Tuesday, Jun 25, 2024

My Take on the News

The Prime Minister Promises

The situation concerning Shabbos observance in Israel has not changed. The Supreme Court, as you know, ruled that the Minister of the Interior lacks the authority to veto the bylaw passed by the Tel Aviv municipality. In response, the chareidi lawmakers demanded that the prime minister pass a law giving him that authority. It seems, though, that Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu has other problems on his mind at the moment, and the issue of Shabbos observance is not at the top of his list of priorities.

Yaakov Litzman, the Minister of Health, met with Netanyahu last week. Litzman reminded the prime minister that according to the coalition agreement, the government is required to rectify violations of the status quo. The court’s decision, Litzman explained, is precisely such a violation. In response, Netanyahu ordered Yoav Horowitz, the director-general of his office, to take care of the matter immediately.

That is our prime minister: He gives the right orders as soon as he is asked, but the actual results don’t come nearly as quickly. Just two weeks ago, Litzman, Aryeh Deri, and Moshe Gafni met with Yariv Levin, the Minister of Tourism, about the same issue. Levin is considered an outstanding jurist, perhaps the most senior legal expert among the members of the cabinet, and he also acts as a liaison between the cabinet and the Knesset. But no progress has been made since their meeting. There was one good thing, though, that emerged from the meeting with Netanyahu: The prime minister admitted that he is personally obligated to resolve the problem.

In the meeting with Levin, Aryeh Deri commented that there is one positive development in the wake of the Supreme Court decision: We have now discovered that the judges make their rulings based on their own personal views and not based on the actual law. Levin, who is himself a longtime foe of the Supreme Court, laughed heartily at that comment. “Did you really discover that only now?” he asked.


Ferraris and Finger-Pointing

You may remember that I wrote last week about the fleet of Ferraris that appeared in the Kosel parking lot on a recent Friday morning. This subject actually made its way to the Knesset, where a number of anti-religious agitators used it to malign the rabbinic authorities at the Kosel. All of them cited the same equation: “Yes to cars, no to the Reform movement!” Since Dovid Azulai, the Minister of Religious Affairs, was unable to attend that Knesset sitting, the government’s response was delivered instead by Yaakov Litzman. Litzman made light of the episode, although he also asked his audience, “What is a Ferrari, anyway?”

“It’s a car,” someone called out. “It’s a cousin of the Porsche.”

“A car?” Litzman repeated. “What’s wrong with cars?” He then addressed the agitators who had brought up the issue of the Reform movement. “If the people you have mentioned were to stand where the Ferraris were parked, they would not have a problem. Their problem is that they want to be inside. I don’t know the details of what happened, and I am not familiar with the incident, but I happened to ask,” he added, “and I was told that the cars were parked outside the Kosel plaza. So to all those people who are making a fuss about this, to the Reform Jews in America, I would say that if they would like to stand in the same place as the Ferraris – outside the fence – I don’t see any problem with it.”

Litzman then read aloud a response from Minister Dovid Azulai: “Members of the Knesset, first of all, I would like to mention that the parking lot at the Kosel is also used by the police force and by Yeshivas Aish HaTorah. It is not the exclusive property of the Kosel Heritage Fund. As for this specific episode, I contacted Rav Shmuel Rabinovich, the rov of the Kosel. From the outset, he made no efforts to cast the blame on anyone else, and he took full responsibility for the incident. The rov promised me that rules would be set in place to prevent a recurrence of the mishap. The rov of the Kosel also admitted very clearly that there had been a terrible mistake. In fact, on Sunday morning, he held a meeting with the director-general and the staff of the Kosel Heritage Fund in order to establish very clear rules to prevent an incident of this nature from occurring in the future.

“The following decisions were made at that meeting: 1. The Kosel plaza will not be used as a platform for commercial companies wishing to advertise their businesses. 2. Any requests for events or visits that raise the suspicion that they may be intended for commercial activity or visibility will first be evaluated, before they are approved, by the Ceremonial Committee of the Kosel Heritage Fund. 3. Following this event, any future requests will be submitted in writing, including a request for a group visit to conclude an event in Yerushalayim that has no commercial purpose. 4. Requests will be approved by the Ceremonial and Events Committee, which will thoroughly investigate the purpose of the request and the nature of the group. 5. A representative of the Ceremonial Committee will be present for any visit of this nature.

“My own examination has revealed that the Kosel Heritage Fund is working at this time to introduce a new program that will record every vehicle that enters the parking lot at the Kosel,” Azulai’s response continued. “This program will make it possible for the police and the fund to continuously monitor the identities of motorists parking their cars there, the reason for every approval for parking, and so forth.”


An Ambassador’s Testimony

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Netanyahu has been contending with police interrogations – not of the prime minister himself, but of people close to him. This week, the police questioned another individual who is considered a close confidant of Netanyahu, an attorney named Yitzchok Molcho. Molcho is suspected of having been one of the people who were supposed to profit from the purchase of submarines from a German company. For Netanyahu, this is an extremely awkward situation. A new complaint was filed against Netanyahu’s wife, alleging that she mistreated the employees at the prime minister’s residence on Rechov Balfour.

There was also a certain development in the investigation concerning the gifts received by the prime minister. There is no question that Netanyahu took gifts; the only question is if his actions warrant an indictment on the charge of accepting bribes, or if the gifts should be viewed as a normal aspect of an ordinary friendship. It has now been revealed that the Israeli ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, another close associate of Netanyahu quietly testified on the subject. Dermer was asked about Netanyahu’s involvement in the efforts to procure a visa for wealthy businessman Arnon Milchan. Dermer was very close to Netanyahu before he was appointed to his diplomatic position, and there was a period of time when he worked alongside Netanyahu. Milchan, meanwhile, is the man who gave the gifts to the prime minister. The police are attempting to prove that there was a connection, and that the gifts were given in exchange for Netanyahu’s efforts to secure an American visa for Milchan. On that subject, Netanyahu’s office was in contact with former Secretary of State John Kerry.

Another fact that was revealed is that the American State Department has been resisting the request of the Israeli Ministry of Justice for the former American ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, to be questioned about these matters as well.

Dermer’s testimony has become the subject of many front-page news stories in Israel. At the same time, this commotion elicited chuckles from anyone who is familiar with the way the investigation has been working. It is quite possible – in fact, it is almost certain – that Dermer downplayed Netanyahu’s role in the affair. When the police collect testimony, it isn’t always to the detriment of a suspect. On the contrary, sometimes it is precisely the opposite. That is probably what happened in this case as well. And that means that this should not be a cause for much excitement.


A World War Over State Lands

The Keren Kayemet L’Yisroel has also been receiving plenty of attention of late.

The KKL, or Jewish National Fund, was established in the year 1900 for the purpose of acquiring land in Eretz Yisroel. Today, it owns the majority of the land in the country. Before the country was founded, the KKL worked mainly to purchase land for the sake of establishing Jewish settlements. Most of the land it possesses was actually sold to the KKL by the Israeli government after the state was established. Those properties were abandoned by their Arab former owners, who fled to Arab countries at the time.

On that note, this week the Knesset will mark the fortieth anniversary of the visit of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to Israel. It was a historic event that took place immediately after Menachem Begin was elected to the office of prime minister. That visit ultimately led to the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt. In addition to a festive session in the Knesset plenum, the occasion will be marked by symposiums held in one of the halls in the Knesset building.

Since the founding of the state, the KKL has functioned as the entity responsible for Jewish settlement in the State of Israel. According to Israeli law, the purpose of the organization is to purchase properties and to establish Jewish settlements. The KKL is also responsible for Israel’s forests. According to a report released by the KKL in 2014, its revenues that year reached a total of 2.4 billion shekels. The vast majority of the funds – 2.1 billion – came from the sale of real estate. In 2013, the organization earned 1.7 billion shekels from the sale of land. Its income from donations in 2014 was about 134 million shekels, of which 76.6 million shekels came from North America. This was in contrast to its revenues of 126 million shekels in 2013. The value of its real estate holdings at the end of 2014 was about 8 billion shekels, and the organization also possessed 270 million shekels in cash, as well as 1.5 billion shekels in securities.

This week, a dispute erupted between the Israeli government and the KKL regarding the organization’s cash holdings. The government claims that the KKL is obligated to share its cash with the state, and not merely to distribute the money as it sees fit, even if the funds are channeled into education and welfare programs. There was an agreement by which the KKL was supposed to contribute one billion shekels to the government each year during the years 2018 and 2019. According to the Ministry of Finance, the KKL has chosen to disregard this agreement. In order to force the KKL to surrender those funds, the government is advancing a law that would require the organization to pay an 80 percent tax on the sale of real estate. The law is currently being discussed in the Finance Committee, where the debates have become fierce.

The KKL reacted to the developments with the following statement: “We are sorry that the government of Israel has chosen to act aggressively against a Zionist organization whose entire purpose is to benefit the State of Israel and the citizens of Israel. The government is flagrantly violating the agreement signed just two years ago, which the KKL has fulfilled by transferring 2.2 billion shekels to the coffers of the state.” This conflict is only in its beginning stages. You can expect even more turmoil as it continues.


Educational Experts Miss the Boat

I recently received an impressive-looking, colorful publication, printed on thick, glossy paper, which was dedicated to examining the Israeli school system in the present and the prospects for its development over the next decade. The publication contained a series of articles written by professors, experienced educators, and other renowned experts, each offering their own ideas for improving the country’s educational system. My first reaction was to be pleased. Perhaps these people had finally come to their senses. Perhaps they had recognized, at long last, the depths to which the country’s youth have sunk.

But then I read what they had written. The writers included Professor Dan Schechtman, a Nobel Prize laureate; Professor Libman, the president of the Kibbutzim College of Education; and an assortment of other academics and professionals. They all spoke about every issue imaginable: giving teachers peace of mind by setting appropriate wages and pension payments, teaching children problem-solving skills, dispensing with the current system for school registration based on geographical areas, promoting excellence as early as the first grade, teaching children to be creative, fostering intellectual depth, providing lounges in schools for the students, identifying emotional problems, closing the gaps between the periphery and the center of the country, and developing critical thinking. For example, here is one of the suggestions of Professor Yaakovi-Volk: “Learning must take place in groups, with additional mentors aside from the main teacher. Computer games should be used as a means to foster learning, and children should be taught to learn and develop on their own.” And then there were some other scholarly suggestions: introducing the language of trust into schools, teaching children to care for animals so that they will learn to be more humane, focusing on social skills, replacing rote memorization with thinking questions, and beginning the school day with a refreshing athletic activity.

But in all the pages of this publication, there wasn’t a single word about Yiddishkeit. None of these academic experts said a word about inculcating fundamental Jewish values in the children, about reinforcing their connection to their roots and teaching them about their Jewish heritage. In contrast, when a textbook used in a public school merely describes a farmer praying for rain, making the most trivial allusion to the Jewish concept of prayer, cries of outrage are heard from every direction.


Leaks from the Police

As everyone knows, Prime Minister Netanyahu has been outraged over the leaks from the police force to the press, which have cast him in an unfavorable light. As a result, Netanyahu and his allies have essentially gone to war against the police force and its commissioner. Their conflict has been plastered across the headlines of every newspaper in the State of Israel. But something very strange has recently been happening in the National Fraud Investigations Unit, known as Lahav 433. Suddenly, officials from the unit have begun speaking out against it. Are they simply frustrated at the fact that they weren’t promoted as far as they would have liked? Perhaps. Should we therefore not give credibility to their claims? Perhaps that is true as well. But it is certainly important to hear what they have to say.

Boaz Guttman, a retired police superintendent who was once a senior member of Lahav 433, told one of Israel’s newspapers last week, “There is a long list of investigations that should never have begun, and that were ultimately closed due to a lack of guilt. That includes the cases against Neeman, Raful, Kahalani, Sheetrit, and Lieberman. All of these people were ministers in the government, or candidates to be ministers, who were deliberately targeted for the purpose of bringing them down.” That alone is a severe enough offense, but the motivations for the unit’s actions, as identified by Guttman, are even more outrageous: “The police are chasing after headlines. Some of the investigators know that the media has a particular love for investigations targeting right-wing politicians.” As for the prosecution, he added, “There are people who want to restore the power of the left.” Guttman also admitted that there has been an epidemic of leaks emanating from the police force. Apparently, the officials enjoy seeing the information they divulged plastered across the front pages of Yediot Acharonot. I myself observed this phenomenon many years ago – when Aryeh Deri was under investigation, and there were negative information about him was constantly being disclosed to the press – and I was ridiculed at the time for my assertion.

Over the course of his 21 years with Lahav 433, Boaz Guttman investigated many politicians. He was even a member of the team investigating Aryeh Deri during the latter’s first stint as Minister of the Interior. One must wonder if he is effectively admitting to injustices that were performed under his watch, perhaps even against Deri.

During the investigation against Deri, we complained to Roni Milo, who served as the Minister of the Police at the time, about the numerous leaks that had been reaching the press. We were aware of instances in which people were questioned, and the transcripts from their interrogations were leaked by a police superintendent to a journalist, who used them in his writings against Deri. That journalist rewarded his source by heaping praise on him for his investigative skills. Milo argued that it was difficult to identify the source of a disclosure, and that the suspect himself is often responsible for leaks concerning an investigation. We insisted that since we did not have the transcripts of the interrogations, it was clear that the information had come from the police, but Milo asked us to identify a leak that was even more clearly linked to the investigators themselves. Shortly thereafter, the police arrested the managers of Gal Paz, the music store in Geulah. When the police arrived to carry out the arrests, several newspaper photographers were already standing outside the store. Since the police were the only ones who knew about the raid, it was clear that they were the source of the information! When confronted with this evidence, Milo stammered awkwardly…and did nothing about it.

In any event, Guttman’s claims were rejected by the police and the state prosecutor’s office, as was to be expected. The prosecution announced that his claims weren’t even worthy of a response. A police spokesman said only that Guttman retired twenty years ago, and his comments do not reflect the reality today. That leaves room for the conclusion that, in any event, he does paint an accurate picture of the situation 20 years ago…


The Chosson’s Old Clothes

The story is told of a wealthy man who arrived early to the wedding of a son of a good friend, and was shocked to find the chosson dressed in old, tattered clothes. Pitying the poor young man who was wearing rags to his own wedding, he approached the father of the groom and offered him a wad of cash. “I didn’t know that you were so poor,” the wealthy guest said. “Please, take this money and go quickly to buy some new clothes for your son.”

“Don’t worry, my good friend,” the baal simcha said, struggling to keep up a facade. “I am a man of means in my own right, and I have everything I need.”

“Really?” the guest said in surprise. “Then why is the chosson dressed like that?”

“You don’t understand!” the father of the chosson exclaimed. “His outfit actually cost me thousands of dollars. According to tradition, the tzitzis he is wearing originally belonged to the family of the Shpoler Zaide. That brown yarmulka was worn on the Yomim Tovim by the Rebbe of Zlotchov. The crumbling gartel around his waist is said to have been inherited from the Rebbe Reb Meilech, and his yellowed shirt comes from the holy Abuchatzeirah family.”

The wealthy guest was satisfied by that explanation. Upon taking another look at the chosson, though, his concern was reawakened. “What about his swollen cheeks?” he asked, turning to the father again. “Does he suffer from some sort of dental illness? Why haven’t you taken care of it?”

“Don’t worry about that either,” the baal simcha said with another laugh. “He isn’t sick at all. We were fortunate enough to obtain false teeth that once belonged to a famous tzaddik as well!”


Rav Aharon Kotler’s Silence

Next Monday, the second day of Kislev, is the 55th yahrtzeit of Rav Aharon zt”l. In honor of the occasion, I would like to share a story that was recently told by Rav Tzvi Katz, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Kfar Nochum in Eretz Yisroel. At the time this story took place, Rav Tzvi was a member of Pe’ylim, the group carrying out the plea of gedolei Yisroel to save young Jewish souls from the clutches of the Zionist government, which was working to bring about their spiritual destruction.

“We were trying to convince parents to register their children for religious schools,” Rav Katz related, “but in many places there was a major dilemma, because there were no Chinuch Atzmai schools. The only option in those places was to have the children sign up for state religious schools. The question was whether we should advocate state religious schools instead of secular public schools, or if it would be better to take no action at all. There were two different schools of thought on the subject.”

The quandary facing the activists was very clear. On the one hand, ordinary public schools taught not a word of Torah and were anti-religion. On the other hand, the state religious schools taught a watered-down Judaism, and the end result of the education there was far from desirable. Under the circumstances, the young activists were unsure of what to do. Should they avoid the subject altogether, or should they at least try to help the children in some way, even if they would then be actively placing them on a path toward becoming at least partial sinners? It is a dilemma, in fact, that is applicable today in various contexts as well.

At the time, there was a movement within Agudas Yisroel known as Zeirei Agudas Yisroel. The rabbonim of the movement were the Steipler Gaon and Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach, and its most prominent representative was Rav Shlomo Lorintz. The organization was involved in kiruv and offered various shiurim, and its members included a number of well-known askonim. “The position of Zeirei Agudas Yisroel was that it shouldn’t be done,” Rav Katz related, “but the Pe’ylim felt that they should encourage registration in state religious schools. Now, Pe’ylim had many representatives in yeshivos, but there was no one representing Zeirei Agudas Yisroel. I was forced to be the only representative of the movement in the Ponovezh Yeshiva.

“Ultimately, it was decided that we would present the dilemma to Rav Aharon Kotler, who was visiting Eretz Yisroel at the time for the Knessiah Gedolah. We tried to meet with him at the home where he was staying, but when we arrived he had already left for a meeting of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah. We followed him to the Agudas Yisroel office in Yerushalayim. We arrived, and we sat and waited for him to emerge. After the meeting had ended, the gedolim left to daven Minchah, and we joined that very special minyan. I remember that in the middle of the davening, a loud bang echoed throughout the room. I turned to the source of the sound, and I saw that the Bais Yisroel had pounded on the bimah. A secular newspaper was lying there, and he motioned for Rav Shlomo Zalman Moses, secretary of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah at the time, to remove it from the room immediately.

“After davening,” Rav Katz concluded, “we approached Rav Aharon Kotler and presented our dilemma. He listened to the question with great solemnity. It was clear that he was struggling with it. He asked us repeatedly if there was any way to have the children register for Chinuch Atzmai schools. We said that there wasn’t. He did not give us an answer.”






Walking the Walk Have you ever had the experience of recognizing someone in the distance simply by the way they walk? I have, many times.

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