Thursday, Apr 18, 2024

My Take on the News

 

Meron Event Cancelled Over Hezbollah Fears

Another week has gone by, and as always, my dilemma is where to begin this column; there are simply too many pressing topics to write about. One major topic is the ongoing war in Gaza, which is still as jarring as ever. Whenever I hear the words “it has been cleared for publication” on the radio, which always means that the death of another soldier is about to be announced, I am filled with sorrow. This phrase signifies that the bereaved family has already been informed and the army can announce the name of the deceased to the public. There are also ongoing hostilities in the north, where the residents have been suffering from incessant missile fire. Tens of thousands of people have already fled from their homes in the north to seek refuge elsewhere in the country.

The fear in the north was so great that the Home Front Command ordered the cancellation of the annual event in Meron marking the seventh of Adar. This is a massive event, even if it is not on the scale of the festivities of Lag Ba’omer. In a leap year, an event on a smaller scale is held on the seventh of Adar Rishon, but the major event takes place in Adar Sheini. This year, however, both events were canceled. (On that note, you may remember the official commission of inquiry into the Meron tragedy of 5781. Well, the committee is due to finish its work soon, and many people are becoming apprehensive regarding its conclusions.)

In more related news, a terror attack was perpetrated several days ago at a checkpoint at an entrance to Yerushalayim near Maale Adumim. The attack was committed by three terrorists who abruptly emerged from their cars on the highway and opened fire on innocent motorists in the vicinity. This could easily have become a massacre with a staggering death toll, chas v’sholom, but it resulted in only one fatality and ten injuries. No one understands why the death toll wasn’t much higher. While we mourn the death of any Jew, it is also necessary to recognize the miraculous fact that it didn’t end much more tragically.

Meanwhile, the plight of the hostages in Gaza remains a source of great concern. This week, senior Israeli defense officials met in Paris with high-ranking officials from Qatar and with representatives of the CIA to work out a proposal for a hostage release deal. The agreement under discussion reportedly calls for the release of forty hostages, whose exact identities are still unknown. Israel agreed to a six-week ceasefire (but no more than that) in exchange. There is some debate as to the number of Palestinians who will be released and the severity of their crimes. I can tell you only that Netanyahu wasn’t easily persuaded to allow the Israeli delegation to participate in the talks in Paris. More details on this story will follow below.

Another major focus of attention this week is the local elections that will be taking place throughout Israel in the shadow of the war. Many citizens will actually be voting on the front lines at special polling stations set up for soldiers. The local races are of particular interest to the chareidi community this time, and some rather bizarre alliances have been formed. The old formula of Litvish and chassidish factions dividing power among themselves and running on separate tickets from the Sephardim seems to be no longer in effect. In every city, some very interesting combinations have been made.

There are three cities where tensions are running especially high. The first is Beit Shemesh, where former mayor Moshe Abutbul is competing with Shmuel Greenberg, the Degel HaTorah candidate, for the office of mayor, and both are running against the incumbent mayor, Aliza Bloch. In Elad, there is a tight race between the incumbent mayor, Yisroel Porush, and Yehuda Butbol of the Shas party, who is supported by Vizhnitz. In Bnei Brak, of course, it will be interesting to see how the seats on the city council are divided between the Litvish and chassidish communities now that they are running on separate tickets for the first time. By Wednesday or Thursday, all the votes should have been counted.

But with all due respect to these many topics of interest, I am afraid that I must begin delving in earnest into a different subject altogether: the legal status of the draft deferments for yeshiva bochurim. I wrote about this issue over the past couple of weeks, but there have been some significant developments since that time.

Court Petitioned to Freeze Funding for Yeshivos

This week, the Supreme Court is discussing the legal status of bnei yeshivos. In the absence of an actual draft law, their status is very unclear. Two petitions have been submitted to the court, one of which calls for all bnei yeshivos in the country to be drafted immediately while the other demands that all funding for yeshivos be frozen immediately, since the talmidim are now in violation of the law by remaining in their yeshivos, now that the previous exemption law has expired.

Last Thursday, at the judges’ request, the state submitted a preliminary response to the latter petition, explaining that there is no legal impediment to providing funding for yeshivos for talmidim whose draft dates haven’t yet arrived. The state pointed out that the institutions to which the draft deferments are relevant are mainly yeshivos gedolos and kollelim. A yeshiva, the document goes on to explain, is an institution of learning for bachelors above the age of seventeen or eighteen, which generally includes a dormitory and where a talmid is supposed to spend the majority of his time learning Torah. Government funding for yeshivos is used to provide for the educational service, including the food and lodgings provided by the institution. A kollel, on the other hand, serves married students, and the funding for kollelim generally serves to provide stipends for the yungeleit, which are used to support their families. The state pointed out that according to the regulations that were last updated eleven years ago, there is no legal barrier to providing financial support for a talmid in any institution of learning who hasn’t yet received a summons for military service. “To remove all doubt,” the law states, “financial support for an institution of Torah study for a student who has not yet begun his service in the IDF, with the exception of a student in a yeshivas hesder, and who has received a personal order to appear for regular service, will continue until the date of the appearance specified in the order.” The state cited examples of cases in which a delay in issuing a draft deferment does not automatically trigger a loss of funding for a yeshiva. “For instance, if a candidate for army service is delayed in procuring an order for the deferment of the draft, or there are various procedural delays in its release, based on the legal criteria, until a date is set for the candidate to appear for regular service, the institution is not barred from receiving funding because of that candidate’s presence. The basis for this is the understanding of state authorities that there is no impediment to providing funding for an institution of Torah study for a student who hasn’t yet received an order to appear for his mandatory service or who is exempt from such service. In this situation, the student is not viewed as evading his legal obligation to appear for regular service.”

This argument pertains to the funding for yeshivos, but the court, is also discussing the legality of allowing bnei yeshivos to avoid the draft. On both issues, the independent attorney general has already informed the Supreme Court that if the legal status of bnei yeshivos is not finalized by the end of the winter, it will not be legal for the government to continue funding yeshivos. Even worse, she has also insisted that if the draft deferments are not enshrined in law no later than the 22nd of Adar Sheini, there will no longer be a legal basis for refraining from drafting yeshiva bochurim. In essence, she is forcing the government shoot itself in the proverbial foot.

Calls for a Draft for Yeshiva Bochurim

The more substantive issue, of course, is the actual draft. The state responded to that petition on Wednesday with a request for the judges to refrain from issuing even a temporary order stipulating that bnei yeshivos should be drafted in the absence of a law to the contrary. The state argued that the administrative decision that was made to refrain from drafting talmidei yeshivos will expire automatically slightly more than a month from now, making all bnei yeshivos automatically subject to conscription and thus rendering the court’s injunctions irrelevant. The state therefore suggested that the Supreme Court should delay ruling on the issue for a month, and that the government will submit an update to the court one week before its administrative decision is due to expire. The state further argued that if a new decision is made to continue deferring the draft for yeshiva bochurim, the court will be able to issue injunctions at that time and even to expand the panel of justices hearing the petitions.

The court has a couple of tools at its disposal to use in a situation such as this. An interim order takes effect immediately and is generally used only when the failure to take immediate action will lead to irrevocable change. A conditional order obligates the government to explain why the order should not be converted into a permanent injunction. The government is given time to respond to such an order, which is followed by another hearing that ends with a ruling on whether the order should become permanent and binding. While the state has asked the court to refrain from using these tools, the petitioners are demanding that the conditional orders be issued immediately.

With regard to the draft, the state explained that the administrative decision didn’t actually grant deferments to yeshiva bochurim; it provided guidelines for the interim period after the previous draft law expired. Since the government was merely choosing not to draft bnei yeshivos but not actually granting deferments, they argued, the decision did not violate the Supreme Court’s ruling against granting blanket exemptions from army service for bnei yeshivos without legislation. The state also addressed the reasonability of the decision, arguing that it had been made “before the war broke out, with all its ramifications and heavy prices. The rationale for the decision and the considerations facing the government were those that were correct at the time that it was made.” In simpler terms, the government argued that even though the draft law had officially expired, it had decided to temporarily preserve the status quo and to refrain from enforcing the draft of yeshiva bochurim until a law could be passed. The state’s current request is for the court to refrain from issuing any orders until the administrative decision expires, at which point the government will have to take action.

The situation is clearly growing more complicated by the day. Even in another month, it will certainly be very hard for anyone to pass a draft law that will be accepted by the Israeli public and all the members of the coalition. There are many voices even within the coalition calling for the draft deferments for yeshiva bochurim to end. There is no question that we are entering a very difficult controversy. The Supreme Court discussed the petition on Monday, in a session that was broadcast live. We must daven.

A Newspaper’s Mendacious Coverage

The average secular Israeli was probably enraged by the headline that appeared in one of Israel’s most prominent economic newspapers, which asserted that the government has doubled its support over the past two years for “nonprofits that encourage draft evasion.” Upon turning to pages 2 and 3 of the newspaper, the reader encountered a lengthy article accompanied by pictures and diagrams that illustrated the alleged “sharp spike in the budgets of nonprofit organizations that encourage evasion of service in the IDF,” with the words “evasion of service” appearing in bold letters. The article is referring to three organizations: the Vaad HaYeshivos of Eretz Yisroel and the national organizations overseeing the hesder yeshivos and Zionist yeshivos. These organizations exist for the IDF’s convenience; instead of directly supervising the yeshivos to make sure that its regulations are followed, the army can leave the job to these organizations.

The two Zionist organizations cannot possibly be accused of encouraging draft evasion, sine they encourage students to enlist in the army. Nor does the Vaad HaYeshivos encourage draft dodging. Its function is simply to deal with the army on behalf of the yeshivos and arrange for draft deferments for talmidim who qualify, while also preventing those who are not eligible for a deferment from receiving one. In some instances, the Vaad HaYeshivos has pushing for boys to be drafted when they do not meet the criteria for a deferment. But none of that interests the writers in this newspaper at all.

That isn’t to say that the writer was unaware of the reality; in fact, it is clear that he deliberately obfuscated facts that were known to him. The article contains a quote from the state budget that describes “the funding designated for support of the umbrella organizations of yeshivos that deal mainly with deferring the service of talmidim or integrating talmidim into the army and coordinating between yeshivos and the army.” If the writer was aware of the true function of these organizations, why does he accuse them of encouraging draft evasion? Since the days of Rav Moshe Dovid Tenenbaum, the Vaad HaYeshivos has enforced all the rules governing draft deferments without compromise. Any bochur or yungerman who does not meet the criteria will not receive a deferment.

Change Is Underway

The branch of the Fat Vinny restaurant in Mul HaChof Village in Chadera has undergone a change. The restaurant is now closed on Shabbos, and it has received kashrus certification. The Marker, an Israeli economic newspapers, apparently saw this as an appropriate topic for a very long article. The article contains interviews with a few patrons of the restaurant who bemoaned the change, but those disgruntled customers were a negligible minority.

The writer visited the restaurant during the transition, and one of the workers explained to her that almost everyone in the city is either observant or traditional. It is very clear that no one coerced the restaurant to adhere to the laws of Shabbos and kashrus, and that the decision was made purely on economic grounds. Tamir Ben-Shachar, a financial consultant for restauranteurs, is quoted as explaining, “Most of the restaurants in Israel today are kosher, and there are many restaurants that are transitioning to kashrus. The process began on the periphery, where the percentage of the religious and traditional population is larger, and later spread to the larger cities including Tel Aviv, Petach Tikvah, and Haifa. The reason for it is the desire of the restaurant owners to increase their potential customer base.” In other words, it is a matter of simple economics. Supply and demand are determined by the public, and the public wants kosher restaurants. For a restaurant owner, it is simple enough to calculate that the loss of business that results from closing the establishment on Shabbos is entirely justified by the increase in profits they will see during the week. Two other eateries in the same complex, McDonalds and Café Landwer, have also turned kosher—again, because they calculated that it was to their benefit to do so.

A few of the interviewees whom the writer met in the restaurant were indifferent to the change, but many more were enthusiastic about it. One woman who described herself as secular claimed that she had never visited the shopping center on Shabbos and it did not bother her in the least that this restaurant, the last remaining establishment to be open on Shabbos, would now be closing its doors on that day. “We can rest on that day; nothing bad will come of it,” she said. I was even more pleased with the reaction of Roni Ponis, who owns a kiosk in the same complex and identified himself as a chiloni who has begun to increase his observance. “Chadera is a traditional city,” he said. “You can find a shul in every square meter. Everyone is careful about religious matters here. Besides, October 7 was a catalyst for change in many people’s lives.”

The kiosk contains a tefillin stand, and a secular resident of Chadera arrived during the reporter’s visit to put on tefillin. “I am chiloni,” he told her, “and it doesn’t bother me at all that this place is closed on Shabbos. Anyway, people work like mules throughout the week; let them rest on Shabbos. There is no brocha in money that is made on Shabbos.” These were the statements of a secular Israeli!

Yeshayahu Hanovi tells us, “Your people are all tzaddikim.” Perhaps it is regarding the people who applauded this change in Chadera that Chazal teach us, “Even the empty ones among them are filled with mitzvos like a pomegranate.”

Hashing Out a Deal with Hamas

Let us move on to the topic of the summit in Paris, which began last Friday. The Israeli delegation to the talks was headed by Mossad chief Dadi Barnea, while the other participants included the director of the CIA, Wiliam Burns, as well as the prime minister of Qatar and the head of Egypt’s intelligence service. ABC quoted an Israeli source who claimed that the American negotiators were pressuring Israel to reach an agreement with Hamas before the month of Ramadan. “It will be hard to make progress in the negotiations during Ramadan, since Washington expects that Hamas will halt most of its activities at the beginning of the month, which will make the indirect talks with Hamas even more complicated than they already are,” the reporters claimed.

Osama Hamadan, the Hamas representative in Lebanon, told a press conference that “Israel is still sticking to an uncompromising stance regarding our demands. Netanyahu is stalling, with the goal of preventing us from reaching an agreement.” He also said, “We view the mediators’ offers favorably, but we demand a halt to the Israeli aggression and the removal of the siege on the Gaza Strip.” The Arab media quoted sources within Hamas as claiming that they do not negate the possibility of a breakthrough in the current talks, but they insist that Israel will have to release prisoners serving long sentences and withdraw from the Gaza Strip to make that breakthrough possible. According to the report, Israel has agreed to remove the barriers dividing the Gaza Strip in two. Hamas claims to have shown flexibility in its talks with the countries serving as mediators, including dropping its demand for the release of 1500 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for forty Israeli hostages in the first stage of the deal, as well as accepting the duration of the ceasefire.

Hamas has also expressed the willingness to lower the total number of Palestinian prisoners to be released in a prisoner exchange deal to 3000. Moussa Abu Marzuk, a senior Hamas official, said that “it is possible that there will be progress in the talks over a prisoner exchange deal in the near future.” In the past, Hamas demanded the release of all Palestinian women and minors imprisoned in Israel, as well as any prisoners serving life sentences. The Israeli media reported that progress has been made toward a deal with the following terms: The first stage will see the release of forty hostages (women, the elderly, and the sick) in exchange for a six-week ceasefire, but Israel will not be obligated to stop its offensive altogether. Israel has also demanded the return of the female soldiers who were taken hostage, which seems to be the last remaining point of contention in the negotiations.

We must daven for the safe and speedy return of all the hostages.

The Heavy Toll of War

For an illustration of the devastating impact of this war, one need look no further than the Defense Ministry’s preparations to deal with the many soldiers who have been wounded in the course of the fighting. These soldiers will join the ranks of the tens of thousands of disabled IDF veterans who served in Israel’s wars. I am acquainted with one prominent veteran, Rabbi Noach Hertz, who lost his leg in captivity. Fifty years later, he is still suffering deeply from his wounds. Reb Noach is a tzaddik and a true hero, and every time I meet with him, I learn more about what it means to be a disabled veteran.

The Defense Ministry’s rehabilitation division announced that it is preparing to take in thousands of new patients wounded in the course of the current war. Here are some staggering statistics. Since October 7, over 5500 new patients have already been absorbed by the system. By the end of the year 2024, it is estimated that 78,000 wounded soldiers will have been treated, which makes for an increase of 20,000 additional wounded veterans, of which 80 percent are from the current war. Forty-six percent of the wounded are between the ages of 21 and 30, while 36 percent are between the ages of 31 and 40, and another 18 percent are above the age of 40. Seventy percent of the patients admitted to rehabilitative services were wounded during reserve service, while 7 percent were career soldiers, 10 percent were soldiers during their regular service who were discharged due to their injuries, and 13 percent were police officers or served in other defense agencies. The city with the highest number of residents wounded in the war was Tel Aviv, with 329 casualties. It is followed by Yerushalayim with 303 casualties, Beer Sheva with 204, and Ashkelon with 140. Eighty-four percent of the wounded victims were listed as lightly wounded, while 9 percent were moderately wounded and 7 percent suffered severe injuries. The most common wounds were injuries to the limbs, accounting for 42 percent of the total number of casualties, while 21 percent suffered from psychological harm and post-trauma. The victims listed as suffering limb injuries often lost a limb. The psychological issues can also be devastating, to the point of destroying the victims’ lives.

As I mentioned, the rehabilitative division of the Defense Ministry treats about 62,000 disabled veterans today. According to a report compiled by the Ministry of Defense, based on statistics from the war thus far and an analysis of injuries in previous military campaigns, it is estimated that the number will rise to 78,000 by the end of 2024. May Hashem protect and heal them all.

Reform Rabbi Suspected of Leaking Classified Information

Last month, Knesset speaker Amir Ochana asked the attorney general to order an investigation into the leaks of information from the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. Members of the committee are prohibited to reveal the information discussed in its sessions. The designated officer proceeded to collect testimony from witnesses, as well as examining security footage and analyzing other evidence. He discovered that there was only one person who read the protocols of the meetings from which the information was leaked: MK Gilad Kariv examined the documents twice, shortly before the article containing the leaked information was released. The security cameras revealed that Kariv highlighted the sections of the transcript that were later released to the media. Kariv is a Reform rabbi who is a member of the Labor party. (Incidentally, all the current polls predict that the Labor party will not cross the electoral threshold when the country next goes to the polls.)

These findings left Kariv in hot water. Responding to the allegations, he declared, “The last thing I would do is harm national security. The Knesset speaker called for this probe for political reasons. He is harming the ability of the Knesset members to function, as well as their immunity and the country’s free press.”

The Knesset’s Inefficacy

Here is another story from the Knesset, which illustrates the Israeli parliament’s toothlessness. Sadly, there are some scourges that the Knesset seems powerless to affect.

A little more than three years ago, in November 2020, the Knesset Interior Committee met to discuss the problem of the police force’s selective enforcement of the corona regulations, such as the requirement to wear masks in public or the ban on large gatherings. The police were accused of enforcing the laws to a much greater degree when the violators were chareidim. The committee also discussed the conduct of the police in their encounters with chareidi youths suffering from mental disabilities. This was prompted by a notorious incident in Bnei Brak, when a youth was viciously beaten by the police while the onlookers shouted at them that he was not well and they should leave him alone. This was one of several such incidents that occurred at the time, making it an urgent issue.

Health Minister Uriel Bosso, who was a member of the Knesset and chairman of the Health Committee at the time, said during the committee session, “It is distressing that we must call one session after another to discuss the conduct of the police. If we are not successful here, there will be more conflict. In the videos that I presented to the committee, we see wild behavior and loss of restraint against helpless minors. These children might have been unruly, but they couldn’t have harmed anyone. There is a basic lack of understanding among the police officers regarding the people they are dealing with. Yanky Rosenberg was beaten by the police until he was bleeding heavily, while people shouted at them that he was severely autistic. That case was closed in the Department of Internal Police Investigations, and a police officer even asked for it to be closed not for lack of evidence but for lack of guilt.”

MK Said Alcharoumi, who has since passed away, commented, “I will never forget the image of a chareidi youth being beaten until he was bloodied while screaming for his mother. The police continued beating him while the people around them tried to tell them that he was disabled.”

MK Miki Chaimovich, who was chairing the committee at the time, was vehement. “I feel the anguish and I understand the frustration,” she said. “There are always two sides to every story. We recognize that there are many police officers who come to work with a sense of mission, but our job is to make improvements.” Chaimovich also sharply criticized Superintendent Ilan Peretz, who was representing the police force. “Does the police recognize the severity of its actions against the chareidi community?” she demanded. When Peretz hesitated before responding, she asked, “What is wrong with admitting that there is a problem?”

Peretz was willing only to concede, “We know that certain populations feel that there is something amiss, but it is not a problem for the police.”

At the end of the session, the committee instructed the police force to submit a written report within one week about the conclusions to be drawn and the disciplinary measures that would be taken regarding the 165 incidents that Peretz had identified for the committee. The police were also ordered to submit another report within a month about the training programs that would be developed to prepare officers for dealing with individuals with special needs or mental deficiencies. At Bosso’s request, the committee also asked the police to consider opening a division staffed by chareidi officers who would teach the police force about the characteristics of chareidi society. What has happened since that time? The answer, as you may have guessed, is nothing!

Israeli Consul Coming to Manhattan

Israel has an ambassador to America who is located in Washington, as well as an ambassador to the United Nations, who is situated in New York. There are also five Israeli consulates in America: in Atlanta, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York. The Israeli consul in New York works in a luxurious office in Manhattan and lives in a government-sponsored luxury apartment. It is a coveted job that is generally gifted to a politician to curry favor with his party, as a consolation prize for a politician on the verge of retirement, or to appease someone who failed to receive a ministerial portfolio that he desired.

I won’t bore you with too many details, but these are the names of a few of Israel’s previous consuls in New York, all of whom have some connection to politics: Dani Dayan, Uri Savir, Shmuel Siso, Alon Pinkas, and Assi Shariv. All of the consuls had some connection to the prime minister who was in office at the time of their appointments. There was one exception: Naftoli Lavie, the brother of Rav Yisroel Meir Lau, although he was a close associate of Moshe Dayan. The last consul to serve in New York was Assaf Zamir, a member of Yesh Atid who received the posting as a gift from Yair Lapid, the foreign minister at the time. Zamir was forced to step down when the government changed hands.

This week, it was reported that the next Israeli consul in New York will be Ofir Akunis, who is currently serving as the Minister of Science in the government but prefers the glamorous position in New York. One of the purposes of this move is to reduce the size of the current bloated government; the Science Ministry is due to be taken over by a current minister, which will prevent the government from having to hire another minister. Akunis was offered various other positions in the United States, but since it is unclear whether those positions will actually become vacant, it is most likely that he will be coming to New York to take the place of Assaf Zamir, who hasn’t yet been replaced.

I don’t think the move will affect your life in any significant way. The only person whose life will be changed by this move is Akunis.

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