Thursday, Feb 29, 2024

My Take on the News

Chareidi Funding Under Attack Again

On motozei Shabbos, Prime Minister Netanyahu held a press conference in the Kirya in Tel Aviv.

I know that this doesn’t sound like a very significant piece of news. After all, Netanyahu holds a press conference almost every week at that time to report to the nation on recent events, to discuss the government’s plans, and to send messages to the rest of the world, and especially to Hamas. This time, however, the press conference was newsworthy, for the simple reason that Netanyahu appeared alone. He was not accompanied by Yoav Gallant, the Minister of Defense, or by Benny Gantz, even though the other two men had joined him at the microphones in previous weeks. When he was asked about the reason for this, Netanyahu replied that he had asked Gallant to join him, but the defense minister preferred to hold a separate press conference of his own (which he did later in the evening). This led to a wave of speculation as to whether Gallant is preparing to resign from the Likud party or perhaps to run against Bibi for the position of party chairman. Indeed, this very topic was discussed in the Likud party’s meeting on Sunday night, which was held at an unusual time since the Knesset had likewise convened on Sunday, in a break from the norm.

There were other irregularities in this press conference as well. For one thing, Netanyahu told the press about some of the experiences of the hostages who had been released. He also decided, once and for all, to fight back against the many critics of the distribution of “coalition funds” at this time. I wrote briefly last week about the dispute between Gantz and Netanyahu on this subject; as you may recall, Benny Gantz announced that he is opposed to the approval of funds for chareidim as part of the state budget. He argues that the government should be approving funding only for the war effort at this time. His mistake lies in the fact that the funding for chareidim isn’t some sort of extra allocation; it is the same funding to which every citizen is entitled. The only difference is that for the chareidi community, this funding has always been structured as part of a coalition agreement rather than an integral part of the state budget.

The brouhaha over chareidi “coalition funds” is a classic example of adding insult to injury. In general, the government’s resources are earmarked for various needs through the annual budget, with every budgetary allocation incorporated into the state budget and divided among government ministries on the basis of various regulations and predetermined expenditures. The provisions of the state budget are viewed as a basic set of assumptions that cannot be challenged. For instance, no one would ever petition the government to slash the budget of a community center or an Israeli consulate in a foreign country, even during wartime. These things are part of the state budget, and that is ostensibly the final word on the matter.

The chareidi community, however, is an exception to this rule. Various elements within the Treasury have made a yearly habit of lowering the budget for the chareidi community’s needs and then opening negotiations with the chareidi parties, so that the funding for some of the community’s basic needs becomes part of the agreements between the parties in the coalition. Thus, the chareidi community receives funding for the same services that are provided to every other citizen in the country, except that in the case of the chareidim, there are strings attached; the funds are given in exchange for their support of the coalition. This happens every year, and that is the government’s first sin.

The budget department gains unmistakably from this arrangement. It forces the chareidi community to beg for its justly deserved funding, it requires them to pay a price for receiving those funds, and it also leads to incitement against the community. Worst of all, it gives the budget department the ability to play the same cynical game every year: They can decide not to transfer the funds, since this funding is officially outside the regular budget and is considered a handout to the chareidi parties. And that leads to the current insult: the calls for the funding to be slashed, ostensibly due to the war. If these funds had been included in the state budget, this would not be happening. In the future, the chareidi politicians will have to fight to ensure that the so-called “chareidi funds” are actually included in the state budget, and if spending cuts become necessary, then they should insist on those cuts being made in the budget itself. That could mean, for instance, cutting the pension payments of elderly army officers or judges.

Wartime Budget Passes Amid Controversy

What happened last week was that the government met to approve the revised annual budget in a special session that was held on Monday and Tuesday. This was an updated budget for the year 2023, with adjustments due to the war. The new budget became controversial due to its inclusion of coalition funds, which are considered political expenditures. The allocations in question include funding for yeshivos, salaries for chareidi teachers, and the religious Zionist initiatives known as Garinim Toraniim, which are important to Betzalel Smotrich. These are things that are all too easy to target with incitement. Gantz and his compatriots announced in advance that they were opposed to allowing these “political” funds to be approved. No matter how much the chareidi parties tried to explain and prove that these were well-deserved funds to which the average religious citizen is clearly entitled, their remonstrations fell on deaf ears. Lacking an alternative, Netanyahu then decided to ignore the opponents of the budget. He also chose to ignore the media, which has launched its own incitement campaign. The budget was approved by a majority vote, with the five ministers from the National Unity Party voting against it. Several members of the Likud announced in advance that they would reject the budget, but they ultimately fell in line.

The revised budget for 2023 increases funding for the army and national defense by 17.3 billion shekels, while civilian spending is increased by 8.8 billion shekels. There is an increase of 26.1 billion shekels altogether in government spending. The total government spending will be raised from 610 billion shekels in the original budget to 636 billion shekels in the revised one, and the deficit will rise from 2.75 percent to 3.7 percent of the national product. The budget doesn’t specify the breakdown of the military expenses, but most of the added expenditures are for ammunition, fuel, logistics, and reserve service. The main civilian expenses consist of the 3.5 billion shekels allocated for evacuating the residents of the north and south; about 1.65 billion shekels for the police, Prison Service, firefighting service, and other non-military security agencies; another billion shekels for the health system; 1.1 billion shekels for social systems such as the National insurance Institute, the Welfare Ministry, and the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, to be used for payments to terror victims; and increased unemployment payments. The budget also includes about 700 million shekels for the educational system, 650 million shekels for the Interior and Housing Ministries to bolster the local governments, and about 600 million shekels for an agency tasked with rehabilitating the Gaza envelope. Yet the main fight was over the funding for chareidim. The finance minister and the prime minister claimed that the coalition funds were cut by 70 percent, while the opposition argued that they were reduced by only one billion shekels. In the end, the funding was approved.

Hostages Return from the Horrors of Gaza

At the press conference, Netanyahu fought back against the criticism of the government’s funding for chareidim, but he also spoke about other topics. I will begin with those other subjects.

“Anyone who saves a single soul is viewed as if he had saved the entire world,” Netanyahu began. “We have saved many worlds. We brought back 110 souls. We freed 86 Israeli civilians—women and children, young boys and girls, mothers and grandmothers—and dozens of foreign citizens. The entire nation and many people throughout the world watched every hostage release with bated breath. These aren’t just names; they are the souls of boys and girls who have been brought home. We have restored their lives. We will watch over them, and we will care for them. I embrace them all. We welcome those who have emerged from the inferno and are returning home. We brought them from darkness to light, from captivity to redemption. Just a week ago, this seemed unfathomable, like the stuff of fantasy, but today they are already here, enveloped in love from their families and the nation. We are overjoyed by their return, and we are greatly pained by those who were murdered with terrible cruelty and those who still haven’t returned. I deliberated greatly during the days before the decision was made. I asked myself how we can negotiate with the devil who murdered, mutilated, and burned men, women, and children, a devil that does not attach any value to human life. But in the same breath, it was clear to me that we needed to rescue dozens of our hostages from this devil, and I wasn’t willing to give up that opportunity.”

Netanyahu also spoke about President Biden’s role in the events. “We conducted tough negotiations under fire, from morning until night. I spoke regularly with President Biden, and we pressured the intermediaries to improve the deal. Indeed, we succeeded in having it significantly improved. We engaged in a global effort together with the Mossad and Shabak, and I was in daily contact with the White House. Our efforts bore fruit, and we managed to double the number of released hostages, but the task still hasn’t been completed. We were able to secure the release of our hostages thanks to the massive military force used by our heroic soldiers and the unending diplomatic efforts that I conducted with my colleagues. My wife and I met with some of the families of the hostages who have remained in Hamas captivity, and I promised them that we would do everything in our power to bring them home. We will do everything possible to bring all of them back. We are continuing to fight with all our might to complete the task of recovering our hostages, eliminating Hamas, and guaranteeing that Gaza will never become a threat to Israel again. Our soldiers prepared throughout the ceasefire for that purpose: to achieve total victory over Hamas. I met those wonderful soldiers in the field, and they said to me, ‘Mr. Prime Minister, keep going until the end.’ And I agreed to that. There is no question about it; we must see this through until the job is done.”

Let me make one observation. Netanyahu described the hostages’ experience in captivity as “Gehinnom” and an “inferno.” He reached this conclusion after listening to the hostages tell their stories. They spoke about enduring terrible abuse, starvation, beatings, and even murders. At this time, we have clear information about six hostages who were captured alive and were murdered in Gaza, and the fate of the two Bibas children is still unclear. There were also sick hostages who died because they did not receive medical treatment. Some of the children who returned from captivity have been speaking only in whispers, since they were threatened for 50 days that they would be harmed if they spoke aloud. We knew that the Hamas terrorists were vicious, barbaric murderers, but these stories are still bone-chilling. That is what Netanyahu meant. And at this time, 136 hostages are still in the hands of Hamas, although it is presumed that some of them have already been murdered and Israel will only be able to retrieve their bodies. May Hashem protect us!

A Chareidi Child Isnt Half a Child!”

At this point in the press conference, Netanyahu received the expected question about the government funding for chareidim, and he went on the offensive. “This entire discussion is full of populism and baseless hatred,” he said. “We have just approved a budget of 30 billion shekels for a month and a half, until the end of the year. It provides for the military, economic, and civilian needs of this country, and we have approved funding for purposes that were already approved. I did not authorize a cut to the budget for theaters, just as I did not approve cuts to other budgets.”

Turning to the reporter who had asked the question, Netanyahu said, “Do you know what the discussion was about in the government meeting? I sat in silence until I couldn’t hold myself back anymore. For over an hour, they were arguing over an allocation of 30 million shekels for teachers who are being paid 6000 or 7000 shekels a month. These are starvation salaries, and some of these teachers work in Sderot, Ofakim, and the Gaza envelope. The sum of 30 million shekels out of 30 billion isn’t even one percent; it’s one thousandth of the budget. And this was the subject of an hourlong discussion [since there was a fierce argument between the ministers of the Shas party and the members of the National Unity Party]. Is a chareidi teacher not a teacher? Is a chareidi child half a child? No. She isn’t half a teacher, and he isn’t half a child. These are human beings, our brothers and sisters.” Netanyahu told his listeners about his meeting the previous week with the volunteers of ZAKA, including some men who had burst into tears while speaking about the sights they had witnessed. “What is happening to us?” Netanyahu demanded. “What is this debate? No one will lack funds. This isn’t the time for baseless hatred; this is the time to unite our strengths and to stop this discord.”

There is no question that these were beautiful words. Did Netanyahu accomplish anything with this speech? Perhaps, but the incitement never ends. At the beginning of this week, full-page ads appeared in the secular press denouncing the “coalition of draft dodgers plundering the state coffers during the war.” Beneath pictures of Gafni, Deri, Ben-Gvir, Smotrich, Goldknopf, and Netanyahu, there was another line: “They are plundering billions of shekels instead of transferring them to the victims of the war.” You may not realize the severity of this incitement, but this ad pushes all the buttons that are needed to trigger outrage in the average neutral Israeli, with its talk of war, dodging the draft, and looting the state coffers. The malice and wickedness behind the ad are horrendous!

The political right is also suffering from incitement. Dan Harel, a former deputy chief of staff in the IDF, recently told the press that one of the causes of the Simchas Torah tragedy was the fact that the army had transferred soldiers out of the Gaza area to guard other settlements, which are associated with the right. MK Tzvi Sukkot decided that this statement was outrageous and has filed a libel suit against him. And I hope he wins!

The Chiloni Who Handed Out Ice Pops

Some have wondered if the hatred for chareidim has actually spread throughout the general public or if it is more or less the province of the media. Well, here is a story that might provide some evidence.

A yungerman from Neve Yaakov recently said to me, “I disagree with the assumption that they [the chilonim] hate us. That is what the media wants us to think, but my experience indicates otherwise. I was recently in a park in Pisgat Zeev with my children, and an irreligious man showed up with a box of ice pops and began handing them out to the parents and children in the park. We found out that he lives across the street from the park, and when he saw a large group of chareidi children in the park, he decided to distribute some treats to them. If you would like to speak to him, he gave me his cell phone number; his name is Yoram Akoa. He explained to me that he admires the modest lifestyle of chareidi families, who consider a visit to a park in Yerushalayim to be a vacation outing.”

The yungerman shared another story with me: “We had a very similar experience in the north. We were in Beit Shean, and we wanted to buy something, and the kiosk owner gave it to us for free. Why did he do that? Because our children learn Torah. I asked for his name and number as well; his name is Ofer Ben-Shimon. I commented that his behavior didn’t seem congruent with the hatred for chareidim. ‘In Beit Shean, no one hates chareidim,’ he said. You see, there is no real hatred for chareidim,” the yungerman concluded. “It’s just an illusion created by the media.”

Although the yungerman gave me the phone numbers of both men, I did not call them; I relied on his account alone. But that was simply due to my own laziness.

Are Liberal Protests Harming the Hostages?

There is another dimension to the story of the hostages in Hamas captivity, and that is the political side of the story. The leftist groups that were previously organizing the so-called Kaplan protests in Tel Aviv have now begun using the hostages’ plight to advance their agenda. On the surface, they seem to be doing a noble deed by advocating for the hostages, and the families of those hostages are undoubtedly grateful to them, possibly because they are leftists themselves and possibly because they are committed to doing everything in their power to save their family members. None of us should be judging the families at this time, when they are struggling with a horrific situation. But there are some things that can only cause damage. For instance, if Hamas discovers or realizes that the government will not be able to resist the families’ pleas and tears, then their bargaining power will increase. The more they see that the Israeli government is under pressure to free the hostages, the more rigid will be their stance. Which means that even if the protestors’ actions seem to benefit the hostages, they might actually be worsening their plight.

Unfortunately, I am not sure if this reality actually bothers Bibi Netanyahu’s opponents. The cries of “Shame! Shame!” that were their previous mantra have given way to “Now! Now!” in a call for the hostages to be brought home immediately. The chant is the same, and it is quite reminiscent of their earlier protests. But that is not all. There is a protest tent set up outside the Knesset for the families of hostages, but the tent is manned by old men holding signs that read “Bibi, resign!” or “The blood of the victims is on Bibi’s hands.” This tent protest isn’t really meant to support the hostages; it is meant to oppose Netanyahu.

On that note, I will share a secret with you: Kibbutz Beeri, one of the towns that was hit the hardest by the Hamas invasion, is a community of ardent leftists, as I have written in the past. While many of them have now woken up and moved away from their liberal leanings, they have a problem: They feel that the current government, which is firmly on the right side of the political map, doesn’t represent them and might not even care about them. Netanyahu has therefore been expending enormous effort on their behalf to dispel that notion. I heard this from an authoritative source, although I am not at liberty to say who it was. But that should be food for thought. If you hear that some of the victims from the kibbutzim chose to boycott a meeting with the prime minister on Thursday night, you will understand the depth of the disconnect between them and the government.

Last Thursday, the Knesset convened to pass a law concerning the current situation. Several members of the Knesset passed by the protest tent while heading to the building and were violently assaulted, as unbelievable as this may sound. There was nothing about those assaults that benefited the hostages; it was sheer anarchy for its own sake. The police eventually had no choice but to forcibly disperse some of the protestors, including parents of people who were murdered on Simchas Torah. It was a very unpleasant task for the police officers, but it seems that they had no alternative. The police later released a statement declaring that they would allow significant latitude for protests and freedom of expression, but not at the cost of public disturbances or limiting the freedom of movement of members of the Knesset, who could not reach the entrance to the Knesset because of the protestors.

Rav Hutner in Captivity

Last week, Divrei Siach, the weekly publication of Rav Chaim Kanievsky’s Torah published by Rav Yitzchok Goldstoff,  quoted a number of Rav Chaim’s teachings on the subject of pidyon shevuyim. I won’t delve into halachic matters here, but will quote some portions. He quotes a teshuvah in which Rav Chaim states that a person who is traveling to perform an act of pidyon shevuyim is considered “oseik b’mitzvah,” with all the halachic ramifications it entails.

This led to another question: The Gemara relates (Chullin 7a) that Rabi Pinchos ben Yair was once traveling to redeem captives when he reached the river Ginai. “Ginai, split your waters for me and I will cross through you,” he said. The river replied, “You are traveling to do the will of your Master, and I am traveling to do the will of my Master. You may or may not achieve it, but I will certainly achieve it.” Rashi explains that the uncertainty was that he might not succeed in redeeming the captives. Someone pointed out to Rav Chaim that if the act of traveling to perform pidyon shevuyim is a mitzvah, then there would be no doubt as to whether Rabi Pinchos was fulfilling the will of his Creator. With his brilliant sensitivity to nuance, Rav Chaim replied, “Nevertheless, he did not fulfill the mitzvah of pidyon.”

All this, however, is merely by way of introduction to the story that I wish to quote: “Rav Chaim related that when Rav Yitzchok Hutner was in Jordanian captivity and the Torah world was davening for him to be saved, he [Rav Chaim] learned the kuntres that Rav Hutner had written, Mossaf Hahalachos Hamechudashos, which is published at the end of the Sifrei with the peirush of Rabbeinu Hillel, in which Rav Hutner cites all the halachic chiddushim that appear in the Toras Kohanim and are not cited in the Gemara. Rav Chaim praised the kuntres as an outstanding work, and he would often comment, ‘I learned this as a zechus for Rav Hutner when he was in captivity.’ Similarly, his father, the Steipler, learned the sefer Toras Hanozir, which was written by Rav Hutner, at the time.” This makes it clear that it is not only possible (and necessary) to daven for the captives, but that we can learn Torah for their benefit as well.

Curbing Predatory Lawyers

In recent days, the Knesset has been running in neutral gear. This week, the Knesset House Committee approved an extension of the decision to cancel the legislative sessions on Tuesdays. The Knesset convened on Monday and Wednesday, but only for a brief period each time. This has been the state of affairs since the beginning of the winter assembly of the second session of the 25th Knesset. The Knesset presidium has been approving urgent parliamentary queries and motions for the agenda, but only those that are relevant to the war. Private legislation is not being debated at all. Most of the laws that have been submitted to the Knesset at this time are also relevant to the massacre. A large number of bills have been introduced that would require the seventh of October (or Simchas Torah) to be declared an annual day of remembrance for the tragedy.

There are three bills that were submitted to the Knesset this week that deserve mention here. One was submitted by MK Eliyohu Baruchi and would prevent an employee from being forced to use his vacation days when he is called up for reserve service in the army. This is an excellent idea that was proposed by reservists; the bill was signed by 22 members of the Knesset spanning most of the political parties. Another bill, introduced by MK Moshe Passal, calls for government compensation to be paid to the volunteers of ZAKA who served during the Iron Swords War. Finally, Erez Malul launched a creative initiative: a bill that would limit the fees charged by lawyers for handling claims on behalf of terror victims. It is no secret that there are some lawyers who charge astronomical fees, taking advantage of others’ desperation.

The impetus for the bill came when Malul discovered that the National Insurance Law imposes limits on the fees that can be charged for assisting citizens with filing for stipends from the National Insurance Institute; however, the law does not provide the same protection to terror victims. Interestingly, Malul himself is a lawyer, but that hasn’t stopped him from trying to curb the appetites of other attorneys preying on desperate clients. Roi Avraham, a lawyer who is a member of Malul’s staff, told me that the proposal was drafted with the help of Welfare Minister Yaakov Margi. In the memorandum accompanying the bill, Malul explains, “Considering the expectation that hundreds, or even thousands, of terror victims from the events of October 7 and the subsequent days will be submitting claims to the National Insurance Institute in the coming days to be given disabled status, and based on the expectation that many of them will use the services of third parties for that purpose, we must protect the stipends to which they are entitled and guarantee that the bulk of each stipend will reach the person who is actually entitled to it.” This is indeed an important and worthy law. It is interesting to note that the bill bears the number 4093, which indicates that the 25th Knesset has already seen the submission of over 4000 pieces of proposed legislation.

Rav Avigdor Millers Memories of Slabodka

I try to learn Rav Avigdor Miller’s teachings every week. Studying the parsha or other subjects is a different experience with his commentary. Topics such as the sale of Yosef Hatzaddik, the sin of the egel hazohov, the ten makkos, or the punishment of an inadvertent murderer are explored in a thorough and concrete fashion in his writings, and other topics, that seem to be only marginal, take on amplified meaning and significance. Rav Miller, a renowned product of the Slabodka yeshiva, fomented a veritable spiritual revolution in America, opening a shul in Flatbush where he had a powerful impact on his followers. Yefe Nof Publishers in Israel recently released a Hebrew translation of Yaakov Yehoshua Hamburger’s book, Rav Avigdor Miller—His Life and His Revolution. I always enjoy reading about Rav Miller’s memories of Slabodka, and I have chosen a powerful excerpt to share with you (translated into English from the Hebrew version):

“I remember the seriousness and solemnity that permeated the Slabodka yeshiva as the Yom Hadin approached. Our thoughts were focused entirely on the fact that the day of judgment was near. Yet when Rosh Hashanah finally arrived, all the preparations we had performed and the powerful emotions that had built up within us burst forth with the great enthusiasm in our declaration of ‘Hashem melech!’ I can never forget that experience. I remember the ‘Borchu’ of the night of Rosh Hashanah. There was powerful emotion that was not from this world. It was an incomparable sight. The shaliach tzibbur approached the amud and began chanting, ‘Barchu es Hashem hamevorach,’ and then a powerful roar burst forth from all the bnei yeshiva together, a roar that almost caused the ceiling to collapse as they cried, ‘Baruch shem kevod malchuso l’olam vaed.’ Everyone sat down and began the brocha of maariv aravim together: ‘Baruchoy, oy, oy….’ Everyone cried and screamed. They didn’t say the words; they shouted them! The bais medrash shook with a tempest of emotion, but it wasn’t a wild storm; it was a storm that came from thought. Every word took a long time, and then everyone fell silent. When the chazzan concluded the brocha, there was another roar of ‘amen!’ I have no doubt that if a foreigner had entered the bais medrash at that time, he would have said, ‘What is going on here? Have I entered an insane asylum?’ And we would have replied to him, ‘Yes, sir, you are right. This is a place for the insane—a place where we arrive in a state of insanity and leave with our sanity restored. This is a place where we acquire intelligence. What is the purpose of intelligence? To understand the truth of this world—the pure truth that there is nothing in the world that should move us or create awe in us other than Hashem.”

At the end of that shmuess, Rav Miller wished his listeners a good year and called on them to strengthen their recognition of Hashem’s Kingship. That was probably the last shmuess that he delivered in advance of Rosh Hashanah. At the end of Nissan in that year (5761), Rav Miller’s soul ascended to Shomayim.

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