Tuesday, Feb 20, 2024

My Take on the News

 

Terror Rears Its Head Again

I have much to report about this week, and it was not easy to decide where to begin. But I have chosen to begin this week’s column with the miracle that spared the life of Menachem Ordman.

Menachem Ordman, a 33-year-old father of five, was wounded last Tuesday night in a shooting attack in northern Shomron. Ordman was sitting in his car at the Efes Junction, between Mevo Dotan and Chermesh, near the Palestinian village of Yaabad, and was speaking on his cell phone when a car carrying terrorists drew up beside him.

From his bed in Hillel Yaffe Hospital in Chadera, Ordman told his story: “The terrorist fired a massive hail of bullets at me, and it took me a moment even to realize that I was still alive, after I saw a gun barrel aimed at me from point blank range. I had stopped my car at the junction to talk on the phone, and then the terrorists’ car approached me in the opposite lane and they opened fire. I realized right away that I had been hit; my car was full of blood. I was certain that I was going to die. I was wounded with shrapnel in my arms; I will be having surgery to remove the shrapnel, and I will be discharged tomorrow, b’ezras Hashem. I looked death in the eyes; they fired at me from point blank range while I was in my car. It is time to launch a military operation and end this saga,” he added.

Ordman shot back at the terrorists with his own weapon. “They pulled up alongside my car and began firing on me,” he said. “After the gunshots, one of them yelled at the other to drive away. I took out my own weapon and fired on the car as it drove away. They continued driving and shot at other cars as well. I call on the Israeli government to close all the crossings that allow Palestinians and terrorists access to that road, and to set out on an operation to eliminate terror in the northern Shomron, which has become the Wild West. I barely made it out alive, and two weeks ago Meir [Tamari] was killed at the same spot. We do not want to have any more such incidents.”

Coalition Loses Important Knesset Vote

In political news, there is no question that the top story is what happened in the Knesset last Wednesday. We were waiting to find out the outcome of the election for the Judicial Selection Committee, but what ultimately happened was far beyond anything that anyone had imagined.

On Wednesday, the Knesset was scheduled to elect its two representatives for the Judicial Selection Committee, the committee that appoints new judges to Israel’s courts. I mentioned the election in my column last week, but I certainly could not have predicted the dramatic turn that it would take. Before the vote was conducted, Netanyahu was uncertain if he should continue with the standard approach of selecting one representative from the coalition and another from the opposition. On the one hand, Lapid and Gantz had threatened that if the opposition’s candidate, MK Karin Elharar of Yesh Atid, wasn’t elected, they would drop out of the talks in the president’s residence concerning the judicial reform. Those negotiations have brought at least a small measure of calm to the streets, and Netanyahu was reluctant to risk the wrath of the demonstrators once again. On the other hand, he wasn’t especially interested in continuing to give in to the opposition, which has been constantly making threats. Moreover, every vote on the Judicial Selection Committee has the potential to be critical, especially if the man who is considered a near right-wing candidate from the Israel Bar Association is elected next week as well. The additional right-wing voice of a second coalition member on the committee might have been a crucial gain.

Incidentally, Benny Gantz warned that it would be a gross violation of the accepted practice if a representative from the opposition is not elected. He seems to have forgotten that when he personally negotiated to join Netanyahu’s government just a few years ago—and he ultimately did join that government—one of his conditions was that both Knesset representatives on the committee would be members of his party, the National Unity Party. As you can see, all the arguments and counterarguments on this issue are steeped in politics and hypocrisy.

As usual, Netanyahu postponed every decision until the very last minute, and he failed to make a decision even when the last minute arrived. After extensive vacillating, he decided not to elect anyone at all and thereby to ensure that the election would be delayed until the following month, in keeping with the Knesset regulations. But it was impossible to cancel the vote altogether, which was held on Wednesday morning by secret ballot. All that remained to be done was for the coalition to vote against all the candidates, ensuring that no one would be chosen. Netanyahu therefore handed down an order to the members of the coalition to vote against every candidate on the list. The reason for his desire to delay the election was that the question of whom to elect was still unresolved: Betzalel Smotrich, Itamar Ben-Gvir, and Yariv Levin were pushing strongly for both representatives on the committee to come from the coalition, in contrast to the position held by Netanyahu, Aryeh Deri, and Ron Dermer. All of this, of course, played into the much broader question of whether the judicial overhaul will be canceled or delayed.

In the end, the representative of the opposition was voted in, while the coalition representative—MK Tali Gottlieb, the only candidate who did not comply with Netanyahu’s request to withdraw her candidacy—was not elected. Some believe that Netanyahu actually intended all along for Elharar to be elected, hoping that it would satisfy the opposition, but it is impossible to know whether that was really what he had in mind. When the results of the vote were read aloud, there was shock in the Knesset: 58 members of the Knesset had voted in favor of MK Karin Elharar, while 56 had opposed her candidacy, and a distinct majority of 59 to 15 had voted down MK Tali Gottlieb’s appointment. The conclusion is inescapable: At least four members of the coalition broke ranks and violated coalition discipline by voting against Netanyahu’s instructions.

The Opposition Got Their Way, but the Attacks Continue

Yair Lapid, the leader of the opposition, welcomed Elharar’s election to the committee. “There is a representative of the opposition on the Judicial Selection Committee,” he said, “and there is a representative of the opposition on the committee that appoints dayonim.” The latter is Penina Tamano-Shatta; according to the rules, one of the Knesset representatives on each committee must be a woman. “I congratulate Karin and Penina,” he continued, “and I thank everyone who did this work. I also thank the members of the coalition who worked with us with responsibility and statesmanship.”

Lapid attacked the coalition for its behavior and announced that the opposition will be dropping out of the talks in the president’s residence. “We now have a representative on the Judicial Selection Committee, but there is no Judicial Selection Committee at all,” he said. “Today, Netanyahu prevented the committee from being formed, and he put an end to the pretense of dialogue. Netanyahu used to be deceitful and strong; today he is deceitful and weak. The committee wasn’t formed, and the threat to democracy hasn’t been ended. Netanyahu knew exactly what the ramifications would be. The president made them clear to him, as did we. If there is no committee for the selection of judges, we will not come to the president’s house. If there is no committee, there will be no talks.” Lapid also voiced his encouragement for the anti-government protests. “We will not stop fighting, we will not give up, and we will not stop this struggle until this terrible government leaves the world and frees the State of Israel from the chaos and outrage that it is bringing upon us every day anew.”

Benny Gantz, the chairman of the National Unity Party, echoed Lapid’s sentiments. “What happened here today,” he declared, “is that the prime minister has decided to go against the state. This is Binyomin Netanyahu against the State of Israel. He tried and he failed. I applaud the responsible Knesset members who made the right choice. I would like to congratulate Karin Elharar, who was elected to the Judicial Selection Committee, and Penina Tamano-Shata, who was elected to the Dayonim Appointment Committee. I am confident that both of them will do excellent work.” Gantz also referred to the fact that some of the coalition members voted for Elharar and then added, “I am also worried by the fact that Netanyahu has caved in. He capitulated to the extremists, to the barn burners who want to destroy Israeli society. His conduct raises significant questions about his judgment on the most fateful matters. It raises questions about his ability to control the coalition and to fulfill his agreements. In the current situation, when there is no committee functioning as it should be, there is no reason to conduct talks at the president’s residence.”

Netanyahu Pledges to Push Reform Forward

Immediately after this apparent defeat for the coalition, Netanyahu announced that the “practical steps” would begin this week. At the beginning of the cabinet session on Sunday, he responded to the opposition’s decision to boycott the talks in the president’s residence: “Last week, they proved that this was nothing but a pretense of dialogue, and they were actually stalling for time. Their intent was to prevent any corrections to the system, at a time when the vast majority of the public today understands that there is a need for judicial reform. Therefore, we will meet this week and begin taking practical steps. We will do this in a measured, responsible way, but in accordance with the mandate we received.”

Put more plainly, Netanyahu’s message was simple: I wanted to compromise with you, but you were not honest with me. If that is the way you behave, then we will act accordingly toward you.

It seems that Netanyahu has decided to give in to the voices in his party and his government that have been criticizing him for surrendering to the opposition and that insist that it is time to fight back.

The first hint came last Thursday, when a high-ranking member of the coalition was quoted anonymous in the media as asserting, “The time has come to advance the legislation. The opposition received everything it wanted yesterday, yet they have still dropped out of the negotiations. There is a limit. The coalition has waited long enough.” That same official, who is rumored to be none other than Prime Minister Netanyahu, also warned his fellow members of the Likud, “Any minister or Knesset member in the Likud who opposes the reform legislation and blocks it for personal reasons, such as a grievance against Netanyahu or envy of the support for Levin, will pay a heavy price for it.”

The most reasonable option right now seems to be for the Constitution Committee to convene for a preliminary discussion, even without a definitive text for the next goal of the judicial overhaul: a law scrapping the reasonability test. In practice, this means advancing the legislation that is likely to reignite the protests in the streets; however, the strongest advocates of the judicial reform insist that there is no reason to be worried about that. It is also hoped that eliminating the reasonability test will pave the way for Aryeh Deri’s return to the government. If the bill passes, Netanyahu will be able to offer him a ministerial appointment once again, and the Supreme Court will not be able to strike it down as “unreasonable.”

In short, things are heating up. It is almost certain that the protests will be rekindled, but this time Netanyahu will choose to ignore the demonstrators.

Chikli Makes Waves in America

Prime Minister Netanyahu recently announced a moratorium on government ministers traveling abroad without his express permission, seemingly after some damage was already done. Netanyahu’s decision may have been a response to the fact that eight government ministers visited New York simultaneously two weeks ago. They went to participate in the annual parade in Manhattan in honor of Israel’s Independence Day, which marked the 75th anniversary of Israel’s founding; however, the prime minister found it embarrassing that so many of his ministers were abroad at once. It is also possible that Netanyahu was infuriated by the actions of Amichai Chikli, the current Minister of Diaspora Affairs, on his recent visit to America.

Chikli has been criticized for his behavior on his trip abroad, but I would prefer to focus on his words. He fiercely condemned the liberal organization known as J Street, accusing it of being hostile and harmful to the interests of the State of Israel. He commented that the organization had received a very generous grant from George Soros and accused its members of being responsible for harassment and violence against Israeli lawmakers and ministers, something that even the BDS movement has not permitted itself to do. He blamed J Street for making an effort, albeit unsuccessful, to cancel his meetings with various officials in America, and he added that the organization has been working aggressively “to destroy and undermine the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which includes demonizing the State of Israel and denying its right to exist.”

The truth is that Chikli is absolutely right. J Street is a radical leftist organization that causes endless harm to Israel. Nevertheless, a minister in the Israeli government is apparently expected to adopt a more diplomatic tone. The American administration warned that Chikli’s remarks would have “consequences.” I don’t know if that says anything about Amichai Chikli, but it certain indicates that the administration favors the left. Perhaps they still resent another recent comment made by Chikli: “Israel is a sovereign state. We are glad to hear criticism, but the decisions about who will lead the country and in what direction it will be led should be made by the people, and only the people, through their elected representatives, just like in America.”

Speaking of Israeli government ministers visiting America, I will let you in on a secret: Moshe Arbel, who is both the health minister and interior minister of Israel, is on his way to America at this time. Arbel is a good friend of this newspaper and served as our expert on legal matters for a while; I have interviewed him on several occasions to explain complex Israeli legal issues to our American readers. He left Israel for Morocco last weekend, and he will be traveling from there to the United States.

America Outraged by Arab Death

Another issue has led to tension between Israel and America: The military prosecution recently decided to settle for disciplinary measures rather than pressing charges against four officers who were serving in January 2022 in the chareidi Netzach Yehuda battalion of the Kfir brigade. These four soldiers were questioned on suspicion of involvement in an unusual incident near Ramallah that somehow led to the death of an elderly Palestinian man. Press secretary Matthew Miller announced that the United States government plans to seek further clarification from Israel about its decision to close the criminal cases against the soldiers. The victim, he explained, held American citizenship, and the United States plans to monitor the situation closely.

This isn’t the first time that the State Department has asked for clarification about this incident. Last February, they announced that they expected a full criminal investigation into the death. “We are continuing to discuss this worrying incident with Israel, and we expect to receive further clarifications,” they said at the time.

I will just remind you of the basic facts: This incident occurred on the night of January 12, 2022, at the village of Jaljiliya, while the IDF was engaged in a counterterror operation and soldiers were searching the area for weapons. Several soldiers from Netzach Yehuda, the chareidi battalion, were stopping passing cars for inspection. One of the cars was driven by a man named Assad, who was not carrying any identifying documents and refused to be searched. Since the elderly man was resisting the soldiers and was behaving wildly, he was handcuffed and briefly gagged. Assad was then taken into a nearby courtyard, where three additional Palestinians were brought after being detained by the soldiers. About half an hour later, when the operation was over, the soldiers released the Palestinians and Assad’s handcuffs were removed. By that time, however, he had died. The commanding officers and the soldiers were severely punished, but it seems that the Americans feel that their punishments weren’t sufficient.

On a different note, two interesting meetings have been mentioned in the news. Next month, President Yitzchok Herzog is scheduled to address a joint session of Congress in honor of Israel’s 75th anniversary, and while in Washington will meet with President Biden (over Netanyahu’s objections). Meanwhile, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant has met with his American counterpart, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. The two officials met at the American embassy in Brussels.

Supreme Court Releases Another AntiReligious Verdict

It has been a while since the Supreme Court made a decision targeting the chareidi community, but it seems that the time has come once again. This week, the Supreme Court ordered the government to respond within one week with an explanation as to why the stipends for yungeleit in chareidi institutions were increased, whereas funding for students in secular schools was not increased at all. This came as a response to a petition from the Students’ Union arguing that the increase in funding for Torah institutions was discriminatory.

Let me clarify the injustice in this petition. Even if the secular universities and colleges in Israel have lost some funding, those losses pale in comparison to the slashed budgets and general hostility from which the yeshivos have suffered. The secular schools are trying to exploit a small degree of reverse discrimination in favor of the yeshivos, which is actually an effort to correct a previous injustice, to portray themselves as victims of discrimination. And that is very wrong.

It is true that the state budget includes an increase in funding for Torah institutions and grants for yeshivos, while secular students did not receive a similar increase. But a report from the budget development department in the Knesset painted a very revealing picture of the secular schools’ economic situation: Over the past decade, funding for higher education has increased by 28.6 percent, while the state budget in its entirety rose by 47.1 percent. This indicates that the percentage of state funding allotted to schools of higher education has fallen, while the student population in Israel has grown by 11.3 percent during the same period of time. Given these statistics, it makes little sense for the students to attack the funding for chareidim, when they should really be objecting to the slide in their own share of the national budget. And the fact that the Supreme Court accepted their argument is even more infuriating. The fact that the yeshivos have gained isn’t the cause of their problems; in fact, it is irrelevant to their case.

The petition states, “The government’s decision is the result of implementing coalition agreements and political agreements in which the parties decided to institute a clear, arbitrary, and discriminatory preference for a specific sector, at the expense of the rest of the populace in general and the population of students in Israel in particular.” Someone ought to tell them, though, that one does not rectify minor discrimination by attacking those who are victims of much more egregious prejudice. Then again, the students probably felt that this was the argument that would sway the Supreme Court judges. And I am sad to say that they were right.

Preparing for the Ohr Hachaims Yahrtzeit

The yahrtzeit of the Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh has found its way into the headlines last week, when a chareidi legislator stood up in the Knesset and demanded an end to the shameful situation that recurs every year.

The tziyun of the Ohr Hachaim is located on Har Hazeisim, in a spot that is very difficult to access and that lacks proper parking of any kind. It is very hard to reach the kever and equally hard to make the return trip, and the police tend to be inflexible and even violent toward mispallelim. Every year, the images emerging from the tziyun are horrific. This year, there has been a demand for someone to resolve the issue once and for all.

Two ministers in the government have announced that they are willing to accept responsibility for this year’s hillula. One of those ministers is Meir Porush, who holds the position of Minister of Yerushalayim Affairs, which seems to place this responsibility squarely within his purview. His success in Meron this year also seems to recommend him for this task. At the same time, Minister of Religious Affairs Michoel Malchieli would also be very happy to oversee the event. We will have to wait and see what happens; there are still a few days remaining until the 15th of Tammuz.

Another interesting development in the Knesset is the new law on racism introduced by Yaakov Asher. This new bill would expand the definition of racism in the Penal Code to include specific references to the chareidi populace. The current law prohibits racism in the State of Israel, but while it encompasses prejudice against all sorts of minorities, such as Arabs and Ethiopians, it does not include discrimination or acts of hatred against chareidim. Yaakov Asher hopes to remedy that omission with his new law, which evoked a major stir in the Knesset last Wednesday. The bill was ultimately approved and transferred to a committee for further discussion.

In other political news, there seems to be no end in sight to the uproar surrounding National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir. For some reason, Ben-Gvir is being blamed for the soaring crime rate in the Arab community, even though there is no good reason for him to be faulted for it, considering that the situation was the same under his predecessor, Omer Bar-Lev. Nevertheless, the media reigns supreme in Israel, and they have decided to use this issue to attack Ben-Gvir and thus have turned public sentiment against him. In any event, it seems that the current chief of police, Yaakov Shabtai, will be forced to leave his position soon.

Yet another interesting topic is the fact that the elections for the chief rabbinate have been postponed for several months. That is a fascinating subject, which I may yet cover in a separate article.

A Nobel Prize Laureate Spouts Hatred

Aharon Ciechanover is a professor on the faculty of medicine at the Technion. A biochemist and a highly educated individual, he has been involved in the development of new medications and is a Nobel Prize laureate. He has never been suspected of harboring anti-Semitic leanings, yet he made the following comments this week: “The coalition funds include enough money to open hospitals throughout the country that would address all of our medical needs. But instead of that, we have a situation in which a mother who needs to bring her child to a psychiatrist faces a waiting time of half a year to a year, and there are no appointments at all available for lifesaving surgeries.” Ciechanover was referring to the funds allocated for religious institutions such as yeshivos and kollelim, which he sees as illegitimate in light of the needs of the health system.

I cannot understand how an educated person of his caliber can descend to such depths of animosity toward Yiddishkeit. For one thing, doesn’t Ciechanover realize that the coalition funds provide for basic needs such as housing for chareidi children or vouchers to be used to buy food, which are no less important than an appointment with a psychiatrist?

Ciechanover went on to denounce the kollel system. “I come from a traditional home,” he said. “In the rest of the world, chareidim work and build their shuls with their own money. That is the way it is in every religion. But we have perpetuated a culture of living at other people’s expense.” Again, I would immediately challenge him: Are there no groups of scholars in the world at large? And are there no chareidim in Israel who work for a living? Are there no shuls in America built with outside donations? Are there no shuls in Yerushalayim built with donations from the mispallelim? His comments seem to indicate a terribly warped perception.

Ciechanover went on to voice his disapproval for the education minister’s decision to scrap the establishment of a university in Kiryat Shemonah. “Why?” he demanded. “Did they need the money for more yeshivos and kollelim? This also has to do with a conflict between the mayors,” he added. Well, if the decision came in response to a conflict between the mayors of Tzefas and Kiryat Shemonah, why drag yeshivos and kollelim into the discussion? Moreover, why does he consider it acceptable for government funding to be used for a university in Kiryat Shemonah? Couldn’t those same funds be used for psychiatrists and lifesaving surgeries? That, after all, was his argument against funding yeshivos.

The real question is what caused this man to speak in this way. Was there anything that could have been done to prevent Ciechanover and others like him from developing these twisted ideas? Was there anything that the religious community could have done to better educate him?

A Special Discussion and a Vehicle for Hatred

The Knesset often holds special discussions on Tuesdays. In some cases, these discussions are required by law on specific occasions, such as the Day of Liberation and Salvation (the anniversary of the Allied victory at the end of World War Two), Yom Yerushalayim, or the day commemorating the assassination of Yitzchok Rabin. More often, though, the discussions are held on the initiative of a specific member of the Knesset. This week, for instance, the Knesset marked a special day of appreciation for the army reserves and held a special discussion concerning the needs of young children. Every political party in the Knesset is entitled to request one special day every year. MK Avrohom Betzalel of the Shas party has used that entitlement to call for a day of appreciation for chessed organizations that address the problem of food insecurity, which is to be held on the 15th of Tammuz.

I mention all this by way of introduction to the two special discussions planned for the eighth of Tammuz in the Knesset. MK Michoel Bitton of the National Unity Party has called for a discussion of inequality in the health system, while Yvette Lieberman has declared it “a day of sharing the burden.” In other words, he plans to use it to lambast the chareidim for their failure to serve in the army. This, however, is not what the special Knesset discussions are meant to be used for. These opportunities should be used to honor or encourage others, not to score political points at the expense of any community or group. Just imagine what would happen if the chareidim called for a special Knesset discussion about the hatred of amei haaretz for talmidei chochomim, or if someone dedicated a day in the Knesset to discussing the anti-Semitism displayed by certain political parties!

Forty Years of Mifal HaShas

With all the talk about the judicial reform, political protests, and all sorts of other issues, let us not lose sight of the most basic and fundamental element of our lives: learning Torah.

Years ago, the Klausenberger Rebbe zt”l established a program known as Mifal HaShas. It began with dozens of participants, a number that steadily grew to the hundreds and then thousands. The participants are periodically tested on certain quantities of blatt. The tests in Yerushalayim are organized by Rabbi Binyomin Kluger, a well-known talmid chochom and distinguished member of the Sanz chassidus, and by Rabbi Yisroel Glick, a member of the famed Glick family of the Litvish community of Yerushalayim. They are responsible for the technical arrangements for the tests and even provide refreshments for the participants. This week, they will be celebrating 40 years of the Mifal HaShas as the 500th test is administered. The participants receive cash incentives from the program, but even more importantly, they derive enormous satisfaction and joy from their learning.

Mifal HaShas has always been encouraged by the gedolei Yisroel. Rabbi Kluger has a large collection of pictures of gedolei Torah watching the tests in progress. Rav Ovadiah Yosef, for instance, gave tremendous encouragement to Mifal HaShas and the participants in its tests. Rav Ovadiah’s personal approach to learning called for covering ground at a rapid pace rather than spending many days delving into a single blatt of Gemara. He was also a close friend of the Klausenberger Rebbe and personally came to a number of the tests to offer encouragement to the participants and the organizers. Rabbi Binyomin Kluger still recalls Rav Ovadiah’s memorable visit to the Seminar Hayoshon, as well as the visits of Chacham Benzion Abba Shaul (whose 25th yahrtzeit is this week) and Rav Yitzchok Kaduri, the famous mekubal. Perhaps I will have the opportunity one day to write at greater length about Mifal HaShas and about the powerful connections between the Klausenberger Rebbe and the gedolim of Sephardic Jewry.

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