Wednesday, Nov 23, 2022

My Take On The News

Deadly Terror Attack Takes Three Lives

Unfortunately, I must begin this week’s column with the topic of terror once again. Last Tuesday, a deadly terror attack took place in the city of Ariel, committed by a bloodthirsty 19-year-old Arab youth. Tragically, the terrorist managed to snuff out the lives of three Jews and to injure another three victims, two of them seriously. The terrorist was not neutralized immediately, which comes as a bit of a surprise, especially considering the fact that there is a manned guard booth at the entrance to the city. In fact, after the first stage of his attack, the terrorist managed to escape in a stolen car and reached the main highway, Route 5, where he succeeded in killing again before he was eliminated by a civilian and two soldiers. Sixteen long minutes passed from the moment he committed his first murder in Ariel until he was neutralized. I will not be the one to point fingers, but I will mention that demands have already been heard for security guards stationed in such locales to be more carefully vetted. It is possible that some of these guards are not properly trained or skilled for the job. The three murder victims have been identified as Mordechai “Motti” Ashkenazi of the city of Yavneh, Michoel Lidgin of Bat Yam, and Tamir Avichai of Kiryat Netafim in the Shomron.

Security experts feel that the terror attack should have ended at the moment the terrorist first encountered the civilian guards, after the first guard was stabbed. Instead, the rampage continued for 16 minutes, with murders taking place at three different sites and the terrorist managing to steal two cars in the course of the incident. It took 16 minutes from the time that one security guard was stabbed and the other fired into the air until the terrorist was killed. If the terrorist had been armed with a gun, he might have been able to kill many more people during that time. And this incident is the latest in a series of tragedies that should perhaps give the authorities some food for thought.

It has been only half a year since the murder of Vyacheslav (Doniel) Golev, who was shot to death at close range by terrorists at the entrance to Ariel. Less than a month ago, a terrorist named Udai Tamimi was liquidated by civilian guards at the entrance to Maale Adumim ten days after he committed an attack at the Shuafat checkpoint, where he killed Sergeant Noa Lazar of the Border Guard. City entrances and checkpoints on the road have already been identified as weak points and attractive targets for terrorists aiming to carry out suicide attacks. But while these areas are technically under the direct responsibility of the IDF and Border Guard, the guard booths at the entrances to various communities and industrial areas are generally manned by civilians employed by the local councils. In light of these recent tragedies, it seems that that policy should be reevaluated.

Trouble in Chevron

Another incident, which miraculously ended without injuries, took place in Kiryat Arba, which seems to be a frequent site of trouble. A few hours before this past Shabbos began, a Palestinian youth armed with a knife was arrested by IDF troops at the Elias junction, near the gas station at the entrance to Kiryat Arba, on the suspicion that he was preparing to perpetrate a stabbing attack. The Palestinian aroused the suspicions of IDF soldiers and a civilian security guard on routine patrol, and they searched him and discovered a knife on his person. The suspect was taken into custody and questioned by the Shin Bet. The IDF emphasized that despite the initial reports, the suspect did not stab anyone, and he was arrested without the need to open fire. This incident was taken very seriously in Kiryat Arba in light of the timing: It is an annual tradition for thousands of visitors to spend the Shabbos of Parshas Chayei Sara in Kiryat Arba and Chevron in a show of solidarity with the local residents and Meoras Hamachpeilah.

This wasn’t the only incident that marred the atmosphere on that weekend. Over the course of Shabbos, violent disturbances took place in the vicinity of the Jewish community of Chevron when hundreds of Israelis began marching toward Palestinian territory with Israeli flags. At the entrance to the kever of Osniel ben Kenaz, the Israeli visitors and the Palestinians began throwing stones at each other. Security forces in the area attempted to restore order using riot control measures, and a number of Israelis were arrested. Two Palestinians were injured by stones and received medical treatment from IDF forces at the scene. Due to the clashes, the kever was closed to visitors.

On Sunday morning, the pro-Palestinian newspaper Haaretz featured a headline announcing, “Hundreds of Israelis Attacked Palestinians at the Shabbos Chayei Sara Event in Chevron.” Personally, I do not find their version of events credible at all. Haaretz did report, though, that 32,000 Jews came to Chevron for Shabbos! Prime Minister Lapid also condemned the Jewish rioters at the cabinet meeting on Sunday (the last meeting of the cabinet on his watch). But I do not put much stock in his stories either.

A senior official in the army put the incident in proper perspective. “This was a very localized event,” he explained. “On the Shabbos of Chayei Sara, tens of thousands of people came to Chevron. Aside from the disturbances during the march and at the entrance to the kever of Osniel ben Kenaz, the Shabbos was properly managed and the security forces kept the order. This incident should not be allowed to cast a pall over the Shabbos as a whole.” On the other hand, the army claims that some of the Jewish protestors were responsible for striking soldiers. An IDF spokesman announced in response, “Violence of any kind, especially against the security forces, is an intolerable criminal act that requires an immediate response and strict justice.”

The Palestinians, for their part, claimed that on the Shabbos of Chayei Sara, they encountered a series of “anti-Palestinian” acts perpetrated by Jewish “settlers.” They reported that a girl and several other Palestinian youths were injured by rocks thrown at them during the clashes. There were also reports of two Palestinian youths being arrested in the neighborhoods of Tel Rumeida and Bab Al-Zawiya in Chevron. They claimed further that Palestinians were attacked in the city after hundreds of Jews arrived to spend Shabbos there, that stones were thrown at the cars and homes of Palestinian families in several neighborhoods, and that the Israeli citizens damaged their cars and other property and attempted to break into buildings and private yards on Shuhada Street and in other areas. They also alleged that the Israelis threw rocks and other objects at several houses, including the home of Amad Abu Shamsia, the Palestinian activist who filmed the “Elor Azariah incident.” Finally, the Palestinians claim that the Israeli participants in the march rioted in their streets, broke windows and doors (including the door of a mosque) and shouted slogans such as “Death to the Arabs” and “Mohammed was a pig.”

A Near-Lynch in Ramle

The events in Chevron weren’t the only cause for concern this past Shabbos; the Jewish community of Ramle had its own harrowing experience. Ramle is a mixed city in the center of the country, not far from the city of Lod. Both Ramle and Lod are home to mixed populations of Jews and Arabs. In general, these two groups have managed to coexist on relatively good terms; however, we all remember the violence that rocked the city of Lod (as well as Yaffo, Acco, and Haifa) two years ago, and we are always concerned about the possibility of another violent uprising in any of Israel’s mixed cities.

This past Shabbos, the neighborhood of Amishav in Ramle nearly became the scene of a lynch. On Friday night, after the window of a Jewish-owned home in the neighborhood was broken by vandals, local Jewish residents gathered to daven near the damaged home. Without warning, a group of Arabs suddenly appeared and attacked the mispallelim. The victims related that the Arabs attacked them viciously, beating them with their fists and with clubs as well as throwing stones, chairs, and other objects at them. The male residents called the police and sent the women and children into a nearby home while trying to defend themselves until help arrived.

A large contingent of policemen and riot control officers soon arrived at the scene and arrested three Arab rioters. However, the residents complained that despite the assurances they received from the police, the rioters were released after spending only a few hours in the police station. Residents of Ramle also relate that this incident came on the heels of two episodes of rock throwing that occurred in the neighborhood on Friday, when the windshield of a Jewish-owned car was shattered and rocks were thrown at the home of another Jewish family. One of the eyewitnesses to the event on Friday night related, “What happened here on Friday night was sheer madness: Arab rioters were running amok and attacking us with everything that they could find. It was a miracle that there was no bloodshed! We are now trying to calm down our children, who witnessed a brazen attempt at lynching Jews in the heart of the State of Israel,” he added.

Netanyahu’s Dilemma

These recent incidents of violence have fed into the widespread fear that tensions between Arabs and Jews may be on the verge of escalating due to the election results and the current coalition talks. And that brings me to my next topic: the formation of the new government.

As of this writing the establishment of a government is being held up by a dispute over which portfolio will be received by Betzalel Smotrich, chairman of the Religious Zionism party, who is demanding to be appointed as the next defense minister (or, alternatively, as the finance minister), while Netanyahu is reluctant to accede. The Palestinians despise Smotrich, which is the reason that Israel is concerned about further violence, and likely part of the reason for Netanyahu’s reluctance to grant him the position.

However, there is another side to this issue: While it might be important to avoid antagonizing the Palestinians, what if Betzalel Smotrich is actually the right man for the job of defense minister? Furthermore, if the Palestinians are opposing his appointment, is it really the right thing for Netanyahu to give in to their demands? Perhaps the prime minister should stand his ground, but then again, perhaps it would be wrong to appoint Smotrich to such a sensitive position if his very presence there will be a provocation to the Palestinians. Also, there is the question whether Smotrich is worthy of the top ministerial job.

In short, this is a very complicated dilemma. As of now, Netanyahu has informed Smotrich that he will not be receiving the defense portfolio, but Smotrich has argued that as the leader of a party with 14 seats in the Knesset, he deserves to have his demands met. If Bennett was able to use his six seats to maneuver himself into the position of prime minister, and Benny Gantz was able to become the defense minister with fewer than 14 mandates, why should Betzalel Smotrich be any different? The legs of that argument were pulled out from under the feet of Smotrich when the Religious Zionist block which was formed for the election, broke apart last week into three separate parties. Smotrich can no longer claim to be Likud’s biggest partner, that now goes to Shas and it just so happens to be that Netanyahu has a good relationship with Shas head Aryeh Deri and trusts him a lot more than he trust Smotrich.

Netanyahu’s objections to appointing Betzalel Smotrich as the Minister of Defense are not personal or political in nature. Netanyahu has nothing against Smotrich as a person (although he may harbor concerns at the back of his mind that there is no way to predict how long Smotrich will remain loyal to him), and while he would prefer to give the defense portfolio to a senior figure in the Likud such as Yoav Galant, or possibly even to reserve it for Benny Gantz in the event that he decides to join the government, that is not the ultimate reason for his position. As I mentioned, it is entirely a question of security and defense policy. Netanyahu feels that he cannot give this key position to an extreme right-wing figure.

The Americans are also breathing down Netanyahu’s neck. They have been monitoring the proceedings in Israel with great interest and signaled that they would not be pleased if Smotrich becomes the Minister of Defense. They also take a dim view of the possibility of Itamar Ben-Gvir becoming a minister of any kind. Netanyahu cannot afford to ignore those signals from America. Last week, he had a meeting with the American ambassador that was neither reported in the press nor photographed, in which the ambassador made the administration’s sentiments very clear.

In short, if Betzalel Smotrich becomes Israel’s defense minister, it could have an incendiary impact on the entire region, chas v’sholom, and we may already be seeing the beginning of the violence. Netanyahu, who is generally a very cautious and calculated person, has maintained a firm yet polite stance toward the Palestinian people; he certainly does not want to have Betzalel Smotrich causing chaos. And Smotrich would stoke tensions not necessarily by implementing radical policies, but merely by virtue of being appointed to the position in the first place.

A Visit from the Ambassador

Before I go into further detail about the coalition talks, perhaps I should make an observation about the current American ambassador, Thomas Nides. As I have mentioned, Nides is deeply involved in events here, and he even has an opinion on how the ministerial portfolios should be distributed. He also severely criticized Itamar Ben-Gvir’s participation in an event held in honor of the yahrtzeit of Meir Kahane, who was assassinated at an event of the Kach movement in Manhattan. The Americans referred to Ben-Gvir’s attendance at this event as a “disgrace” and possibly even an “abomination.” But in a dramatically different move, Ambassador Nides made a highly unusual diplomatic gesture last week by visiting an Israeli “settlement” on the far side of the Green Line. This was in spite of his assertion in a recent interview that he had no intention of visiting Yehuda and the Shomron, in order to avoid antagonizing anyone who might take objection to such a visit.

Despite his earlier promise, Nides joined Yossi Dagan, the head of the Shomron Regional Council, on a trip to Kiryat Netafim to visit the family of Tamir Avichai, who was murdered in the terror attack last Tuesday that I mentioned at the beginning of this column. During his visit, Nides said to the family, “I am very sorry. There is nothing I can say to express my distress. I have come here to show solidarity with your pain, and I would like to express my sympathies. I have visited the families of the other two victims, and I felt that I should come here as well. I wanted to pay my respects to the family and to offer my condolences. I felt that it was appropriate and respectful for me to come here. I am heartbroken for you.”

Yossi Dagan told the American ambassador, “We very much appreciate that you have come here. Even though we do not agree on everything, we know that we are all working toward the same goal. I would like to tell you something on behalf of the residents of the Shomron: We are in pain and we are weeping, but we are not broken and we will not be broken. We will continue building the Shomron. We are people of faith, and we know that this is our land, and we will continue building it with even greater determination. We know that we bring security to all the citizens of the State of Israel by living here, and we will be strong and will build the Shomron and our land of Eretz Yisroel even more. We appreciate your coming here,” he repeated.

The ambassador listened intently as the niftar’s children spoke to him. Avichai’s daughter said, “We aren’t afraid and we aren’t going anywhere. We are here to stay, and that is why we buried my father here in the Shomron and not in Netanya, where he grew up. That is our way of declaring that we plan to remain here and that we will not leave; this is our life. We want security in every part of the State of Israel, not just in the center of the country.”

Coalition Negotiations

Let’s return now to the subject of the coalition talks. After the final results of the election came in, we all thought that the formation of a new government would be easy and quick. Unfortunately, we are discovering that that isn’t quite the case. The process is becoming increasingly complex, and it seems inevitable right now that its conclusion will be delayed.

As I noted, Betzalel Smotrich seems to be the reason for these complications. Smotrich is demanding one of two portfolios—either defense or finance—and Netanyahu is not exactly interested in granting either one to him. Putting Smotrich in charge of the defense ministry would be an incendiary move, as I have explained, and as for the finance portfolio, Netanyahu is rumored to be reserving it for Aryeh Deri. These rumors might not be completely accurate, since Deri doesn’t seem to be genuinely interested in becoming the finance minister, but this is currently believed to be the situation, although much of what is reported might be little more than spin.

Itamar Ben-Gvir’s demand to receive the Public Security Ministry (which would place him in charge of the police force) was also problematic at first, but Netanyahu gave in to him very quickly and even agreed to a series of right-wing demands that might antagonize Smotrich. On Tuesday in a speech in the Knesset Ben-Gvir upped his demands. This happened as it appeared that a deal was reached regarding ministerial portfolios between Deri and Smotrich.

Where Do the Chareidim Stand?

There is a general belief that the chareidi parties—Shas and United Torah Judaism—should find it easy enough to conclude their own coalition talks successfully; however, that is also not so simple. For one thing, the Shas party has set its sights on controlling the Religious Affairs Ministry—especially since the two current chief rabbis will be reaching the end of their terms this year, and we can expect an all-out war over the identities of their successors—but Smotrich is also demanding control of that ministry. It is logical to assume that Netanyahu will at least accommodate the chareidim’s economic demands, such as increased funding for yeshivos, but it remains uncertain whether he will agree to give them the portfolios to which they wish to lay claim. The chareidi parties attach special importance to control of the Housing Ministry, which will likely go to Yitzchok Goldknopf. Moshe Gafni will probably return to the position of chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee, but that still leaves some unanswered questions: What position will Uri Maklev receive, and what will Shas get? At the time of this writing, it seems that although Netanyahu was hoping to announce his new government this week, it will end up being postponed for another week.

Regarding the religious issues, at least, the Likud party has agreed to all of the chareidim’s demands, including ceasing the attack on the kosher cell phone industry, canceling the changes to the kashrus system, and passing a new draft law (including an override clause). Ostensibly, there is no reason for concern at least in this area.

However, I haven’t even discussed the internal conflicts within the Likud, which I will address next week, bli neder. I also haven’t touched on the technical problem with appointing Aryeh Deri as a government minister (in any ministry, and especially in the finance ministry), which might require special approval from the Supreme Court since Deri recently signed a plea bargain in which he confessed to having committed certain tax crimes. This coalition might find itself facing the need to enact a new law for Deri’s sake even before the government is established. At this time, the question of whether Deri should be allowed to hold a position has been a focus of headline stories throughout the Israeli press.

Impressions from the Opening Session of the 25th Knesset

The 25th Knesset was sworn in last week. The only moving part of the day was the recitation of Tehillim by Moishy Holtzberg, the orphan whose parents were killed in the Chabad house in India in the year 2008. (In addition to appearing in the Knesset, Moishy spoke at the United Nations last month.) I couldn’t bring myself to feel glee when I watched the tyrant Yair Lapid and his minion Mickey Levi climbing the steps from the Knesset speaker’s office to attend the ceremony in the Chagall Hall. As they walked along the red carpet behind President Herzog, their expressions were downcast and their moods clearly somber. When they walked between two rows of officers in the Knesset Guard, it almost seemed as if they were aveilim in the process of being comforted. However, I am not rejoicing over Lapid’s downfall, although no one can fail to be thankful that this country has been saved from the clutches of his wicked government.

The crowd in the Knesset included some veteran members of the parliament, some newcomers (such as Avrohom Betzalel and Yitzchok Goldknopf), and some former MKs as well. The newcomers looked excited; from their perspective, that was a sensible reaction. But it will not be long before they discover that their positions give them no real influence, and they realize that they are destined to fade into obscurity again before long.

Every swearing-in ceremony at the Knesset is a multigenerational event of sorts, and the sight of faces from previous incarnations of the Knesset may remind us of certain realities of Israeli politics. Yehoshua Pollack, for instance, served in the Knesset for only 28 days (at the beginning of 2009), and Hillel Horowitz’s 40-day stint in early 2015 was relatively long in contrast to that. Meanwhile, I didn’t even see the MKs who were sent packing in disgrace (such as Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz and Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev) at the event.

At the three events of the day, I didn’t see much festivity at all; all that I observed was hypocrisy. Mickey Levi, in his final populist address as the Speaker of the Knesset, commented that the Knesset had fallen to an all-time low over the past year and that the discourse in Israel’s parliament has become disgraceful. What he did not mention is that if he wanted to find somewhere to lay the blame for that phenomenon, he should really look in the mirror. Levi was a draconian, brutal, and highly politicized Knesset speaker who violated every established custom and protocol in the Knesset. Lapid, for his part, delivered a short speech in the Chagall Hall and expressed his hope that the Knesset will not become a place dedicated to the exchange of insults. These were the comments of a man who never balked at bombarding his political opponents with the most egregious of insults and the lowliest of speeches in the Knesset.

The event came to an end with the traditional group photograph of the party leaders. Unfortunately, this was preceded by a performance of female singers, in a show of pure insensitivity to the Knesset’s religious members. The Knesset director-general then invited the party leaders to come to the front of the room for the photo, beginning with Merav Michaeli. The leaders of the small parties were positioned in the back row, their places marked by small cards, while the heads of the larger parties—Gantz, Deri, Netanyahu, Smotrich, and Goldknopf—were stationed in the second row. In front of them sat Mickey Levi, Yitzchok Herzog, Yair Lapid, and Esther Chayut.

The ceremony drew to an end, and a flurry of selfies began. Visitors who had managed to secure passes to enter the Knesset vied for the opportunity to be photographed with a public figure, with Netanyahu garnering the most interest. As it turns out, Aryeh Deri was fairly sought after as well.

Speaking of Deri, I was present during a meeting of the Shas party when three men wearing knit yamrulkes entered the room and demonstrated unabashed admiration for him. The eldest of the three, who seemed very emotional, asked to have his picture taken together with “Harav Deri.” I assumed that these men were residents of the periphery who wanted to show appreciation to Deri for his work on their behalf, but then someone explained to me that one of the men was Yair Revivo, the mayor of Lod, and another was Eli Revivo, who was being sworn in to the Knesset as a member of the Likud party. And the third was … their father.

No Consequences for Forged Hechsherim

This Sunday, the rabbonim of Bnei Brak released a warning to the public about a restaurant in the city that falsely claimed to be under their hashgochah. “This is to inform the public that the hechsher is a forgery; let the community beware,” the notice read. This was the latest of many reminders about the rampant phenomenon of forged hechsherim, an issue that affects all of us in Israel on a regular basis. In fact, it hasn’t been long since the rabbonim of Bnei Brak issued a different warning, this time about a marshmallow treat similar to Krembo that was being marketed with a forged certification attributed to the rabbonim of Bnei Brak.

Another warning about a kashrus forgery came from the Badatz Yoreh Deah, headed by Rav Shlomo Machpoud, which alerted consumers that its hechsher had been forged on packages of frozen goose. “This is a serious forgery; we do not certify any goose products at all, neither frozen nor fresh, neither locally slaughtered nor the product of shechitah abroad,” the kashrus agency wrote.

Both the rabbonim of Bnei Brak and Rav Machpoud’s agency added that they had filed complaints about the forgeries. In one of these cases, a parliamentary query was submitted to the Minister of Public Security requesting information about the outcome of the complaint. Had the allegations been investigated? Were the counterfeiters caught, were they brought to justice, and what penalties were given to them?

The questioner was not under any illusions; his goal was to demonstrate that the law enforcement agencies are not taking this problem seriously. Sure enough, the minister responded simply, “The police are not aware of any such complaint.”

Sadly, the kashrus supervision market in Israel lacks any semblance of security. Criminals are not afraid to forge kashrus seals, since they know that if they are caught, even if a complaint is filed and an investigation is opened (which is also not guaranteed in the slightest), they might never face trial for their actions. In general, these incidents will end with an administrative fine levied by the fraud department of the Chief Rabbinate. And even if the perpetrators do face criminal charges, the penalties will be light.

The logical conclusion is that the blame for this phenomenon lies with the authorities themselves. It is not only a criminal act to forge a kashrus certification; it is also an injustice to the many people in this country who care about the laws of kashrus and are misled by false hechsherim. The authorities’ forgiving attitudes toward those who commit these crimes is unforgivable itself.

A Message from Pittsburgh

I will end this column on a happy note. Miri and Itzik are a couple who live in Yerushalayim with their precious children, and they are now in Pittsburgh, where Miri has just undergone a complex operation. The surgery took place on Thursday night, and she was transferred to a ward on Friday. She has since been released from the hospital and is being hosted by the Lebovits family, whom she describes as “angels in the most literal sense.” Miri is a good friend of my daughter, who has been davening for her throughout this process. At my daughter’s request, I decided to send her a symbolic gift along with a letter of encouragement (from my daughter herself, of course). For that purpose, Rabbi Shmuel Lipschutz of Yated Neeman put me in touch with a certain Mrs. Butler in Pittsbugh, who gave me the phone number of a store where I could order an appropriate gift package.

After receiving the care package, Miri wrote to us, “I don’t even know how to respond. You people are larger than life! This was truly heartwarming! You have no idea how much joy it brings a person and how much it can raise their spirits to hear that other people are thinking about them, davening for them, and concerned about them…. Your caring and concern can be felt even from thousands of kilometers away. Itzik is very grateful to you for the kind words, and he suggests that you should write about the unbelievable Bikur Cholim organization here, which has wrapped us in endless warmth and love. But one article wouldn’t be enough for that, and perhaps even an entire newspaper wouldn’t suffice. It is amazing and exciting. Nina [Butler] oversees an incredible organization of volunteers from the community here, who are constantly looking for ways to help us and make us more comfortable. No matter how much we hear about chessed, it is impossible to believe it until you see it. I have so many stories to tell; I can’t wait to share them with you. And the Lebovitses are absolutely amazing. There is no one else like them anywhere on earth! But wait—how do you know Nina? How did you get in touch with her? Never mind; one does not ask questions about a Yaakovson. Thank you from the depths of our hearts! Itzik and Miri.”

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