Wednesday, Sep 21, 2022

My Take On The News

Polio, Price Hikes, and Disgrace in the Foreign Ministry

Though I am writing this column before Purim, there is much to write about that will still be current by the time you read this. Firstly, the rapidly rising prices in Israel have left the public both outraged and struggling to cope with a crushing economic burden. Rumor has it that the cost of living is expected to rise even further in the wake of a decision due to be made in America soon. The Israeli public is furious about the edicts of the Treasury, which have caused expenses in the country to skyrocket. Last week, the Finance Ministry made another decision that will be detrimental to the country’s citizens: They canceled import duties on fruits and vegetables. This sounds as if it should benefit the Israeli public, but the truth is that it represents a deadly blow to the country’s farmers, who have decided to take to the streets in protest.

Parenthetically, this isn’t the only recent decision that has been deplored by the public. The government has also decided to transfer massive amounts of funding to schools in the Arab sector, while the chareidi school system is suffering terribly from a lack of funds and the Treasury adamantly to cough up any money at all for the community’s benefit. The double standard and injustice are appalling.

Meanwhile, on the diplomatic front, Foreign Minister Lapid is continuing to wreak havoc. He has met with the king of Jordan once again, and no one knows what he promised the Jordanian monarch during their meeting. In addition, Lapid traveled to Hungary last week, ostensibly to visit the Foreign Ministry’s employees who are working on the Ukrainian border; however, I suspect that Lapid, who is known for his passion for travel, simply wanted to visit Budapest. Lapid also paid a visit to the Chasam Sofer’s kever in Hungary, where he delivered the most obtuse speech imaginable, “explaining” that the Chasam Sofer was in favor of men going out to work. It is almost impossible to believe that this man is actually the foreign minister of the State of Israel.

And there have been more troubles. An Arab man recently posted a video in which he announced his intent to perpetrate a terror attack. He was subsequently arrested while he was on the verge of carrying out his intentions. This is a sign of how profoundly we should be giving thanks to Hashem.

Meanwhile, a new problem has emerged: The polio virus was detected in several places in Yerushalayim. The municipality of Yerushalayim has called on the residents of the affected neighborhoods to receive the vaccine against polio.

Of course, the war in Ukraine is continuing to rage, and there are Jews there who are still in mortal danger there. President Zelensky was scheduled to address the Knesset via Zoom on Sunday. At the time of this writing, I can’t tell you whether this actually happened. The Knesset director-general informed us in an advance briefing that there were concerns of a possible cyberattack on the Knesset that might disrupt the address. Next week, bli neder, I will let you know if the address actually took place.

The Refugee Controversy

Meanwhile, the influx of thousands of Ukrainian refugees into Israel is continuing to stoke controversy. Everyone agrees that Jewish refugees should be permitted to enter the country; this is actually a right that is enshrined in Israeli law. In fact, the Law of Return confers automatic citizenship not only on people who are halachically Jewish but also on the children of Jewish men who are married to non-Jewish women. Even though such people are full-fledged Gentiles according to halacha, the laws of the State of Israel accord them the status of Jews. And there are plenty of such individuals in Israel already. But the latest debate takes the matter one step further, as there have been calls for Israel to open its doors to refugees who are not Jewish even by Israeli law—meaning that they do not have Jewish parents at all.

Last week, the cabinet found itself sharply divided on this issue. The liberal ministers, those on the left, favored opening the country’s gates to unlimited numbers of refugees. As far as they are concerned, every immigrant is a welcome addition to the country; they do not care if the person is Jewish, half Jewish (by their standards), or not Jewish at all. The ministers on the right, meanwhile, maintained that the State of Israel should not be admitting refugees who are not Jewish at all. This view was championed by Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, who was supported by the prime minister himself and insisted that the refugees should be absorbed by other countries with stronger economies.

Elazar Stern Calls for Emergency Conversions

It did not take long for a third side to emerge in this ideological battle: Two government ministers demanded the establishment of an “emergency giyur” system for the immigrants from Ukraine who are considered Jewish only by virtue of the Law of Return but not by dint of halacha. This proposal was first voiced by Elazar Stern, who insisted that there is a need for special botei din to convert tens of thousands of immigrants from Ukraine whose Jewish status is questionable according to halacha. “If this is an emergency situation, then we need emergency giyur,” he announced in a cabinet session. Finance Minister Yvette Lieberman, who hails originally from Moldova, took the matter one step further by proclaiming, “We should be doing mass conversions, like in Bavel.”

Of course, these assertions did not go unchallenged. Uri Maklev of UTJ declared, “Emergency giyur is an attempt to change the political map in Israel by giving an automatic stamp of Jewishness to every refugee. Unfortunately, the ministers of this government are trying to bring hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians into the country, not because they care about the refugees’ well-being or about the state, but rather in a bid to change the political map in Israel and to alter the character of the state. This isn’t just giyur that doesn’t conform to halacha; it is not giyur at all. They are trying to give a rubber stamp of Jewishness to every refugee as an integral part of their absorption basket. Genealogical records will soon become a reality in Israel,” Maklev warned. He added one more stinging barb, this one directed at Matan Kahana: “I should note that the Minister of Religious Affairs hasn’t uttered a word of protest, since he is Lieberman’s lackey.”

Immigrants to Offset the Chareidim

This is not a matter to be taken lightly. It is quite possible that tens of thousands of non-Jewish immigrants will be brought to Israel, and their presence will indeed jeopardize the character of the state.

There is ample precedent for these concerns. Thirty years ago, there was a major wave of aliyah from the countries of the former Soviet Union. In retrospect, everyone agrees today that this wave of immigration was engineered as a deliberate political ploy to prevent a traditional or chareidi majority from taking control of the country. Both the Likud and the left feared that the chareidi parties would gain more power, and they deliberately brought a million non-Jewish immigrants into the country as a counterbalance to the growing religious parties. Today, no one can deny that the immigrant populace has had a decisive impact on Israel. And almost all of those immigrants are hostile to Judaism.

This week, Prime Minister Bennett circulated a list of talking points to the cabinet ministers concerning the government’s stance on absorbing refugees from Ukraine. He informed the cabinet that Israel is preparing to take in 100,000 immigrants from Ukraine, Russia, and the surrounding countries under the Law of Return. To date, 3200 immigrants have arrived in Israel from these areas. This wasn’t the first time he made a statement to this effect; in the previous cabinet session, Bennett had announced, ‘Israel is accepting Ukrainians who are fleeing from the danger zones. They have relatives here, and we are allowing them to remain here util the hostilities are over.” At a memorial ceremony for Yosef Trumpeldor, he added, “We are at the beginning of a wave of immigration. Many Jews want to come to Israel from the areas of the fighting in Ukraine, and we have an obligation not to disappoint them. We must provide housing, education, and work opportunities for them even on the day after. They belong here with us.”

Stern’s Record on Giyur

Elazar Stern has a long history of problematic statements about giyur. He seems to believe that giyur is a meaningless formality, rather than a genuine change in personal status to be handled with the utmost solemnity and care. When he was a general in the IDF, he fought bitterly against the military chief rabbi at the time, Rabbi Yisroel Weiss, on this very issue. Stern demanded the introduction of leniencies into the conversion process to the point that it would have made a mockery of the very concept of giyur. Rabbi Weiss—who identifies with the national religious community, like Stern himself—later wrote a memoir in which he made some very harsh comments against Elazar Stern. The book was published several years ago, but perhaps I will quote some relevant points in a future article.

Stern’s track record in the Knesset has also made us aware of his frivolous and irresponsible attitude on the subject. At one point, he advanced a bill that proposed a “revolution” in the entire realm of giyur, and even the rabbonim of the religious Zionist community spoke out scathingly against him. At the time that Stern’s proposal was in the headlines, Rav Yitzchak Yosef organized a conference of rabbonim in the offices of the Chief Rabbinate, and the group agreed unanimously that the Chief Rabbinate would not recognize any conversions that were approved under Stern’s outline. The rabbonim, including the religious Zionist contingent, issued a firmly worded statement after that meeting, proclaiming that “politicians will not dictate the halachos of giyur; only the halacha itself and the Chief Rabbinate will decide.”

At the same meeting, the rabbonim announced, “The Chief Rabbinate will not recognize the conversion bill that Stern has advanced, and any geirim who undergo conversion through the process set forth in that law will not be considered Jewish.” They dubbed it “the law of abuse of gerim,” and Rav Chaim Druckman, who is considered the most senior rov in the dati leumi community, announced, “This law is a mockery and a joke that isn’t even worth the paper on which it is written. The Knesset has no power to dictate anything associated with halacha without the approval of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.”

Today, Elazar Stern is up to his old tricks again. Taking advantage of the war in Ukraine and the groundswell of desire to help the refugees in any way possible, Stern is trying to bring the very same bill through the front door. And now he has a partner in the form of Yvette Lieberman, and is working in a government that includes no chareidi representatives at all.

Undercover Officers Attacked in Rahat

In case you thought that the events in the global arena and the tensions on the international stage would somehow deter the Palestinians from committing acts of terror, I will have to disabuse you of that notion. Last week, a 27-year-old Arab opened fire on a group of undercover Border Guard policemen. His intended targets quickly fired back, killing the terrorist and his two companions. The gun he used was seized, and Police Chief Yaakov Shabtai praised the officers for their response. This was Shabtai’s official statement: “Undercover officers in the Border Guard of the Israel Police force came under fire while operating in the vicinity of Rahat, the refugee camp Balata, and Qalandiya in East Yerushalayim in an effort to apprehend suspects. The officers were forced to return fire in the direction of the threats, and as a result three suspects were killed, one of whom seemed to be directing a live weapon at them, while another was actively shooting at them and the third was throwing explosives, in a very violent disturbance of the order.”

The police chief added that this incident broke the cover of the Border Guard officers who had been working to avert potential terror attacks. “These were three incidents within a short period of time,” he announced, essentially labeling each Arab death a separate incident, “with the only common denominator being that these were officers of the Israel Police Force who had been working with great courage, determination, and resolve against terrorists who endangered their lives. The undercover officers of the Border Guard work every night in secrecy; this morning, the citizens of Israel were given a rare glimpse into their activities throughout the country and deep within dangerous hostile territory…. These operations should be a sharp, clear message to anyone who seeks to harm our forces. Along with our efforts to achieve dialogue and calm in advance of the impending events and holidays, we will not hesitate to take action against any threat, with the determination expected of the soldiers and police officers of the Israel Police. That is how we have always operated, and that is how we will continue to operate.”

Of course, the police chief’s boastful tone grates on religious ears. We know that if Hashem does not protect us, no soldiers or police officers will ever be able to guarantee our safety. Nevertheless, it is clear that we do owe hakaras hatov to the security forces (with special emphasis on the Shabak, which has foiled many terror attacks before they could be carried out) for standing guard constantly for the security of the people of Israel.

The Arab leadership in Israel issued a statement of its own about the incident, and I would advise you to hold on to your seat while you read it: “The Israeli government and police are responsible for killing Al-Harbad. This morning, a young Bedouin with no criminal record, who was married and a father of five children, was shot to death on his way to work by a unit of undercover Israeli officers, who had entered the neighborhood in an old Toyota car with no identifying marks. They left the victim bleeding and did not allow an ambulance to gain access to him in order to provide medical aid.” The Arabs claim that the shooting victim was an innocent civilian, and they are demanding an investigation of the incident.

Confessed Terrorist Not to Be Indicted

This wasn’t the only terror incident that took place over the past couple of weeks, but I would actually like to draw your attention to a different incident, which took place three years ago but found its way into the headlines again this week. This case involved an Arab female terrorist who had tried to strangle a Jew in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City; this week, the prosecution decided that the woman will not face charges, notwithstanding the incriminating videos of the attack and the fact that the terrorist herself admitted under questioning that she had identified her victim as a Jew and had “raised a hand” against him. The decision to drop the charges against her sparked a major storm of indignation.

The victim of the attack was a yeshiva bochur (an American bochur, according to some accounts) who was assaulted while walking in the Muslim Quarter near Shaar Shechem (the Damascus Gate). The videos of the attack show the terrorist, Raja Amar, hurrying toward the bochur and suddenly grabbing his neck with both hands from behind him. The frightened bochur can be seen attempting to extricate himself from her grip, and then both the attacker and the victim fall to the ground. The bochur then quickly gets to his feet and hurries toward a nearby group of police officers, informing them of the attack. After the aborted attack, the police were able to use footage from security cameras to identify and apprehend the assailant, who admitted under questioning that she had identified him as a Jew and that she had assaulted him. The woman had even come to Har Habayis without the appropriate permits; however, what is most infuriating is the prosecution’s decision this week not to press charges against her. Two and a half years after the incident, in spite of the copious evidence, the prosecution decided simply to close the case.

Ofir Steiner, a lawyer from the organization Honenu, is representing the victim and has appealed against the prosecution’s decision to refrain from indicting the terrorist. “An incident in which an innocent Jew was walking in the street and violently attacked solely because he was Jewish cannot be taken lightly,” he said. “The attacker must be brought to justice in order to deter other potential assailants in the future. It is in the people’s best interests to protect public security and prevent other violent incidents stemming from racist or nationalistic motives.” Steiner called on the prosecution to reopen the case and to have the terrorist indicted. But this should give you an idea of the prevailing attitude of the judiciary here in Israel.

False Accounts in Chomesh

On a related note, relations between the police and army and the settlement community in Yehuda and Shomron are on the rocks. Last week, an IDF spokesman reported that an Israeli car had broken through a roadblock near the settlement of Chomesh and struck an officer and an IDF soldier, both of whom were guarding the area. It was also reported that Israeli settlers had attacked a group of Palestinians on motzoei Shabbos near the outpost. In short, the army accused the settlers in Chomesh of committing acts of violence even against Israeli soldiers.

Let us take a closer look at the army’s claims. The IDF spokesman’s report begins, “In recent days—tonight and this past motzoei Shabbos—two violent incidents took place near Chomesh.” This was a reference to the motzoei Shabbos before Purim. The spokesman goes on to explain that an Israeli car approached the checkpoint near Chomesh and let off a group of passengers, who proceeded to throw stones at Palestinian cars in the vicinity. He added that an additional group of soldiers in the area worked to put a stop to the violence, and an Israeli citizen and resident of Chomesh attacked one of the soldiers in the group during the course of the incident. These is a very severe accusation, and it seems to mark yet another stage in the army’s ongoing conflict with the Jews of Chomesh. Every week, the army dismantles everything that the community builds, and the left is demanding the dismantlement of the entire illegal settlement. Did the IDF decide to settle its score with the residents of Chomesh by promulgating false reports about them? That may well be the case.

In another statement, the IDF doubled down on its claims: “This evening, an Israeli car broke through a roadblock near Chomesh, injuring an officer’s leg and striking another IDF soldier who was securing the area. The officer and the two soldiers involved in these incidents did not require medical treatment. The IDF reports that the incidents were referred to the police for further investigation.” Once again, this is a very severe allegation. If this story was deliberately fabricated, then it reflects downright intolerable behavior on the part of the army. And if it turns out to be true, then it will mean that the settlers are truly criminals.

The Chomesh community responded with a vehement statement of their own: “This is a pack of lies! A campaign of falsehood is being waged on the backs of the talmidim of the Chomesh yeshiva. In contrast to the promises of Shaked and Orbach, this government is making every effort to legitimize the destruction of Chomesh. Once they realized that the public support for Chomesh would make it impossible to carry out their plans to destroy the yeshiva, the government decided instead to blacken the names of its talmidim and thereby to provide a pretext for the planned destruction. The IDF spokesman’s statement is an absolute lie from beginning to end, and it can be grouped together with the baseless arrests that the police carried out slightly more than a week ago. That was a performance that ended with the blanket release of all the youths who were detained as part of a campaign to besmirch the yeshiva’s name. Not a single rock was thrown, and no IDF soldiers were struck by any cars. The soldiers of the IDF are our brothers! Stop with your lies and sinas chinam! The time has come for the right-wing elements in the government to come to their senses and to announce that they will not be accomplices in the slander and abuse of the talmidim. It is very sad that Yamina is allowing such blatant abuse of soldiers and yeshiva bochurim, all for the sake of making it possible to destroy the yeshiva. The talmidim of the yeshiva of Chomesh are not violent! This is a wicked act of spilling their blood!” The politicians on the right also expressed their revulsion at the army’s accusations.

This is a story that does not have two valid sides. Either the army is perpetrating a blood libel or the settlers in Chomesh are lying. And if you ask me, it is clear that the people of Chomesh are the ones who are telling the truth. What makes the army’s behavior even more awful is the fact that the few buildings that exist in Chomesh, especially the yeshiva building, have become symbols of the settlement movement, especially since the murder of Yehuda Dimentman, a resident of Chomesh, three months ago. And even though the community has been bereaved and battered, the government is continuing to persecute them.

More Blows to the Prosecution in the Netanyahu Trial

It has been a long time since I reported to you on the progress of the Netanyahu trial, which is moving along at full speed. The prosecution is busy bringing its witnesses, who are attesting that Netanyahu made decisions beneficial to Bezeq (or instructed Shlomo Filber, the director-general of the Ministry of Communications, to make those decisions) in order to please Shaul Elovich, who was the owner of Bezeq and the Walla news site, in exchange for favorable coverage on Walla. In other words, the prosecution alleges that Netanyahu bribed Elovich by making improper decisions in his favor and providing him with state funding in exchange for news coverage that would be slanted in favor of the prime minister.

The only problem with these claims is that it has already been proven that Netanyahu did not benefit from skewed news coverage at all. Instead, Walla reported on him in a completely normal and impartial fashion, and he did not receive any treatment in the news that was any more favorable than the coverage accorded to other senior politicians. In recent days, the prosecution’s claims have been deflated for other reasons as well. It is being demonstrated either that Netanyahu made appropriate decisions based on the advice of the professional staff in his ministry, in which case there is no basis for the claim that Elovich received anything from him that he did not deserve, or that he wasn’t the one making the decisions at all. Either way, the prosecution’s arguments have been undermined.

Netanyahu’s defense team has been doing an excellent job, while the prosecution’s underhanded tactics are rapidly being exposed. First, there were the recent revelations that the police illegally hacked into the phones of key individuals involved in this affair. But even after that scandal began to fade from the headlines, even more serious allegations came to light. It seems that when the judge issued warrants that allowed the investigators to tap into certain individuals’ phone lines or to collect evidence from their offices, those warrants were given with respect to specific allegations but were used by the prosecution to hunt for evidence on different charges. To be more specific, the Israel Securities Authority requested a warrant to investigate Shlomo Filber on charges related to matters under their jurisdiction, but the police have been using those findings in Case 4000 against Netanyahu, which deals with bribery charges that have nothing to do with Filber or with the Securities Authority. Netanyahu’s defense team has argued that this is a violation of the law and that all the evidence gathered under that warrant should not be admissible in Netanyahu’s trial.

Most of the Israeli public believes that the charges against Netanyahu have been trumped up. At the same time, the people believe that the judges will not be able to exonerate the former prime minister. It is generally believed that Netanyahu will ultimately be convicted. At the same time, the prosecution is repeatedly suffering legal setbacks in court, and its image is rapidly eroding.

Why I Laughed When the Judge Began Speaking

Upon hearing these new revelations, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Aryeh Deri’s criminal trial. At that time as well, the police took advantage of warrants that were granted for a specific purpose to search for evidence related to other charges. However, no one spoke out against them at the time.

I will let you in on a secret: I was Aryeh Deri’s aide in the Interior Ministry at the time, and I was placed on trial at the same time. The same ploy was used in my trial: The evidence used against me was drawn from searches and recorded phone conversations concerning the Ministry of the Interior. Justice Yitzchak Baraz went so far as to announce, “I am satisfied that the suspect [yours truly] stole hundreds of thousands of shekels from the Ministry of the Interior.” Of course, it is ludicrous to presume that anyone could steal anything from the Interior Ministry. In any event, I was held in custody on those charges and then released. Much later, I was indicted on the charge of bribing a general in the IDF. The prosecution argued that I had “bribed” him by helping to prevent his wife from losing her job in the Ramat Gan municipality, and he had reciprocated by accommodating my requests to help yeshiva bochurim who were in trouble with the army. But this issue had absolutely no connection to my initial arrest. All the evidence that was collected by the police when they searched my office in the Interior Ministry was used for a completely unrelated indictment. And no one uttered a word about prosecutorial misconduct.

Speaking of Judge Baraz, let me share another entertaining story. When prisoners are brought to court, they are kept in a dingy underground room until they are called in to the courtroom. When I was waiting my turn to appear in court, I encountered several guards who were residents of Beer Yaakov and were acquainted with me and, of course, with my father, who was the mora d’asra of the community. Thanks to this connection, the guards treated me to a royal reception and allowed me to wait together with them in their own office, where I was served the most delicious cup of black coffee that I have ever drunk. At one point, one of the guards informed me that I was scheduled to appear before a man whom he called “Judge Nachah Daati.” I looked at him quizzically. “What sort of name is that?” I asked.

The guards shared a good laugh at my naivete. “His real name is Yitzchok Baraz, and he is an old man,” they said. “However, every time he announces a decision, he prefaces it with the words nachah daati (I am satisfied). Therefore, we decided to use that phrase as his nickname.”

Sure enough, when Judge Baraz announced that he had decided to keep me in custody (which was only to be expected) he intoned with an air of self-importance, “I am satisfied that the defendant….”

No one understood why I began laughing as he spoke.

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