A Government Falling Apart
It has been clear for weeks that the government of Israel was approaching its demise, but it seems that the country itself is in the process of coming apart as well. Sometimes, when a business or company is clearly failing, it will be deliberately dismantled before it has a chance to fall apart completely, while the company might make efforts to repay its creditors and to supply products to its customers before the extent of the catastrophe is known. Today, the State of Israel itself seems to be in that exact situation.
At the beginning of this week, a flurry of newspaper headlines made it clear that the country is falling apart at the seams. Teachers are striking, police officers are dropping out of the force, the public transportation system is in chaos, and the hospitals are in crisis as well. And that is not all; the coronavirus is said to be starting to spread again, the Yehuda and Shomron Law failed to pass in the Knesset, and the cost of living is soaring. A recent poll showed that most Israelis believe that the government is failing, and that Finance Minister Lieberman is at the top of the list of officials who have failed at their tasks.
Many of the government’s failures have a direct impact on the day-to-day lives of Israeli citizens. For instance, a strike in the schools means that the economy suffers, since parents cannot go to work when their children are not in school.
Within the police force, one hundred police officers resigned over the past month. And that means that the police force in in crisis, while the crime rate has been rising precipitously. Seven people were murdered in Israel last weekend, most of them in the Arab sector. Everyone agrees that the current public security minister, Omer Bar-Lev, is a resounding failure at his job.
The breakdown of the public transportation system is also a critical problem. The bus and train systems are both in a state of collapse, with drivers repeatedly going on strike. And everyone agrees on the cause: The Minister of Transportation, who is also the head of the Labor party, lacks even the slightest understanding of reality. Meanwhile, the situation in the hospitals has actually created life-threatening dangers. This situation is a result of two factors: the violence against hospital workers and the dissatisfaction of the doctors and medical staffs with their salaries.
Biden Plans a Visit to Israel
Washington has announced that President Biden is planning to visit Yerushalayim on July 14. As soon as that announcement was made, it created a good deal of tension and anxiety for the Israeli government, as Bennett begin trying to calculate exactly what to say to the visiting president and whether the message he planned to deliver would be acceptable to his partners on the left as well. In the end it will be Yair Lapid who will get to welcome the president, get all the photo-ops and hold talks with him.
In advance of the president’s visit, the American ambassador to Israel, Tom Bides, was interviewed by an Israeli newspaper. He began his interview with a piece of pleasant news. “There is still a lot of work to be done on the visa exemption,” Nides said, “but we hope that in 2023, Israelis will become exempt from procuring visas to visit the United States. I have been working day and night to see to it that this will happen. It is very complicated, and I have been working closely with Interior Minister Shaked, who is highly focused on this goal. There are many things that the Israelis will have to do, including passing legislation in the Knesset that will meet the American demands. We want to do this, and I hope that we will be able to make it happen. There is good reason that the governments have been trying to work on this for 15 years already without success; it is a very complicated matter. But perhaps we will succeed this year.”
Regarding Biden’s planned visit, the ambassador said, “President Biden loves Israel, and this visit will make that clear.” Regarding Iran, the ambassador confirmed that the Revolutionary Guards haven’t been removed from America’s list of terror organizations. “The president made it clear that he will not compromise on this subject,” he said. As for the Iranian nuclear agreement, he added, “We still want to find a diplomatic solution for this issue. There is no doubt about that. But as President Biden has said many times, he will not stand on the side and allow the Iranians to obtain nuclear weapons. We will work closely together with Israel and our allies, and as the president has said many times, all options are on the table. Of course, we would still prefer an opportunity to solve this diplomatically, and we will make those efforts as long as we can. The ball is in the Iranians’ court.”
Nides was asked why Biden hasn’t threatened Iran with the military option, which was invoked even by Obama. He replied, “It isn’t my job, as an ambassador, to make threats. I will only quote the president, who says that all options are on the table and that we will work with Israel and with our allies in the region in order to ensure that we have done everything possible to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear armaments.”
The Arab Summit in Saudi Arabia
By now, it has become clear that Biden’s visit to Israel will not be an experience of pleasure for the government. For instance, the Israeli government has already been informed that Biden intends to visit East Yerushalayim, and that he does not wish to be accompanied by Israeli officials on that visit. This is an unmistakable sign that he views East Yerushalayim as a separate country. Biden also plans to visit Saudi Arabia, and it is highly doubtful that Israel will be pleased with his visit there.
Parenthetically, while the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, announced that he plans to hold a working meeting with Biden on the first day of his visit, the American president has informed the public that he is visiting Saudi Arabia only to attend a summit of the leaders of nine Arab states. “I will not meet with the Saudi crown prince alone,” Biden insisted. According to recent reports, a conflict has already arisen over the photo-op as well: The Saudi prince insists on having his picture taken alone with the president of the United States, while Biden maintains that he will participate only in a group photo.
The summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, next month is due to be attended by the leaders of nine Arab countries: Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia itself, the five Gulf states, and Iraq. The inclusion of Iraq, which is due to be represented by its prime minister, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, is highly unusual. The two main issues to be discussed at the summit are the Iranian threat, which was raised for discussion by the Saudis, and the question of Israel, which will be discussed at Biden’s behest. The American president is focused on putting together economic initiatives, military pacts, and joint defense plans, and Biden also hopes to increase the volume of Saudi oil exports to the United States. It is in Israel’s interest, meanwhile, for the summit to lead to tighter security collaboration. But if Biden feels the need to sacrifice Israel’s interests for those of the United States, it is clear that he will do so.
Bennett Pled with Orbach
There was much going on in the world of politics, which is the subject of a separate article this week. Even before the government fell, Bennett and Lapid both knew that it was on its last legs; they were locked in conflict only over which of them would be responsible for bringing it down. This would determine who would serve as prime minister in the interim government until the next election, or until a new government is formed without an election taking place. As I have mentioned in the past, Bennett and Lapid signed an agreement calling for Lapid to serve as prime minister if the government is brought down by a defection from the right, and for Bennett to retain the post if a leftist defector causes it to be toppled. That was the issue of greatest concern to these two men. Rumor has it that this was also the subject of discussion during the meetings between Bennett and Nir Orbach, when the prime minister begged the latter not to be the one to bring down the government. According to the latest rumors, he recently added a new plea: that Orbach should not topple the government just a few days before Biden’s visit.
This suddenly became a major issue when the Likud began weighing the possibility of introducing a bill to dissolve the Knesset this Wednesday. The bill seemed likely to garner a majority, since there were already two known defectors from the coalition (Amichai Chikli and Idit Silman), and Nir Orbach seemed to be joining their ranks. All three were elected to the Knesset on the Yamina party’s slate. Meanwhile, the Joint Arab List announced that it will support any measure that would bring down the current government, even if it might lead to Netanyahu’s return to power as the prime minister. Of course, they planned to try to torpedo Netanyahu’s appointment; nevertheless, they considered themselves a full-fledged opposition to the government, and they intended to work to bring it down.
The Likud party planned to introduce the bill only if they felt that it was guaranteed to receive a majority vote. They quietly admitted that they did not believe Nir Orbach’s claims that he would defy the coalition; they feared that he might renege on such a promise at any moment. For some reason, the Likud has no faith in Yamina itself or in any of its members.
Meanwhile, Bennett and Lapid hoped to try to keep this government afloat at least until the end of the Knesset’s summer session, sometime around Tisha B’Av. If the government lasted that long, they believed, then it was reasonable to expect it to endure even further. Alas, they were not able to hold out. Meanwhile, Bennett reportedly warned Netanyahu that if the bill to dissolve the Knesset is introduced, his party will respond by bringing a law to a vote that would prevent a criminal defendant from serving as prime minister. To date, Gideon Saar has refrained from bringing this bill to the Knesset on account of Bennett’s opposition (which is based on his own considerations and does not indicate any measure of support for Netanyahu). And since the Joint Arab List supported the law, it was likely to pass. In any event, if the prime minister of Israel has resorted to petty threats, then the situation in this country must be very bad indeed.
Gafni’s Bid to Lower the Electoral Threshold
The polls published at the end of last week painted a dismal picture of the state of the coalition parties. Most of the parties in the government are hovering somewhere around the electoral threshold. First, the poll shows that Gideon Saar and his party, New Hope, will not succeed in making it across the threshold at all. Saar is weighing his options for survival, which include a merger with Yamina, which is likewise hovering around the threshold. Of course, Saar and Bennett are bound to disagree over which of the two of them will lead the party, and the conflict is likely to be furious. At the same time, Saar’s situation is so desperate that it is rumored that he is prepared even to renege on all of his promises and join the Likud party. That may be true, but for the time being, he is denying it.
The left is also in pitiful shape. Meretz and Labor are both likewise struggling to pass the threshold, which has naturally led them to raise the possibility of merging (which they have done in the past). And they have already begun squabbling over the balance of power in a joint party.
In addition to revealing the state of the parties themselves, the polls have also shown which government ministers are viewed as having failed the country. As it turns out, all of the ministers have earned the public’s disdain. The only minister who has a high approval rating is Benny Gantz, the Minister of Defense. Naturally, that has led every other party to seek to align themselves with him, but Gantz himself seems intoxicated by the poll results and has decided to turn his back on his friends on the left.
On that note, a proposal has been raised once again for the electoral threshold to be lowered. Interestingly, the idea came this time from Moshe Gafni, who announced that he intends to bring it to a vote in the Knesset. This is not based on any desire to benefit the left-wing parties; rather, Gafni is aware of the strong possibility that United Torah Judaism may split and its two component parties, Degel HaTorah and Agudas Yisroel, may run separately in the next election. Gafni claims that in the past, especially in the municipal elections in Yerushalayim, the parties brought in many more votes when they were separate than as a single merged party. Of course, Gafni would not make such a move without being expressly instructed to do so by the gedolei Yisroel, but he wants to make certain that the option remains open.
A Minor Minister with a Big Mouth
Matan Kahana is the minister who is behind all of the anti-religious reforms. He has presided over the efforts to reshape the kashrus industry, the giyur system, and many more things, serving as the Minister of Religious Affairs until he resigned in order to force MK Yom Tov Kalfon to leave the Knesset. (Kalfon had entered the Knesset under the Norwegian Law, assuming Kahana’s seat when the latter resigned to accept his position as a minister.) After his resignation, Kahana assumed the position of Deputy Minister of Religious Affairs. The government actually tried to reinstate him as a full-fledged minister, but the move was voted down in the Knesset.
Last week, Deputy Minister Kahana taught us an important lesson: that it is wise to be silent. He was trying to make a conciliatory statement, expressing the idea that since Jews and Arabs are forced to live side by side in this country, we must learn to coexist peacefully. However, the media picked up a single line and publicized it, eliciting widespread outrage: “If I could press a button and send all the Arabs on express trains to Switzerland, I would do it.” Kahana had gone on to say that there is no such magic button, but that part of his sentence was omitted from the quote. Thus, he was portrayed by the media as a proponent of population transfer, and he was roundly condemned for it.
It seems that Kahana has gotten what was coming to him. A former air force pilot, the deputy minister has a habit of speaking against the chareidi community in the Knesset with deplorable language and shocking arrogance. He often reminds me of the phenomenon of vertigo, the condition in which a pilot is certain that he is about to fly into the ground and begins steering the plane “upward,” not realizing that he is actually flying upside-down and thus is responsible for crashing the plane. Kahana has clearly forgotten the first rule taught to every pilot: Never rely on your own instincts, even if you are absolutely certain of your direction. A pilot must always check his instruments! But Kahana himself relied on his conceited senses, and the result was a devastating loss.
Just to give you a taste of his style, here is how he responded to a parliamentary query in the Knesset: “When there are no substantive arguments, people invent spins. It’s a shame that you think that your constituents are buying this…. Regarding your question as to whether I have any more destructive initiatives in store, the answer is an absolute yes. I have much more work to do, to destroy and uproot all the corruption, politicization, and damage that was created in the Ministry of Religious Affairs.” The nature of the question makes no difference; the answer was utterly undignified.
Allow me a word about Yamina as well: Rumor has it that when Bennett met with Orbach, he offered him a place on the party’s slate for the 25th Knesset, but Orbach refused to believe him. This reminded me of the old story about a borrower who was trying to evade his many creditors and was advised by a friend to feign insanity. “Whenever someone comes to collect a debt from you,” his friend advised him, “you should climb onto a table and cluck like a chicken. They will think that you have gone mad, and they will leave you alone.” After some time had passed, the delinquent debtor approached the friend himself for a loan. When it came due and the lender arrived to collect his debt, the borrower followed his old strategy of climbing on a table and clucking like a chicken.
“Wait a minute, my friend!” the lender exclaimed. “You can fool everyone else in the world, but you can’t fool me!”
A Rescue in Istanbul
There are times when a person does not realize the scope of the miracles that have been performed for him. And there are also times when he is given only a tiny glimpse of his miraculous salvation, sometimes in the form of a simple travel advisory or the like.
The Israeli intelligence services probably knew a lot more than they revealed, and it seems very clear that a mass slaughter was prevented in Istanbul. This story began two weeks ago, when the National Security Council published an advisory warning Israelis not to travel to Istanbul. This week, the warning was repeated. And it is clear that they knew much more than they were willing to tell the public. Last week, Israeli intelligence officials intercepted an Israeli family in the street in Istanbul and whisked them off to the airport to return home, without even giving them a chance to collect their luggage from their hotel. Obviously, they had clear information that terrorists were waiting at the hotel to ambush the family and murder them!
Last week, the Shabak announced that they have been thwarting two attempted terror attacks every day. On erev Pesach, a group of terrorists were captured in a car on their way to carry out a massive attack in Yerushalayim. President Herzog, who meets regularly with the leaders of Israel’s defense establishment and receives constant updates on the situation, spoke last Tuesday at the annual Israel Defense Prize ceremony. “Even in these days,” he said, “our enemies are not giving up. They continue threatening our security both in our country and outside it. Some of our enemies are known, while many of them are not known to the public,” he added on a somewhat alarming note.
It is fairly well-known that the Palestinians have also been growing more daring in every city in the country, and in Yerushalayim in particular. This week, there were two incidents in which Jews were nearly lynched. The “hands of Eisav” are hard at work, and it is time for the “voice of Yaakov” to be sounded in response.
Memories of Rav Simcha Kook
We have reached the shloshim of Rav Simchas Hakohein Kook of Rechovot, and I feel obligated to add a few words about him. I knew Rav Kook since my childhood, since all the rabbonim of the cities of the Shfela (Rishon Letzion, Rechovot, Nachalat Yehuda, Ramle, and Beer Yaakov) worked closely together, and Rav Kook therefore had a close relationship with my father, the rov of Beer Yaakov. Rav Kook also spoke frequently at the girls’ high school in my hometown of Beer Yaakov. From my own personal experience, I can tell you that there are no accolades lavish enough to do justice to his greatness. He was suffused with fiery passion for everything that is holy and was a devoted shaliach of the gedolei Yisroel, as well as a powerful and influential figure.
I inherited my father’s friendship with Rav Kook, and I enjoyed a close bond with him. Whenever he was unable to attend a simcha celebrated by my family, he would send a personal letter signed with the words “with the brocha of kohanim and with love.” I would respond with a letter of thanks, in which I would sign off with the phrase “with love for kohanim and with a brocha.”
Rav Simcha enlisted me as a soldier in his battles for Yiddishkeit, and he viewed me as a means of gaining access to various individuals. I worked closely with him when he vied for the office of chief rabbi of Israel, and I can attest that Rav Kook would certainly have been elected to the position if not for his aversion to participating in certain processes that might have guaranteed his election.
We spoke often, and Rav Kook sometimes even allowed himself to be quoted in print. When I interviewed him in his home in the month of Iyar 5755/1995, I noticed a small sefer Torah and questioned him about it. He explained that his mother, “Savta Rochel,” had acquired it from a Holocaust survivor. I had been well acquainted with Savta Rochel, a tzaddeikes for whom the greatest gedolim had often stood up as a sign of respect. We went on to discuss his loss in the election for the office of chief rabbi, which Rav Kook did not regret, and we spoke about the Supreme Court as well. “A bais din must always pasken only in accordance with the laws of the Torah!” he declared. When I tried to ask him questions of a more personal nature, he changed the subject.
According to my personal notes from my conversations with Rav Kook, we once spoke about righteous women, and he began telling stories about Rebbetzin Elyashiv. He revealed that after her passing, Rav Elyashiv’s sons once told him that their father had declared, “Simcha gave me the greatest comfort.”
It was also interesting to hear about his appointment as the rov of the Churva shul. “Both Rav Elyashiv and Rav Ovadiah gave me the same directive,” he said. “If there would be only Torah there, I should agree to take the position.”
Rav Kook also shared his memories of his brother Rav Shlomo, who was killed in a car accident and from whom Rav Simcha himself had inherited his position as rov of Rechovot. He also spoke about Rav Shlomo’s son, Rav Benzion Kook, who was my chavrusa in the yeshiva ketana of Beer Yaakov and has remained a close friend of mine to this day. “Benzion is a great talmid chacham,” he said. “Rav Elyashiv once said that with his questions, Benzion helped him clarify every sugya in the best possible way…. He is in the habit of learning aloud. When he was in our home, I once overheard him learning in solitude, and I could hear him rattling off his questions and answers as if he were presenting them to an audience. It sounded as if he was delivering a shiur to an entire group of people…. His hasmodah reminds me of his father, who used to learn at all times, day and night.”
Rav Simcha Kook was a majestic figure, the sort of rov who seemed to be a throwback to much earlier generations. He has been gone for only a short time, but we already find ourselves longing for his presence.
The Anonymous Donor
Eitan Wertheimer, the son of Stef Wertheimer, was a prosperous yet humble businessman, the founder of Iscar, which was sold to Warren Buffett for 6 billion dollars. On Monday, April 4, the third day of Nissan, he passed away at the age of 71.
On that same day, I arrived at the Kinor David wedding hall for the Ralbag-Green wedding celebration. Rabbi Yisroel Green, who was celebrating the marriage of a grandchild, is a prominent figure in the Boro Park community, a philanthropist who hosted Rav Moshe Shmuel Shapiro in his home for many years whenever he visited New York.
Rav Yisroel Meir Lau, who sat at the dais, was as captivating as ever. When I left the wedding, I found Ruvi Zer, Rav Lau’s right-hand man, waiting beside the entrance to take him home. “Take my advice,” I told Ruvi, “and go into the hall to have something to eat. It seems that the rov is going to be here for a while.”
“I am resting here,” Ruvi told me. “But I have something to tell you. Do you remember when you asked the rov many years ago to assist a family whose father had passed away, leaving young orphans behind?”
I certainly remembered the incident. Rav Lau had promised to try to assist the grieving family, and after a short time had passed, he summoned me and handed me a large sum of money. He refused to reveal the source of the funds, and he said simply, “Every time one of the orphans gets married, bring me an invitation and you will receive a substantial gift.” The anonymous donor had provided a massive sum of over 100,000 shekels to assist the family. I had asked Ruvi on several occasions to reveal the donor’s identity, but he refused to share the secret in violation of Rav Lau’s wishes. But at that wedding, he announced, “Today, I can tell you!”
Eitan Wertheimer had managed to keep his generosity secret, but now that he was no longer with us, the secret was finally revealed.
Rav Uri Zohar’s Analytical Instincts
One of Rav Uri Zohar’s remarkable traits was his refusal to settle for anything less than the utmost precision, both in Torah learning and in life. We have all had experiences in which we learned something that wasn’t fully clear to us but we decided to move on, assuring ourselves that we would understand it better at a later time. Rav Uri, on the other hand, would never tolerate the slightest ambiguity in his knowledge. He insisted on pursuing the ultimate truth even in such situations.
When Rav Uri came across a line in the Gemara that he did not understand with absolute clarity, he would not rest until he had attained perfect comprehension. Many of us would give up at some point and move on to the next line, but Rav Uri Zohar would not allow himself that luxury. Moreover, when he insisted on analyzing a seemingly minor point, or he resolved a question with an answer that seemed at first glance to be implausible, we would often find that he had intuitively come up with the same reasoning advanced by the meforshim, whether the Rishonim or the Acharonim. His instincts were somehow aligned with the thought processes of a talmid chacham with absolute familiarity with the entirety of Shas and its meforshim.
One day, we came across the Mishnah’s statement that in a certain monetary dispute, one of the litigants has only the right to “tarumes” (literally, resentment). The rest of us—the participants in our daily shared learning seder—did not even give the words a second glance; we took the phrase at face value, as an indication that the litigant has no actual monetary claim. But Rav Uri took it very seriously and insisted on analyzing the phrase further. “What is the exact meaning of tarumes?” he demanded. “Why is the person in this scenario allowed to experience tarumes? What is its definition? And the Mishnah implies that in a different situation, it might be prohibited; why is that?”
We were bewildered; what more was there to analyze about these words? “The Mishnah means only that there is no monetary liability, but one party is allowed to resent the other,” we insisted. “What else is there to say?”
“If you understood this, then explain it to me,” Rav Uri insisted.
“We have an approximate understanding; it means that he is allowed to feel anger,” we replied.
“Then that means that the average person is never permitted to feel resentment unless he is given a special heter to harbor such feelings,” Rav Uri declared.
“Probably,” we confessed.
“What do you mean?” he demanded. “We need to know for a fact whether it is permitted.”
At that point, we gave up. We sensed that Rav Uri would soon be proven right, as usual; we knew that he often intuited the reasoning of Chazal. There were various talmidei chachomim whom we called when we needed to resolve an issue in our learning: For halacha, we consulted with Rav Michoel Maintz; for Gemora, we called Rav Naftoli Gefen; and for pilpul, we spoke with Rav Eliyohu Yitzchok Pincus. When we needed to explore beyond the superficial meaning of a posuk, we would call Rav Avrohom Shmuel Pappenheim.
When Rav Pappenheim heard Rav Uri’s observation about the Mishnah’s text, he replied, “Rav Yisroel Salanter speaks about this in Nesivos Ohr, and he derives from the Gemara that it is prohibited for a person to harbor any resentment or grievances against someone else unless there is a halachic dispensation to do so.”
This time, Rav Uri had intuited the position of Rav Yisroel Salanter.
“All right,” he said, once the matter had been clarified, “let’s move on.”