Thursday, May 30, 2024

My Take On The News

Difficult Days

It has been a depressing week in Israel. First of all, this is the time of year when two solemn memorial days are observed by the broader Israeli community. The first is Yom HaShoah, which is observed on the 27th of Nissan and commemorates the Holocaust. It is a somber day, which begins, for some reason, with the sounding of a siren. Throughout the day, the newspapers and the electronic media focus on stories from the Holocaust, with the religious media often covering the histories of various religious communities that were destroyed during the war. While the chareidi community does not exactly feel a connection to the day of remembrance established by the Israeli government, there is still an atmosphere of sadness on this day. In what may have been a deliberate statement of its own values, the Israeli government chose to establish this mournful day specifically during the month of Nissan, a joyous time when it is halachically prohibited to deliver eulogies.

One week later, Israel finds itself observing Yom Hazikaron, the day of remembrance for the fallen soldiers of the IDF. A few years ago, the law was emended to make it a day of commemoration for the victims of terror attacks as well, of which there have been many. The Ministry of Defense publishes the grim statistics every year; this year, it announced that 56 new names were added to the tally of the “fallen” since the previous Yom Hazikaron. In addition, 84 disabled IDF veterans died this year due to the injuries they sustained during their periods of military service, which likewise makes them victims of Arab aggression. The total number of fallen soldiers of the IDF and terror victims throughout Israeli history stands at 24,068, a figure that includes fatalities in the army, the Shabak, the Mossad, the police force, and the Prison Service, as well as the fallen members of the underground and the Jewish Brigade during the years before the state’s formation. At nightfall, Yom Hazikaron gives way, in a sharp transition, to the celebratory day of Yom Haatzmaut. Once again, the timing defies tradition; this secular celebration sits squarely in the middle of the mourning period of Sefiras Ha’Omer.

This year, as always, one can expect news photographers and cameramen to take up positions on the streets of Geulah, waiting to catch chareidim in the act of moving around during the siren. Personally, I find this practice objectionable. Yes, it is true that even a chareidi citizen should stand still during the siren when he is in public, but it is high time for the chilonim to understand that the chareidim honor the deceased, whether they were family members or soldiers in the IDF, in keeping with Jewish tradition, not by standing motionless while a siren sounds.

But these two somber days aren’t the only reason for the despondent mood that has settled over the country. The citizens of Israel have begun feeling a certain lack of security in recent days, which has given them another reason to be morose. You will read in this newspaper about the murder in Ariel and a tragic fire in Yerushalayim, but that is not all. There have been more pieces of bad news as well: A police officer was run over near the community of Shoham, a terrorist attempted to murder a soldier in Haifa, and a stone was thrown over the Kosel from the area of Har Habayis, in an act of violence of a sort that we haven’t witnessed in a very long time. In short, these are very difficult days indeed for Israel.

Rav Lau Shares His Memories

Rav Yisroel Meir Lau is always one of the most prominent and eloquent speakers on Yom HaShoah, not only because he is the chairman of Yad Vashem but also due to his status as the world’s most famous Holocaust survivor. This year, Rav Lau spoke at the official Yom HaShoah event at Yad Vashem and stirred the emotions of the entire country. He also spoke at a ceremony in the Knesset where the president of the German Bundestag, Barbel Bas, was a guest. Bas herself surprised her listeners in her own speech, when she confessed, “It boggles the mind to think how much we destroyed and how many people we killed, the types of life stories that you all carry. I always ask myself why this happened.”

But Rav Lau, as usual, outshone all the other speakers. He described some of his own experiences during the war, and then, turning to the Knesset speaker, he said, “When my mother was herded toward the cattle car, she pushed me away from the car and waved goodbye to my brother and me. We never saw her again. The Kaddish that you [Mickey Levi] recited at the Bundestag was the same Kaddish that I recited for my mother when I was a child. We must never forget, and we must never lose faith. We are still here, in spite of Auschwitz and in spite of Majdanek. We have returned to our land after two thousand years of exile and persecution. Our mesorah is what sustains me—the matzoh and marror and the Chanukah candles, the miracles and the memories. The mesorah is what enabled us to return home and to fulfill Yirmiyohu’s prophecy that ‘the children will return to their borders.’”

Threats Against Bennett, Stones at Kever Yosef

Here is a brief overview of some of the main news stories of the past week. First, an anonymous letter containing a bullet was sent to the Bennett family’s home in Raanana. This incident rekindled the outraged accusations that the same incitement that preceded the Rabin assassination has begun to fill the air again. While the media was busy reporting on the first threatening letter, a similar letter was sent to Bennett’s son. Rumor has it that a soldier who is suspected of sending the letters was taken into custody, but the episode has already evoked a wave of incitement against the political right. Many people, such as former prime minister Ehud Barak, have taken to their soapboxes to decry incitement while blaming the right wing for the incidents—and thus engaging in the same type of inflammatory behavior that they are busy condemning.

Of course, there is a good deal of news to report on the political front, which is the subject of a separate article this week.

In other news, the kever of Yosef Hatzaddik in Shechem was desecrated on two consecutive nights, when Palestinian vandals threw rocks into the compound and damaged the site. In a third incident, Palestinians fired on two chareidi Jews near the kever; the victims suffered moderate injuries and were rushed to Beilinson Hospital. According to an IDF spokesman, the two victims entered the city of Shechem after passing through an unmanned checkpoint and then returned to the checkpoint with bullet wounds shortly thereafter. In the first incident, about 100 Palestinians broke into the kever and damaged the site. Defense Minister Benny Gantz described the vandalism as a very serious crime.

“This is a very serious attack on freedom of worship at one of the sites of the greatest importance to every Jew and to the sensitivities of the entire Jewish people, in the middle of a holiday that is sacred to Muslims,” Gantz said disapprovingly. He added that Israel will work to repair the site quickly and will use every means at its disposal to prevent a recurrence of this offense. He also declared that he was sending a “sharp message” to the Palestinian Authority, sternly demanding that they augment their security forces immediately and take action against “the terrorists and rioters who harm stability, security, and sacred sites.”

A Murder in Ariel

Unfortunately, the terrorists’ appetites for mayhem have not been sated. Around midnight on Friday night, a security guard was murdered at the entrance to the city of Ariel in the Shomron. The incident took place when a car with yellow license plates carrying two terrorists pulled up to the checkpoint at the entrance to the city. The car’s occupants were Palestinian youths below the age of 20. They began firing while the car was still in motion, and they continued firing toward the guard booth after they stopped. For some reason, the terrorists fled from the scene after killing the guard, rather than entering the city of Ariel. The male security guard was killed immediately but managed to use his body to shield the female security guard who was on duty with him, allowing her to survive unharmed.

The two terrorists were captured on motzoei Shabbos, at the end of an intensive operation.

A Tragedy in Bucharim

In a terrible tragedy, a three-year-old girl perished in a fire in the Bucharim neighborhood of Yerushalayim this week. The fire began in an apartment building on Rechov Avrohom Talmudi, and news of the conflagration spread very quickly. The chareidi community monitored the firefighters’ work with great concern, watching anxiously as the rescue personnel sought to extract the two small children who were reported to have been trapped in the blaze. The fire spread rapidly due to the presence of a large quantity of wooden beams on the rooftop. We all davened fervently for fatalities to be avoided, but the lifeless body of a three-year-old girl was eventually found. The levayah was held several hours later. It was chilling to listen to the bereaved father as he told the crowd at the funeral, “She was a good girl who knew how to daven for what was important. We went to the Kosel together on Pesach, and she davened for the Bais Hamikdosh to be rebuilt, without anyone telling her to do so.”

Yishai Yerushalmi, a chareidi photojournalist, told me about the nerve-wracking battle against the flames, during which the firemen were aware that a child might have been trapped in the burning building. “There were several other people who suffered from smoke inhalation,” he said. Yerushalmi himself had been filming the scene from the end of the street, but when he saw that most of the activity was taking place on the roof, he positioned himself on the rooftop of an adjacent building to continue documenting the firefighters’ efforts. “They discovered that the girl had tried to escape the fire by running to the roof, but she was trapped inside the building,” he reported.

Yerushalmi also noted that the rescue personnel had arrived promptly at the scene of the fire, and that the firefighters themselves took charge of the operation, along with soldiers of the Home Front Command. It took several crucial hours to get the blaze under control. When the girl’s body was found, many people burst into tears.

From Kalanterism to Bennettism

Over the past two weeks, there has been an obsessive focus throughout the country on the lifestyle and habits of the prime minister from Raanana. The story has certainly been entertaining—especially Bennett’s ludicrous reaction, when he defended himself by claiming that Netanyahu had been a more egregious spendthrift—but I also feel that the massive amount of attention given to this issue does not add to the country’s dignity, to say the least. I am certain that no one ever imagined that Naftoli Bennett was particularly frugal or ascetic. On the contrary, Bennett is the ultimate embodiment of a person controlled by his desires—most notably the lust for power—who was willing to compromise on every aspect of his ideology in order to become the prime minister of Israel.

About 60 years ago, there was a man named Rachamim Kalanter who had the highly dubious distinction of inspiring the term “Kalanterism.” Kalanter was a member of the Yerushalayim city council who betrayed his political party, Hapoel Hamizrachi, and foiled his colleagues’ efforts to oust Mayor Agron due to his support for the Reform movement. Bennett has borrowed Kalanter’s playbook and has betrayed his voters on the political right by preventing the establishment of a nationalist government. Perhaps it can be said that Kalenterism has now given way to “Bennettism.”

The Prime Minister’s Real Failig

Bennett’s biggest character flaw is his lack of honesty. He conducts himself like a failed horse trader. Everyone in this country understands that he is not a capable statesman and that he is leading the country like a blind goat, along with his two incompetent partners in government, Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz. For instance, the three politicians tried to quell the violence on Har Habayis by ingratiating themselves with King Abdallah of Jordan and Abu Mazen in Ramallah. They promised diplomatic and economic gestures and agreed to give up a measure of Israeli sovereignty over Har Habayis. And what did they receive in exchange? Terror attacks and condemnations. They paid a high price and received nothing but trouble in return.

It is both ironic and saddening to reflect on the sharp contrast with the way Bennett and his colleagues responded to the rioting in the past, when Netanyahu closed Har Habayis to Israelis. In August 2019, Ayelet Shaked quoted Israeli poet Uri Tzvi Greenberg, who declared that “he who controls the mountain controls the land.” She added, “On a day like this, a sovereign state should make it possible for its citizens to ascend to Har Habayis. Closing Har Habayis to Jews because of the threat of violence will only lead to violence. When we give in to terror, terror wins.” But giving in to terror is precisely what Bennett is doing now: He has closed Har Habayis to Jews, especially Jewish members of the Knesset, due to the threat of Arab violence. (To be clear, this critique of Bennett should not be taken as an endorsement of the practice of ascending Har Habayis, which is forbidden by halacha. This is merely a comment on the political ramifications of Israel’s botched management of the situation.)

And then there is the issue of Ukraine. First, the Israeli heads of state tried to ingratiate themselves with Putin and managed to antagonize Zelensky (as well as America and the European countries, which were taking a firm stance against Putin). When the Israeli officials tried to change their tune and adopt a more balanced attitude toward the conflict, they were rewarded with a rebuke from the United Nations and a demand from Russia to return its real estate holdings in Yerushalayim, along with a protest against Israeli policy with respect to Syria. And this came on the heels of several diplomatic incidents involving other countries, all thanks to the leadership of our impetuous alternate prime minister. In an interview this week, Anatoly (Natan) Sharansky described Israel’s handling of the Ukraine conflict as embarrassing and irresponsible. He also revealed that the Ukrainian president had written in a personal e-mail to him, “Natan, who would have believed that the state we love so much, and that we have always admired so much, would refuse to help us when bombs are falling on Kyiv?”

Perhaps Bennett and his family could have been forgiven for their indulgent habits, just as we overlooked the Netanyahu family’s appetite for worldly pleasures. But there is no way to turn a blind eye to actions and words that jeopardize the lives of all the citizens of this country. The anxiety that has spread throughout the country is a direct result of the government’s lack of siyata d’shmaya and the unmistakable fact that the midas hadin is in force. And that gives us ample cause for distress.

All Talk and No Action

This government is all talk. After one of the recent terror attacks, I came across two notable headlines. One headline quoted Ayelet Shaked as declaring boldly, “The answer to this attack is another ten settlements in the Negev.” The other claimed that she was promoting an initiative to strip Israeli terrorists of their citizenship and deport them from the country. But these were empty words. This is a government that knows only how to make pompous declarations; when it comes to action, the government has a score of zero.

Speaking of cities in the Negev, though, it is impossible to ignore the government’s announcement of a new chareidi city slated to be built in Kassif. This announcement is nothing but an effort to hoodwink the public. The government promised to build 30,000 residential units in a city that will house over 100,000 people; however, this is nothing but a pipe dream. The city will never be built, and even if it is, the chareidi public will never settle in such close proximity to the murderers in the south. Meanwhile, the government has decided to cancel other plans for chareidi cities, which were much more suitable than this proposal; we all still remember the plan developed by former Interior Minister Aryeh Deri for a chareidi city in Shafir. As for Kassif itself, even before the ink had dried on the announcement issued by Ministers Elkin and Shaked, the Finance Ministry announced firmly that it would be “a waste of resources.” The ministry claimed that the city’s construction would cost the country 1.6 billion shekels, and that it would be easier to scatter the chareidim among existing cities throughout the country. Finance Minister Lieberman also claimed that building a city in Kassif would be detrimental to his efforts to increase employment rates in the chareidi community.

This statement is both cruel and foolhardy. Lieberman has no real interest in benefiting the chareidi community, nor do Shaked and Elkin. This government is interested only in persecuting the chareidim; it has no interest in providing for their needs. The official policy of this government is to strip every chareidi citizen of his rights and abuse him in every possible way!

Lag BaOmer in Meron: Throwing Out the Baby with the Bathwater

No one ever doubted that Lag Ba’Omer in Meron would never be the same again. We all knew that the illegal structures on the mountaintop would have to be razed (which is a good thing) after years in which the government feared antagonizing their owners. It was also a foregone conclusion that there would no longer be the same proliferation of bonfires that has existed in the past. And we all understood that there would no longer be unlimited public access to the mountain on the night of the hillula. Nevertheless, I think that the authorities have taken matters to an extreme. Their fear of a recurrence of last year’s disaster has led them to take some radical steps that have gone too far in the opposite direction.

For example, it is said that the path where the tragedy occurred became dangerously slippery because of liquids that had spilled on the floor. It was clear that the distribution of food and drink to visitors at Meron would have to be changed; however, it seems quite excessive for the government to have banned the distribution altogether. In fact, the entire outline of arrangements for Lag Ba’Omer in Meron this year seems to be far too extreme.

Tzvi Tessler, the government official charged with coordinating the festivities at Meron on Lag Ba’Omer, presented the new outline last week. The central objective of the outline is to ensure careful planning and control of the number of people who will be present on the mountain at any given moment, in order to regulate the crowding in the vicinity of the kever of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. At a press conference held in Meron, Tessler promised that he and the other organizers would do everything in their power to maintain public safety while making it possible for the traditional festivities to be held. “There were some people who called on us to cancel the hillula altogether this year,” he revealed, “but we thought differently. There is a very large community that attaches tremendous value to this event. At the same time, it was important to us not to compromise on safety, and we met with the various chassidic courts and communities for that purpose. We will not be able to satisfy everyone.”

The mere fact that someone proposed doing away with the hillula on Lag Ba’Omer is a sign of the authorities’ unreasonable approach. The old adage about throwing away the baby with the bathwater has taken on new meaning in the days leading up to Lag Ba’Omer 5782. It is only sensible that this holiday will be celebrated in the shadow of last year’s tragedy; however, destroying the occasion altogether is both the easiest solution and the most boorish response. It is akin to shutting down the entire country during the coronavirus pandemic, rather than dealing with the plague…. A government is supposed to manage the country, not close it down. The decision makers and the police should be charged with finding the safest possible way to allow tens of thousands of people to attend the annual event in Meron; they should not reflexively deny the public the chance to participate in the festivities. And while it is commendable that the government ultimately backed down on the foolish decision to close Meron completely on Lag Ba’Omer, it is also unwise and inappropriate for them to impose the draconian restrictions that were put in place.

The Meron Outline

According to the terms of the outline formulated by the government, the hillula in Meron will take place over the course of about 40 hours. It will begin with a single bonfire (out of the 20 or so that were held in previous years), led by the Boyan chassidus, and it will end with a ceremony in memory of the victims of last year’s tragedy. The ceremony was planned in coordination with the victims’ families, in order to ensure that it would be appropriate for its intended audience. It will not have official or political overtones, and it has already received the families’ approval.

This year, the participants in the hillula will have to purchase tickets in advance, which will entitle them both to the use of public transportation and to be admitted to the mountain. The road will be open only to buses or shuttles, which will make it possible for the organizers and the police to monitor the number of people present on the mountain at every given moment and to regulate the crowding. Every ticket will be assigned to a specific time slot. Tessler emphasized to the public that visitors will not be permitted to drive up the mountain in private vehicles, and that only ticket holders will be permitted to enter the area. Tickets must be purchased in advance. “The public will have to plan their visits in advance much more than in previous years,” he warned.

In order to avoid a shortage of tickets, every family will be limited to a predetermined quota of tickets, based on the average size of a chareidi family. The price of a ticket to Meron will be similar to a bus fare. Visitors will be permitted to perform upsherin ceremonies during their time on the mountain. Tessler estimates that over the course of the event, which he calculates will continue for a day and a half or two days, Meron will receive a similar number of visitors as in years past, which would put the number of people visiting the site at several hundred thousand. He made a point of stressing that the size of the crowd will be restricted at all times; the exact limit hasn’t yet been set, but he estimated that it would be capped at about 20,000 people. He also pointed out that many people would undoubtedly choose to refrain from visiting Meron this year in light of last year’s disaster; however, he was unable to predict the degree to which it would impact the volume of visitors. I am sure that I will write about this Lag Ba’Omer in another week or two. In addition, I have already interviewed the father of one of the victims of the tragedy last year, and I hope to prepare that article in time for next week’s newspaper.

Why Were the Bleachers Removed

Another provision of the outline permits tishen of various rabbonim to be held in the community of Meron as private events, which will also be subject to safety regulations. However, these events will be banned on the mountaintop itself. “We will not make any compromises in this area either,” Tessler stressed. “We insist that the safety regulations be upheld. We will make sure that the participants are scattered in order to avoid overcrowding. The mountaintop will be made accessible to the maximum possible number of people from a safety standpoint.”

One of the most significant changes this year is the ban on the distribution of food and drink on the mountain. For many years, various hachnossas orchim organizations made sure to provide a plethora of refreshments and drinks for the masses who flocked to Meron to participate in the annual festivities. Last year, before the tragedy, about half a million sandwiches and 220,000 bottles of mineral water were prepared by a single organization alone. All of this will now become a thing of the past. The authorities have also banned tents from the vicinity of the kever, in order to prevent visitors from spending long periods of time at the site. While some families or other groups of visitors would arrive in Meron several days in advance of Lag Ba’Omer in the past, they will now have to find other places to stay in the surrounding area. This, at least, seems to be a positive development.

One thing that remains unclear, however, is the reason for the removal of the bleachers that have always been such a familiar part of the Meron milieu. There has never been a disaster involving those bleachers (which were already dismantled), which made it possible for thousands of spectators to watch the hadlakos. “The enforcement unit has already dismantled unsafe structures at the site,” Tessler informed the public. “Today, the mountain looks very different from the way it appeared last year. It will not be possible to finish the entire process in time for the hillula, and any structures that haven’t been demolished will be fenced off.” Tessler added that the current outline applies only to this year’s hillula and was based on the interim recommendations of the state commission of inquiry. “This should not be taken as a sign of what will be done in future years,” he stressed. He called on the public to demonstrate responsibility and mutual accountability. “We are changing the public’s experience of the hillula and the appearance of the event in a very significant way,” he said. “It is important to us for the public to understand their responsibilities. If we impose limits on the number of people on the mountain, then that means that if a person stays for longer than the amount of time allotted to him, it will prevent others from having a chance to be there.”

But I must reiterate my feelings on this subject: Every intelligent person understands that the mistakes of the past must be avoided. At the same time, it is neither wise nor correct to take drastic steps in response to fear.

Shul Arson Case Closed for Lack of Evidence

I have written at length in the past about the prosecution’s lackluster efforts to combat the scourge of shul desecrations and thefts of sifrei Torah. Unfortunately, there hasn’t yet been much of an improvement in this area. Once again, a shul was recently targeted in an arson attack; this time, it was the Ayelet Hashachar shul on Rechov HaGedud Ha’Ivri in Ramle. I feel personally affected by this particular crime, since Ramle is very close to my own hometown of Beer Yaakov; the rabbonim of Beer Yaakov hold teaching positions in Ramle. The arsonist, an Arab resident of the city, was apprehended swiftly, probably on account of incriminating footage captured by the security cameras. His motive is still unclear: He may be mentally disturbed or merely a criminal, but he might also have been nationalistically motivated.

As far as I am concerned, the key question now is how much longer these incidents will be allowed to take place. In order to put an end to this phenomenon, the perpetrators must come face to face with the heavy hand of the law. Unfortunately, they seem to sense that even if they are caught, nothing will happen to them on account of their crimes. Sadly, a shul in the neighborhood of Neve Shamir in Beit Shemesh was likewise vandalized this week; the perpetrators did not manage to break into the shul, but they destroyed its door and poured paint on the building’s exterior. The vandals remain unidentified at this time, and I sincerely hope that this does not turn out to be the result of an internal conflict within the neighborhood!

In light of my experience, I feel that the lackadaisical attitude of the authorities is a large part of the problem. At the beginning of Kislev, a shul on Rechov Shvil Hachatzav in Tel Aviv was ransacked, and a suspect was later arrested. The public security minister, who is responsible for the police force, recently revealed to the Knesset that the Tel Aviv prosecution closed the case against the suspect on December 28, due to a lack of evidence against him. Nevertheless, in the year 2021, charges were filed against 128 defendants in cases of crimes that took place in shuls. (It would be interesting to find out if that figure includes charges against people who assaulted each other in a shul during an altercation.) In any event, this makes it seem as if the police are at least making some effort to deal with this issue. But I would not be so certain.

There is an old story about a man who claimed that his donkey had been stolen, only to be caught in his lie when the donkey began braying in its stall. Seeing that his listeners did not believe his claims, the man demanded, “Whom do you trust more? The donkey or me?” In a similar vein, we might believe the police when they claim to be working to eradicate the scourge of shul desecrations; however, the fact that these crimes are spreading throughout the country seems to bear witness to the fact that their efforts, at the very least, are not quite effective.



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