Wednesday, Feb 1, 2023

My Take On The News

A Country in Turmoil

You may find this hard to believe, but at the beginning of this week, the entire country was preoccupied by something other than last week’s terror attack at the entrance to Yerushalayim. Yes, the bereaved families were still sitting shiva—the wonderful family of Aryeh Schupak, the yeshiva bochur who was killed on the spot after sitting on the bench adjacent to the bomb, and the family of Tedsa Tshuma, a father of six and a resident of Yerushalayim who immigrated from Ethiopia twenty years ago. And yes, the entire country is still shocked by the bombing. But somehow, the biggest news story has been the report about the soldier in the Givati brigade who struck a member of a group of radical anarchists who were staging a protest. That incident has somehow grabbed the media’s focus even more than the brutal murder of an innocent Jewish teenager in a shocking act of terror.

In footage of the incident, a soldier can be seen throwing the protestor to the ground and then punching him in the face. Such actions should never take place; however, when the incident is placed in context, a very different picture emerges. This episode involved a group of left-wing protestors who have been incessantly antagonizing the soldiers stationed in the area. Last Friday, these provocateurs came to Chevron for what they described as a “solidarity visit” to the Palestinian families there, after the violence that occurred on the Shabbos of Parshas Chayei Sarah.

Of course, Israel’s “humanitarian” army didn’t bother investigating the circumstances of the protestor’s beating, and seven soldiers were immediately suspended from all military activity. Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi even issued a harsh condemnation of the soldier’s actions: “This is an extremely serious incident that violates all the values and standing orders of the IDF. The regulations and directives allow the soldiers freedom of operation in order to carry out their tasks, but it is prohibited for them to employ unnecessary force or to commit acts of violence. The source of the IDF’s power is the fact that it is a professional, goal-oriented, moral and dignified army.”

Echoing Kochavi’s outraged tone, the IDF spokesman added, “These events will be investigated by Major General Yehuda Fuchs, the commander of the Central Command. The violence will also be probed by the military police, whose findings will then be submitted to the military prosecution.”

The Army Does Not Back Its Soldiers

Slowly but surely, it became clear that the situation was anything but straightforward. The Jewish residents of Chevron have long grown accustomed to being slandered and scapegoated. Even last Shabbos, the media reported that a resident of Kiryat Arba had struck a female soldier, triggering an outpouring of wrath and incitement against the “settlers.” Even some right-wing figures were dragged into the fray. And then it was suddenly revealed that the soldier’s assailant was somewhat mentally imbalanced and that he had been drunk when the incident took place. In fact, he hadn’t struck the soldier at all; he simply stumbled and fell on her. And the soldier herself, the supposed “victim” of the incident, is the man’s neighbor in Kiryat Arba. This was hardly the incident of right-wing violence that it was made out to be.

In all likelihood, the soldiers who were stationed in Chevron have likewise been unfairly vilified. They have been living through a veritable Gehinnom at their posting, where they are subject to constant harassment both from Arabs and from extreme left-wing activists, who try to provoke them and assail them with insults and even coarse language. The soldiers, most of whom are no more than 18 years old, are aware that their duty is to display the maximum restraint, but sometimes they simply cannot bring themselves to ignore the provocations. Incidentally, one of the soldiers who was suspended was disciplined solely for responding to one of the protestors by yelling, “You just wait! Soon Ben-Gvir will come and restore order here.” For that alone, he was punished.

Although seven soldiers were suspended, there was only one soldier who beat a protestor. And this particular soldier has endured endless verbal abuse from the protestor whom he struck and from the man’s companions. The victim, along with a female protestor, had shoved the soldiers just a few seconds before the altercation took place. After this background to the incident became public knowledge, there was a shift in the general mood, and the public took umbrage at the fact that the IDF does not lend backing to its soldiers. Once the full picture was revealed, the media (or at least the non-leftist part of it) began fiercely criticizing the IDF for suspending the soldiers, as well as the chief of staff for his haste in condemning them and releasing a “special letter” with his own reaction to the incident. This episode is a disgrace to the army and it also serves as a clear illustration of the state of affairs here in Israel: While most of the nation is still struggling to recover from the trauma of a terror attack, there are some people who are focusing their energies on supporting the Palestinians and persecuting Israeli soldiers.

Body of Druse Teen Returned to Israel

Last week, a shocking story unfolded in the Druse community in Israel. Tiran Faro was a Druse teenager who lived in the northern community of Daliat al-Carmel. On Tuesday, Tiran and his friend traveled together to the city of Jenin in the Palestinian Authority to have their car repaired, but they were involved in a road accident. Tiran was seriously injured and was rushed to a hospital in Jenin, while his friend was airlifted to a hospital in Israel. According to the security services, about 25,000 people, most of them Israeli Arabs, enter Jenin every weekend and spend an average of between five and seven million shekels. And while I hate to admit it, there are many Jews, even religious Jews, who venture into Arab villages to shop and have their cars repaired as well.

Tiran Faro was abducted from the hospital in Jenin by armed men belonging to the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade. According to his family, he was alive when he was kidnapped. “Because of his condition after the accident,” his father related, “we were unable to have him brought to Israeli territory, and we had to have him treated nearby in Jenin. The Islamic Jihad found out that he was in the hospital, and they thought that he was a soldier in the IDF. They disconnected him from the medical equipment and took him in front of our eyes, while he was alive. I had never seen anything like it in my life. It was an utterly inhuman atrocity. There were 20 masked men, and if we had revealed that we were also Israeli, they would have abducted us as well. We managed to get away, and I saw that they had taken my son while he was still alive.” The kidnappers knew that their victim was Druse rather than Jewish, but they were also aware that the Druse serve in the IDF, and therefore they concluded that he was a soldier. They intended to kidnap an Israeli soldier with the intent of opening negotiations with Israel for the return of his body.

However, they didn’t realize whom they were antagonizing. The Druse know how to take care of their own. They appealed to the Israeli authorities to work through the standard diplomatic channels to retrieve the abducted youth, but they also took matters into their own hands. Hundreds of Druse arrived in Jenin with guns and began shooting in every direction, threatening to slaughter the residents of Jenin if the body wasn’t returned immediately. They also blocked some important roads in Israel, although that tactic was less effective in pressuring the Islamic Jihad. A Druse delegation was sent to the leader of the Jihad in Lebanon to inform him that the Druse everywhere would declare war on his movement, including in Lebanon itself, and it would lead to a bloodbath. They also kidnapped three Palestinians who left Chevron to shop in Israel. One of the victims appeared in a video in which he begged for his life to be spared. “Please return Faro’s body; if you don’t, the Druse will kill me and my friends,” the man said desperately. The leader of the Druse community, Sheikh Mowafaq Tarif, set a deadline for the return of Faro’s body. “You have made a mistake,” he told the terrorist organization gravely, “and you have eight hours to return the body.” On Wednesday night, 24 hours after Faro was kidnapped from the hospital, his body was returned. On Thursday, his funeral was held in Daliat al-Carmel.

Another Ruling Hostile to Religion

There are so many things that I feel compelled to report about this week, but I must be brief on account of space constraints. First, there was a terror attack in Beer Sheva, where a Bedouin youth ran over an Israeli pedestrian who was just beginning his service in the air force. Strangely, the culprit is a member of a family whose members serve in the police or army and is also a sworn Netanyahu loyalist. When he claimed that the ramming was an accident and not a terror attack, many believed him. At the same time, there is video evidence that it was a deliberate act.

There were also episodes of rock throwing on the roads in Yehuda and the Shomron, especially in the vicinity of Gush Etzion. Cars driven by Jewish motorists are frequently stoned in that area, in a situation that has already become intolerable. The residents hope that when Itamar Ben-Gvir takes over the Ministry of Public Security, he will restore quiet to the area.

Meanwhile, MK Omer Cassif stood at the Knesset podium and publicly announced his condolences for the families of “the two 16-year-old youths” who were murdered. Of course, he was referring to Aryeh Schupak, who was killed in a terror attack, and to the Palestinian youth who was killed on the same day by IDF soldiers. As far as Cassif is concerned, there is no difference between the two; he views both of them as victims of terrorism. His comments enraged the Knesset, and the furious objections prevented him from finishing his speech.

In other news, the Supreme Court ordered the government to begin registering couples as married even if they have undergone virtual wedding ceremonies—which are, of course, completely meaningless in halacha. The court is doing everything in its power to erode the boundaries of halacha in this country, and this verdict only served to ramp up the outrage in the chareidi community.

Finally, this week has also brought us another wave of price hikes, mainly affecting dairy products. No matter how much the large manufacturers are criticized for furtively raising their prices and pretending that no one has noticed the hikes, they continue doing so.

Netanyahu Struggling to Put Together a Coalition

Of course, we can’t let a week go by without some news about the election, even if it is already behind us. The terror attacks and tense security situation certainly led to a slowdown in the coalition talks, but at the same time, I believe that all the parties are beginning to realize that this is not the time to stand on principle regarding trivial matters. At the end of the day, the distribution of portfolios is not the most important issue at hand.

At the same time, the disputes over jobs and titles that are holding up the formation of the government seem to be quite petty, but that isn’t exactly the case. The ministerial portfolios are critical tools that enable politicians to fulfill their promises and pursue their agendas. For instance, since United Torah Judaism promised to improve the situation in chareidi schools, it will naturally have to have at least some clout in the Ministry of Education in order to wield its influence there. The same is true of the housing crisis in the chareidi sector; the party will have to insert one of its members into the Housing Ministry in order to work on providing relief in this area. UTJ’s top priority, however, is to combat the threats to Yiddishkeit created by the previous government, ranging from chillul Shabbos in the public sphere to the draft law. And although the party’s goals should be included in the founding principles of the government and the coalition agreements, it is still necessary to secure positions of influence.

At this point, Netanyahu is having trouble putting together all the puzzle pieces that will make up the next government. His problems began when both Aryeh Deri and Betzalel Smotrich demanded the position of Minister of Finance. Deri’s motivations aren’t exactly clear; he might have hoped to use the ministry to fulfill the commitments he made to the voters during the election campaign, especially his pledge to provide food vouchers to the tune of a billion shekels annually. On the other hand, he might have wanted to claim the position simply as a bargaining chip to enable him to receive the portfolios that he actually wanted, beginning with the Interior Ministry and the Ministry of Religious Affairs. In any event, it seems that Netanyahu and Deri have already reached their agreement, and the ongoing talks are merely a game.

Smotrich, on the other hand, hasn’t reached any final understandings with Netanyahu as of this writing, and he seems to feel somewhat betrayed. His colleague Itamar Ben-Gvir, who is actually the head of his own party, was the first to sign an agreement with Netanyahu. Ben-Gvir received control of the Ministry of Public Security, which was his longstanding goal, and since its sphere of influence has been expanded to include additional areas, his title has been revised to Minister of National Security. Another member of his party also received a post that will make it possible for him to restore governance in the south, which was another element of Ben-Gvir’s campaign platform. He received a large number of secular votes from the south on account of his pledge to help residents there regain their personal security.

The Agreement with Maoz

On Sunday evening, Avi Maoz announced that he had also signed an agreement with Netanyahu. Maoz is the chairman of the Noam party, which is under the umbrella of Religious Zionism but is an independent entity and has received a position as a deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office. Under the new agreement, a new department of the PMO will be formed, known as the National Jewish Identity Authority, and will be headed by Maoz. He will also be responsible for Netiv, an organization that operates within the PMO and is responsible for working with Jewish immigrants and families from the former Soviet Union. This means that Maoz will be in an excellent position to put a halt to the mass immigration of non-Jews to Israel. The Likud and Noam issued a joint statement celebrating the signing of their agreement. “According to the agreement,” they announced, “a new National Jewish Identity Authority will be established in the Prime Minister’s Office to be headed by Deputy Minister MK Avi Maoz of the Noam party. Deputy Minister Maoz will also be responsible for the organization Netiv and for other departments.” It will be very interesting to know what those “other departments” are….

Within the ranks of UTJ, there is also plenty of umbrage directed at Netanyahu, who they believe has been dragging his feet. There is also some friction within UTJ itself, between the members of Agudas Yisroel and Degel HaTorah. It has already been agreed that a ministerial post will be awarded to Agudah, but not because they have greater seniority. On the contrary, according to the internal agreement, the top position on the UTJ list is to be held by a member of Agudas Yisroel (and that position is indeed held by Yitzchok Goldknopf) but the first pick of positions of seniority in the government will go to Degel HaTorah. However, since the members of Degel HaTorah are not permitted to hold ministerial posts, the party will choose the top position available to it in the Knesset itself—i.e., the chairmanship of the Knesset Finance Committee, which will be held by Moshe Gafni. On that note, there is a disagreement between the two factions as to whether the position of committee chair should be considered equivalent in influence and power to a ministerial post or it should be viewed as an inferior offering, in which case Degel HaTorah would deserve further compensation for the imbalance in power. The problem is that since the faction does not accept ministerial positions, any other placement that it is offered would also have to be on the parliamentary playing field rather than in the executive branch of the government—in other words, the chairmanship of another committee. At the very most, they might be given a deputy ministerial position, which isn’t very helpful. Agudas Yisroel, meanwhile, will probably be given a second ministerial post (in the Ministry of Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage) for Meir Porush.

At this time, though, nothing has been finalized, although it seems as if Netanyahu and Shas are on the same page. In fact, if the two parties have indeed reached an understanding, then UTJ will be left feeling somewhat disadvantaged. Netanyahu’s objective is to form a government as quickly as possible, before his time runs out. He is also interested in replacing the Knesset speaker with someone more sympathetic, but there is some competition within the Likud itself for that position, which has also created some pressure. Netanyahu is also in a hurry to have a law passed allowing Deri to become a government minister. His sense of urgency is surely mounting, and I presume that I will have quite a lot to report to you next week.

Incitement Makes a Comeback

It should come as no surprise to anyone that as soon as the chareidi parties return to a position of power, the old chorus of incitement begins again. What should be surprising, though, is the fact that anyone still believes these old canards. Is the average Israeli citizen really naïve enough to fall for a set of fabricated or misleading statistics? If the citizen is an intelligent person who has studied the issue appropriately, then shouldn’t he understand that even if the government doubles the stipend for kollel yungeleit, it will add only a mere pittance to the overall state budget? The fact that many Israelis still swallow the vilification of chareidim seems to indicate that there are Jews in Israel who have adopted the thought processes of the nations of the world and perhaps have even been taken in by anti-Semitic views. That is the only possible explanation for the fact that anyone can be convinced by this incitement. I am not surprised by the fact that there are people who are aware of the reality and would deliberately mislead the public; my puzzlement is directed at those in the middle, who spread these stories without actually examining the numbers.

A distinguished yungerman recently told me about his own encounter with a secular Israeli. An irreligious stranger approached him in the grocery store and began a diatribe about “the chareidim” stealing from the state coffers. Seeing no way to reason with the man, the yungerman replied facetiously, “You don’t even know how right you are! Every night, in the middle of the night, yungeleit wait behind the Knesset building until Gafni emerges with large, rustling bags full of money. They take the bags and disappear. If you voted for Gimmel, I would tell you when and where to wait for him as well.”

On a somewhat related note, a Russian baal teshuvah once revealed that his journey to Yiddishkeit began after he read the claims on Russian-language web sites that the chareidim were making off with all the country’s money. Hoping to cash in on the rumored chareidi wealth, he began investigating what it means to be chareidi—and in the end, he discovered the truth of Yiddishkeit itself and became observant.

The newfound chareidi political clout has also led to renewed complaints about the “inequality” of the draft. For a year and a half, when the left was in control of the government, no one uttered a word in protest about the draft deferments granted to chareidim. But as soon as the liberals were booted out of their ministerial paradise, the outcry resumed over the chareidim’s refusal to serve in the army. This Monday, Haaretz featured the following provocative headline: “Chareidi Enlistment at All-Time Low and Likely to Die Out Completely Under New Government.” The text of the article spans the entire length and breadth of the eleventh page of the newspaper and is accompanied by an incendiary subheading as well: “The new draft law is likely to close the curtain on chareidi service in the IDF.” Never mind that the actual statistics contradict this assertion; the potential to stoke hatred matters much more than the truth!

Whenever the chareidim are in the government, the IDF draft and the deferments for yeshiva bochurim somehow take center stage as one of the top social issues in the country. The secular elites have an enormous number of draft dodgers, tens of thousands of immigrants receive exemptions from the draft, and professionals believe that the IDF doesn’t even need more soldiers, but none of that seems to bother the media. They have only one concern: the exemptions granted to the cadre of young men who spend their days learning Torah.

Who Will Receive the Raise?

I visited the home of the chessed organization Ohr Leah, under the aegis of Rabbi Eliyohu Cohen, which is in the midst of its Chanukah distribution. The families who benefit from the organization will be receiving generous packages for the holiday, including oil and candles. The packages of food and other products are distributed discreetly to needy families at night; during the day, the organization’s headquarters is home to a kollel. When I visited the facility, Reb Eliyohu asked me to make sure that the chareidi representatives in the Knesset are aware of the importance of securing the higher stipends they promised for kollel yungeleit and talmidim in yeshivos. “As a rosh kollel, you won’t gain from it,” I pointed out. “The money will go directly to the yungeleit.”

“I don’t look at it that way,” Reb Eliyohu said. “I pay my own share to the yungeleit regardless of the government stipend, but I still consider it beneficial to me when they receive a raise.”

This touches on a very sensitive issue. Let’s say that the Religious Affairs Ministry provides a stipend of 600 NIS every month to every yungerman. (Remember, this number is in shekels, and it is a monthly sum; you can certainly understand that it is a mere pittance.) These funds are transferred to the kollelim to be passed along to their members, and there are only a few kollelim in the country that provide their yungeleit with no more than the official stipend; in those kollelim, the yungeleit’s monthly pay will be directly affected by any increase or reduction in the government funding. Most kollelim, however, add to the stipend paid by the government, since they understand that the official sum is completely inadequate. Many kollelim offer stipends of approximately 1500 shekels a month, meaning that they add 900 shekels for each yungerman to the money provided by the government. Other kollelim pay a bit less, and some actually pay much more, but that is the general standard.

The question facing our kollelim now is what will happen if the government stipend is doubled, as the politicians intend to do. Will the additional 600 shekels go directly to the yungeleit? For instance, in a kollel with a set monthly stipend of 1500 shekels, will every yungerman’s payment be increased to a full 2100 shekels? Or will the kollel itself simply reduce its own contribution to the monthly allowance? This is a very difficult dilemma for any rosh kollel who must contend with the monthly burden of fundraising by pleading with philanthropists for donations. It is surely tempting to use the increase for relief from the endless pressure of raising funds.

I happen to be aware that in Yeshivas Mir, at least, the administration has already decided that the additional funds will be given directly to the yungeleit; the yeshiva will continue paying the same sum for their monthly stipend. And that is precisely what I told Reb Eliyohu: The yungeleit will be the ones to gain from this. But as I mentioned, he responded that he will be very happy to see the yungeleit benefit from the new stipends, even if it does not make a dent in his own fundraising burden.

For my part, I carried out my mission and relayed his comments to our political representatives. They are well aware that yungeleit throughout the country are waiting tensely to receive word that they have succeeded in raising their stipends. Tens of thousands of families are suffocating due to the soaring cost of living and the economic decrees of the outgoing government, and the yungeleit are pinning their hopes on the politicians’ efforts. May they be blessed with success!

A Child and an Egg

This week, a man who once worked in the Ministry of Justice passed away. This man, who was responsible for overseeing government funding, was responsible for frequent harassment of the Torah world. He was joined in these efforts by other officials who were adept at persecuting yeshivos and similar institutions, and by Reform organizations as well. I will not speak ill of him after his death or even mention his name, but I will mention one particular detail of his story: His career ended when he became angry one day and delivered a slap in the face to a chareidi member of the Knesset (Yaakov Cohen, who served in the Knesset briefly on behalf of Ger and Agudas Yisroel). Naturally, he was ousted from the Ministry of Justice shortly thereafter. Rav Ovadiah Yosef used to quote the words of the Haggadah, “And Hakadosh Boruch Hu saves us from their hands,” regarding incidents such as these. In this case, it was the man’s hands themselves that were instrumental in bringing about his downfall.

Which leads me to another story about Rav Ovadiah Yosef. This week, we marked the 40th yahrtzeit of Rav Betzalel Zolty, the onetime chief rabbi of Yerushalayim. Rav Zolty was a close friend of Rav Ovadiah Yosef and his partner on a bais din for many years. Rav Zolty and his colleagues were once sitting in the bais din when a talmid chochom entered the room to present them with copies of his latest sefer, which had just been printed. Rav Zolty began perusing the sefer and became distraught. “This man comes to us every year with a new sefer,” he told his colleagues, “yet it is taking me many years to publish a sefer of my own.” Rav Zolty’s classic work, Mishnas Yaavetz, was published at a rate of one volume every few years, and each volume took the Torah world by storm.

“Do not be distressed,” Rav Ovadiah Yosef said to his colleague. “A child is born after nine months of uncomfortable gestation followed by the pains of birth, while a hen lays an egg every day without any particular effort. What is the difference between them? In one case, the product is a child; in the other, it is an egg.”

Upon hearing this thought, Rav Zolty was relieved.

Why Did the Shepherds Listen to Yaakov Avinu?

Next week, on the 12th of Kislev, the shloshim of Rav Chaim Walkin will be marked. During the shiva, Rav Walkin’s children heard many stories about their father that had never been told to them before. They learned about the scores of families that he adopted after they suffered bereavement or became victims of terror, about needy people whom he cared for, about inspiring shmuessen he delivered, and about communities he personally assisted. Thousands of individuals attested that Rav Walkin had made each of them feel as if they were his only child.

Many of the stories shed new light on Rav Walkin’s awe-inspiring greatness. One bochur related, “When I became a talmid in Ateres Yisroel, I was told that there was a weekly vaad that I should attend. However, I did not feel much of a connection to mussar, and I wasn’t even planning to remain a yeshiva bochur for long. I had very different plans for my life. Nevertheless, my friends persuaded me to come. During the first vaad, Rav Walkin quoted something from the American Constitution, and I nearly fell out of my chair. I had never imagined that there could be a mashgiach whose knowledge extended to that area. At that time, I didn’t know about his American background. I became very dedicated to him, and it was because of his influence that I remained in yeshiva and became a kollel yungerman.”

“What do you remember most from the mashgiach’s vaadim?” one of the mourners asked.

The bochur looked down at the floor and whispered, “The rebbetzin’s cheesecakes….”

Let me add one dvar Torah that I found in Rav Walkin’s sefer, Daas Chaim U’Mussar. In this week’s parsha, Yaakov Avinu travels to Choron and rebukes the shepherds he encounters there for ostensibly ending their work day early. Rav Walkin points out that it is rather puzzling that the shepherds felt compelled even to respond to this stranger who suddenly appeared and began admonishing them to continue their work. Why didn’t they simply ignore him? To answer this question, Rav Walkin quotes the Ponovezher Rov, who points out that Yaakov began his comment to the shepherds with the word “achai” (“my brothers”). Since he adopted an attitude of brotherhood and warmth, his reproof was accepted with love.

In the footnotes to the sefer, Rabbi Avrohom Walkin adds that Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky’s offers the same explanation in his classic sefer, Emes L’Yaakov. He quotes Rav Chaim Walkin as adding, “This was also how my father, Rav Shmuel Dovid Walkin, explained the posuk in Mishlei, ‘Do not rebuke a scoffer lest he will detest you; admonish a wise man and he will love you.’ He explained that this does not refer to two different people; rather, it relates to two distinct approaches to rebuking the same person. If someone rebukes another person by telling him that he is a scoffer, then the person will despise him. However, if he relates to the person as a wise man and suggests that his misconduct is beneath his dignity, the recipient of his admonition will respond with love and acceptance.

“Many years ago, in Yeshivas Mir,” Rav Walkin continued, “a member of our chaburah suggested an idea that was not befitting for his dignity, and I did not know what to say to avoid offending him. Finally, I decided to bring him to Rav Chaim Kamil, and I suggested that he should present his idea to him. When Rav Chaim Kamil heard what he had to say, he replied, ‘This is not fitting for your level!’ The yungerman accepted this criticism, since it acknowledged that he had attained a certain respectable level, and it merely faulted him for suggesting a thought that was not appropriate for that particular level. Thanks to Rav Chaim’s wisdom, he accepted the reproof.”

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