Wednesday, Aug 10, 2022

My Take On The News

Gunfire at Kever Yosef

This week, we will begin with a recent security incident. Although the government has tried to belittle the incident and to avoid discussing it, it is something that we should all find disturbing.

It happened last Wednesday night, when a group of Jews visited Kever Yosef with official permission, in honor of the hillula of Yosef Hatzaddik. Rosh Chodesh Tammuz, for those who were not aware, is Yosef Hatzaddik’s yahrtzeit. While the group was visiting the kever, a band of terrorists opened fire on them, in spite of the fact that they were accompanied by policemen, soldiers from the IDF, and Border Guard officers.

Two mispallelim and one IDF officer were wounded in the shooting attack. The officer is Roy Zweig, a very high-ranking official who holds the rank of aluf mishneh (brigade commander or colonel) and is officially the commander of the Shomron Brigade. Also present at the time of the attack was Yossi Dagan, the head of the Shomron Regional Council, who praised Brigade Commander Zweig for his refusal to be evacuated and to allow his injuries to be treated until all the mispallelim had been safely rescued from the area. “He is a hero,” Dagan said, “and I salute him on behalf of all the people of Israel.” The military wing of Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the shooting, while Hamas welcomed it and declared it to be a sign of the potential accomplishments of armed resistance in the West Bank.

Recent months have seen an uptick in violence in the vicinity of Kever Yosef, which has been under Palestinian control since the year 2000. The kever is regularly visited by groups of Jewish mispallelim; in recent times, however, it has also become frequented by Palestinian vandals. Two months ago, two Breslover chassidim were shot while davening at the kever (although they neglected to coordinate their visit with Israeli security forces). The more recent shooting is a chilling sign of the Arabs’ growing audacity. Unfortunately, this was not the only security incident this week; however, we will move on to political news at this point.

Get Used to It: “Prime Minister Lapid”

The die has been cast, and now we must get used to hearing the new phrase “Prime Minister Yair Lapid.” The chareidi community was so preoccupied with its relief over being rid of Naftoli Bennett and his right-hand man, Matan Kahana, that they may have briefly overlooked the downside of the situation: We are now stuck with a clown named Yair Lapid as prime minister of Israel, at least in the short term.

Lest we forget, Yair Lapid does not have a single item on his resume that qualifies him to lead a country. His experience lies primarily in the realm of journalism and entertainment, and even those qualifications are relatively meager. He wrote a column in one newspaper and then moved to another publication before becoming a television host, and he worked on a series of programs while occasionally serving as a spokesman for various banks as well. Finally, he entered the world of politics, in which he prided himself on his aggressive attitude.

Yair Lapid is the ultimate illustration of the fact that one does not need to be particularly intelligent or skilled in any special area, whether it is politics, security, or the economy, in order to attract votes. All it takes is a polished appearance, a smooth tongue, and possibly a track record as a celebrity in the world of entertainment. Talent and knowhow are of no importance.

You might be thinking that there is a flaw in my analysis. Perhaps it is actually a sign of Lapid’s innate talent that he was able to realize his dream of becoming prime minister even without having any particular accomplishments to show the public. Perhaps it takes some degree of talent to achieve that goal without giving the country any substantive reason to have faith in him. Perhaps, then, it would be incorrect to say that Lapid has no personal merits.

To be honest, there is some logic to that argument. However, Lapid isn’t even the first to become prime minister without being qualified for the job. When Bennett became the prime minister, it wasn’t only in defiance of everyone’s expectations; it also ran counter to logic itself. And when he left office, Bennett didn’t step down nobly to hand over his position to someone else; he was ousted from the position in disgrace. Logic suggests that same fate lies in store for Yair Lapid. After all, there is a limit to what the Israeli public can tolerate. At least so we hope.

The Experiment Has Failed

Lapid has already made a pathetic effort to portray himself as “Mr. Security,” hurrying to be photographed in meetings with the highest-ranking figures in the defense establishment to create the impression that he understands something about the subject. Despite his efforts, though, Lapid has already received withering criticism from journalists and political pundits. Most of the Israeli people fear the consequences of his term as prime minister; the most widely held opinion is that Lapid isn’t suited to the job. When the time comes to make responsible decisions, he is the wrong man. His brief track record as finance minister and later as foreign minister have shown that he excels at only one thing: failing.

When the government fell, its architects declared that it had been a failed experiment. They had tried to establish a government that united parties that were deeply at odds with each other, all with the incongruous support of an Arab party. This was the first political experiment of its kind since the founding of the state, and the government took pride in its amalgamation of opposites. It claimed to be bringing together all of the divergent forces within Israeli politics—the right, left, and center, and the religious and secular alike. And now the leaders of this government have admitted their failure.

I must point out, however, that even the “experiment” itself wasn’t as idealistic as they would like us to believe. For one thing, this wasn’t a government representing all of Klal Yisroel. The glue that held it together wasn’t a quest for unity; it was simply blind hatred for Binyomin Netanyahu. Any government founded on hatred for any individual must be seen as illegitimate at its core. Such a regime certainly cannot be a symbol of change or healing, despite the government’s claims to the contrary. Moreover, this government declared war against a persecuted minority within the State of Israel: the chareidi populace. It began with Finance Minister Lieberman’s promise that he would never sit in a government together with the chareidim, it continued with his vows to “take the chareidim in wheelbarrows to the garbage dump,” and it ended with him taking definitive action to harm chareidi society.

It Was All Planned in Advance

The year of Bennett’s rule and the four months of Lapid’s tenure as prime minister will certainly be remembered as proof of the fact that an election can be stolen. A clever enough conniver can even find his way to the office of prime minister through treachery and deceit, against the will of the people. Even Lapid’s installation as prime minister is a result of his predecessor’s complex web of treachery, which succeeded with assistance from Lapid himself. Lapid helped Bennett deceive Yamina’s voters in order to ensure his own future place in the prime minister’s office, even though it meant that he would have to surrender the first rotation to Bennett. In retrospect, it is clear that both men are charlatans; the only thing that remains unclear is which of them is worse.

In case anyone believed that the arrangement between Bennett and Lapid developed over time in response to a situation that left them few alternatives, Bennett’s political advisor revealed this week that the subterfuge was planned well in advance. Bennett entered the election with the intent of deceiving the right-wing voters who cast their ballots for him and using their votes to support the left.

Gal Baysberg, Bennett’s strategist, revealed the following: “There was no ideology whatsoever in this campaign. They denied it to everyone else, but they were making plans behind closed doors. The political deal was formulated during the campaign; they told me that Bennett would be prime minister even with only five mandates. Bennett knew well in advance that he would make this deal with Lapid.”

Was Bennett lying, then, when he promised that he would not participate in forming a left-wing government and that he would not allow Lapid to become prime minister? In other words, did he deliberately lie to the electorate? Many would have liked to believe that Bennett was honest about his intentions but that he made a choice that he felt was necessitated by the outcome of the election. However, Gal Baysberg made it very clear that this was not the case. “Even when Bennett sat in the Channel 14 studio and signed a document promising that he wouldn’t sit with Lapid, he knew that it wasn’t true,” the strategist revealed. “This plan was overseen by the cabinet secretary, Shalom Shlomo. The deal was finalized well in advance. It was meant to accommodate Gantz, but he could not withstand the pressure. I don’t know if Ayelet Shaked knew about it,” he admitted, “since I worked only with Naftoli.”

Ayala Hasson, the reporter who was interviewing Baysberg, pressed him for more details. “Was it clear that this deal was finalized even before the election was over? When Bennett said that he wouldn’t help form an alternative government, did he already know that he was going to join exactly such a government?”

“I believe so,” Baysberg replied.

“What do you mean, you believe?” Hasson demanded. “Weren’t you there?”

“The answer is yes,” Baysberg admitted.

This was utterly astounding. Bennett had sat in a television studio and repeatedly insisted that Netanyahu’s claims that he would establish a government with the left and with the Arabs were unfounded. He repeated over and over that he would not join a left-wing government and would not support Lapid—and all of this took place when the plan had already been finalized for him to head a government made up of the left, right, and Arabs. This wasn’t just a lie; it was something much, much worse.

The Silver Lining

Still, everything is for the best. Now that Bennett has served as prime minister for a full year, he has been publicly disgraced. Like Ehud Barak in his time, Naftoli Bennett was ousted from the office of prime minister after making it clear that he was an abject failure in that capacity. Together with his partner Lapid, who claimed the title of alternate prime minister as his own, Bennett allowed the entire country to see that he deserved a grade of zero on every aspect of his performance. We have all now discovered that Bennett and Lapid wouldn’t even be qualified to manage a grocery store together! The fact that Lapid is taking over for Bennett now is solely because of the agreement between them; the public would never elect him. Most of the people, even those who consider themselves leftists or centrists, believe that Lapid’s capabilities are sorely lacking. In every survey in which the respondents were asked who is most suited to serve as prime minister and deal with the country’s problems, Netanyahu rates twice as high as Lapid.

Yair Lapid will now serve as prime minister until after the election, but that is a cloud with a silver lining: This will be his chance to demonstrate his absolute lack of ability once and for all. It will no longer be something to be discussed in theory and explored by the polls; his ineptitude will now be revealed as a fact. There is no doubt that he will demonstrate complete incompetence in everything he attempts to do. As someone once said, it takes a special kind of genius to be so absolutely foolish.

Of course, there is still one problem: Lapid may demonstrate his lack of qualifications, but it will be the country that will pay the price for his mistakes. That is very unfortunate, but it is the same problem that we faced when the Bennett-Lapid government collapsed. True, the government proved to be a failed experiment, but that does not change the fact that the people of Israel are paying the price for its errors. Unfortunately, there are many injustices in the world of politics, and the fact that the entire country must suffer for Lapid’s arrogance is just one of them.

The Fifth Election Is Upon Us

Let us also not forget that Bennett and Lapid claimed that their goal in forming their government was to save Israel from a fifth election. All they accomplished, however, was to delay the election for a year—and it was a particularly painful and damaging year, no less. To make matters worse, they claimed that a fifth election would be disastrous for Israel because of the massive waste of funds and resources that it would entail—yet this past year has come with a heavy price tag for all of us even without an election. Meanwhile, all of their plans backfired spectacularly, as they were revealed to be a pair of connivers and charlatans.

Yair Lapid, the master of vicious rhetoric, spent the year repeatedly denouncing the previous government and its leader. Over and over, he sharpened his metaphorical knives, plunged them into his predecessor’s back, and viciously twisted them. Yet all of Lapid’s invective has now come back to haunt him.

Let us remember Lapid’s proclamation that “I guarantee that there will be no more than 18 ministers in my government.” Let us not forget how he cynically lambasted Netanyahu by assuring the country, “Once again, people will receive jobs based on their connections rather than their talents.” After Lapid himself became foreign minister, he proved himself to be a failure in every area save for one: appointing others to coveted positions. He greedily seized a series of vacant positions to hand out to his closest associates, from his sister-in-law and a close ally who received positions in the KKL and the Jewish Agency, respectively, to the members of the Knesset from Yesh Atid who received postings in Canada (Ronen Hoffman), Angola (Shimon Solomon), and France (Yael German). And in spite of his promises, Lapid helped form a government with more than 18 ministers, including a minister without portfolio, various deputy ministers, and MKs serving under the Norwegian Law. Whereas he had previously denounced the government for indiscriminately and wastefully handing out positions, the trend was repeated on his own watch. And then there was his own title: Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid was the same man who had once mercilessly mocked Benny Gantz for taking the very same title. Lapid also spoke out in the past against the use of government funding for political gain. “This money belongs to you, not to the politicians,” he announced sanctimoniously to the public. “This government has already handed out 10 billion shekels to its members for political gain.” Yet when Lapid himself was at the helm of the government, he had no objection to handing out staggering sums to Abbas, Zoabi, and Tibi in order to gain and retain their support.

Splits and Mergers on the Political Front

The preparations for the election are underway, and the first thing to be done now is to clarify the composition of the various parties. The first potential changes that come to mind are actually not as dramatic as they might seem. You may have already heard or read that Agudas Yisroel and Degel HaTorah informed the Knesset Committee that they intend to split from each other and run as separate parties, rather than remaining together under the banner of United Torah Judaism. You may also have heard that Itamar Ben-Gvir (Otzma Yehudit) and Betzalel Smotrich (Religious Zionism) have decided to split as well. All of this is due to technical considerations. As a single party, UTJ is entitled to a single representative on the Central Elections Committee, but if its two component factions split from each other, then each one will be entitled to its own representative. The same is true of Smotrich and Ben-Gvir. By the time the election arrives, though, the parties will have reunited. That is the way it has always been done.

For some people, however, things are not so simple. Certain politicians will need to find their places now, in light of the political shakeup. For instance, there are the few remaining Knesset members from the Yamina party. Ayelet Shaked reportedly plans to lead Yamina as an independent party during the election and then to join a right-wing government; however, many people are skeptical about her intentions. One of the Yamina members actually announced that he will oppose her and that he plans to join the center-left; that person is Matan Kahana, who is looking for a new political home for himself. The problem for Kahana is that the chareidim have already made it clear that they will be very reluctant to trust any party in which Kahana succeeds in finding a place for himself. As a result, he has become unwanted in most of the political parties, and rumor has it that he is even trying to secure a spot with either Yesh Atid or Yisroel Beiteinu.

I will probably have much to report to you over the coming weeks about the changes on the political scene. There is talk of Meretz and Labor possibly uniting in order to cross the electoral threshold; however, there is also some fear that a union between the two parties might actually cost them votes, as was the case in the past. Meanwhile, Gideon Saar’s New Hope party is not expected to make it past the electoral threshold; however, polls indicate that if he joins forces with Benny Gantz’s party, Blue and White, the two parties together will rake in more mandates than their combined share today. Since there is a deadline for everything (for instance, requests for parties to split must be received by the Knesset Committee by noon on Sunday), I am bound to have more definitive information on this subject in the near future.

More Blows to the Prosecution in the Netanyahu Trial

I have written very little about the Netanyahu trial, even though it is still underway. The trial has been continuing every day and has been generating constant headlines in Israel; however, I generally presume that you aren’t interested in reading about every minor detail of the trial. Besides, I do not generally write about criminal trials. On the other hand, this isn’t just an ordinary criminal trial; this is the trial of Binyomin Netanyahu. And as more witnesses are questioned with every passing day, it becomes increasingly evident that the charges against Netanyahu are completely unfounded, and that the trial was nothing more than an attempt to bring about a change of regime. The leaders of the criminal justice system in Israel conspired to bring down a reigning prime minister—and they nearly succeeded. For now, though, Netanyahu is fighting back.

This week, the interrogation of Shlomo Filber as a state witness came to an end. Filber is a former director-general of the Ministry of Communications, a post to which he was appointed by Netanyahu. According to the prosecution, Netanyahu used his position as communications minister to benefit the Bezeq corporation in exchange for favorable coverage on the Walla news site, which belonged to Bezeq’s owner. Netanyahu’s lawyers have rapidly demolished these allegations. First, they demonstrated that the coverage on Walla wasn’t actually skewed in Netanyahu’s favor, and that he received the same treatment as any other politician. It was later revealed that the alleged meeting between Netanyahu and Filber, in which Netanyahu supposedly instructed the state witness to take steps to benefit the owner of Bezeq, could not possibly have occurred. This supposed meeting, which is a key element in the prosecution’s case, does not fit into the timeline of events. And if Netanyahu never gave those orders to Filber, then the entire case against him will be rendered unfounded. In fact, when this inconsistency came to light, the prosecution asked for permission to emend the charges, but the request was rejected by the judges.

Now, the trial will deal with a different set of charges against Netanyahu, concerning gifts that he received during his time as prime minister. There are certain facts regarding this case that are not in dispute; no one denies that Netanyahu revels in luxuries and was happy to accept expensive gifts. The dispute between the prosecution and the defense pertains to the question of whether there was anything criminal about those gifts. The answer to this question will be largely dependent on the quantity of gifts that he received. There is nothing illegal about accepting a gift of champagne, cigars, or jewelry (for Mrs. Netanyahu). However, if it was true that it was impossible to meet with Netanyahu without bringing a gift (as an employee of millionaire Arnon Milchan claimed) then there might be a criminal dimension to his behavior.

There is one thing, however, that is unfair about this: We are now at the beginning of an election period in which Netanyahu will be fighting a fierce battle for his political future. This is hardly an appropriate time for the media to be focusing obsessively on Netanyahu and his gifts, an issue that is bound to be thrust into the headlines by the ongoing trial.

Meron Investigation Reaches Deri, Ochana, and Netanyahu

The Meron investigative committee is continuing to do its work, and many witnesses have been summoned to testify. From time to time, the testimonies are paused so that the members of the committee can gather their thoughts and decide what other questions they wish to ask. Two high-ranking officials who recently testified before the committee are former Interior Minister Aryeh Deri and former Public Security Minister Amir Ochana. Both men were capable of shedding light on the circumstances leading up to the night of the tragedy, and they were both in a position to provide information regarding who was responsible for the hillula. It was quite fascinating to listen to their accounts.

It has often been mentioned that Deri and Ochana pressured the police and other authorities in advance of Lag Ba’omer to refrain from imposing strict restrictions on the crowding at the hillula. However, while the implication is that they are somehow culpable for the tragedy that night, the truth is that they were dealing with the restrictions only as they related to the pandemic. The police had planned to impose draconian restrictions on the crowding in order to prevent the spread of Covid, and Deri and Ochana successfully demonstrated that no other sector of society had faced similar restrictions. However, no one even mentioned the possibility that the crowding itself might be dangerous. Therefore, the pressure brought to bear by the two ministers should not detract at all from the responsibility of the police to ensure the safety of the participants in the hillula.

The investigative committee has also chosen its next witness: Binyomin Netanyahu himself. Netanyahu has been summoned to appear before the committee on Wednesday, July 20. His connection to the disaster is the fact that he joined Deri and Ochana in calling on the police to loosen the restrictions on the crowding at Meron. In truth, however, this is just another attempt to obfuscate the issue. It must remain very clear that the debates were only regarding the pandemic-related measures, and that if the police had spoken up regarding the dangers posed by the crowding itself, no one would have objected—just as no one spoke out against the police for implementing precautions this year. (Of course, this year’s Lag Ba’omer was marred by the fact that the police sharply limited the crowd on the mountaintop beyond what was called for, and then closed the event altogether without the slightest justification.)

Aryeh Deri’s testimony was as fascinating as always and demonstrated his phenomenal memory once again. He denounced the legal advisor to the Ministry of Religious Affairs, who had claimed in her own testimony that Deri had “taken over” the management of the event and had pushed aside the religious affairs minister, Rabbi Yaakov Avitan, who officially bore responsibility for it. “I would have expected her to be more precise in her testimony,” Deri told the committee. “She didn’t tell you the truth, which is that I was appointed by the government.”

Ochana explained his rationale for instructing the police to refrain from limiting the crowd at the hillula. “You must remember the background to this,” he said. “On the one hand, there was a general ban on large gatherings for a very long time in response to the coronavirus. At the same time, there were the protests on Rechov Balfour, the services at the Al-Aqsa mosque attended by hundreds of thousands of people, and other such gatherings. I tried to be very attentive to the chareidi community’s feelings. Before the hillula, I met with all the chareidi mayors in the country, in an unprecedented conference, and they shared the people’s feelings with me. The pandemic was on the decline at the time, and they showed me statistics that were very hard to dispute. They asked me how the government could permit tens of thousands of worshipers to gather on Har Habayis every Friday, and large crowds of protestors to demonstrate against Netanyahu on Rechov Balfour, while they would have to tell their constituents not to go to Meron. I didn’t have any good answers to those questions.”

The Passing of Dayan Ariel Schweitzer

When a granddaughter of Rav Yerachmiel Boyer passed away half a year ago, I visited him at the home of his son, Rav Nochum, where I found him sitting tearfully in the living room. “Rav Yerachmiel,” I said to him, “you are the living embodiment of emunah.” I reminded him of his words in the month of Shevat 5766/2006, when he eulogized a different granddaughter with the words of the posuk, “They struck me, they wounded me, they removed my ornaments from upon me.” This was his way of lamenting the many tragedies he had suffered. Just a year earlier, he had lost his beloved daughter, Rebbetzin Leah Karlinsky.

I was reminded of this last Monday, when another devastating tragedy struck out community, as the 52-year-old Rav Ariel Schweitzer was brought to his final rest. I had been davening for him since he became ill, and I had heard wondrous things about his accomplishments and his potential for future greatness. Tragically, his life was cut short before he could rise even higher. His father-in-law, Rav Yisroel Meir Lau, looked profoundly sorrowful as he voiced his grief over the passing of a son-in-law whom he had cherished like a son. Rav Lau tried valiantly to comfort his daughter, Rebbetzin Shira, and the orphaned children. To his eldest grandson, Motti, who had turned 18 that day, Rav Lau said, “Hashem gave you a birthday present: saying Kaddish.” One of the deceased’s daughters had been scheduled to participate in a special event in her school that week, and the principal sagely postponed the event until after the shiva. The Schweitzer children are a credit to both of their parents.

Rav Ariel was a world-class genius. The pain of his loss is accentuated by the thought of what he could have achieved if he had lived longer. His brother-in-law, Rav Chaim Moshe Lau, declared, “Rav Ariel knew the entire Torah!” He was a highly respected dayan, a chavrusa of prominent talmidei chachomim, a close associate of many gedolim, and one of the editors of the Encyclopedia Talmudit. He was an outstanding individual, a master of middos and a man of incredible erudition.

I was also reminded of a story that Rav Yisroel Meir Lau once told: “In the year 5714/1954, Rav Elya Lopian once asked me to accompany him from Kfar Chassidim to Bnei Brak for a hesped in Ponovezh for three gedolim who had passed away at the time: the Chazon Ish, Rav Dessler, and Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer. We traveled for half a day to get there. When he spoke, Rav Elya quoted the Kinnos of Asarah B’Teves and declared, ‘We didn’t have a chance to recover from the first blow before we were struck with two more!’”

Unfortunately, we have all suffered a series of tragic blows in recent days. The Abeles family of Beit Shemesh, for instance, recently finished the shiva for their precious son Moshe Yehuda. About half a year ago, Moshe Yehuda was injured while playing in his schoolyard, and had been sedated and intubated since that time. This past Shabbos, he succumbed to his injuries. Meanwhile, the Layush family is still struggling to recover from their sorrow over the passing of their son Kuti, which I wrote about at length in a previous week. And anyone who attended the monthly tefillah of Darchei Miriam at the Kosel this motzoei Shabbos was bound to be stunned by the long list of names of patients. The middas hadin is clearly in force, and it is time for us to beg Hashem to put an end to our sorrows.

Rav Uri Zohar Came to Give Chizuk

Rabbi Zev Sompolinsky, a grandson of Rav Aharon Chodosh, shared the following story with me this week: “This story took place ten years ago, just before Pesach of the year 5772. My chavrusa and his wife are a wealthy French couple, and she was the impetus for our learning sessions. She wanted him to learn Gemara for the first time in his life, and she called Lev L’Achim to ask for a chavrusa for him. I was assigned to him, and we learned Maseches Brachos together very slowly, for a period of over two years. When we finished the masechta, his wife surprised him by scheduling a full-blown celebration in a hall, with a band, a photographer, invitations, and even mementos for the guests to bring home. The event was almost exactly like a wedding. I informed the Lev L’Achim administration about this exceptional occasion, and I told them that the husband, who was 28 years old, was making the first siyum of his life. I felt that someone from the administration needed to come to the event in order to give him added encouragement.

“On the day before the reception, Rav Uri Zohar called me to ask about the time and location. I told him that if he attended the event and delivered a speech, it would give the family significant encouragement to make even greater strides. I didn’t necessarily expect him to come personally, but he did show up, and his presence elevated the event in a very dramatic way.” Rabbi Sompolinsky looked somber as he concluded this story, which once again drove home the magnitude of the loss we have all suffered with Rav Uri’s passing.

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