Sunday, Aug 1, 2021

My Take on the News

A New Law to Protect Shabbos

We are in the middle of a conflict with the municipality of Tel Aviv, which decided to allow dozens of businesses to operate on Shabbos in the city. That conflict has expanded to include the High Court, which didn’t bother waiting for the Minister of the Interior, who holds the authority to approve or overturn municipal bylaws, to issue his own decision on the subject. Instead, the court preempted the minister and gave its backing to the Tel Aviv municipality. The chareidi parties, in response, turned to Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu and demanded that he pass a law overturning the court’s decision. Alternatively, the prime minister can have the issue reviewed again by a larger panel of justices in the hope that the religious justices might be able to change the court’s decision. Another approach is for the Minister of the Interior to reject the bylaw; that step might impel the court to retract its decision. The situation has led to another question as well: What will happen in other cities? The chareidi parties want to make sure that the Tel Aviv decision will not spread to other cities as well.

This week, there were two developments in this situation. First, with the opening of the Knesset’s summer session, new bills were introduced by the Yisrael Beiteinu party that would represent an even greater assault on Shabbos. As you are undoubtedly aware, Yisrael Beiteinu is Avigdor Lieberman’s party, which he rules with an iron fist. Lieberman does not allow a single member of his party to lift a finger without his approval. But even without the proposed legislation, we would have known Lieberman’s stance on the subject of Shabbos in Tel Aviv. He made the public statement that our demand to prevent chillul Shabbos was “unnecessary.”

Of course, Lieberman has no choice but to please his constituents; Yisrael Beiteinu’s voters are not shomer Shabbos, and many of them are not even Jewish at all. At the same time, he is a member of the coalition and has presumably signed a coalition agreement that obligates him to preserve the status quo.

There is actually a very good chance that Lieberman may cast the deciding vote on this issue. If he and his party do not support a law that will restrain the power of the Supreme Court, there is a good chance that the law will not pass, even if Netanyahu wants it to be approved, which he does not. At the very least, though, we know that Moshe Kachlon and the ten Knesset members from his party would vote in favor of the law. Kachlon has assured the chareidi parties of that. “I will not betray my own father and mother,” he asserted.

At the Likud party conference last Monday marking the opening of the Knesset’s summer session, Netanyahu declared that he is confident that the situation will soon be resolved. He was asked how he plans to do that, but he refused to divulge any details. Let us join him in hoping that the resolution will come soon.

Chillul Shabbos in the Army

Shabbos observance is an issue not only in the commercial sphere, but in the army as well. The IDF has always been meant to be an “army of the people,” in which anyone can serve, even religious or traditional soldiers. That is why even David Ben-Gurion agreed for the army to have a rabbinic corps, with a chief rabbi of its own and an entire staff of military rabbonim. The army is required to observe kashrus, Shabbos, and other halachos. Military operations are not conducted on Shabbos, except in cases of life-threatening danger.

But in the IDF, as is the case everywhere, there will always be people who try to change the rules. Today, the composition of the army reflects that of the entire country, as it includes many people who have no connection to Yiddishkeit at all. For instance, there are many soldiers from families of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are ignorant even of basic Jewish concepts such as Pesach and Yom Kippur. Of course, they try to observe the rules, but there are times when they make mistakes. They simply don’t understand that if they hunt rabbits and cook them in a military kitchen, they will have caused the entire kitchen to become treif. And that is not a hypothetical scenario. It is something that has actually taken place.

The army itself does not always live up to its obligation to allow a religious soldier to maintain his lifestyle. This is the case, for instance, with religious soldiers who wish to grow beards. Every few years, the army issues a blanket rule against growing beards. Even those soldiers who do not have beards during the year must fight during every Sefirah to be allowed not to shave.

This past week, there were two very serious breaches of religious protocol in the army. One of them took place on Shabbos, when an army base received a visit from Avigdor Kahalani, one of the leaders of the Organization for the Soldier. Kahalani was accompanied by a group of donors from America, and in order to impress the visitors, he asked one of the commanders of the base to have his soldiers perform some military maneuvers. The commander ordered several soldiers to demonstrate a few maneuvers with a tank. Naturally, there was no pikuach nefesh involved, which made the incident a breach of protocol. Why did the commander agree, you ask? Avigdor Kahalani is a decorated Israeli hero, a brigadier general in the reserves, and a well-known and highly respected officer, as well as a former government minister. Presumably, the commander felt that Kahalani was qualified to decide that the maneuvers were permitted. But in doing so, he made a serious mistake.

The other incident took place in the kitchen on an army base, where the cooks forgot to place food in the ovens before Shabbos and therefore cooked a meal on Shabbos morning. Both incidents came with particularly bad timing for the army, which has recently been facing criticism of its attitude toward religious soldiers. The tension between the dati leumi community and the IDF has reached a peak.

The army reacted harshly to both incidents. Concerning the incident with Kahalani, a spokesman for the army said, “An investigation has been conducted, and the commander of the battalion received a reprimand. A meeting was held with all the commanders to clarify the proper protocols, and the commander of the battalion apologized and recognized his error.” Regarding the food that was cooked on Shabbos, the spokesman said, “This was an incident that involved a single soldier who disobeyed orders and was judged and punished. The commanders of the IDF view these incidents as particularly severe.”

Will Trump Visit Yad Vashem?

Next Monday, at 11:00 in the morning, President Donald Trump will be landing at Ben Gurion Airport. With his arrival, the State of Israel will enter a state of siege for two days. Thousands of soldiers and security personnel are expected to be deployed during his visit. He will probably travel by helicopter from the airport to the King David Hotel in Yerushalayim, where he will be staying. The hotel is already prepared for his visit; all of its rooms are booked. The Kosel Hamaarovi is definitely on his itinerary. It is not clear if he plans to visit Yad Vashem as well. The president will probably be accompanied by his daughter and son-in-law, as well as by Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

The president’s schedule for Monday, after his arrival at 11:00, includes speeches at Ben Gurion Airport, a tour of the Kosel Hamaarovi, a reception at the President’s Residence, a tentatively planned visit to Yad Vashem, and dinner at the prime minister’s home. On Tuesday, he will deliver a speech at Masada and will then visit Bais Lechem in the Palestinian Authority. He is scheduled to depart from Ben Gurion Airport at 1:00 p.m.

Yerushalayim will be completely closed off during Trump’s visit, with thousands of police officers guarding the route he will take.

Making a Mockery of the Law

I mentioned that the Knesset has begun its summer session. That means that it is time for another inside look at the way the Knesset operates.

Anyone who is familiar with the Knesset’s work is aware of the contempt that the government ministers display toward the country’s parliament. To illustrate this, let me give you an example of a law that was passed by the Knesset and quickly became completely irrelevant.

Not long ago, the Knesset passed a law that was intended to prevent lawyers from collecting excessive fees for arranging contracts for the purchase of apartments from a builder. The law stipulates that an attorney may charge no more than 5,000 shekels for his services in those cases. Or, to put it in other terms, if a buyer used to pay one million shekels to purchase an apartment from a contractor and another 15,000 shekels in lawyer’s fees, the law now limits the lawyer’s fee to a mere 5,000 shekels.

On the surface, this is a wonderful law. But after the law was passed, something changed: The contractors began collecting extra money – in our case, an additional 10,000 shekels – for the same apartments, and passing that money on to their lawyers. In other words, the buyers are still paying the same inflated legal fees, albeit through the contractors rather than directly to the lawyers, and the law is being completely circumvented. When this information reached my desk, I composed a parliamentary query on the subject to be submitted to the Minister of Housing.

The text of the query, which was submitted to Major General (Reserves) Yoav Gallant, the Minister of Housing, reads as follows: “In the past, a law was passed that prevents attorneys from collecting more than 5,000 shekels in fees for arranging real estate contracts for the purchase of a new apartment. It has now been revealed that the building contractors have been collecting the difference between this sum and the amounts previously paid to the lawyers, and they have been transferring the additional money to the lawyers. The law has therefore become a farce; the purchasers are gaining nothing. Is your ministry aware of this? What will be done to prevent this practice?”

This was Gallant’s response: “That law is intended to limit a contractor’s ability to collect separate payments from a purchaser, in addition to the cost of an apartment, to cover his legal expenses. The law means that the contractor is obligated to include his legal expenses in the price of the apartment, just as any other expense is indicated by the final price. The law does not limit the price that may be charged for an apartment, nor does it interfere in the business relationship between contractors and their attorneys. In keeping with the principle of freedom of enterprise, these issues are subject to negotiation in the open market and are presumably fixed in accordance with market conditions. Therefore, the situation described in the question is not a breach of the law, and there is no need or justification for our intervention.”

That should give you an idea of the value of a law in the State of Israel. Do you see how this country is run?

Answers That Say Nothing

The entire institution of parliamentary queries has also turned into a joke; the ministers do not take the queries seriously at all. I have cited examples of this behavior in the past. Today, I have more to share.

As a rule, there are some responses to parliamentary queries that contain no false information, but simply gloss over the issues and avoid the actual point of the queries, in the hope that the questioner will be satisfied with that. In general, the queries are not particularly pressing, and the strategy works – unless the query was formulated by a Knesset member (or parliamentary aide) who has set his sights on a specific goal and is determined not to give up.

For instance, some parliamentary queries ask which institutions have been selected to receive funding from the Ministry of Science, the Ministry of Culture, or any other such government office. The questioners ask for the criteria used to determine the allocation of funds, as well as the names of the institutions receiving funds and the specific sums earmarked for each institution. The answers are typically vague and evasive, taking the form of a statement such as: “The list of institutions receiving funding is approved by a selection committee, based on published criteria.” These queries generally come from us, the chareidi parties, in an effort to demonstrate that religious institutions are shortchanged by the government. Upon receiving an answer like that, only a very intrepid member of the Knesset would take it upon himself to submit an additional query, insisting on a specific list of the institutions receiving funds and the amounts they are given.

Perhaps I should reveal a secret: Many years ago, I was on the other side of the divide, when I worked as the aide to the Minister of the Interior, Aryeh Deri, the man who is now holding the same position again. That placed us in the position of responding to the questions, rather than asking them. At that time, there was a chiloni MK from the Meretz party named Virshubski, who insisted on making a nuisance of himself. Virshubski became fixated on the subject of ministerial grants, and he demanded an exact list of all the Torah institutions that received financial aid from the Minister of the Interior through their municipal governments. He received a vague response, but he insisted that it had missed the point of his question and followed up with yet another inquiry. Another evasive answer led to yet another demand for information, and the cycle continued until he had lost the strength to continue.

For many years, I have been working with the Knesset members of the Shas party, which places me on the side of the questioner. I will never forget the parliamentary query in which we asked for the list of businesses that had received government permission to employ workers on Shabbos. We asked for specifics: Which businesses had received the permits, how many permits had each one been given, and for what reasons? The responding minister at the time was Moshe Katzav, who later became the president of the state, and who considered the list a government secret. Katzav claimed that if the list were publicized, the businesses in question would be harassed by “the chareidim.” The fight went on for several months, until it was finally agreed that we would receive the list, not as an official response to a query, but in a sealed envelope. We were asked to promise that the list would not be publicized. That incident is an example of determination that achieves a result.

Of course, the list was indeed publicized throughout the country that very week, and it sparked a major firestorm. It was painfully evident that many businesses had received permits without any justification at all. But don’t ask me how it came to the public’s attention…

“Touch Me. I Was at the Kosel!”

We are now approaching Yom Yerushalayim. Since it is a round number this year – it is the fiftieth anniversary of the liberation of the Kosel – it is a highly emotional occasion. On that note, I would like to quote an excerpt from an article published in Bamachaneh, the IDF military magazine, fifty years ago.

Parenthetically, Bamachaneh recently closed down, without many people noticing its disappearance. Not long ago, the magazine released a commemorative edition containing images of its best cover pages since its official first edition on 28 Av 5708 (1948). The magazine was actually founded 14 years earlier, as a publication of the Haganah. Now, what can we infer from the fact that Bamachaneh is no longer in print? Is it that the army no longer needs a magazine? Was it a waste of money? Will its absence leave a void now, or was it never really needed at all? What is the lesson to be learned from this? To be honest, I have no idea.

In any event, here is the excerpt, which is drawn from a firsthand account that was published in Bamachaneh after the Six Day War:

“The war started at night. I was assigned to Moshe Stampel, the deputy brigade commander of the 55th Brigade. I was like a piece of equipment that was dragged along wherever he went. No one knew who I was, the commanders had no time to report to me, and I didn’t ask any questions. I simply watched everything that was happening around me and listened to the reports coming in through the crackling radios. This wasn’t classic journalistic work in any sense…

“When we reached the Kosel, there was tremendous excitement. I myself was numb with emotion. We had no idea where we were going. Someone grabbed an elderly Arab and asked him in English, then in Arabic, and finally in Hebrew, ‘Where is the Kosel?’ It was actually the Hebrew that he understood.

“The soldiers kissed the Kosel and began dancing, praying, and crying. At that moment, I realized that I had witnessed something historic. When I got back to Tel Aviv, my clothes were stained with the blood of other people, and I said to everyone, ‘Touch me! I was at the Kosel!’”

Two Tales from Kollel

Here are two vignettes from the beginning of the zeman at the kollel of Yeshivas Mir Yerushalayim:

A yungerman was preparing a cup of coffee for himself when he happened to overhear portions of a conversation between two of his friends. One of them seemed to be speaking about someone “going crazy … making crazy movements and screeching sounds all the time.” The yungerman was alarmed by the words, which seemed to paint a picture of a crisis within his friend’s family. As the conversation progressed, though, he realized that things were not as bad as they seemed. The other man, as it turned out, had been talking about his washing machine!

Another yungerman in the Mir, who is newly married, was approached by the head of his chaburah on the first day of the zeman and was surprised by his question: “Eifo hayita baseder?” He was aware that he had been a few minutes late for seder that morning, but he was surprised that the rosh chaburah would ask him about it. Stammering awkwardly, he managed to explain that the yeshiva’s bus from his neighborhood had let off its passengers far from the building, and he had to walk a couple of blocks in order to get to the yeshiva.

This time, it was the rosh chaburah who was puzzled by his response. “I didn’t know you were late for seder today,” he said, “and I wasn’t asking about that at all. I was asking where you spend the Seder on the first night of Pesach!”

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