Thursday, May 23, 2024

My Take On The News

No Surprise Here: Incitement Follows Election Results

We knew that this was bound to happen: As soon as the news emerged that the right-wing bloc was victorious in the election and the chareidi parties were returning to power, a new wave of anti-chareidi incitement began. The media quickly reported that “the chareidim” are already trying to increase the government stipends for kollel yungeleit and bnei yeshivos, which triggered an outpouring of headlines laced with venomous hatred. For instance, the front-page story in Maariv last Friday was titled “Stipends for Chareidim to Be Doubled at a Cost of 1.2 Billion Shekels.” Other newspapers featured alarmist headlines warning about the chareidi community’s “enormous demands,” along with offensive caricatures and graphs comparing the government payments received by yungeleit with the stipends for IDF soldiers. Of course, these illustrations showed a staggering disparity between the entitlements of a chareidi yungerman and an average soldier.

All of this, however, is nothing but a hodgepodge of lies and misinformation. Even the comparison between a kollel yungerman and a soldier in the IDF is highly misleading. The statistics concerning an IDF soldier relate to a “jobnik,” a member of the IDF who is stationed on the home front and is not really a soldier at all, and thus holds a much lower position within the army. It would be much more accurate to compare a yungerman’s stipend with the payments received by a combat officer who has been serving for several years and who has children. And, of course, such a person receives much higher monthly wages than a typical jobnik. Moreover, if we were to contrast a yungerman’s stipend with the funding received by a student of humanities in a university, there is no question that the student is in a much better position.

The government pays only a tiny stipend to yungeleit—approximately 600 shekels per month, after all the budget cuts. If that stipend is doubled, then a yungerman would receive 1200 shekels in government funding. That is hardly a substantial sum by any measure. What is laughable about this media furor is the argument that the increased stipends will encourage yungeleit to remain in kollel rather than joining the work force. The media simply does not understand the chareidi community, but their claims are also utterly senseless. What rational person could believe that anyone would remain in kollel in order to receive this tiny pittance from the government, or that an extra 600 shekels (less than 200 dollars) a month would convince anyone to remain in kollel rather than going to work? This is nonsense and nothing but vicious incitement!

You may actually be wondering why the chareidi parties began making demands for funding for yungeleit and yeshiva bochurim at the very beginning of the new government’s formation. Isn’t the timing of these demands a bit too sensitive? This is an excellent question, but the answer I received is also very convincing: Because of the rabid incitement against the Torah world in recent times, the chareidi politicians wanted to make a statement to the country about the value that they attach to Torah study. This was their way of setting the record straight regarding their priorities.

The Downfall of the Wicked

Let me make one thing clear: The joy that erupted in the campaign headquarters of Shas and UTJ after the election was not due to the defeat of any particular individual. There was a much more substantive reason for this ebullient reaction: As the parties themselves made clear during their campaigns, this election presented a stark choice to the Israeli public between kiddush Hashem and chillul Hashem. This was a war against anyone who dared to lift a hand against the Torah. It was a battle against evil. When the chareidi parties rejoiced after the election, it was because the rebellion against the Creator of the world had failed. They danced because Hashem had shown that He is truly in control of the world.

There is no doubt about it: A series of miracles unfolded before our eyes. The enemies of Yiddishkeit in the previous government made every mistake possible and did not miss a single opportunity to stumble, in a failure that was clearly orchestrated by Hashem Himself. The electoral threshold is a perfect example of this: Lieberman himself was responsible for raising the threshold in the first place, in a bid to harm the Arab parties, and the political left recently called for it to be lowered. It was Lapid who torpedoed this idea, and the threshold that he refused to change proved to be his own undoing. The outgoing government was guilty of every possible injustice. They schemed against the religious community, and they were defeated. And that is why the chareidim rejoiced—because the government’s malicious designs were thwarted.

When the government and its bloc of hatred and malice were defeated, it was a kiddush Hashem. Personally, I had an inner debate: On the one hand, Shlomo Hamelech warns us, ‘When your enemy falls, do not rejoice’ (Mishlei 24:17). On the other hand, he also states, ‘When the wicked are destroyed, there is song’ (ibid., 11:10). The members of the previous government were enemies of the religious community, and they were also wicked people. In light of these two pesukim, what is the proper reaction to their defeat—to rejoice because of their evil or to refrain from being joyous because they were our enemies? In order to resolve this dilemma, I speculated that there is a difference between an oyeiv (enemy) and a rosha (wicked person); the only type of enemy whose downfall should not be a cause for rejoicing is one who is not a rosha. Hence, when an evil enemy is defeated, it is appropriate to rejoice!

I presented this theory to a talmid chochom, who informed me that the Maharal makes an explicit statement to this effect. The Gemara (Sanhedrin 39b) speaks about the death of Achov and states that Hashem does not rejoice in the downfall of the wicked. The Gemara then qualifies its statement: “He [Hashem] does not rejoice, but He causes others to rejoice.” Regarding this passage in the Gemara, the Maharal explains, “When the world was created, the posuk states, ‘Hashem will rejoice in His deeds.’ Hashem desires His creations; how could He rejoice when they are destroyed? Chazal state [that Hashem declared when the Mitzrim were drowning] ‘My creations are drowning in the sea and you want to sing My praises?’ Thus, He does not rejoice, but He causes others to rejoice, for the wicked harass and oppose other creations, and their downfall should be an occasion of rejoicing for them.” Indeed, the government that has now fallen was a cause of endless suffering for many of us, and a human being is permitted to celebrate the defeat of an enemy under such circumstances.

After the election, Rav Yehoshua Eichenstein explained at the Bais Hamussar in Neve Yaakov (an institution founded by Rav Shlomo Wolbe), “The gezeiros in this world are a result of our actions, and they will be rescinded if we strengthen our observance of the Torah and mitzvos…. B’chasdei Shomayim, we were blessed with kindness from Hashem. Our response should be gratitude to Hashem for the chessed that He performed for us. We should not feel victorious, a feeling that would stem from improper middos and a desire to put others down. We do not involve ourselves in politics or the subject of victory. We must simply recognize the Divine beneficence that we experienced, and we must give thanks to Hashem. B’ezras Hashem, we will strengthen ourselves in all these ways, and we will commit ourselves to bearing the yoke of Torah and all will be well.”

Calculating the Costs

The stipends for bnei Torah weren’t the only financial issue that featured prominently in the headlines in recent days. Many journalists hurried to publish their calculations of the cost of the various budgetary demands made by the members of the emerging coalition. Of course, no one bothered checking the economic cost of the previous government’s policies; no one even spoke out against Yesh Atid’s demand for an allocation of millions of shekels for the benefit of stray cats. Even the 53 billion shekels that were earmarked for Arabs upon Mansour Abbas’s demand did not raise an eyebrow in the media. Today, however, the Israeli press is closely monitoring every shekel that is promised or spent.

Just as an example of this phenomenon, one newspaper ran the following detailed report: “As the coalition agreements are about to become finalized, how much will the demands of the members of this government cost the taxpayer? According to statistics released by the Tax Authority, the cancellation of the taxes on sweetened beverages, disposable utensils, and electronic cigarettes, which the chareidi parties promised to abolish, will cost the state over one billion shekels. The subsidies promised by Netanyahu for certain basic staples will come at a cost of two to three billion shekels. The total cost of all the demands known to us at this time, with the exception of universal free education until age three, is between ten and fifteen billion shekels.”

The article continues, “The cost of Shas chairman Aryeh Deri’s demand to provide yearly food baskets to needy families will add up to one billion shekels a year. Establishing a Poverty Authority and recruiting dozens of employees for such a body will cost about 100 million shekels. The demands of Agudas Yisroel and Degel HaTorah, the two component factions of United Torah Judaism, to provide the funding that is currently denied to yeshivos that do not teach the Liba core curriculum, and to raise the wages of teachers in chareidi schools, will cost about two billion shekels, almost half the cost of the agreement with teachers in the public school systems.

“Subsidizing the cost of basic food items such as bread, milk, and sugar and the subsidies that are planned—if incoming Prime Minister Netanyahu’s proposal is accepted—to lower the cost of electricity and water are expected to cost the Treasury about two to three billion shekels every year. Freezing the increase in property taxes will force the government to transfer half a billion shekels to the local authorities in the coming year. Raising the senior citizens’ stipend by 100 shekels per month for the million eligible citizens in Israel today will add another 1.2 billion shekels annually to the state budget. The demand for the monthly stipend to be raised by hundreds of shekels will cost between three and four billion shekels. The gradual increase of the child stipend, another demand recently introduced by UTJ, will also cost about a billion shekels. All of these promises, if they are approved, are likely to be incorporated into the next state budget during the first quarter of the year 2023. In addition to all these things, the coalition is planning to debate, albeit not immediately, the Likud’s promise to provide universal free schooling for children between the ages of 0 and 3. However, it is unclear if they will be able to come up with the funding for a new law in this spirit, since it would cost up to 20 billion shekels in the first year.”

To all this, I would say: We can only hope that all these things will come to pass and that the government will make good on all these proposals. If you add up all these sums, it will not come anywhere near the 53 billion shekels that Lapid and Bennett promised to the Arabs—and as I mentioned, no one uttered a peep in protest at the time. But no one bothered calculating the costs of the promises made by the previous government at all. That type of scrutiny is reserved for Netanyahu and the right wing.

The Two Taxes of Malice

You may be wondering why the chareidi parties are so insistent on canceling the taxes on disposable goods and sweetened drinks. After all, everyone agrees that sugary drinks are not healthy. And some people have wondered aloud if this is truly the issue that deserves the politicians’ attention at this time. Why are they committing time and energy to having these taxes repealed when there are so many other critical matters to be addressed?

For one thing, it should be made clear that these taxes are certainly not the most important issue on the table, but the subject is still important. One must also wonder why, if these are really such trivial concerns, the public was so distraught when Lieberman made the tyrannical move of instituting these taxes in the first place. In fact, a simple calculation will reveal that these two taxes, which apply to items that all of us buy for Shabbos every week, added hundreds of shekels to the average family’s monthly budget. For a kollel yungerman who lives on an extremely tight budget, that is a veritable fortune!

These two taxes have also become symbols of the aggressiveness and oppression that were the hallmarks of the previous government. The chareidi parties protested vigorously against the taxes, arguing that they would not add a single cent to the government’s revenues (as was proven last week in a study conducted by Calcalist) and that the only thing the taxes would accomplish was to cause added suffering for the needy. They argued strenuously that the taxes would serve no economic purpose for the government, and that if their purpose was to try to change the public’s behavior by discouraging consumers from buying plastic goods or sweetened beverages, it is not the place of the Treasury or the government to educate the public. From the moment these two decrees were passed—against the advice of professionals in the Treasury, to boot—they became symbolic of Lieberman’s tyranny, and it became vital for them to be rescinded as quickly as possible.

Let me add one detail that you probably do not know: When the tax on sweetened drinks was first passed, the chareidi politicians urged the government to invest the proceeds in disseminating information about the dangers of consuming such beverages, just as it works hard to raise awareness about the health hazards posed by cigarettes. Of course, this idea was rejected out of hand. And that is because Lieberman and his allies were never motivated by concern for the public health; their agenda was solely to boost the Treasury’s revenues—in all likelihood, so that they would have more money to funnel to the Arabs.

A Radio Broadcaster’s Screed

This Sunday night, another of Israel’s radio hosts set a new record for malevolent invective against chareidim. A few days before the election, a different broadcaster named Eyal Berkowitz lambasted chareidim as “idlers” and warned that the country would be doomed if the chareidi parties returned to power. This Sunday, we discovered that Berkowitz has a kindred spirit in Natan Zahavi, a journalist and radio host who broadcasts on a number of local radio stations and suddenly opened his mouth like the lowliest anti-Semite. Among other things, Zahavi had the audacity to tell chareidim and religious Jews that he would like to see some of them hang themselves with their tefillin straps. In his own appalling words, “I would be very happy if some of you tied their tefillin to their throats and hanged them! They do absolutely nothing, but they are public representatives.”

In response to the furious backlash, the management of the radio station decided to suspend Zahavi indefinitely from the show. Radio 103 FM released the following statement: “Natan Zahavi’s comments today were flagrant and contemptuous. It goes without saying that they have no place on our station’s programming, and we condemn them in the strongest terms. Even freedom of expression has its limits. The director of the radio station has decided to suspend the host immediately and to keep him away form his microphone until the matter is clarified in a discussion. After that, we will make decisions about the future.”

Personally, I suspect that he will be returning to his microphone in the future….

Meanwhile, the chareidi political leadership responded with outrage. Yitzchok Goldknopf, the new representative of Agudas Yisroel, declared, “Natan Zahavi’s sickening words constituted incitement to murder against religious Jews. There is no place in the State of Israel or anywhere else in the world for such despicable talk. I expect the management of the radio station to dissociate itself immediately from his egregious statements and to dismiss him permanently. Freedom of speech does not equal freedom of incitement.”

MK Yinon Azulai of Shas responded, “Like the most atrocious anti-Semite, the leftist Natan Zahavi spoke in a radio broadcast against an entire sector of the public and showed blatant disrespect for the holy tefillin that have protected us for thousands of years, and for which our ancestors were willing to give up their lives. Zahavi’s outrageous statements have met with silence, without any condemnation. I call on the management of Radio 103 FM to suspend this dangerous thug immediately and for good.”

These were only two of the many outraged reactions that poured forth from the chareidi party.

Netanyahu Receives Mandate to Form the Government

From an official standpoint, Binyomin Netanyahu will be able to establish a new government as early as this week or next week. President Herzog has now officially given Netanyahu the mandate to assemble a new government, after 64 members of the Knesset recommended him. After a private meeting, Netanyahu and President Herzog appeared before a bevy of reporters. Herzog announced, “Based on the consultations I have conducted, the following picture has emerged: 64 members of the Knesset have recommended MK Binyomin Netanyahu to form the next government, 28 members of the Knesset have recommended MK Yair Lapid, and the other 28 members of the Knesset have chosen not to recommend anyone for this purpose.” Incidentally, the first time that Netanyahu received the mandate to form a government was 26 years ago.

Herzog sounded almost apologetic as he continued, “Of course, it did not escape my attention that MK Netanyahu is currently facing criminal charges in the District Court in Yerushalayim, and I do not take the matter lightly at all. At the same time, I must point out that the Supreme Court has already made its position clear regarding a member of the Knesset who is a candidate for the task of forming a government while under indictment. This was addressed in a number of judicial rulings, including some that were issued by an expanded panel of eleven judges when MK Netanyahu was given the mandate to form a government by my predecessor, President Reuven Rivlin. In light of all these factors, after I considered the matter in accordance with the law and after you [Netanyahu] have given your consent as the law requires, I have decided to charge you, MK Binyomin Netanyahu, with the task of forming the government.” Herzog also stressed that he hadn’t exerted pressure on the parties to form a national unity government, in spite of the many reports to the contrary.

Netanyahu, who seemed even more statesmanlike than ever, attempted to still the rising tide of indignation on the left. “We will do everything to ensure that this will be a successful, stable, responsible, and dedicated government that will work on behalf of all the residents of the State of Israel,” he announced. “I plan to be a prime minister for everyone. We are brothers, and it is our task to live side by side in harmony, in spite of all our differences and disagreements…. I intend for us to work together in order to expand the areas of agreement among us. Even if there are differences of opinion between different sectors of our people on matters of great import, there are plenty of issues around which the majority of the people can be united. We are brothers,” he repeated, “and we must live together. There are very many people who welcomed the results of the election, but there are also some who are making dark predictions and frightening the public. This isn’t the first time that such things have been heard. These things were said about Begin and they were said about me as well. It wasn’t true at the time, and it is untrue today as well.”

According to the law, Netanyahu now has 28 days to inform the president that he has succeeded in putting together a government (or that he has failed). There is no reason to expect him to fail. The new government is expected to be sworn in very soon, and then it will be time to get to work.

The First Step: A New Knesset Speaker

The Knesset, which is not dependent on the formation of a government, was sworn in this Tuesday. As a Knesset employee, I received the mass email from the Knesset director-general informing us that no visitors may be invited to the building on Tuesday, and even the fixed visitors’ passes will not be honored on that day. Special festive invitations for the opening session of the 25th Knesset were printed, and since the number of seats available is limited, there was fierce competition for those invitations. Every new member of the Knesset received three invitations to distribute as he or she pleases; veteran members of the Knesset, meanwhile, received only one.

I have witnessed many of these occasions, and I am familiar with the procedure: the trumpet fanfare, the arrival of the president, the performance of a singer, and even the recitation of a perek of Tehillim. Every member of the Knesset who enters the building is given a boutonniere to affix to his lapel, which adds to the festive atmosphere and also makes it easy for the ushers to identify the new lawmakers—an important detail, considering that at least one third of the Knesset will consist of newcomers. The speeches, of course, will be entirely predictable.

It is still unclear when the Knesset speaker will be replaced; however, there can be no doubt that he will be replaced. If you have been reading my articles about the proceedings in the Knesset, you have undoubtedly concluded that there was never another Knesset speaker who was as abysmal a failure and as great a disgrace to the Knesset as Mickey Levi. I am certain that he will be removed from his position, as will the director-general of the Knesset (not to be confused with the Knesset secretary, which is a professional appointment) who served until recently as the director-general of Yesh Atid. Many people will breathe a sigh of relief when Mickey Levi is removed from his position.

Biden’s Phone Call

The media made its bias clear once again this week by featuring dramatic headlines such as “One Week After the Election, Biden Calls Netanyahu to Offer Congratulations.” In other words, the media was watching closely and was aware of every passing day when the call from the American president did not come. This was their way of insinuating that Netanyahu was beginning his relationship with Biden, and with the American administration as a whole, on the wrong foot. But this attempt at shaping the public’s perceptions was as disingenuous as it was hateful. Let’s look back at the president’s previous calls: On May 30, 2021, Naftoli Bennett announced his intent to partner with Lapid to form his government. On June 2, Bennett and Lapid announced their success together. President Biden did not call at the time; in fact, he waited about two weeks, until after Bennett was sworn into his position on June 13, and only then did he call to wish the new prime minister well. Lapid’s installation as prime minister was a different story; the Knesset dissolved on July 1, 2022, and Lapid was sworn in as the country’s prime minister that very day. That night, Biden called to congratulate him. The pattern should be clear: The president of the United States will not call a new prime minister until his appointment is finalized and irreversible. Of course, this policy makes perfect sense. In politics, nothing is over until it is over, and if a president’s call turns out afterward to have been misplaced, it will only serve to harm his public image.

When Biden called Netanyahu, then, it was actually earlier than anyone should have expected. True, it was a full week after the election, but the final results did not arrive until Thursday, so Biden actually waited only a couple of days before calling Netanyahu, including Shabbos. (Non-Jewish politicians also respect the Jewish Shabbos.) The more logical thing for Biden to do would have been to wait until after the new government was sworn in and Netanyahu was serving officially as its prime minister; however, he chose not to wait. Thus, while the Israeli media has tried to twist this delay into a sign of Biden’s disrespect for Netanyahu, nothing could be further from the truth.

Death of a Terror Victim and Miracle at Kever Yosef

Last week, a victim of terror was laid to rest. Shalom Sofer, who was stabbed three weeks ago, died of his wounds last Tuesday and was brought to burial on Wednesday. His son related that his father was released to his home from the hospital, but a wound in his abdomen opened and he bled to death. Describing the events of the terror attack, the son related, “My father was driving home on Route 55, as he always did, when a terrorist suddenly leapt into his car and stabbed him in the back. My father turned to face him, and then the terrorist stabbed him in the abdomen as well. He was transported to the hospital in moderate to severe condition, and the doctors claimed that they had stabilized his condition. He was released to his home a few days later; the medical staff insisted that he was fine and that he needed only to recuperate at home. Yesterday, a week and a half after he was discharged, his entire body suddenly collapsed.”

The residents of his hometown of Kedumim spoke about the niftar mournfully. “Shalom opened a business in Kedumim; he was a very kind man who always helped everyone in need,” they said. “He employed many youths at risk and helped young men return to religion.” One local resident related that he once entered Shalom’s grocery store, Super Sofer, to buy some cake and sweets. When Shalom heard that he was buying refreshments for a siyum, he refused to accept payment for the purchase.

Meanwhile, a harrowing incident took place at Kever Yosef: About ten members of the Knesset from the new coalition (some of whom had yet to be sworn in, although they were still entitled to personal security) traveled to Kever Yosef in Shechem last Wednesday along with dozens of other mispallelim. It was miraculous that this mass visit to the kever did not end in tragedy, since a group of terrorists opened fire on IDF forces while the group was arriving at the site. Fortunately, there were no injuries on the Israeli side; the IDF returned fire and managed to liquidate one of the terrorists.

The MKs who visited Kever Yosef were Idit Silman (Likud), Amichai Chikli (Likud), Boaz Bismuth (Likud), Nissim Vaturi (Likud), Yoni Mashriki (Shas), Almog Cohen (Otzma Yehudit), Ohad Tal (Religious Zionism), and Limor Son Har-Melech (Otzma Yehudit). Yoni Mashriki, a former aide to Aryeh Deri who is expected to join the Knesset under the Norwegian Law, said after the incident, “The tremendous privilege of visiting the kever of Yosef Hatzaddik fills our hearts. We arrived here at night with the faith that all of Eretz Yisroel belongs to us by virtue of the Divine promise.”

A Little Shepsele

Last week, we marked the yahrtzeits of Rav Shach and of the Chazon Ish. In honor of Rav Shach’s yahrtzeit, I share a thought that is attributed to him. The Torah states that a person who steals a sheep or ox and then sells or slaughters it is required to pay extra compensation to the owner—four times the value of a sheep and five times the value of an ox. Rashi explains that the disparity in the payments is due to the fact that Hashem takes pity on a thief who absconds with a sheep: An ox walks on its own, but a sheep generally must be carried. Since a thief debases himself by carrying a sheep on his shoulders, the Torah reduces his penalty to four times the value of the stolen animal rather than five times its worth.

A group of cheder children visited Rav Shach in his home to be tested on their learning. They were learning Parshas Mishpotim, and Rav Shach presented a question that surprised them: “What is the value of a Jewish person’s dignity?”

“It’s worth a fortune!” the children responded. After all, it is considered a heinous offense to shame another Jew.

“A million lirot?” Rav Shach asked them.

“Absolutely!” the boys chorused.

“Then how is it that the Torah reduces the penalty of a thief by only the value of a single sheep because he demeaned himself?” Rav Shach challenged them. “How much is a little shepsele worth? Ten lirot? Is that how the Torah appraises the value of a Jewish person’s kavod?”

The boys were stumped. Even their rebbi did not know the answer. Rav Shach looked at them and explained, “The honor of a Jewish person is indeed typically worth a fortune. In this case, however, the thief himself showed that his own honor is worth no more than the value of a sheep to him, since he debased himself for the purpose of stealing one….”



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