My Take on the News

Warped Priorities in Israeli Government

You are certainly going to find this hard to believe.

Israel recently destroyed a tunnel that began in Gaza and reached past the border of Israel. Everyone knows the purpose of these tunnels. They are not meant for transporting food or medicine. Their purpose is to sow death and destruction. When the Israeli army destroyed this particular tunnel, several terrorists were inside it, some of them senior Hamas figures. All of them were killed when the tunnel collapsed.

The Arabs couldn’t claim that Israel had attacked them, since they had essentially been caught red-handed preparing to commit acts of terror. Of course, the United Nations might have condemned Israel for destroying the tunnel anyway, but a different complication arose: A dispute erupted as to whether the bodies of the terrorists should be returned. The Palestinians demanded to be allowed to dig up the bodies, but Defense Minister Lieberman objected, insisting that they return the remains of the missing Israeli soldiers first. If the Palestinians refuse to release the bodies of Israeli soldiers in their possession, he said, they would not be allowed to retrieve the remains of their own people. That sounds reasonable enough. However, the attorney general maintains that the defense minister’s position is against the law. Do you think that there is any logic in that position?

Plenty of other things have happened this past week as well. The prime minister of Lebanon resigned from his position, publicly accusing the Iranians of bringing destruction and devastation everywhere they go. There was also an incident on the Syrian border, when a group of Israeli Druse protested on behalf of their beleaguered brethren in Syria and attempted to cross the border in order to assist them. The message was clear: In the event of a conflict, if the Druse in Israel are called upon to decide whether they will side with the Syrian Druse or the state where they live, there is no question as to where their allegiances will lie.

On Motzoei Shabbos, there was a ceremony commemorating the assassination of Yitzchok Rabin. The organizers decided that no politicians would speak. Instead, the speakers would be “intellectuals,” whose addresses consisted mostly of meaningless blather. There were even some kippah-wearing speakers who demanded a “cheshbon hanefesh.” I would tell them to first make a reckoning of their own actions. The Knesset also held a special discussion to mark the occasion. I will quote a portion of Yitzchok Herzog’s remarks in the Knesset plenum, but first I would like to address some more important matters.

 

A Car Show at the Kosel?

Visiting the Kosel this past Friday morning, I was surprised to see a row of Ferraris parked just past the security gate. The people around me stared in astonishment as well, snapping pictures of the unusual lineup of cars in the Kosel parking lot. Within minutes, the pictures had reached tens of thousands of people, and it became the subject of a serious national debate: Who had organized this car show? Why was it taking place at the Kosel? And why were the cars allowed to enter the parking lot?

It is difficult to gain access to the parking lot at the Kosel plaza. There are very clear rules, and very stringent restrictions. A disabled person is allowed to enter, provided that there is a parking space available. A chosson and kallah on their wedding day are also granted entry in a car, provided that they display their ID cards and a wedding invitation. I believe that the same privilege is granted to a boy for Shacharis on the day of his bar mitzvah. There are certain people who are allowed to enter the parking lot by virtue of their positions: government ministers, members of the Knesset, dayanim, judges, and the chief rabbis. There are a few individuals who have that privilege because they have a building at the site, such as the staff of Aish HaTorah, who have their own parking lot on the same level as the yeshiva. There are several parking spaces reserved for the Kosel Fund as well, and there are a number of regulars at the neitz minyan at the Kosel who are granted entry because the police recognize them and because there is no concern that the parking lot will become full at that hour. And then there are people who, for various reasons, have been issued permits to enter the parking lot on a regular basis. I used to have one of those permits, until I decided not to fight for it anymore.

But the row of Ferraris was quite a surprising sight. Who had given the motorists permission to park at the Kosel? A brief investigation revealed that the permits had been issued by the office of the rov of the Kosel, but the rov’s staff claimed that it had been an honest mistake. The company had contacted them and requested permission to park at the Kosel for ten minutes, which had been granted. They had never imagined that the pictures of the row of luxury cars would evoke such a commotion.

 

Visitors from the United States

Another major story was the visit of Steve Mnuchin, the Secretary of the Treasury of the United States, who came to Israel for the first time since his appointment. Mnuchin was conducting a round of meetings with his counterparts in various Middle Eastern countries. After his meetings in Yerushalayim on Thursday and Friday, he left for Dubai and the United Arab Emirates. In Israel, he met with Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu and with Finance Minister Moshe Kachlon, and he also paid a visit to Yad Vashem. According to an announcement released by the Department of the Treasury in America, Mnuchin’s visit was considered a direct continuation of President Trump’s visit to Israel last May, when Trump announced the establishment of a “guidance center” to combat the funding of terrorism. Mnuchin was accompanied by Sigal Mandelker, who serves as Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, as well as other members of the Treasury staff with expertise in that field.

On Friday, Mnuchin visited the Kosel along with David Friedman, the United States ambassador to Israel, and his wife. The visitor from America was greeted at the Kosel plaza by Rav Shmuel Rabinovich, the rov of the Kosel, and Nir Barkat, the mayor of Yerushalayim. Rav Rabinovich commented that the visit by a Jewish secretary to the Kosel, the site that represents the very heart of historic Judaism, expresses his eternal connection to the Jewish people and their heritage, and attests to the close bond and partnership between Israel and the United States. Mnuchin and his wife went on to recite a brief prayer at the Kosel and to insert notes between the stones in the wall.

Mnuchin’s visit is scheduled to be followed soon by that of another high-ranking US official, Vice President Mike Pence. Pence is supposed to be arriving in Israel at the beginning of December. He plans to meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu, but at the same time – in order to preserve the all-important principle of “balance” – he will also meet with Abu Mazen, chairman of the Palestinian Authority.

 

The Mysterious “Jewish Community of New Jersey”

About a year ago, Prime Minister Netanyahu tapped Tzachi Hanegbi to lead the discussions with the Reform movement concerning the Kosel agreement. This was not arbitrary by any means. By his own admission, Tzachi Hanegbi has close ties to the Reform movement. At a Reform convention in Eretz Yisroel, Hanegbi once delivered a speech praising the movement and asserting that he felt close to it.

Since Hanegbi was appointed, the government accepted the Kosel agreement, then froze it, then was ordered by the Supreme Court to explain why it was frozen, and finally decided to annul the agreement altogether. The Reform movement, for their part, expressed outrage, denounced the Israeli government, and threatened to stop contributing funds to the State of Israel in retaliation for its failure to recognize them. We are still awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision on the subject. Our expectations are low, but we are davening for the best.

At the time, Netanyahu met with the leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements in a forum that was meant to coordinate between the State of Israel, the Zionist Federation, and the Jewish Agency. The other parties to the discussions were overjoyed when Netanyahu informed them of Hanegbi’s appointment. Since that time, though, Netanyahu has clashed repeatedly with the movements. Most recently, he refused to meet with them during his visit to America, claiming that they had lied to him about their intentions and had used the Kosel as a pawn in a ploy to gain official recognition. This week, Hanegbi tried to restore some measure of respect for the Reform movement, as he and Natan Sharansky accompanied several Reform and Conservative representatives for a tour of the site. That tour quickly turned into a verbal altercation, though, as Hanegbi’s guests subjected him to a barrage of complaints.

This week, I tried to find out if Hanegbi has ever been a guest of the Reform movement in America. The movement is very good at hosting foreign visitors, but their guests invariably are left with a sense of indebtedness to them. If Hanegbi had such an experience, then it would seem that he should be morally and ethically unfit to serve as an intermediary between us and them.

I had no way of determining whether Hanegbi was hosted by the Reform movement during his time as a government minister, but his tenure in the Knesset is a different story. A Knesset member who wishes to travel abroad must have his trip approved by the Knesset Ethics Committee and there are records of the approvals granted by the committee. According to those records, Hanegbi traveled abroad several times during his tenure in the Knesset. Here are just a few of those occasions: In February 2013, he was a guest of the Saban Forum. In May 2013, he was a guest of the Washington Research Institute and of J Street. In 2014 he traveled to France and South Africa, and in August 2015 he was a guest of “the Jewish community of New Jersey.” At the beginning of December 2015, he was a guest of the Saban Forum again, as well as of the Brookings Institute in Washington, and at the end of that month he was a guest of the Israeli Parliament of South Florida and the Republican Jewish Coalition.

J Street may not be avowedly Reform, but they are certainly close to the Reform movement. However, I was most interested in understanding the mention of the “Jewish community of New Jersey.” Which community was that? Was it the frum community, the Yemenite community, or perhaps the Reform community? Is there only one Jewish community in New Jersey?

I asked the Ethics Committee for a copy of the invitation that Hanegbi had given them when he made his request. Despite the fact that we are in the era of government transparency, they refused to accommodate my request. “We do not release documents that were submitted to us by members of the Knesset,” they wrote. “We provide only the details of a trip – the destination, the dates, the origin of the invitation, and the source of funding. We do not provide any more information than what is available on our web site.”

 

The Battle Over Shabbos Continues

Two laws that have been discussed in the Knesset have sparked major controversies in recent days. One was a bill that would prohibit investigating a sitting prime minister. This bill was known as the French Law, since it is an exact replica of a similar law that exists in France. The proposal became the subject of a fierce dispute between the political right and the left, and the attorney general announced his opposition to it. Eventually, Prime Minister Netanyahu announced that he wasn’t interested in the law and the proposal was dropped.

The other controversy this past week erupted around a proposed law that would bar the police from making recommendations to the prosecution after an investigation. The law would require the police to submit their findings and allow the prosecution to decide whether to press charges, without making any recommendations of their own. The law was approved in the Ministerial Legislative Committee on Sunday and it will likely be approved in the Knesset this week.

The Chief Rabbinate discussed the Supreme Court decision regarding the grocery stores in Tel Aviv and decided to call for a major protest. They asked the councils of gedolei Yisroel to issue their own calls for a protest as well. The issue of the grocery stores and minimarkets is still very much on the public’s consciousness, and last Wednesday the leaders of the chareidi parties met with Yariv Levin, the Minister of Tourism, in order to formulate a new law in response to the Supreme Court’s interference. The law is supposed to dictate that the Minister of the Interior holds the exclusive and absolute authority to approve or veto a municipal bylaw pertaining to Shabbos observance. As you may recall, the Supreme Court ruled that the Interior Minister does not have that authority.

On a related note, we have discovered that despite all the protests, threats and condemnations leveled at Netanyahu, as well as Minister of Transportation Yisroel Katz and Minister of Welfare Chaim Katz (who issues permits for work to be done on Shabbos), the Israel Railway company is continuing its chillul Shabbos.

 

Yitzchok Rabin on Divine Hashgacha

I promised you a quote from Yitzchok Herzog, who spoke in a special Knesset discussion on Wednesday evening, following Prime Minister Netanyahu. At first, Herzog spoke about the events on the night of Rabin’s assassination. “The square was filled with people, and the scene slowly took shape before our eyes: There were crowds of people marching and applauding, or standing in place and cheering. There was a buoyant sense of optimism in the air. Shimon Peres arrived, as did the members of Rabin’s cabinet, the Knesset members, and his aides. Some of them are here with us today, including three who are members of our party: Amir Peretz, Eitan Broshi, and Ayelet Nachamias-Verbin. There were many public figures from all over the country. The entire square was packed with people. I climbed the steps to the speakers’ platform, and the sight was incredible. It was a scene that filled me with tremendous energy. In the middle of the evening, Leah and Yitzchok arrived, surrounded by love and support. Leah smiled happily and embraced numerous well-wishers. Yitzchok was restrained as always, with a slightly bashful smile. A few minutes before he began his speech, I sat down on a small cement bench that was located not far from the podium. My young son was sitting on my lap. Yitzchok came over and sat down next to us on the bench, tensely awaiting the moment when he would be called up to speak. He was like a coiled spring. He was rubbing his hands together, immersed in thought about what he would say. When they called him to the podium, the square exploded with applause, cheers, and shouts of encouragement. He moved toward the podium and began his final speech. The topic was ‘Yes to Peace, No to Violence.’ We all know what happened next: the song of peace, the three gunshots, and the government’s shocked announcement of what had happened. It was a terrible national and personal tragedy, and the country seemed engulfed in darkness.”

Herzog gazed at the visitors’ gallery, where the Rabin family sat. “Dear family,” he said, “I would like to quote something very stirring that Yitzchok Rabin said about one of the most meaningful moments of his life – the liberation and reunification of Yerushalayim 50 years ago. He said: ‘No one staged this moment. No one planned it in advance. No one prepared it and no one expected to see it. It was as if it was an act of Divine Providence that brought about this event: the paratroopers weeping loudly over their friends who had fallen on the way, the cries of ‘Yisgadal veyiskadash shemeih rabbah’ that the stones of the Kosel heard after 19 years of silence, the tears of grief and the shouts of joy and the singing of Hatikvah….”

 

A Song from the Heart

This past Motzoei Shabbos, I attended an event in honor of the release of Motti Steinmetz’s new album, “Haneshamah Bekirbi.” I am not one to promote music albums or to try to boost the sales of a singer’s work, but Motti Steinmetz is not just any singer and this is not just any album.

I first met Motti at the Dead Sea, at an event organized by the Keren HaTorah organization of the neighborhood of Ramot in Yerushalayim. I have written in the past about the neighborhood and the initiatives that have been undertaken there to benefit its residents. One of those initiatives is Keren HaTorah, an organization that was founded to benefit the talmidei yeshivos who live in the neighborhood. The organization maintains a staff of yungeleit who build connections with the bochurim and visit them in their yeshivos. Their work helps prevent the bochurim from developing personal problems that could lead to untold consequences. During the summer bein hazemanim that year, the organization arranged several trips and events for the bochurim. The highlight was a performance by Motti Steinmetz at the Dead Sea, after which the bochurim were treated to two hours of swimming.

I was present at the event, and I was nearly moved to tears. Standing on a simple wooden crate, Motti poured his heart and soul into his performance. He has become much more famous since that occasion, but despite of all his success, he has remained as humble and sincere as ever. Motti, who hails from the Vizhnitzer kehillah in Bnei Brak, has a certain sweetness and innocence that defy explanation. The fact that his phenomenal success hasn’t gotten to his head may well be due to the person who discovered him and has remained by his side ever since, another Vizhnitzer chossid (or, in this case, a chossid of Seret-Vizhnit) by the name of Ruvi Banet.

Last week, my good friend, Yinon Pelach, asked me to attend Motti’s private event. In light of my familiarity with the singer, I felt that it was justified to break from my usual habits and to show respect to Motti for having remained the type of person he is. Rav Dovid Lau, who was also present at the event, likewise praised Motti for his humility, adding that his singing has a truly heartfelt quality. Rav Lau also noted that Motti never turns down a request to sing for people who are wounded or ill. May Hashem continue to bless him with success.

 

Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel’s Lifelong Love for Torah

I read the following story in an internal publication of Yeshivas Mir in honor of the yahrtzeit of Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel zt”l: “The rosh yeshiva was very young when he first arrived at the kingdom of Torah of the Mir Yeshiva. It was not easy for him to be so far from his parents’ home in America, but he was willing to forgo all of his worldly comforts in order to grow in Torah, which he did with tremendous self-sacrifice. His uncle, the rosh yeshiva, Rav Eliezer Yehuda Finkel, watched over him and toiled to cultivate his growth. He regularly asked Rav Nosson Tzvi’s chavrusos, as well as the young man himself, about his progress in learning. At the same time, the rosh yeshiva worked to influence him on his own. On Shabbosos, Rav Nosson Tzvi was invited to the rosh yeshiva’s home for the Friday night seudah, and he was always asked to share a shtickel Torah that he had formulated over the course of the week. On Shabbos morning, he was a guest at the table of the prince of Torah, the great Rav Chaim Shmulevitz, where he was expected to deliver an additional shtickel.

“The family members were distressed by this practice, and they asked Rav Eliezer Yehuda, ‘Why is he being asked to recite shticklach Torah on a regular basis when he is already learning well?’ The rosh yeshiva did not accept their complaints, though, and he continued demanding chiddushim from his young protégé.

“When the rosh yeshiva listened to the young Rav Nosson Tzvi’s chiddushim, he always voiced his amazement at his brilliance. At the same time, he would direct his thought processes, correcting or adding various points. Once, after Rav Nosson Tzvi finished presenting a chiddush, Rav Eliezer Yehuda praised it enthusiastically in the presence of several other listeners. One of them asked in surprise why the rosh yeshiva was so impressed. The questioner knew Rav Eliezer Yehuda well, and he was aware that the rosh yeshiva had heard thousands of chiddushim in his lifetime – from the foremost talmidim in the yeshiva in Poland, then from the greatest illuyim of Yerushalayim, and from the many talmidei chachomim who visited his home. He knew that Rav Eliezer Yehuda was often critical of the chiddushim he heard, and he had a tendency to debate even the tiniest point that was not absolutely solid. It was highly uncharacteristic for him to shower praise on anyone, especially such a young bochur. Rav Eliezer Yehuda explained, ‘You heard only the words he spoke. I also listened to the ahavas haTorah pouring from the depths of his heart.’ That was what truly impressed the rosh yeshiva.”

Allow me to quote one last inspiring excerpt from the article about Rav Nosson Tzvi: “The rov of Antwerp, Rav Chaim Kreiswirth zt”l, once expressed his admiration for the fact that Rav Nosson Tzvi presided over an institution with 3,000 talmidim and he knew all of them and cared for them all. When this comment was relayed to Rav Nosson Tzvi, he remarked, ‘I don’t know if it’s true that I actually remember all of them individually, but I certainly love every one of them.’