The Summer Has Arrived
Each of the past two weeks has revolved around a major theme of its own, although there is a world of difference between them. Two weeks ago, the State of Israel was focused entirely on President Donald Trump’s visit. Last week, in contrast, was the week of Mattan Torah. And this week has marked the beginning of the political and diplomatic summer.
On Motzoei Shabbos, Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu set out on a trip to Libera. An economic conference was being held in its capital, Monrovia, where Netanyahu was to meet with heads of state from western Africa. He considered this to be a diplomatic accomplishment. Meanwhile, as you know, President Trump has signed an order allowing a six-month delay before he carries out the legal requirement to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Yerushalayim.
And then there is John McCain. I am amazed at the way he spoke out publicly against Putin. I have liked McCain ever since I attended a Shuvu dinner in Washington where he was one of the keynote speakers. At the time, I was pleasantly surprised by his affable personality.
In other news, we have been enduring our usual troubles. A sixteen-year-old Arab girl recently tried – almost successfully – to stab an Israeli soldier, while the Arab students in a school in East Yerushalayim were found to be carrying a veritable arsenal of weapons, including Molotov cocktails, in their backpacks. Meanwhile, President Trump yelled at Abu Mazen for inciting terror. But all of that pales in contrast to the recent terrorist acts in Europe. Eighty people were killed when a truck bomb exploded in Kabul, Afghanistan, and there has been another terror attack in the heart of London. The world is simply becoming insane.
The Usual Domestic Problems
Of course, we are still contending with the issues of Reform prayer at the Kosel and Shabbos in Tel Aviv. Both of these cases are under discussion in the Supreme Court, and we are working to minimize the damage they will cause. Last Thursday, the leaders of the chareidi parties met with the prime minister to advance a law to protect Shabbos. We are also working hard on the issue of the Kosel, although the clock is ticking against us.
Recently, our country has also suffered from a rash of car accidents. In the month of May, 31 people were killed in traffic accidents, most of which resulted from irresponsible driving and could have been avoided. Thirty-one people! That is a tremendous amount of bereavement, and tremendous grief for the widows and orphans. And then there are the dozens of other people who were injured and will suffer for years as a result. It is a dreadful phenomenon.
Prime Minister Netanyahu now has two domestic problems to grapple with. The first issue is the subject of construction in Yehuda and the Shomron. Shlomo Neeman, the head of the Gush Etzion Regional Council, asked the ministers of the government not to attend a ceremony in Gush Etzion marking the fiftieth anniversary of the liberation of Yehuda and the Shomron. The reason: He maintains that as long as the government will not permit construction in the area, it has no reason to celebrate. Netanyahu, for his part, responded that his government has authorized more building than any of its predecessors and that he is simply going about it in a prudent way.
There has also been a controversy regarding who will be the next president of the Supreme Court. The current chief justice, Miriam Naor, will be stepping down soon, and according to the rules of the Supreme Court, she should be succeeded in her position by the judge with the most seniority. That means that the position should be given to Judge Esther Chayut, who isn’t exactly favored by the government. Various other suggestions have been made. Some have proposed that the chief justice should be chosen by the Judicial Appointments Committee, rather than on the basis of seniority, while others have suggested that the Knesset should elect the next chief justice. Naor herself has already begun speaking out on the subject and threatening the Minister of Justice. In short, the situation is a mess.
Another problem is the current police investigation into Aryeh Deri. Deri and his wife were summoned to questioning together last week, and then again on Monday. It is an incredible story, which I should really discuss at greater length. I will do that soon, bli neder.
Echoes of Trump’s Visit
You may have already forgotten your president’s visit to Israel, but in this country, it has not faded from the public consciousness at all. Because of an unpleasant episode at the reception for Trump at Ben Gurion Airport, it was decided that there would be no more receptions where hundreds of officials could shake the hand of the visiting president. And there was another revelation as well: The reason that Trump spoke at the Israel Museum, rather than in the Knesset plenum – as his predecessors from America did, and as other visiting heads of state have done as well – is that the Knesset speaker, Yuli Edelstein, told the organizers of Trump’s visit that he couldn’t guarantee that the Knesset members wouldn’t shout and interrupt his speech.
When I think about the speeches delivered by Trump, Netanyahu, and President Rivlin, I find myself cringing. It was unpleasant, even embarrassing, to hear the way Rivlin and Netanyahu welcomed Donald Trump to Israel. “G-d bless America,” our prime minister declared, “and may He bless Israel as well.” Rivlin went further: “G-d bless America, G-d bless Israel, and G-d bless the president,” he proclaimed. With Trump sitting beside them, they suddenly remembered G-d. Evidently, they and their speechwriters understood that it would be a disgrace if they failed to utter the words “G-d bless America.” But it is sad that Rivlin and Netanyahu needed Trump to remind them about Hashem. May Hashem protect and bless them and us.
Like everyone else, I was moved by Trump’s visit to the Kosel, by the sight of the American president standing reverently before the last remnant of our Bais Hamikdosh, as his daughter prayed tearfully in the ezras noshim.
Donald Trump has become the epitome of unpredictability and a master of startling reversals. First, there was his meteoric rise to the highest office in the American government. He was regularly mocked and attacked, yet he managed to achieve the impossible and rise directly to the top of the political ladder. And then there is his relationship with Israel. There had been high hopes that he would come here on a symbolic visit, and when he decided to come on a working trip instead, there were great concerns as to what he would say. The political right was exhilarated after his election, thrilled by the statements he had made during his campaign, but their joy turned to dread in light of his comments after the election. As I said, his career has been marked by reversals.
American Presidential Visits in Israeli History
In 1979, President Gerald Ford visited Israel. This visit took place after he lost the election to Jimmy Carter. During his presidency, Ford did not visit Israel; nevertheless, our relations with him did not suffer as a result. The senior George Bush also visited Israel only as a senator; he did not set foot in Yerushalayim during his time as president of the United States. Nor did Kennedy come here as the president, although he did visit Israel (or, to be more precise, Palestine) as a student in 1939. In short, a president’s visits to Israel are not an indication of his friendship. The fact that Trump visited Israel at the very beginning of his presidency does not mean anything, just as Barack Obama’s visits to Israel are not a measure of his friendship.
Ronald Reagan did not visit Israel at all. As I mentioned, his successor, the senior George Bush, also did not visit our country during his presidency. Nor did Lyndon Johnson visit Israel, even though he is considered the president with the closest ties to Israel throughout the past 50 years. Eisenhower and Truman also did not visit our country. On the other hand, we did receive a visit from Jimmy Carter, who was considered one of the worst of American presidents. That took place in 1979, when he came to pressure Menachem Begin to make progress on the diplomatic front. Here in Israel, many people expected Carter to be a friendly president, mainly because he is a religious Christian. But those people were soon disappointed. And Carter had similar sentiments about us; you can simply read what he wrote about Israel and Menachem Begin in his books. In recent years, Carter has been active on behalf of the Arabs, until he became ill.
The presidents of America have been visiting Israel in recent years, a practice that began with Richard Nixon in 1974. Nixon was in the middle of his own personal crisis at the time; he was under attack by the media, his approval levels were sinking, and he was mired in criminal investigations. He was forced to resign from office shortly after he returned to America. Some suggest that his visit to Israel was intended as a distraction from his domestic troubles. And some believe that Trump’s recent visit to the Middle East should be viewed in the same light.
Bill Clinton set a record by visiting Israel four times during his presidency, although one of those visits was only for a few hours, for the funeral of Yitzchok Rabin. He attended the funeral of Shimon Peres as well, albeit as a former president, appearing alongside then-President Barack Obama. The younger George Bush visited Israel twice during his presidency; the second visit was in honor of the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the state. Bush also came to Israel as a senator and announced that he would one day become the president. At the time, there were those who ridiculed his prediction.
Here is another interesting fact: Yitzchok Rabin and Binyomin Netanyahu hold the record for hosting American presidents on their visits to Israel. Rabin hosted Nixon on his visit during his first term as prime minister, as well as Bill Clinton, who grew very fond of Rabin, during his second term. Netanyahu played the role of host to Clinton, Obama, and now Trump. The common denominator between Rabin and Netanyahu is the fact that both of them served the State of Israel in an official capacity in America: The former served as the Israeli ambassador to Washington, while the latter was the ambassador to the UN.
The bottom line, though, is that presidential visits to Israel have no bearing at all on the practical results of the relationships.
Yesh Atid Has Something to Hide
The reality of a situation is often far removed from the way things seem, as is evident from the experiences of the chareidi community in Israel. In the public opinion surveys that are publicized in Israel from time to time, the respondents generally express negative opinions about us, the chareidi community. Why is that? There isn’t actually a good reason for it. Either the respondents are not telling the truth or the pollsters are fudging their results. Either way, the polls do not reflect the reality. I have no doubt of that.
I am mentioning this in light of the political surveys that were recently conducted. The Yesh Atid party, which is considered an anti-religious party, previously rose in the polls to the point that it was almost equal in popularity to the Likud party, but I didn’t believe that the results of the surveys were true. Even now, with the polls showing that Yesh Atid is losing popularity, I still do not believe them. But that is because I never believed that Yesh Atid had garnered the amount of support they claimed.
In any event, Yair Lapid’s party projects an image of integrity, but the facts show that that image is hardly justified. The party was recently fined 40,000 shekels by the Ministry of Justice for requesting and receiving information on Holocaust survivors, which it used for propaganda purposes during the election campaign for the Twentieth Knesset. The information was used by the party to compile a list of Holocaust survivors’ addresses, and the survivors soon received promotional mailings from Yesh Atid with the claim that the party was their only source of help in the Knesset. Now, the problem wasn’t that Yesh Atid lied to the voters; all the parties lie. Rather, the problem was that they took the information from the National Registry. Yesh Atid was fined 25,000 shekels for its invasion of the privacy of the Holocaust survivors, as well as an additional 15,000 shekels for sending direct mailings to their homes.
This leads directly to our next story. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz and its writer Chaim Levinson recently wrote to the director-general of Yesh Atid to ask for information about the party. Levinson informed Yesh Atid that he was working on an article about the financial management of Israel’s political parties, and he asked for the party’s financial statements for the years 2014, 2015 and 2016, as well as a list of the 20 highest-paid officials in the party, along with their annual salaries and their functions. In addition, he asked for a list of the party’s dealings with external entities for the years 2015 and 2016. Although political parties are generally not subject to the Freedom of Information Law, Levinson stressed that the Supreme Court has ruled that an important entity should release information of this nature even if it is not subject to that law.
Yesh Atid’s response was a thunderous silence. The Likud party likewise turned down Levinson’s request for information. Haaretz and Levinson petitioned the Tel Aviv District Court to force the parties to release the information he requested, or at least to divulge some of the details. The court’s eventual ruling is not all that important; the mere fact that the request was refused is of much greater significance. Evidently, Yesh Atid has some secrets that it does not wish to reveal…
Four Questions for Dovid Azulai
The Knesset has resumed its work, and this past Monday, the belittling attitude toward parliamentary queries continued. I have explained in the past that any member of the Knesset has the right to submit a query to a government minister, to which the minister is required to respond in the Knesset plenum. On Monday morning, Mrs. Amalia Rabinowitz, who oversees the parliamentary queries in the Knesset, announced that the Minister of Religious Affairs, Dovid Azulai, would be responding to four queries at the end of the day. One query was from the Arab MK Jamal Zahalka, titled “The Refusal of the Rabbonim to Allow Fir Trees in Hotels in Yerushalayim.” Another question, submitted by Nachman Shai, concerned the appointment of a municipal rov for Mevaseret Tzion. Then, of course, Elazar Stern had submitted two questions, titled “Community Rabbonim Who Live Outside the Community” and “A Municipal Rov Receiving a Full Salary for Half the Work.”
Elazar Stern is a perfect fit for the Yesh Atid party. A kippah-wearing former major general in the IDF, Stern is constantly on the offensive against the chareidi and dati-leumi communities. The titles of his questions should give you an idea of the type of things that interest him.
At the end of the day – and I emphasize the fact that it was late in the day, which is one of the reason for the questioners’ absence – only Nachman Shai was present in the plenum. Azulai waited until the evening for his turn to respond to the queries. If not for the presence of Nachman Shai, a former spokesperson for the IDF, he would have left the Knesset much earlier. Zahalka and Stern had evidently given notice in the morning that they would not be present in the evening. As a result, the chairman did not call their names and announce that their queries had been canceled. That is the fate of the queries submitted by other members of the Knesset who are not in the plenum when they are called.
In his query, Nachman Shai questioned why the city of Mevaseret requires another rov, for a total of five rabbonim in the city. Azulai answered, “For years, the city of Mevaseret Tzion has not had a municipal rov. There are three rabbonim of individual neighborhoods, and a fourth rov who is the director of the kashrus department of the religious council. The residents and the local government, though, have requested a rov to be officially appointed for the city as a whole.”
The Rosh Yeshiva’s Heartache
I would like to share a story about Rav Shmuel Yaakov Borenstein zt”l, whose shloshim is marked this week.
On 22 Menachem Av 5763, August 19, 2003, an Arab terrorist came to Yerushalayim and boarded the Number 2 bus, which was returning from the Kosel, in the Shmuel Hanovi neighborhood. The terrorist did not arouse anyone’s suspicions, despite his swarthy complexion and the evil look in his eyes. But he was a suicide bomber and a member of Hamas, and he succeeded in bringing upon us one of the worst tragedies ever to occur in Yerushalayim.
The terrorist blew himself up on an accordion bus packed with passengers returning from the Kosel. Twenty passengers were killed, many of them residents of Yerushalayim and Bnei Brak. One of the fatalities was a baby from New York. Yerushalayim was plunged into mourning.
The bus had departed from the Kosel at 8:36 p.m., heading toward Har Nof. It was occupied by many chareidi passengers, including families with small children. Many of the passengers were wounded. The explosion was so powerful that it damaged another bus traveling ahead of the Number 2 bus, as well as a private car behind it. The police investigation revealed that the terrorist had detonated a five-kilogram explosive packed with ball bearings, which greatly increased the injuries to the victims. The investigators believed that the terrorist boarded the bus at a bus stop on Rechov Shmuel Hanovi with his deadly explosives in a bag and that he detonated the bomb mere seconds later in the center of the bus. The police also believed that the terrorist had disguised himself in chareidi garb.
At that time, Rav Shmuel Yaakov Borenstein was the rosh yeshiva of Chevron Geulah. The yeshiva was founded by Rav Chaim Sarna in the year 5747 (1987). Rav Chaim had left his position in the Chevron Yeshiva in Givat Mordechai to open a new institution in the yeshiva’s former buildings on Rechov Yonah, in the neighborhood of Geulah. Rav Chaim asked Rav Shmuel Yaakov to serve as the rosh yeshiva alongside him, and Rav Shmuel Yaakov went on to hold that position for about 20 years, until he was asked to take the helm of Yeshivas Kiryas Melech in Bnei Brak. Chevron Geulah was only a ten-minute walk from the site of the bombing.
That year, as usual, Rav Shmuel Yaakov led the davening in the yeshiva on Rosh Hashanah. To the talmidim’s surprise, the rosh yeshiva was seen sitting on a chair whenever the bochurim sang during the davening. It was the first time in his life that he had done that; he had never sat during chazaras hashatz in previous years. Later in the day, he began to feel ill and was taken to the hospital, where the doctors discovered that he had suffered a heart attack. Now they understood why he had sat during the davening.
One of the bochurim who visited him in the hospital asked what he had been feeling before the heart attack, and if he had any idea what had caused it. Perhaps, he suggested, it had been the exertion of leading the davening. Rav Shmuel Yaakov, who was a living embodiment of the ideals of bein adam lachaveiro, replied, “For some reason, in the middle of the davening, I thought about all the people who were killed or injured in the bus bombing.” And those thoughts had overwhelmed his compassionate heart.
Learning While in Pain
I would like to conclude with a story told by Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein: “When I was a bochur, I learned in Yeshivas Slabodka with a young man named Avrohom Yitzchak Lanal. He had a profound intellect, he was a masmid, and he had extraordinary powers of comprehension. One day, his mother passed away, plunging him into mourning. When he came back from sitting shivah, he was brokenhearted. He sat and immersed himself in the sweet words of the Gemara, but he suddenly began weeping in the middle of our learning. Nevertheless, he did not want to stop learning. He also didn’t want to cause me to interrupt my own learning for his sake. He simply suppressed the maelstrom of emotions within him. Tears streamed from his eyes, and his voice grew hoarse. He read the Gemara in a tone choked with tears, and he struggled to keep going. I cried along with him, and I told him that I wished to speak about his mother and his turbulent feelings. I wanted to listen to him, rather than to continue learning. The young Avrohom Yitzchok replied that bittul Torah is forbidden, and we had to continue. With tremendous effort, he continued learning even as he choked on his tears. I made a mental note that this bochur was clearly destined for greatness.”
Indeed, Rav Lanal became a close talmid of the Brisker Rov and of Rav Yechezkel Abramsky, as well as a world-class talmid chochom, the rov of Rechovot, and a member of the Bais Din Hagadol.
“Another bochur who learned with us in Slabodka was an incredible masmid named Rav Chaim Kamiel,” Rav Zilberstein continued. “One day, he arrived in the yeshiva with a large towel wrapped around his neck, and he explained that his neck was in terrible pain. I offered to accompany him to the medical clinic, which was only a five-minute walk from the yeshiva, but he demurred. ‘I don’t want to waste the time,’ he said. He wanted only to learn.” Rav Chaim Kamiel, of course, was the great rosh yeshiva of Ofakim, whom Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel considered his own rebbi.