Monday, May 27, 2024

My Take on the News

 

A Somber Day

It has been a difficult week here in Israel. This week began with Yom Hazikaron, the day of remembrance for fallen soldiers and victims of terror attacks, which was marked this Monday. It doesn’t take more than that to plunge the country into an atmosphere of despondence. The sight of hundreds of families making their way to military cemeteries to visit the graves of their loved ones would be disheartening in any year. This year, the mood was even more desolate, since so many names were added to the roster of fatalities: Since last Yom Hazikaron, another 834 Israeli civilians and 711 members of the security services (soldiers, police officers, and intelligence officers) have lost their lives.

In advance of Yom Hazikaron 5784/2024, the Ministry of Defense announced that the total number of soldiers who fell defending Israel from the year 1860 until today stands at 25,040. May Hashem avenge their blood! This figure includes the five IDF soldiers who were killed in battle in Gaza this weekend, as well as another soldier who was killed in a vehicular accident. Since last year’s Yom Hazikaron, 766 new fatalities have been added to the list of the fallen, as well as another 61 disabled veterans who passed away due to their injuries and were officially recognized over the course of the year as victims of Israel’s wars. The Iron Swords War has resulted in the deaths of 716 members of Israel’s security services, including 642 soldiers in the IDF, 39 members of community patrols, 68 police officers, and six Shin Bet agents. The circle of bereavement has expanded during this war to include 1294 bereaved parents, 248 widows, 520 orphans, and 2174 bereaved siblings, for a total of 4236 individuals who have lost immediate family members. It is sad to note that the number of fatalities was updated from 760 to 766 just two days after a similar tally was publicized. Unfortunately, this country has been counting its dead every day; may Hashem protect us.

Almost every day brings fresh grief and pain. Just this past Friday, four soldiers of the Nachal Brigade were killed and three others were wounded during operational activities in the neighborhood of Zeitoun in Gaza City. The incident began at 8:30 a.m. when a group of soldiers from the 931st Battalion were canvassing several buildings in the neighborhood. Explosives were detonated when the soldiers entered an alleyway, and a building that they entered was apparently booby-trapped as well. There were at least two explosions, and IDF medics hurried to treat the wounded soldiers; they were evacuated under fire, and the injured soldiers were taken to Soroka Hospital in Beer Sheva. On Sunday, the IDF reported the death of yet another soldier in the area.

The media, both print and electronic, dedicated its coverage on Yom Hazikaron to the fallen soldiers and terror victims of this year and in previous years. Of course, this added to the mournful atmosphere that pervaded the country. To make matters worse, the security situation is extremely challenging, and rocket fire has continued unabated. Last weekend, rockets from the north ignited a series of massive wildfires; houses were destroyed, and a number of people were injured as well. For all these reasons, not to mention the hundreds of new widows and orphans plunged into mourning this year, this country is in a state of deep sorrow.

Dozens of Hostages Were Murdered in Captivity

The plight of the hostages in Gaza likewise continues to fill all of us with sadness. To make matters worse, Hamas is continuing is campaign of torment, seemingly with encouragement from the United States. The terms of the most recent proposal for a hostage deal haven’t been made clear, but Hamas is still “considering” it. In the meantime, the terror group has been occasionally posting videos of hostages begging for their freedom, which creates psychological pressure not only on the government but on the entire country.

After releasing a number of videos that played with the emotions of the citizens of Israel, this week Hamas posted yet another video, this time featuring Nadav Popplewell, a 51-year-old man who was taken captive from Kibbutz Nirim on October 7. The video shows Popplewell with a bruise on his face, but nothing in the video gives any indication of when it was taken. Popplewell’s mother, Chana Peri, was likewise abducted to Gaza on October 7 and was released in the first round of prisoner exchanges after 49 days in captivity. His brother, Roi Popplewell, was murdered in the massacre. The Forum of Hostages’ Families announced in response to the video, “Every sign of life that arrives from the hostages in captivity is another cry for help directed at the government of Israel and its leaders. We do not have a moment to waste. You must work to implement a deal that will bring them all back today—the living for rehabilitation and the dead for burial.”

There is a reason that their statement mentions both the living and the dead. No one has the slightest doubt that many of the hostages have been murdered. During the barbaric terror attack on October 7, a total of 252 Israeli civilians and soldiers were taken hostage by Hamas, including children, babies, and the elderly. Out of that group, 112 hostages have thus far been returned to Israel in a series of prisoner exchanges. It is also known with certainty that fifty of the hostages were murdered. Twelve of their bodies have been retrieved, which means that Hamas is still in possession of dozens of other bodies. It is believed that there are 132 hostages still alive; however, Hamas claims that the number of living hostages is much lower, and they have therefore refused to return several dozen living captives. There is significant reason to believe that Nadav Popplewell is no longer alive. And this is yet another reason for the somber mood in Israel this week.

Seven families have already been told by the IDF spokesman that they could sit shiva for loved ones who were taken to Gaza and whose deaths had been confirmed. These people were either killed in captivity or murdered on October 7, whereupon their bodies were abducted by Hamas. On December 12, 2023, a special military operation was conducted to retrieve the bodies of Eden Zechariah and Ziv David. This operation resulted in the deaths of two IDF soldiers. During that ground operation, the IDF continued extracting the bodies of other hostages who were killed in Hamas captivity, including a civilian named Aryeh Toledano and two soldiers, Nick Beiser and Ron Sherman. On April 6, 2024, IDF forces and the Shin Bet retrieved the body of Elad Katzir, who was taken captive from his home in Kibbutz Nir Oz and was murdered in captivity in January 2024. There are also a number of people who were missing and presumed to be in captivity until their remains were identified within Israel, including Vivian Silver of Kibbutz Beeri, Shani Gabay, and, in the most recent discovery, Elyakim Libman. Elyakim had been listed as a hostage until just a week ago, and his father has been one of the leading spokespeople among the hostages’ families. His remains were identified in the Reim forest seven months after the massacre, and the army discovered that he had been inadvertently buried in the grave of another victim. The Libman family is currently sitting shiva near Meoras Hamachpeilah.

Yom Haatzmaut Celebrations Toned Down

Yom Hazikaron gives way immediately to Yom Haatzmaut, the day when Israel celebrates its independence. I have never understood why the government chose to hold the memorial ceremonies of Yom Hazikaron and the festivities of Yom Haatzmaut on consecutive days. On Monday evening, Yom Hazikaron drew to a close and the celebrations began. The chareidi community does not identify with these festivities.

This year, due to the war and the hostages still being held in Gaza, the Yom Haatzmaut celebrations were held on a limited scale. In general, every city in Israel organizes a municipal event in honor of the occasion, complete with fireworks and performances by high-profile singers. This year, however, those events barely took place at all, and there was very little joy in the streets.

The Central Bureau of Statistics releases new information every year concerning the Jewish population of Israel and the Jewish community in the Diaspora. This year, the bureau reported in advance of Yom Haatzmaut that the population of Israel stands at about 9.9 million people, of which 7,247,000 individuals, or 73.2 percent of the population, are Jewish. The country is also home to 2,089,000 Arabs, who make up 21.1 percent of the populace, and 564,000 non-Arab Christians or religiously unaffiliated individuals, who make up 5.7 percent of the population. Of course, this number includes a large number of non-Jews from the former Soviet Union whom the government brought to Israel, mainly to offset the growing chareidi vote. To date, over 3.4 million people have immigrated to Israel, about half of whom have been brought here since the year 1990.

Israel’s population is expected to exceed 10 million at this time next year. In the year 2030, the population is expected to stand at 11.1 million, and in the year 2040, the statisticians predict that there will be 13.2 million citizens. The Central Bureau of Statistics also projects that on the 100th anniversary of the founding of the state, in the year 2048, the population of Israel will number 15.2 million people. Another interesting fact is that the Israeli population has increased by 189,000 people, or 1.9 percent, since Yom Haatzmaut last year. During this time, about 196,000 babies were born, about 37,000 new immigrants came to the country, and approximately 60,000 people passed away.

The bureau also reported that at the end of the year 2022, about 45 percent of the world’s Jewish population lived in Israel, and four out of every five Israel residents had been born in the country. The data also seems to indicate that the Israeli populace is relatively young. About 30 percent of the Jews of Israel are below the age of 14, and about 12 percent of the population is over the age of 65. Finally, they noted that the total population of Israel in the year 1948 was about 806,000, which means that the country’s population has grown to over twelve times its size at the time of the founding of the state.

The World Is Against Us

This week, as Israel celebrates its independence, it is impossible to ignore the country’s growing political isolation. We are all keenly aware of the steady Islamification of Europe. It is frightening, it is dangerous, and it makes for a very challenging situation. Some of the political leaders in Europe have been swept into the atmosphere of hostility against Israel fomented by the Palestinians; they do not realize that the day will come when the tide of hatred will turn against them as well. There are already two Muslim mayors in England, and the king of Denmark was seen waving to a pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli crowd this week. He will undoubtedly learn the meaning of a Palestinian uprising one day….

Meanwhile, President Biden has been threatening Israel with an arms embargo. He might have been surprised by the resultant attacks upon him from senators, congressmen, and, of course, pro-Israel journalists, but we were even more surprised by his actions. No one realized the depths of Biden’s antipathy to Israel until that moment. The latest news is that the American government has offered Israel a trade of sorts: If the IDF does not enter Rafah, they will reveal the location of Yahya Sinwar’s hiding place. I ask you: Is this the way a friend behaves?

Then there is the United Nations. No one ever doubted that the UN harbored antipathy to Israel, but the organization somehow always manages to reach new lows. The latest UN resolution pledges to give the Palestinians a level of recognition (and authority) almost on a par with a state. This resolution received the votes of 143 countries, with only nine voting against it. The opposing countries, aside from Israel, were the United States, Argentina, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, and Papua New Guinea. Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Gilad Erdan, appeared at the podium in the UN General Assembly holding a picture of Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar, which bore the legend “President Sinwar, president of the Hamas terror state.” In his speech, Erdan said, “Today we are advancing a Palestinian terror state to be led by the Hitler of our times. What would Churchill have said if he were alive today? What would Roosevelt have thought? They must be turning over in their graves.”

Foreign Minister Yisroel Katz condemned the UN resolution to upgrade the Palestinians’ status as a “twisted process.” He said, “The political theater known as the United Nations has made an artificial decision that rewards Hamas terrorists and harms the negotiations for the release of the hostages. The absurd decision that was made today exposes the structural bias of the institution of the United Nations and the reasons that the UN, under the leadership of Secretary-General Guterres, has made itself an irrelevant body. The message that the UN is sending to our suffering region is that violence pays.”

And Israel is also not yet finished dealing with the International Court of Justice in the Hague, as additional countries have petitioned the Hague to apply the status of war criminals to the leaders of Israel’s government.

These are the “birthday gifts” received by Israel on the 76th anniversary of its founding, while the government busies itself with its battle against the yeshiva world.

The Biggest Problem of All

The biggest problem of all, of course, is the deadlock over the draft law. The State of Israel was first founded 76 years ago, and the draft of yeshiva bochurim has always been a major issue, but it has always been pushed down the road. Time after time, the Supreme Court has brought pressure to bear on the government to resolve the issue once and for all, and we seem to have found ourselves now in one of the most difficult periods of this crisis. As I am sure you are aware, the court’s most recent decision was that in the absence of a law permitting yeshiva bochurim to defer the draft, their presence in yeshivos is considered illegal and the government is not permitted to provide funding for them. This was probably the agitators’ goal all along: to create more hardships for the country’s Torah learners and to tighten the noose around their necks. If this situation ends with only a loss of government funding, then we may all breathe a sigh of relief. But it is still unclear if the challenge will end there.

Prime Minister Netanyahu is very eager to pass a new law providing draft deferrals for yeshiva bochurim, but he is facing stiff opposition not only from some of his coalition partners from outside his party, such as Gantz and Eizenkot, but also from some of the members of the Likud party. The leader of the opposition within the Likud is Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, and Netanyahu cannot make any progress toward a new law without Gallant’s support, since any such law must come to the Knesset from the Ministry of Defense. Without Gallant’s cooperation, no bill on this subject will reach the Knesset.

This Wednesday, the cabinet was supposed to meet to approve a new draft law formulated by Cabinet Secretary Yossi Fuchs. Upon hearing that news, Benny Gantz launched an attack on Netanyahu before he was even aware of the details of the bill, warning the prime minister against passing a law that would “harm the security of the state and Israeli resilience.” Gantz didn’t mince words: “Let’s reach an agreement together that will create a true solution, not an exemption that will harm the army and society. It must be a law be based on equality that calls for everyone to serve, even if not in the army. It is unacceptable to pass a law based on some shady agreement, without teeth or a real possibility for enforcement, that does not bring about true change.

“Proposing this law would be a mistake at any time,” Gantz continued. “Bringing it to a vote as you are planning, 48 hours after we commemorate the heroism of our fallen, will severely harm Israeli society and its resilience. You must not fracture Israeli society during wartime for political reasons,” he warned the prime minister. “It isn’t too late to pass the outline that calls for mandatory service.”

Yossi Fuchs fumed in response, “As the cabinet secretary, who is trusted with handling the draft bill, I was astonished to read this notice from a cabinet minister on the eve of Yom Hazikaron, in which he attacks the government for a draft law while exploiting Yom Hazikaron as a basis for his claims and casts unsubstantiated allegations about harm to the state.” In other words, Gantz was attacking a bill whose details he didn’t even know!

What Is the Government Really Planning?

What is the actual plan that the cabinet secretary, acting on behalf of the prime minister, is promoting?

At this point, it should be obvious that it is almost impossible for anyone to come up with a draft law that will satisfy all the gedolei Torah, while also passing muster in the Supreme Court. If the gedolei Yisroel are satisfied, the judges will be displeased, and vice versa. At this point, the chilonim are focused largely on bochurim who are not actually in yeshiva. Many secular proponents of the draft will be satisfied if they manage to conscript hundreds of bochurim who are not learning, but many gedolei Torah are opposed to any bochurim joining the army, even those who aren’t exactly bnei yeshivos.

Yossi Fuchs remarked in recent discussions with government ministers that it will take a decade to reach the goal for the chareidi draft that has been proposed by the government. It is estimated that there are approximately 13,000 new candidates for the draft every year in the chareidi community, at least half of whom are not actually learning in yeshiva. According to these calculations, the final goal—which Fuchs believes will take a decade to reach—is for 6,000 to 7,000 bochurim to be drafted every year. These figures are merely estimates, and at the time of this writing, it isn’t yet clear what the final target numbers will be.

On Thursday of this week, the government is scheduled to deliver an affidavit to the Supreme Court (after receiving two extensions) in which it will lay out the details of the new proposed draft law. It is very likely that the law will be brought to the cabinet for its approval on Wednesday, even before the document is filed with the court, so that the judges will see that serious steps are being taken toward resolving the issue. At this point, the state is being represented in the Supreme Court by a private attorney rather than the attorney general, which is another sign of the absurdity of this situation.

The details of the law haven’t yet been revealed to the ministers in the cabinet, but it is very likely that it will uphold the basic tenet that every bochur has the right to choose to learn Torah rather than serving in the army. This means that any bochur who is learning in yeshiva will be immune to the draft, a position on which the chareidim will never compromise. The draft quotas will therefore be based on the number of yeshiva bochurim who aren’t actually learning in yeshiva at this time (even though, as mentioned above, many gedolei Torah feel that there is no justification for sending even those bochurim to the army). This was one of the basic demands of the chareidi parties.

The chareidi political leadership had another demand: for the draft quotas to be determined by a government decision rather than being specified in the law. The purpose of this measure is to make it possible to change the target numbers. This aroused the ire of the bill’s opponents, who pointed to the demand as evidence that the entire law would be a sham and that the chareidim are simply trying to avoid meeting the quotas. At the same time, the new law is expected to include economic sanctions for avoiding the draft; the only question is whether those sanctions will be imposed on individuals or on yeshivos. At this time, the defense minister is not involved in formulating the law, which will be submitted by the Prime Minister’s Office. If Defense Minister Gallant does not support the law—and he is insisting that he will not advance any bill that doesn’t meet Benny Gantz’s approval—then it is likely to run into opposition from the attorney general, who is already displeased with its terms. As usual, the key to its success is in the hands of the justices of the Supreme Court. Netanyahu is hoping that the law will meet the judges’ approval and that he will succeed in passing it in the Knesset even without the assistance of the National Unity Party and Benny Gantz.

A Call for Tefillos for Nehorai ben Margalit

Last Friday, I observed a charming young boy making his way through the parking lot at Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital toward the Davidson building, accompanied by his father. The child’s hairless scalp made it very clear to me that he was a patient in the oncology department, and it didn’t take much imagination for me to envision the arduous ordeal that this child is living through—and his parents as well! I looked at the father and son, and then it hit me: I had hosted the father in the Knesset twelve years ago, when he was a young man who had been severely injured in a terror attack in Yerushalayim while visiting the city from Netivot to be tested for admission to a yeshiva. We were introduced to each other by another bochur from Netivot, the son of Rav Mordechai Keller, when I visited the facility where he was being treated. A few days later, I invited both young men to the Knesset, and he enjoyed every moment of his visit. He asked to have his picture taken together with the prime minister, and he received his wish.

When I encountered him on erev Shabbos, I hurried to greet him, and we were both excited by the reunion. I expressed my hope that he would manage to return to his home in Beit Shemesh in time for Shabbos. The problem is that chemotherapy treatments are a time-consuming process; there are blood tests, followed by a wait for results, and then the patient must be hooked up to an intravenous line for the drugs to be administered. A hospital runs on its own schedule, without concern for the demands on anyone’s time. But this young father knew that there was good reason for optimism: He was walking on his own, even though the doctors had pronounced that outcome impossible after the terror attack that injured him. His son, meanwhile, is fighting a fierce battle against an illness that threatens his life. A pang of emotion ran through me at the sight of these two heroes.

Later that day, I contacted some friends in Netivot who reminded me that the father’s last name was Elmaliach. At that point, I remembered that his first name was Shiloh. I managed to track down the phone number of his father, Rav Uri Elmaliach, a prominent ben Torah in Netivot who once learned in Yeshivas Sheeris Yosef. When I reached him and introduced myself, he revealed that he had learned with my brother-in-law, Rav Wohlman, and that his wife had been my father’s student in the Beer Yaakov Seminary. “Your father was a father figure to all the girls in the school,” he said. “I used to spend Yom Kippur in the yeshiva every year, and I visited your father’s kever every time.” Shiloh, the young man who was injured in the terror attack, later told me that he had joined his father in the yeshiva on Yom Kippur and on his visits to the cemetery.

“Do you have a story to tell us about Rav Nissim Toledano?” I asked Rav Uri.

“I could easily speak about him for hours on end,” he replied. “I could tell you about his ameilus over the Torah, which was absolutely unparalleled. Whenever we approached him with questions, he would be concentrating so intently on his learning that it would sometimes take him a full hour to notice us standing beside him. He learned in our bais medrash for three sedorim a day, from nine o’clock in the morning until eleven o’clock at night. He used to go home every night at twelve.”,

I mentioned that I had met his son Shiloh and his grandson Nehorai, and Rav Uri heaved a sigh. “They are going through a difficult time,” he said.

“I remember that I once hosted Shiloh in the Knesset,” I added.

Rav Uri grew enthusiastic. “Now I remember where I met you!” he exclaimed. “You work in the Knesset. How could I forget? You even remained in contact with us afterward.”

“Has Shiloh recovered completely from his injuries?” I asked.

Boruch Hashem, it was a miracle,” Rav Uri replied. “In fact, Rav Nissim’s grandson was one of Hashem’s emissaries who helped us at that time. I am sure that you are acquainted with Yehuda Elkayam, who went through a similar ordeal. He met Shiloh and me at Tel Hashomer, and he said to us, ‘You must go to America.’ He even introduced us to a wonderful man named Sam Waldman, who helped us through the process.”

“How did you happen to meet up with him at Tel Hashomer?” I asked.

“That is another story of hashgocha pratis,” he replied. “I was there with Shiloh, and Rav Nissim was on dialysis there. When he heard Shiloh’s story and he was told that the doctors were predicting that he would never walk again, he said to me, ‘Call Yudele and tell him that his grandfather wants him to come here right away.’”

Shiloh’s medical journey could easily be the subject of a fascinating book. The American medical center where he sought treatment assessed the cost of his surgeries at two million dollars, and the State of Israel refused to help cover the cost. It was apparently an unprecedented situation. The family was hindered further by the doctors’ belief that the treatment did not stand a chance of succeeding. In the end, a special law was passed for Shiloh’s benefit. Credit must be given to Moshe Kahlon, the finance minister at the time, who provided his assistance as well.

“Yudele guided us closely,” Rav Uri recalled. “The doctors told us that it was more likely for hair to grow on the palms of their hands than for Shiloh to be able to walk again. Rav Firer was the only one who advised us to go to America. I asked Rav Chaim Kanievsky what I should do, and he asked me what Rav Fierer had said. I told them that he was in favor of our traveling to America, and Rav Chaim said, ‘In that case, do it.’ I told him that I didn’t even have a cent to name, and he replied, ‘Take the trip, and you will see miracles. Your son will run on his own feet. He went to Yerushalayim to be tested for yeshiva, he made a kiddush Hashem, and he will have a yeshuah.’ Rav Chaim told me to pay no attention to the grim predictions of the doctors or the Ministry of Defense. We left Israel right after Pesach, on Mimouna, twelve years ago. I had 15,000 dollars in my pocket, and that was all. Sure enough, we experienced great miracles, and Yudele was at our side throughout the process. We stayed in America for half a year, and Shiloh underwent seven operations. In the end, he was able to walk again.”

“What is the condition of your grandson Nehorai?” I asked.

“It’s a very trying situation. He is suffering through arduous treatments, and we are davening for him.” Let us all follow suit and daven for Nehorai ben Margalit….

Rav Uri gave me his son Shiloh’s telephone number, and he was the next person I called. It has been twelve years since the day I brought him to the Knesset, but I remembered that I had heard about him from time to time during the intervening years. He is a father of three children and runs a successful real estate office in Yerushalayim.

“Did Nehorai appreciate the pen that I gave him?” I asked after identifying myself on the phone.

Shiloh laughed. “He likes it very much,” he replied, “but the interesting thing is that I received an identical pen from you twelve years ago.”

Shiloh gave me a brief overview of his son’s medical condition, and I found myself trembling at the story. There is no question that Nehorai and his parents are true heroes. The young boy spends almost every day in the hospital. On erev Pesach, he was discharged at 11:00 in the morning. Who can imagine entering Pesach in that way, with no time to clean or shop for Yom Tov? They headed home and threw themselves directly into bedikas chometz, the burning of the chometz, and then the Seder. The family was completely exhausted, and it was impossible for them even to accept offers of hospitality, since Nehorai’s weakened immune system forces him to avoid contact with others. “But what do you want to write about?” Shiloh asked me. “What is the story here?”

“Next week is Yom Haatzmaut,” I replied, “and I want to write that if anyone should be lighting a torch on Mount Herzl, it is Nehorai.”

Shiloh laughed again. “You are right,” he said. “This child is a true hero. But let’s be more to the point. Please ask your readers to daven for my son, Nehorai ben Margalit.”

The Sharp Mind of Yerushalayim Children

Let me conclude with a brief anecdote that illustrates the sharp wit of the children of Yerushalayim. This Shabbos, a group of children visited their grandfather, who always tells jokes and asks interesting questions about the weekly parshah. Above all, he excels at distributing candies, as if he is covertly in cahoots with their dentists. When the children arrived, he began his routine with a joke relevant to sefiras ha’omer: A yeshiva bochur once asked his friend what was on the menu for lunch that day. “Yesterday was schnitzel,” the friend replied. For days already, this bochur had noticed that everyone whom he asked about the day’s count responded by citing the previous day’s number, and he decided to follow their example in his own way….

The conversation then took a more serious turn: If a person verbalizes the day’s count at night, before he has formally counted the omer, he is no longer permitted to recite the brocha, since he may have already fulfilled his obligation. But what if he merely thinks the number of the day but does not say it aloud? Is he permitted to recite the brocha in that case?

Little Shifra Gila was sure that she had an answer to this question. “Zeide,” she said, “it’s obvious that he is still allowed to say the brocha! After all, everybody thinks about the number of the day before counting sefirah. Otherwise, they wouldn’t know how many days to count!”

Her brother Binyomin Yedidiah, however, is also a sharp-witted Yerushalmi, and he was quick to refute her argument. “Maybe they think about the number of the day before,” he pointed out sagely.

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