that sales of Osem pasta have dropped dramatically and that the company has lost over 2 million shekels due to the public outrage against their proposed price hikes. Apparently, the way to keep the cost of living down is to organize public boycotts. Consumer boycotts have therefore become completely legitimate, yet for some reason, the chareidi community was demonized when they decided to boycott certain major companies for ideological reasons.

Danger at the Kever of Shimon Hatzaddik

I will end this week’s column with one very serious issue on the public agenda: the situation in the Shimon Hatzaddik neighborhood of Yerushalayim, which the Arabs call Sheikh Jarrah. The area has been plagued by Arab riots; stones are thrown at Jews, Jewish-owned homes are attacked, and Jewish-owned cars are torched. At the beginning of this week, both MK Ahmed Tibi and MK Itamar Ben-Gvir arrived in the neighborhood, as tensions reached a record high. It is hard for me to take a position on the issue; on the one hand, the Arabs’ brazen violence has crossed every possible line, but on the other hand, Ben-Gvir’s behavior (including the opening of a parliamentary office in the neighborhood) has also been extremely provocative. Then again, this neighborhood is part of the city of Yerushalayim itself; it isn’t located in some remote settlement.

So I will not express an opinion, but I will simply tell you one fact. If you happen to be visiting Eretz Yisroel, stay away from there. At this moment, the danger there is in the realm of pikuach nefesh. May Hashem protect us.

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