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My Take on the News

A Whirlwind of News in the Heat of the Summer

 

The first thing to note this week is the end of bein hazemanim and the beginning of Elul. As far as we are concerned, that is more important than any other news item.

Then there is the record-breaking heat of this summer. As always, we have been hearing reports that this was the summer when all the previous meteorological records have been broken. Once again, there have been claims that even the old men of Tzefas do not remember ever experiencing a summer like this one. (Speaking of Tzefas, it is interesting to note that during bein hazemanim, the city becomes filled with chareidi vacationers to the point that it practically seems to have become another Bnei Brak.)

In other news, Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu is continuing to act as if everything is normal, and as is often the case, the sense of impending doom for the prime minister has begun to abate. Despite the ominous headlines that filled the newspapers in recent weeks, it has begun to seem that sometimes, there is indeed smoke without fire. According to people who are familiar with the ongoing investigations, an indictment of the prime minister is still far from imminent, despite Ari Harow becoming a state witness and despite the testimony of Sheldon Adelson. For our part, we will be very happy if Netanyahu manages to extricate himself from all these investigations. Meanwhile, Ehud Barak has announced that he is prepared to return to the Labor party, provided that he will be guaranteed the defense portfolio. As if the party has a chance of winning the next elections…

It also seems that the investigations surrounding Aryeh Deri will not lead to criminal charges. I do not know if you are aware of this, but Deri and his wife have been questioned on the suspicion that Mrs. Deri’s tzedakah funds, which rightfully receive money from various government ministries, were about to receive funding from the Ministry of the Negev and Galil, which is headed by her husband. Even though the allocation never actually took place, the mere intent for it to happen may be sufficient to be considered a crime. Deri is also suspected of having registered his real estate holdings in a way that caused him to pay less in taxes. But even if that is true, it does not justify removing a minister in the government from his position. It is also significant that Deri himself was not involved in the registration of the properties. Rather, it was his brother, attorney Shlomo Deri, who carried out the registrations. We are all waiting for this saga to end.

I do not like to write about tragedies, but although the accident at the entrance to Bnei Brak caused a fatality, it was a miracle that more lives were not lost. The bridge that collapsed was a pedestrian bridge that enabled people to cross the Geha Road; as a result, the accident certainly could have resulted in many more deaths. After the accident, the fact that Bnei Brak was completely closed off, with no one able to enter or leave the city, was another lapse that is so typical of this country. The sole fatality in the incident was the truck driver whose vehicle brought down the bridge, resulting in his own death. The lingering question is: Why did the crane mounted on the truck cause the bridge to collapse? Why was the bridge so flimsy? As the investigations begin, all the relevant authorities will now begin pointing fingers at each other.

 

Succor for Suffering Families

This bein hazemanim, I was invited to an event organized by B’Lev Echad, an organization established and run by the American-born Rabbi Dovid (Dudi) Weitman. The aim of this organization is to offer support and aid to families contending with a child with an illness or special needs. This year, as I did last year, I made my way to Peres Park in Cholon to attend a “day of fun” arranged by the organization.

The event was masterfully produced, and it was clear that the organizers had poured their hearts into the effort. Anyone who hasn’t raised an autistic child cannot imagine the challenges it presents to the family. As I walked around the park, I saw dozens of families who were united by a single common factor: they were all contending with illness or disability. On that summer day, these families delighted in the attractions, the desserts, the soda bottles and ices, and all the other wonderful things that the organization had arranged for them. But above all, they were buoyed by the sense that there was someone who cared about them, someone who truly desired to help them bear their burden. And the knowledge that they are not alone, that there are hundreds of other families struggling with similar challenges, also afforded them a certain measure of comfort. I found myself laughing, crying and dancing along with a number of very happy “special” children. And I could not help but be saddened by the sight of a father changing his son’s diaper – since the son was 16 years old…

The day ended with a special show. Last year, Baruch Levine and Simcha Leiner had come from America to thrill the audience – the children, their parents, and their dedicated counselors. This year, it was Mordechai Ben David who moved the attendees with his performance, as he sang fervently, “Al kol neshimah uneshimah tehallel Koh.” Between an exciting raffle and an announcement about a lost wristwatch, we were shown a video that revealed the hours of intense work that had been invested in preparing the stage itself. From the list of credits, we learned just how many entities had been involved in bringing the event to perfection, and we were given a glimpse of how many wonderful people exist within the Jewish nation – and, of course, of the scope of Dudi Weitman’s compassion and capabilities.

 

Who Will Pay the Price for a Mistake?

Let us move on to a few other stories that I would like to bring to your attention.

First, it was revealed that in the year 2016, the State of Israel paid a total of over 23 million shekels in damages to the country’s citizens. This sum represents the payments made to ordinary citizens who suffered harm or losses at the hands of the government or its agents. Just this past week, in fact, we saw pictures of a chareidi Jew being pushed to the ground by police officers because he was selling seforim at an intersection in Tel Aviv. Now, this man may have violated the law, but the brutal way he was treated by the police was much worse. As a rule, when a police officer and an ordinary civilian become involved in a violent altercation, the policeman is guilty of a more severe crime than the civilian; after all, he represents the law and is supposed to uphold it. The problem is that the courts tend to accept the word of a police officer more than that of the average citizen. This is true in traffic courts as well, even though it is completely illogical. Just as the alleged offender is bound to be biased in his account of the incident, the police officer who ticketed him will inevitably be more biased, possibly to a much greater degree.

In any event, the 23 million shekels that were paid in damages represented an increase of 50 percent from the previous year. That means that something bad took place in the State of Israel last year. One of the cases for which these payments were made was when an innocent citizen was arrested after the police decided that he had murdered someone. In another case, it came to light after a murder that the police had been warned about the possibility of the crime and had done nothing to prevent it.

We will never forget the incident when one of the three boys who were kidnapped and murdered in 2014 called the police immediately after their abduction. The policeman – or perhaps it was a policewoman – who answered the call didn’t understand what he was saying, and nothing was done to help them as a result.

I am not asking what can be done to shake the police out of their complacency, or who will keep watch on the people charged with protecting our society. I have a different question: If a police officer causes the country or the police force to suffer a financial loss of millions of shekels, is he required to pay for it? Imagine what would happen if an employee of one of Israel’s large commercial companies, such as Tara or Teva, caused the company to suffer a similar loss. Would his employers really allow his mistake to pass, or would they insist that he absorb the loss? In fact, would he be allowed to remain in his position at all? The answer is obvious, yet for some reason, if a police officer, a clerk at the National Insurance Institute, an official in the tax authority, or any other government employee makes a decision that causes unjustified loss to an ordinary citizen, and the citizen sues the responsible entity and wins the case, the individual who caused the damage does not suffer any consequences. And I find myself questioning why that is so.

 

An Egregious Error

For those who think that fake news and self serving leakers are native to America, read this. Yisroel Hayom, the newspaper owned by Sheldon Adelson, has begun featuring many articles attacking the Shas party and Aryeh Deri. This has led to much speculation: Is Adelson intentionally targeting Deri? Is this a ploy to distract public attention from Netanyahu’s legal woes? In any event, this past week, the newspaper carried an article written by Matti Tuchfeld, based on the claims of a singer who was once an ardent admirer of Deri and even performed the song “Hu Zakai” (“He is Innocent”) in his support. The singer has now turned against Deri, claiming that the Shas leader promised him positions in the government and failed to follow through on his promises.

Several years ago, Deri resigned from the Knesset and announced his departure from public life. Now, Yisroel Hayom claims that it has “discovered” that Deri himself was behind the campaign to return him to his position. Their proof is a message stored on the singers cell phone from the time of that episode, in which Deri gave him instructions about what he should say in an interview on the subject. Personally, I am skeptical of this “evidence.” The singer was a member of the Shas party, and the fact that Deri sought to guide him about how to respond in an interview with the press does not necessarily mean that he himself organized the movement that demanded his own return. Even if he was truly considering a departure from politics, doesn’t it make sense that he should have been both entitled and obligated to offer encouragement to those who wished to dissuade him from taking that step? I read Deri’s message to the singer, in which he advised him to advocate “waking up the public” and to declare that “we can’t let him [i.e., Deri] go,” but I did not find any indication of the proverbial smoking gun. But Tuchfeld, as always, created a story where there is none, and succeeded in finding smoke without fire.

In that article, Tuchfeld described the singer as follows: “The man who presided over this process was Aryeh Deri’s right-hand man for close to three decades… In both of the recent election campaigns, he oversaw the strategic apparatus of the Shas party, while working closely with Deri and making sure to convey his messages from every platform.” This description, which is completely untrue, caused me to laugh. If that is the writer’s level of knowledge, then he is in the wrong profession. I was also outraged by another line: “It was just as he did in the 90s, when he called out, ‘He is innocent!’ and opened Yeshivas Shaagas Aryeh outside the gates of Maasiyahu Prison.” The singer established Yeshivas Shaagas Aryeh? That is certainly news to me!

Shaagas Aryeh was a yeshiva that was established outside the walls of the prison where Deri was held. Thousands of people escorted Deri to the prison on the day his sentence began, and several dozen of them remained there overnight. The establishment of the yeshiva came about as a result. For many months, many shiurim were delivered there. But it was Rabbi Uri Zohar who established the yeshiva, almost by chance. Rabbi Zohar was unable to take leave of the walls of the prison where Deri, his close friend, has been interned. He sat down sadly on a tree stump outside the prison, with a sefer in his hand as usual. With that, the activists of the Shas party leapt into action. The radio stations (at that time, there were several pirate radio stations with religious programming) grew enthused by the initiative. But the credit is owed to Rabbi Zohar.

As far as I am concerned, the singer can distort history as he sees fit, but I draw the line when it involves Rabbi Zohar. That is one of the purposes for which I am here – to set the record straight.

 

Yesh Atid’s False Advertising

The Yesh Atid party has sent a video to its supporters during the Knesset’s summer session with a list of its accomplishments. “Here are some of the things we did for you during the summer session of the Knesset,” the video proclaims. Their report, though, is laced with imprecision, hyperbole, claims of credit for others’ accomplishments, and even outright lies.

“We fought corruption in the public sphere,” the video announces. This achievement is attributed to MK Yael German, who used her position in the Interior Committee to prevent an increase in the pensions of several mayors. But while it is true that she joined the fight for the cause, the fight was actually led by the Ministry of Justice. Shai Somech, a representative of the ministry, expressed the ministry’s opposition to the raise. Yael German was like a fly joining an ox in plowing a field. Had the government been in favor of the proposal, the majority vote of the coalition would have crushed her opposition. In short, this claim is somewhat disingenuous, as the party prides itself on something that it didn’t actually achieve.

On to the next claim: “We demanded that the government of the State of Israel give a reckoning for all the corruption scandals.” As if a mere verbal demand is something on which the party should pride itself.

Next, they boasted, “We fought against transferring funds from the police to the Ministry of the Interior and to other authorities for political reasons.” Of course, they are actually referring to the Ministry of Internal Security, not the Ministry of the Interior. And was it really MK Mickey Levi of Yesh Atid who prevented it? Did he even have the ability to do anything about it? In reality, this was the initiative of MK Dudi Amsalem, which met with opposition from Minister Erdan and from the attorney general.

Next: “We increased the compensation to self-employed workers serving in the army reserves.” This was based on an announcement by Ofer Shelach that the government has halted its efforts on behalf of reservists. But it is certainly not a nice claim to make, since the government itself supported this law. Without the support of the coalition, it never would have passed. Incidentally, this took place in March 2016, not during the summer session.

The party also claimed, “We placed a proposed law on the Knesset table to increase the punishments for anyone who attacks IDF soldiers.” This is an “accomplishment” of Yoel Razvozov. But using the term “accomplishment” to describe the act of drafting a bill in the Knesset is absurd. Every member of the Knesset can formulate as many bills as he desires. And if that is all that Yesh Atid accomplished for their constituents, then they are in a sorry position indeed. But in truth, from their place in the opposition, they can do nothing but shout. They have no way of achieving anything substantive, unless it is with the support of the government. Everything else they claim to have accomplished is merely a pretense.

Now we come to the part that cannot possibly be true: “We brought 30 proposed laws before the ministerial committee for the advancement of soldiers and another 30 proposed laws for the advancement of women. We submitted about 30 proposals to the ministerial committee for the benefits of Holocaust survivors, another 30 bills to assist immigrants, and another 30 bills to assist special groups in the population.” In total, that makes 150 proposals. The summer session of the Knesset, which ran from May 10 through July 26, included six weeks, and since Yesh Atid is limited to submitting three bills each week, the maximum number of proposals they could possibly have made is only 30. Even if we count the special days held in the Knesset from time to time, such as “Music Appreciation Day” and “Environment Day,” when a party can submit more than its quota of bills, they couldn’t possibly have drafted more than another 20 or 30 laws at most. But 150 bills in ten weeks? That is completely unrealistic.

If Yesh Atid had merely claimed that these bills were “placed on the Knesset table,” I wouldn’t have this objection. There is no barrier to submitting hundreds of proposals that will merely be placed on the table. But Yesh Atid stresses that their proposals were brought before the ministerial committees. That is misleading in any event, since the vast majority of laws that were brought to a committee did not receive the support of the government, and even among those that were brought to a vote in the Knesset plenum, the majority were ultimately dropped from the agenda. Thus, even if their claim were true, they couldn’t actually have accomplished anything. But in any event, I can guarantee that Yesh Atid did not submit 150 laws to the committees during this summer session.

 

The Reform Movement’s Weapon

The Council for Cable Television and Satellite Broadcasting recently imposed a fine of 100,800 shekels on Channel 20, the television station designated to carry programming about Jewish heritage, for its “ongoing exclusion of Jewish groups from its programming,” in violation of its license. This is a reference to the exclusion of Reform and Conservative Jews from the station’s broadcasts. Channel 20, which seems to be gaining popularity, has ignored the instructions it was given to express “the variety of opinions, approaches, and different streams within the community, the range of views within society, and the opposing views on any subject.” The channel’s staff ignored these orders, complaints were filed, and it was fined. It was also ordered to submit a monthly report of its programming.

This is easy enough to understand. Nowadays, it is forbidden to exclude anyone. When the Reform Jews are excluded from anything, they will not allow it to pass in silence. They always petition the relevant authorities, and they tend to win. But I am troubled by something else: Why aren’t we, the chareidim, moving from the defensive to the offensive? After all, we ourselves are always excluded – in the academic world, in judicial circles, from official missions to other countries, and so forth. We are certainly shunted out of programming in the media. How many Orthodox Jews appear in programs dealing with Jewish culture or history? Even when we are attacked in the media, we are barely given the opportunity to respond. And that leads me to a simple question: Why haven’t we learned from the Reform movement and adopted the use of petitions to government authorities as a weapon?

 

Avi Benayahu’s Hypocritical About-Face

Two weeks ago, an Apache helicopter carrying two pilots from the Israel Air Force was destroyed while attempting a forced landing at the air force base in Mitzpeh Ramon. David Zohar, a highly respected major in the air force, was killed; the other pilot was critically wounded. His condition has improved, but the accident came as a bitter blow to the state. Every accident is tragic, but an accident in the military becomes a collective loss suffered by the entire country.

Several years ago, David Zohar became famous because of his grandmother, Frania Goldhar, a Holocaust survivor who passed away several months ago. A picture was published of Goldhar waving to the pilots of the air force as they performed in an air show over Auschwitz. On her outstretched arm, the number tattooed decades earlier by the Nazis stood out in sharp relief. One of the pilots in that show was her grandson, David Zohar. The tragic epilogue to that story – Zohar’s death shortly after that of his grandmother – which unfolded just this month is terribly sad.

Personally, I had feared that a tragedy was about to strike, chas veshalom. Whenever the government or the IDF – especially the air force – decides to make a show of its pride and strength, Israel has been struck with reminders that the army is not its true source of power. If you examine the history of this country, you will find that this has always been true. Several months ago, a military official announced that a new Israeli missile of unprecedented power was about to be tested: “In a few months, an important test will be performed on the new Arrow 3 missile system at the Kodiak testing site in Alaska, in collaboration with the United States Missile Defense Agency.” Every time a proclamation of this nature is issued – and I cannot understand what purpose it serves, other than boasting to the world about Israel’s military strength – I worry about the future. Experience has shown that these announcements tend to be followed by disaster.

After the accident, rumors began to spread before the news was officially released. The rumors spoke of a “very senior personality” who was killed in a helicopter crash. Knowledgeable sources even began chronicling the background of Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot, as if to insinuate that he had been the victim. Avi Benayahu – a former spokesman for the IDF, the commander of Galei Tzahal, and an advisor to the Minister of Defense – was justifiably outraged and slammed the “scoundrels” responsible for spreading the rumors. But then he attributed the rumors to chareidim: “During Operation Protective Edge, we were aware of things like this happening in WhatsApp groups. Some of it came from the chareidi sector, from youths who were bored and had nothing better to do.” And that was chutzpah.

I myself have a score to settle with Avi Benayahu from a long time ago. In Elul 1990, Benayahu served as the military correspondent for Al Hamishmar, while I was an aide to Minister of the Interior Aryeh Deri. On September 9, 1990, all of the aides to the Interior Minister, including me, were arrested. The others were all released the same day, while I remained in prison. I was questioned every morning in the offices of the National Fraud Investigations Unit. Every day, I was bombarded with threats or pleas – depending on who the interrogator was – to provide testimony that would lead to the downfall of Aryeh Deri. I was released from jail shortly before Rosh Hashanah.

During the time that I was jailed, Benayahu published an article in Al Hamishmar under the title “The Scandal of the Forged Passport in the Philippines Will Come Up in Yaakovson’s Interrogation.” In the article, Benayahu claimed, “Tzvi Yaakovson, the senior aide to the Minister of the Interior who is currently being held in police custody, exerted intense pressure on the staff of the Israeli embassy in the Philippines to demand the return of a passport that had been confiscated from the rovAl Hamishmar has learned that the rov is suspected of having made illegal changes to the passport when the IDF sought to draft him for compulsory service. Senior officials have related that this subject is also being addressed by police in their questioning of the staff of Minister Aryeh Deri.” The article went on to relate that I pressured the embassy in Manilla to the point that Yoav Bahiri, the Israeli ambassador to the Philippines at the time, sent a sharply worded letter against me to the Foreign Ministry. I was outraged by the entire article, but the last sentence was the worst of all: “Yaakovson’s response could not be obtained.” Well, of course they were unable to obtain my response; I didn’t have a telephone in jail! Yet the article makes it sound as if Benayahu tried to solicit my response and failed. Moreover, is it even correct to publish an article of this nature without giving me the chance to defend myself. Is that ethical? Isn’t it even worse than spreading rumors on WhatsApp?

Most importantly, I wasn’t questioned about the subject at all. Not even the slightest oblique reference was made to the episode in the Philippines. Now, I have no complaints against a journalist who does his work well, although I certainly do not envy those who spill blood in the process. But I am perturbed by reporters who promulgate fake news, whose articles are filled with the maximum possible self-confidence and the minimum amount of truth, and who create news stories without receiving the subject’s response, and even mock him for it in the process. “Yaakovson’s response could not be obtained,” indeed! I wonder what the Avi Benayahu of August 2017 would have responded to the Benayahu of September 9, 1990. Would the word “scoundrel” have appeared in his description?

As for the issue at hand, though, Benayahu is right. The people who spread harmful rumors on social media or online are definitely wrong, regardless of whether they wear yarmulkas.

 

A “Dream” Vacation Spot

There is an old joke about a class assignment in which the students were asked to write an essay about poverty. Every child in the class, even the one from the wealthiest family, chose his own family as the subject of his essay. An affluent young man, who came from an upper-class family, eloquently depicted the state of poverty in his home: His parents were poor, his siblings were poor, his servants were poor, his cook was poor, his parents’ staff of chauffeurs were poor, and so forth. The family lived in a three-story villa situated on a huge property, and the entire estate was drowning in abject poverty. It was a heartrending story!

 

I thought about that “poor” family this week when I traveled to Moshav Ramot, a small community near Ein Gav, on the banks of the Kinneret. It was the first time I had ever visited the area. The trip was prompted by a call from my son, who informed me excitedly that he and his friends in yeshiva had found a “tzimmer” that was an absolute “dream.” His description, I anticipated, was likely a bit of an overstatement. I could imagine a tzimmer – a vacation cottage, typically rundown, that services Israeli families seeking a change of scenery during vacation. But somehow, I could hardly imagine any tzimmer that could be described as a “dream.”

The “dream” cottage was located next door to a small grocery store, on the outskirts of the moshav. It offered a spectacular view of the neighboring tzimmer, which was equally “dreamlike.” The group of dreaming yeshiva bochurim might have been able to make their way down to the Kinneret from their lodgings, but the return climb was utterly impossible. All they had left to do, then, was to wander around the tzimmer and the patch of something that looked like grass that was situated outside of it, to snack on dreamlike sunflower seeds, and to dream about visiting the Kinneret or going home. Then there was the “standard” Jacuzzi that seemed to delight in malfunctioning. The rust-encrusted faucet was certainly a dream, as was the swimming pool that had been promised to them but had somehow become unusable just before their arrival. The noisy, dripping air conditioner must have been something out of a dream as well, as was the fight with the owner of the tzimmer, who refused to lower his price by a single shekel despite the cottage’s many faults. That was certainly a dream of a fight.

But all of that paled in significance to the most important aspect of the trip: We were in the north!

When we made our way down to the level of the Kinneret, we began casting about for somewhere to daven Mincha, and then we spotted a sign bearing the word “Kinar.” The Kinar Hotel and the Kinar beach are adjacent to each other, both popular destinations for vacationers – and there wasn’t any room between the many parked cars on the street. The beachgoers had parked all along the road, up to a kilometer and a half away from the nearby parking lot for the separate beach. We decided to daven in the hotel, but the parking lot there was closed, and the two gentlemen manning the gates demanded that I identify myself. Evidently, they were required to keep the parking lot available for the guests of the hotel, and to ward off any vacationers at the separate beach who might wish to avail themselves of its vacant spaces.

“I am a journalist,” I said. The men examined my press ID card and frowned. “So what?” they demanded. “Do you expect us to think that you came here to write about the hotel? Do you have an appointment with the public relations office?”

“I am also the director of the Shas party,” I added, producing another card.

They examined the document, the likes of which they had never seen before, and guffawed. “Do you have a party conference here in the hotel? Did you make an appointment to meet a government minister here?” they demanded.

Shkiah was approaching at a rapid pace, and all I needed was a minyan for Mincha. In a pleading tone, I asked them to hurry so that I wouldn’t miss davening. As soon as they heard my request, they sobered. “Why didn’t you just say so?” they exclaimed. “We would never cause another Jew to miss a minyan!” And the gates opened immediately.