Thursday, Jul 29, 2021

My Take on the News

The Broadcasting Corporation and Other Woes

The first news item this week is the beginning of Daylight Savings Time. We moved the clocks an hour ahead, and suddenly we discovered that the time change wasn’t so terrible after all. Just a few years ago, this issue was the cause of tensions between chareidim and chilonim that threw the entire country into turmoil, but now it has become simply another part of life.

Then there was Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu’s visit to China. It has begun to seem as if the prime minister’s many trips abroad are meant to spare him, at least for a time, from his real problems, mainly the police investigations in which he has become entangled in Eretz Yisroel. A recent political cartoon showed Netanyahu emerging from a plane in Israel to find a group of investigators waiting for him on the tarmac. In the next panel, the prime minister is seen turning around to board the plane again, as he comments to his wife, “I just realized that it’s been a long time since we visited Azerbaijan.”

Another issue that awaits the prime minister in Eretz Yisroel is the subject of the Public Broadcasting Corporation. Actually, that is an issue that seems to be threatening the continuation of the government itself. The Israel Broadcasting Authority, which previously oversaw the media in the country, was an entity known for its leftist, anti-establishment leanings. In an effort to end the leftist domination of the media, Netanyahu arranged for the Broadcasting Authority to be closed down and replaced with a public corporation. It didn’t take much effort for him to gain approval for the move, since the authority had become known for its wasteful spending and lack of professionalism. Nevertheless, the staff of journalists recruited by the new corporation turned out to be dominated by the left as well. Most of Netanyahu’s detractors from the now-defunct Broadcasting Authority were simply absorbed into the Public Broadcasting Corporation, with more enemies of the prime minister added to their ranks. Moreover, almost all of the right-wing journalists who joined its staff identify with Naftali Bennett, rather than Netanyahu. In this respect, the prime minister has escaped from the frying pan only to land directly in the fire.

In short, all of our usual problems are still present.

Panic in the Prime Minister’s Office

I mentioned last week that the Israeli media made a point of showing pictures of Jason Greenblatt wearing a yarmulka. Many in the chareidi media questioned why Greenblatt appeared in public without his yarmulka during most of his visit to Israel. There was one thing that I didn’t know last week: After Greenblatt’s meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu, he asked the prime minister’s office to provide him a minyan for Minchah, since he had a chiyuv. I wasn’t there, so I can only imagine the panic that must have taken hold of the prime minister’s staff at that moment.

This is the scene I envision: All of Netanyahu’s advisors, with all their projections of possible scenarios, had failed to envision that eventuality. The prime minister has a military advisor, a political advisor, and a national security advisor. The heads of the army’s intelligence division, the Shin Bet, and the Mossad were all present. All of them had at least two plans to deal with every possible scenario – except this one. There was general pandemonium in the prime minister’s office, with various staff members pressing emergency buttons as men with thick binders hurried from one room to the next.

The news quickly traveled throughout the office: Jason Greenblatt needed a minyan for Minchah. It was the only possible scenario that Netanyahu’s staff hadn’t anticipated. Hysteria began to set in, and Greenblatt apologized and explained that he was a “chiyuv.”

“A chiyuv? What’s that?” The prime minister’s staff scratched their heads in bewilderment. “Get Ron Dermer in Washington on the phone!” Netanyahu shouted. “Maybe he knows what it is!” The office staff’s consternation grew, as everyone fretted over Greenblatt’s request. Why hadn’t anyone told them that he was bringing a “chiyuv,” whatever that was, from Washington?

It sounds amusing, doesn’t it? Two weeks ago, I was asked to join a minyan for Maariv in the room next door to my office. The leaders of the religious parties – Yaakov Litzman, Aryeh Deri, Uri Ariel, and Moshe Gafni – had just concluded a meeting with Mayor Nir Barkat of Yerushalayim and the director-general of the municipality. During the minyan, I could not help but feel pity for Barkat and his director-general. The two of them looked miserably out of place, standing there helplessly with their laptops, unsure of when to sit or stand and unfamiliar even with Krias Shema.

Wanted: Crash Course in Judaism

This actually happens to us quite often in the Knesset – virtually every afternoon and evening, in fact. Minyanim are often organized for Minchah and Maariv in the area behind the Knesset plenum known as the “horseshoe,” and we sometimes ask various members of the Knesset to round out the minyan. My heart sinks when I see that some of them do not know how to answer amein, let alone respond to Kedushah. But sometimes the opposite also happens: There are some men who appear to be completely chiloni, yet daven with surprising familiarity with the words.

And then there are the security personnel. Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein, like other senior officials in the government, is always accompanied by a personal bodyguard. Edelstein davens with us every day in the Knesset shul, always arriving with one of those fine young men in tow. Sometimes, I find myself pained by the lack of knowledge they demonstrate. I once jokingly remarked to Edelstein’s bodyguard for the day, who stationed himself at the door, “This should be over within an hour and a half.” The shocked young man immediately began making a series of panicked calls to his superiors. He had been told that Maariv was only a few minutes long, yet I was telling him that it would take an hour and a half. It was only when he saw me laughing that he realized I had been making a joke. But then again, how should he know how long the “ritual” of Maariv is actually supposed to take?

I will never forget the conversation I once had with the former head of the Shin Bet, who is a respected member of the Knesset today. I asked him how much he knew about Judaism, and he replied, “The same amount as any average Israeli.”

“How many tefillos does a Jew daven every day?” I challenged him.

“Six?” he guessed hesitantly.

It seems to me that a crash course for beginners in Judaism should be organized in the Knesset, covering all the basic subjects from taaniyos through Tachanun. We are always amazed when the secular members of the government do not understand the mindset of a Jew who lives by the Torah. But then again, if they lack understanding of the most basic elements of Judaism, what can we expect from them?

14 Million Shekels for Lag Ba’omer

This week, we received two pieces of good news regarding the annual Lag Ba’omer festivities in Meron. The first piece of news was that the deputy finance minister, Yitzchok Cohen of the Shas party, succeeded in securing approval for a special allocation of funds for the preparations for the hillula. The sum that he secured is relatively large: 14 million shekels, the equivalent of about $3.5 million. This funding is dedicated to an event that, after all, lasts no longer than two days. Rabbi Cohen certainly deserves accolades for that accomplishment.

The agreement was made at a meeting held in his office, which was attended by members of the Finance Ministry’s budget department, as well as Finance Minister Moshe Kachlon and Oded Palus, the director-general of the Ministry of Religious Affairs. The funds secured by Cohen represent the largest allocation ever designated for the hillula of Rav Shimon bar Yochai. The funds have been earmarked for preparing the site for the many visitors it will receive on Lag Ba’omer, preparing access roads to the site, security arrangements, and more. It should be noted that there is another allocation in place for the development of the site. It was announced that the funding was increased on the instructions of Aryeh Deri, chairman of the Shas party and Minister of the Negev and Galil, who has invested tremendous efforts in preparing for the hillula in Meron. Dovid Azulai, Minister of Religious Affairs, also played a key role in arranging the allocation.

Yitzchok Cohen explained that the special importance of Lag Ba’omer, when hundreds of thousands of Jews from all over Israel and the world gather at Meron to mark the hillula of Rav Shimon bar Yochai, makes it crucial for the day to be preceded by special preparations. The new budgetary allocation is meant to cover security arrangements and renovations of the parking lots and the roads leading to the mountaintop. In fact, if the roads leading to Meron are improved, it will benefit visitors to the site throughout the year. The directors of the hachnosas orchim of Rav Shimon bar Yochai in Meron greeted the decision with pleasure, expressing their hope that hundreds of thousands of visitors will succeed in coming to Meron this year without experiencing any of the problems or mishaps that occurred in previous years.

A Train to Meron?

This very subject, albeit from a different angle, was also raised in the Knesset on the last day before its recess. MK Menachem Eliezer Moses submitted an urgent parliamentary query to the Minister of Transportation, in which he asked the following: “We are now approaching Lag Ba’omer, which will be observed in just seven weeks – less than two months – and which the police have deemed the largest event of the year in the country. Last year, the public bus system failed to accommodate the large number of people traveling on that day. We have heard from the minister – and I myself suggested this about seven or eight years ago, and I was criticized as a ‘dreamer’ – that a train to Meron may be introduced, which will reach the Sheva junction, and which will stop at Karmiel for the time being. Perhaps the minister would be kind enough to let us hear what is happening now in this regard. This year, again, Lag Ba’omer falls on Motzoei Shabbos, and in the course of 24 hours there will be almost half a million people traveling to Meron. A train could be an excellent solution.”

Yisroel Katz, the Minister of Transportation, responded, “The site of Meron, which is a sacred site in Judaism, is the location of a pilgrimage on Lag Ba’omer, but it receives many visitors on Rosh Chodesh and an many other occasions. Therefore, it is important for us to establish an organized transportation system, which should begin operating as soon as possible, but should also be planned to remain in place permanently.

“The vision of a train to Meron is coming to fruition,” the minister continued. “Yesterday, I had the privilege of traveling on the first test ride on a train that came within 170 meters of the station at Karmiel. We are working to have a symbolic train to Meron on Lag Ba’omer, whose passengers will consist of public officials, journalists, and others who have an interest in this matter. You, of course, are invited to come. We wanted to do it on Motzoei Shabbos, but you advised us to do it on Sunday instead. We will consider that and decide accordingly.

“We are very determined to maintain access to all sites of religious importance. I am happy to report that after many years when this did not happen, I approved the construction of an appropriate access road to Nebi Shu’ayb, a site of great sanctity and importance to the Druse population. We are working to ensure proper transportation and access for Christians to their holy sites, for Muslims to theirs, and for every religion to the places that matter to it. Even the Bahais are being given the means to reach their sacred sites. They have sites of importance near Acco, not just in Haifa. Of course, as a Jewish state, we have a responsibility to provide access to Meron. I have also decided to advance the development of the express train to Yerushalayim. With Hashem’s help, next Pesach there will be a new train running from Tel Aviv to Yerushalayim in less than half an hour. Next Pesach, there will be a modern-day aliyah l’regel. We will also continue developing the underground train to the Kosel area, so that visitors from all over Israel and the world can travel by train to the Kosel Hamaarovi and the vicinity of the Har Habayis, the places that are holiest to the Jewish people. The train will make many things possible. It is much safer and avoids traveling on the roads. It will promote security and save lives and, of course, reduce traffic on public transportation. This is the long answer to your short question: There is certainly news, and we will meet, with Hashem’s help, on Lag Ba’omer.”

Did you understand his answer? I didn’t quite grasp it. Will there be a train for visitors to Meron this year? I couldn’t isolate the answer to that simple question among all of his words.

A Chareidi City for One Billion Shekels

The housing shortage was, is, and always will be the most burning issue facing the chareidi community of the State of Israel. We have already had housing ministers (Rabbi Avrohom Ravitz, Meir Porush, and Ariel Attias) who have tried and failed to solve the problem. No matter how many apartments are built, it will never be enough. There will immediately be thousands of couples joining the circle of would-be purchasers desperate for homes. Nevertheless, recognition is certainly owed to those who have tried to come up with solutions. Perhaps one day they will even succeed.

Last week, Aryeh Deri announced that he had good news: A new chareidi city is to be built in the south. This city will be called Shafir. Its location is near Ashkelon, but not inside its municipal borders. Instead, it is part of the regional council. As the Minister of the Interior, Aryeh Deri concluded that this was the way to bypass a number of logistical hurdles, not to mention bureaucratic barriers to the plan.

Last Thursday, Aryeh Deri again visited the area, accompanied by members of the Knesset from other chareidi parties (Menachem Eliezer Moses of Agudas Yisroel and Yaakov Asher of Degel HaTorah), as well as Avigdor Yitzchaki, the head of the National Housing Council, who has been assigned by the prime minister to oversee the subject of housing throughout the country. Yitzchaki said, “Shafir is a historic solution for the chareidi community, at a cost of one billion shekels.” He pledged to begin marketing apartments in the city this year. With that, a new chareidi city has been born. Let us hope that its establishment will come to pass.

Thousands of Apartments in Elad

This week, I came across a transcript from a meeting held ten years ago that I was astounded to read. The following comments were made by the Minister of Housing at the time, after he delivered a presentation on various projects that were underway: “There are plans for the construction of tens of thousands of residential units in Charish, with the requisite infrastructure and building permits already in place. If everything goes according to plan, marketing will begin within one or two years. The city will be populated, though, only in five years.

“Regarding Elad, there is an option to build about 5,000 more residential units by expanding the eastern portion of the city, which is located within the line of fire. There have already been discussions on the subject with the Minister of Defense, and we hope that the land will be made available for construction. But even then, there will be a need to prepare an overall plan for the government, to make the requisite changes to the land registry, to prepare architectural plans and to receive permits from the local and national authorities. That could take many years, which means that this is not a solution for the immediate future.

“In Beitar, there are 700 residential units ready for immediate construction. However, those units have been stalled due to political problems. In Beit Shemesh, there are land reserves for tens of thousands of additional residential buildings. In Ramat Beit Shemesh Gimmel alone, there are 2,800 residential units available for construction to begin. However, an agreement has not yet been reached with the mayor regarding the character and populace of the neighborhood, and the construction has therefore been delayed. In Modiin Illit, the lands are privately owned, and the Ministry of Housing has already funded their development and the construction of school buildings in the area. However, the marketing of land for construction is not under the ministry’s jurisdiction. In Kiryat Gat, marketing in the Guggenheim neighborhood will begin within the coming month. The neighborhood will have a religious populace and will contain 500 residential units.”

Amazing, isn’t it? This transcript came from a meeting that was held on Wednesday, the 20th of Tammuz, 5768. The meeting took place between the members of the Religious Lobby (which was headed by MK Shmuel Halpert and included MKs Mazor Bahyna, Yaakov Cohen, and Avrohom Michaeli) and the members of the Chareidi Housing Council (Micha Rothschild, Amir Krispel, and Yitzchok Kristal), and the senior figures in the Ministry of Housing. The members of the ministry were optimistic. Halpert gave a lucid explanation of the growing housing crisis, thanking the previous housing minister (Meir Sheetrit) and praising the minister at the time (Zev Boim). He asserted that Charish would be the solution to the crisis, but that there was also a need for more construction in Beitar, Elad, and Beit Shemesh, where all building had come to a halt. “There is no solution visible on the horizon, and the problem grows more severe every day,” he insisted.

Thousands of days have gone by since that meeting. At the time, Yankel Cohen spoke of a catastrophe: “Today, an apartment is a luxury for the rich. An emergency council must be established to deal with this problem. If we do not do that, then in ten years there will be no real solution.” Well, ten years have now passed.

The decisions reached at the meeting are listed as follows: “1. To establish an operational emergency council, including representatives of the Ministry of Housing, the Ministry of the Interior, the Finance Ministry, the prime minister’s office, the Israel Lands Authority, the Religious Lobby in the Knesset, and the National Housing Council. 2. To intercede with the government for the approval of an emergency plan, as was done in the 1990s after the mass immigration from the Former Soviet Union, for the construction of thousands of housing units in the immediate future, while expediting all the bureaucratic processes involved.”

Ten years have now passed since that day, yet nothing at all has come of the committee’s conclusions.

The Phone Calls Came from Ashkelon

On Thursday night, a new scandal blew up in our faces – the story of the teenage boy from Ashkelon. He may be mentally disturbed, or he may suffer from some sort of condition that affects his behavior, but the bottom line remains the same: Many of the threats that were received by Jewish institutions around the world, especially in America, came from the bedroom of a boy in a rundown apartment in Ashkelon. It was a most unpleasant revelation indeed. How can we explain this to the world?

This teenager often changed the sound of his voice, making himself sound like a woman. Using that altered voice, he would call a Jewish institution and tell them that he had placed a bomb in a bag somewhere on their premises. “Many Jews will soon be murdered,” he would say ominously. “There will be a bloodbath.” What would you expect from the director of a communal institution who receives such a call? The boy also placed threatening phone calls to other institutions in America, and to airlines as well.

A police official named Yaniv Azani was present in court on Thursday night when the police asked for an arrest warrant for the boy. Azani officially notified the judge that the boy had been responsible for threatening phone calls made to institutions in Israel and elsewhere in the world, as well as to airlines. The police representative explained that the boy was suspected of committing acts that endangered human lives, since the rescue personnel who responded to the calls traveled at high speeds, risking potential traffic accidents. The police also claim that the boy extorted money, and that his bomb threats caused Delta Airlines to ground certain flights. He is only 18 years old, yet he is allegedly responsible for hundreds of disturbances.

The first steps toward solving the mystery were taken in America. After all, we ourselves are not the greatest experts on the subject. It began when an FBI expert on cyber warfare arrived at the conclusion that the bomb threats were coming from Israel. A senior Israeli police official then determined that the source was a building in Ashkelon. On Friday, the Israeli police commissioner boasted, “We worked together and we achieved results, exposing the perpetrator and his equipment.” His pompous proclamation made it sound as if it wasn’t the Americans who found the boy. “This incident does not honor the State of Israel, but it does honor the Israeli police force,” he added.

The boy has not been cooperating with the authorities. He is Israeli, but he possesses American citizenship as well. He suffers from psychological complexes and does not communicate with his surroundings. His lawyer claims that he has disabilities and must be questioned by a special interrogator. The neighbors in the building assert that the young man never responds when they speak to him. It is not even clear if he is Jewish, nor is it clear if he hates Jews.

For the time being, the only person who might be laughing at this turn of events is Donald Trump, just as he may be laughing at the revelations that he and his staff were monitored. At first, Trump was mocked for his assertions; people claimed that he was deluded and mentally imbalanced. We have now learned, though, that his claims were not unfounded – and the same is true in the case of the anti-Semitic threats. Trump initially reacted by pointing out that things are not always the way they appear, and he was immediately accused of encouraging anti-Semitism. Now it has been revealed that he was right. Did anyone ever imagine that the bomb threats came from a small city in Israel? What a source of shame this has been!

The Many Faces of Hypocrisy

Hypocrisy comes in many different forms and shades. Here are just a few of them.

When Moshe “Bogie” Yaalon, as the Minister of Defense, spoke publicly about the importance of “purity of arms” during the Elor Azaria trial, he was praised for his words. When Avigdor Lieberman cautioned the public against passing judgment on Azaria before he was convicted, he was criticized for influencing the military judges.

When a yungerman stands at a bus stop with his gaze firmly fixed on a sefer Tehillim, he is criticized for his “peculiar” behavior; passersby admonish him that a person should “look normal” in the street. Yet when thousands of people walk around gazing vacantly at the screens of their digital devices, oblivious to their surroundings to the point that their very lives are endangered, no one says a word.

When Dan Shapiro, a Conservative Jew, was appointed the United States ambassador to Israel, there wasn’t a single Orthodox Jew who considered protesting his appointment or speaking out against him. But the Reform Jews have no compunctions about protesting the appointment of David Friedman. Last Friday, the Senate confirmed his appointment. Welcome to Israel, David.

Barack Obama began his presidency by visiting a mosque in Cairo, and no one thought that it was improper or deserving of condemnation. He received a Nobel Prize shortly after his election and has yet to demonstrate that he deserved it. Still, everyone has remained silent. Meanwhile, Donald Trump’s presidency began with a flurry of demonstrations, protests, and an unprecedented outcry from a chorus of detractors fearful of his Jewish aides and daughter.

Recently, there has been talk of appointing a chareidi judge to the Supreme Court of the State of Israel. Imagine what would happen if there were six chareidi judges and they overruled a chiloni minority in the court. There would be a tremendous outcry, and many would argue that the court had lost its legitimacy. But what about today, when there is an anti-chareidi majority in the court? Today, the court’s decisions are invariably against the chareidi community, since all the judges are anti-religious. But that, as far as the rest of the country is concerned, is perfectly fine.

A Cryptic Response

Reb Avrohom Abba Turetzky is a man with a challenging job: He tries to bring cheer into the lives of people who are living in the shadow of illness. Here is an amusing story that Reb Abba shared with me:

“Zevi Freund of Ezer Mizion once brought me to visit a man who had just been diagnosed with cancer. I talked for a long time, but I couldn’t get him out of his despondent mood. Suddenly, I remembered a story that I had heard the previous Shabbos, when I met Mordechai Ohev-Tzion on my way out of shul.” Mordechai Ohev-Tzion, another resident of our neighborhood of Givat Shaul, is very close with Rav Chaim Kanievsky. That Shabbos, he greeted Reb Abba with the words: “Abba, you must listen to this story! Someone sent a letter to Rav Chaim, and the rov replied by writing a series of letters: lamid nun alef vov bais nun. The person who had sent the letter was bewildered by the response. He didn’t understand what Rav Chaim had written to him.”

I myself was bewildered by Reb Abba’s story, uncertain where it was going, but he motioned to me to wait patiently for its conclusion.

“The bochur who sent the letter to Rav Chaim asked Ohev-Tzion to find out what the rov’s response meant,” Reb Abba said. “Rav Chaim told him that the letters were the initials of the words ‘lo novi anochi velo ben novi – I am not a novi or the son of a novi.’ The bochur had written his letter in illegible handwriting, and Rav Chaim was responding simply that he did not have the ruach hakodesh necessary to decipher what he had written.

“Reb Mordechai Ohev-Tzion then mustered up the courage to ask Rav Chaim, ‘Why did the rov write his response in initials in a way that the recipient wouldn’t be able to understand what he meant?’

“To that, Rav Chaim replied, ‘He also wrote a letter to me in a way that made it impossible to understand.’”

Finally, I asked, “Abba, what does this have to do with our conversation?”

Reb Abba replied, “I was sitting with that cancer patient for a long time, and I couldn’t wring even the slightest smile out of him. Finally, I remembered this story, and I told it to him. And do you know what happened? He burst into uncontrollable laughter. You can never know what will finally entertain a person…”

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