My Take on the News

The Prime Minister Travels the World

While the people of Israel are busy dealing with all sorts of issues, the prime minister of Israel has been doing what makes him feel best: traveling abroad. Last week, he visited the World Economic Forum in Davos, where he met with many European leaders. Prime Minister Netanyahu held meeting after meeting with senior European officials, including Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, President Emmanuel Macron of France, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada, and the prime minister of Belgium, Charles Michel. The meetings revolved around the Israeli demand for Europe to take the threat of a nuclear Iran more seriously. Netanyahu has been working to persuade the entire world to change the nuclear pact signed by Obama. The climax of his flurry of meetings came on Thursday evening (Israeli time), when Netanyahu met with President Trump, who spoke out sharply against the Palestinians. Netanyahu was pleased to have found a listening ear, and he returned to Israel boasting of his success. The Israeli media, however, were quick to note that Merkel had rejected his arguments. As I mentioned during his recent trip to India, things are sweet for the prime minister when he is abroad, but the situation in Israel is quite sour.

Now that I mentioned Obama, I should note that many in Israel believe that his secretary of state, John Kerry, has become the new advisor to Abu Mazen, who has openly announced his opposition to President Trump.

This week, Netanyahu went to Moscow to meet with President Vladimir Putin of Russia. During their meeting, the two leaders will discuss three important issues: the Russian involvement in Syria; Iran’s entrenchment on the northern border, its involvement in terror, and the nuclear agreement; and the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Today, Putin is the most important – and perhaps the only – patron of Syrian President Assad, who has committed acts of mass murder against his own citizens.

Nevertheless, none of these meetings with foreign officials will be of any benefit to Netanyahu if the attorney general – or an official in the Ministry of Justice – decides that he should be indicted. This week, there were some hints as to what we can expect. The attorney general has indicated that he will not press charges against Netanyahu without greater certainty that he will be convicted. If Netanyahu is tried and acquitted, the prosecution will be mortified. This comment, however, related only to the allegations that Netanyahu accepted illicit gifts. That leaves us to wonder whether he may be indicted in one of the other cases against him.

The Muezzin Law Becomes a Hot Topic

Many other things happened this past week. First and foremost, there is the best news that we have received over the past couple of months – the arrival of rain. Our country has been pleading with Hashem for rain, and the rain finally came in large quantities. As usual, the precipitation also led to flooding in the streets and caused streams to overflow. It is as if this country has never experienced rain before and had no idea how to prepare for it. Every year, it seems that Israel is surprised once again by the winter weather. In some cases, the flooding nearly resulted in fatalities.

The elections for local governments will take place in about a year, and everyone is beginning to prepare. Of course, our primary interest is in what will happen in the large religious cities (Beit Shemesh, Modiin Illit, and Beitar Illit), as well as the smaller municipalities (Rechasim, Elad, and Emanuel). All of these cities are under religious control. Certain political overtures have begun to be made, and I am concerned that we may be about to witness some power struggles as well.

Then there is the Muezzin Law, which is supposed to prevent the muezzins – the loudspeakers over which the Muslims blast their prayers – from being sounded too loudly. It is a very reasonable measure, but when it was first discussed in the Knesset, the Arabs begged us not to support the law; they consider it an encroachment on one of their most precious values. We did not accede to their pleas, and we joined the rest of the coalition in supporting the bill.

This week, the legislative committees were supposed to finish discussing the law and to bring it to the Knesset plenum for an additional vote. This time, though, we announced that we would not support the coalition by voting for the bill. The reason: The Arabs taught us a lesson by voting against the Supermarket Law. They told us explicitly, “When you say that something is critical for you, such as Shabbos or the draft exemption for yeshiva bochurim, we stay on the side and do not interfere. Sometimes, we even help you. But when we asked the same of you regarding the Muezzin Law, you opposed us. That is the end of our friendly understanding.”

We had another reason to oppose the bill, as well: It is a flagship piece of legislation for Yisrael Beiteinu, the party headed by Avigdor Lieberman. Lieberman defied us by opposing the Supermarket Law, and we saw no reason to give him the gift of voting for his bill.

After the chareidim announced that they would not support the Muezzin Law, the vote was postponed. The initiative has become a controversial issue on a national level.

Anti-Semitism on the Rise

International Holocaust Remembrance Day was commemorated a few days ago. The Ministry of Diaspora Affairs – which is headed by Naftali Bennett, who also serves as Minister of Education – recently publicized some worrying statistics about the frequency of premeditated crimes against Jews throughout the world. According to a report presented by Bennett at a cabinet meeting, the number of hate crimes spiked mainly in Western Europe. The report revealed that the year 2017 saw the greatest number of anti-Semitic incidents in Great Britain since 1984. In 2017, there was a 78 percent increase in incidents of physical violence against Jews, as well as a 30 percent increase in the total number of anti-Semitic incidents in the country.

An increase in anti-Semitic incidents was reported in Germany as well. Blatant anti-Semitism on the part of Muslims has also been recorded in Germany. Severe incidents of anti-Semitism were reported in France in 2017, and the number of anti-Semitic incidents reported in Ukraine has doubled. There were dozens of reports of vandalism of statues, cemeteries, museums and shuls in the city of Odessa.

Last May, the Pew Research Center conducted a study in 18 different countries in eastern and central Europe, polling 2,000 residents of each country. The researchers found that 20 percent of the respondents were not interested in having Jews in their countries, and 30 percent of them did not wish to have Jews as neighbors. In addition, 22 percent of the citizens of Romania and 18 percents of the citizens of Poland favored stripping the Jews of the right to citizenship in their countries.

Perhaps you are interested in the details in Bennett’s report about America. Although these reports do not always reflect the reality, he claimed that there are some worrying trends in America as well. The extreme right has increased in strength, a process that reached its peak at the right-wing march in Charlottesville labeled “Unite the Right.” America has also witnessed a rise in hate speech among radical left-wing groups, mainly on college campuses. The anti-Israeli propaganda on campus has caused Jewish students to feel unsafe and unable to express pro-Israeli or Zionist views. It is possible, though, that the report equates hatred of the State of Israel with hatred of Jews, even though the two are not always the same.

In any event, Bennett commented, “Anti-Semitism is the dangerous fuel that has always driven our enemies. We must make sure that every Jew, everywhere in the world, will be able to live his life with security and pride.”

The Presidents in the Knesset

Last week, we were visited by Vice President Mike Pence. I have been working in the Knesset for many years, and have seen many prominent visitors from America pass through its halls, including Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama. Clinton was a very affable guest, and the ring of security personnel around him wasn’t too tight during his visit; there was no problem approaching him for a handshake and a photograph. When he visited the Knesset, he met with the parents of Nachshon Wachsman Hy”d and embraced them. The meeting made for an emotional picture.

George Bush – the son – likewise visited the Knesset during his presidential tenure without being tightly encircled by bodyguards, and shook hands freely with the people he met. It should be noted that Bush visited the Knesset prior to becoming president as well. During that visit, he joked with his hosts that he was destined to become the president. “You should take a picture with me,” he told one of the workers who was assigned to guide him through the building. “That way, you will have a picture with the president of the United States.” Everyone laughed at his joke. In retrospect, it turned out that he was right…

I also saw Clinton when he came to Israel for Shimon Peres’s funeral. At that time, he visited the Knesset as a former president of the United States, and it was possible even to exchange a few words with him.

During one of Obama’s visits to Israel, I spotted him in the Wohl Rose Park across from the Knesset. When I arrived at the Knesset that day, I saw a helicopter landing on the helipad across from the Knesset, and I surmised that there was bound to be someone interesting there. I drove up to the entrance to the park, and I saw two jeeps from the American embassy parked next to the helipad, with a tall, thin man emerging from one of them. That man was Obama. He had arrived from a visit to Sderot. This took place long before he was elected president, but since he had already announced his candidacy, he was entitled to a certain amount of security provided by the embassy. He left the black van and prepared to board the helicopter. Several dozen Israelis, who had been visiting the park, were standing nearby, watching the helicopter land and take off. Obama approached the spectators, talked to them briefly, shook their hands, and had his picture taken with them. A little more than a year later, though, he became the president of the United States.

This time, for Mike Pence’s visit, security was not only exceptionally tight; the security forces were practically in a state of hysteria. All of the usual Monday entry permits to the Knesset were revoked. Knesset members were asked not to invite guests, and the third floor, where the Knesset plenum is located, was off limits to anyone who hadn’t received an invitation to the event. I had received an invitation. One of my coworkers wanted so badly to be invited that I offered him my invitation and told him to ask to be admitted in my place, but his request was refused.

To be honest, as much as we anticipated that Pence’s speech would be sympathetic, we could never have imagined how friendly it would be. Everyone there was moved by the vice president’s words and the pro-Israel sentiments he voiced. The government ministers and members of the Knesset applauded over and over. Pence received several standing ovations, as is customary in the Congress of the United States. When he spoke about preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear armaments, and when he promised that the American embassy will move to Yerushalayim before the end of the civil year, Netanyahu nearly broke into a dance.

Pence stood at the podium in the Knesset, and I looked at the former Knesset members who sat in the plenum, in a row of chairs that had been brought for that purpose. The former lawmakers were enjoying their few minutes of fame. At these events, chairs are set up for the former MKs in the back of the room, but they are also allowed to take the empty seats belonging to current members of the Knesset. Their faces were shining with joy, as if they felt that no one heard about them anymore and this was their sole opportunity for publicity. All of those people had once thought that the country would fall apart without them. Eventually, they came to their senses and realized that they were not nearly so critical. That realization will yet come for all the politicians who are currently in office.

There was one thing I noticed that troubled me very much. One of the ushers brought a cup of water to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s seat in the center of the room. The usher stood behind the prime minister and placed the cup on the table in front of him, and Netanyahu did not even turn around. Not only did he not thank the usher, but he didn’t even look at him. I felt that there was something wrong with that.

I was also troubled by something else: Netanyahu concluded his own address with the words “G-d bless America.” Why does Mike Pence have to come to Israel in order for Netanyahu to mention G-d? When I listened to Pence, I realized that he is not afraid to give thanks to Hashem either. May Hashem bless all of us, and may He take away our inabilities to see the reality for what it is.

Mike Pence’s Jewish Aide

Netanyahu was still in India when Mike Pence arrived in Israel. Therefore, the vice president was greeted at the airport on Sunday evening by Yariv Levin, the Minister of Tourism. Levin is a charming person. I am personally friendly with him, and he has already agreed to be interviewed for Yated Ne’eman and to share his thoughts about Pence’s visit.

I was very curious about the identity of one man I spotted in Pence’s entourage, who was wearing a yarmulka. Pence was accompanied by a large retinue, which included dozens of reporters. That caused some difficulties. For instance, half of the VIP gallery in the Knesset had to be reserved for the vice president’s companions, and that meant that many of the Israeli reporters who regularly work in the Knesset had to be displaced. In any event, it was the religious Jew accompanying Pence who caught my eye.

That same man was at Pence’s side during his meeting with the prime minister. Both sides of the table were lined with the two leaders’ advisors during their meeting, and the mysterious man, who wore a yarmulka and looked very much like an Israeli, was seated on Pence’s side of the table. Before long, I discovered that the man, whose name is Tom Rose, is a senior advisor to the vice president, and has previously worked in Israel as the publisher of the Jerusalem Post. Rose was born and grew up in Indianapolis, Indiana, the state where Pence served as governor. He is an alumnus of Brandeis University and holds a master’s degree from Columbia University, where he completed his studies in 1985. Rose began his career in journalism and then moved into politics.

Tom Rose worked as a freelancer for CBS Radio in South Africa and then in the Philippines, but during the Gulf War he decided to take a break from his work and volunteered for the IDF. In 1988, he began serving as the publisher of the Jerusalem Post and therefore spent time living in Israel with his family. There are times when we suffer from the influence of religious Jews who have close ties with non-Jewish leaders. However, it seems that Rose’s impact on his boss has been positive.

A Birthday for the Knesset

In Israel, Tu B’Shevat is considered the birthday of the Knesset. Well, Tu B’Shevat is here, and the Knesset building is being prepared for its birthday celebration.

Every year, the Jewish brains in the Knesset come up with new ideas for the celebration. Most of the events are of the type that the chareidi politicians cannot attend, such as events featuring female singers. Perhaps I should have said, though, that these events are the products of Russian brains; the previous director-general of the Knesset was Ronen Plut, who is now serving as the mayor of Nazareth Illit, while the current director-general is Albert Sacharowitz, his former assistant. Both are Russian immigrants. This year, incidentally, there will be a backgammon tournament.

Aside from being the epicenter of Israel’s political scene, the Knesset is also the workplace of hundreds of people working in dozens of different fields: spokesmen, graphic artists, printing professionals, committee workers, members of its legal department, secretaries, gardeners and janitors, electricians, researchers, bookkeepers, and many others. The employees of the Knesset feel that they are all members of a large family, a phenomenon that likely does not exist in any other government office. The bonds between them are evident on various occasions – at family celebrations and times of mourning alike, as well as when a member of the Knesset staff retires.

This past week, we bade farewell to one of the maintenance workers at the Knesset as he began his retirement, and hundreds of employees became highly emotional upon his departure. In fact, this man is an incredible person. In Russia, he once fell into a steel mixer and suffered serious injuries. One of his hands has been paralyzed since that time. Both of his sons are scientists, and he has worked in the Knesset for years and has received several awards. When he bade us farewell, all of us wiped away a few tears.

Does Coercion Cause Antagonism?

This week, I had occasion for a bitter laugh when MK Yehuda Glick was interviewed in the Knesset by Hakol Kalul, a program dealing with economic issues. Glick always begins his speeches in the Knesset by greeting “the sweet members of the Knesset.” In this case, he had a unique greeting for his interviewer: “May you have an outpouring of favor from Heaven.” It was certainly a creative way to begin the conversation.

In any event, when Glick was asked about the Supermarket Law, he opined that any form of coercion creates antagonism. To quote his exact words, “I don’t believe that the Supermarket Law will lead to any progress. It will not cause anyone to observe Shabbos, and it will not lead anyone to love Shabbos.”

Why did I laugh? Because this question was actually tangential. The main subject of the interview was Glick’s proposal to place restrictions on advertisements for cigarettes in the media and to raise the minimum age for purchasing cigarettes to 21. Sweet Yehuda, I thought, don’t you know that coercion causes antagonism? I have heard that in America, the authorities wanted to repeal the ban on advertisements for cigarettes when they discovered that the number of smokers in the country had increased since the ban went into effect.

When I heard Glick speaking to his interviewer, I wished that I could interrupt him and say, “Yehuda, why do you want to outlaw cigarette advertisements? Do you think that is the way to cause someone to stop smoking – by force? By withholding information from him? I thought that coercion causes antagonism. Isn’t that what you said?” Yehuda, all I can say is: May you have an outpouring of favor from Heaven.

Tibi, Stern, and the Knesset Regulations

Here is yet another story from the Knesset: Almost every week, MK Elazar Stern finds another excuse to attack us. Last week, he outdid himself with his lack of courtesy.

It was the evening, and Deputy Minister of Education Meir Porush was scheduled to respond to the parliamentary queries that had been submitted to him. At that time, Stern made the unusual – and, one might add, disgraceful – move of withdrawing his query. His question dealt with the draft for girls, and he did not want Porush to respond to it.

In order for anyone to be permitted to address the Knesset, there must be a basis in the regulations of the Knesset to permit them to speak. On that day, Stern waited until Yaakov Margi had finished delivering a motion for the agenda concerning the hazardous materials left by the army in the vicinity of Elad. If the deputy minister responding to Margi had proposed transferring the subject to a committee, any member of the Knesset could have asked to submit a motion for it to be removed from the agenda. That would have made him entitled to address the plenum. In this case, though, the minister answered Margi’s question and the latter accepted his response. This meant that there was no basis for allowing anyone else to deliver an address. Nevertheless, Stern raised his hand.

Meirav Ben-Ari (Kulanu) interjected, “Margi accepted the answer.”

Ahmed Tibi, who was chairing the sitting, said to Stern, “If he accepted the answer, you may not speak.”

“Why not?” Stern objected.

“Nevertheless,” Tibi continued, “you are fortunate that the chairman of this sitting is a leader with a generous heart. When I am in charge, I am magnanimous. I am allowing you to speak, beyond the letter of the law.”

“Mr. Chairman,” Stern said, “would the deputy minister wait another minute and a half in order to listen?”

“You should first thank the chairman, who has bent the rules to permit you to speak,” Tibi admonished him.

Therefore, I am withdrawing these questions. I will forgo hearing his responses, and I will submit the questions in writing to the Minister of Education. I hope that he will at least respond to me in writing.”

“You exploited the chairman’s generosity to speak about an unrelated subject!” Tibi said.

“Absolutely,” Margi concurred.

But that is Elazar Stern. He misled Tibi by pretending to have a comment on the subject under discussion, he abused the permission he had been granted to address the Knesset plenum, and he insulted Porush. In my view, Tibi made a mistake by allowing him to speak. According to the Knesset regulations, there was no basis for it at all.

Like Father, Like Son

Yair Lapid is just as arrogant as his father was. And like his father before him, as soon as he detects the scent of political gain, he pounces on his prey. Both Lapids have exuded derision and hatred for religious Jews. Their tactics attract voters, who are taken in by the propaganda that claims that we are transforming the country into a state of halacha. And there are certainly people within our own community who have fueled their success. When chareidi “journalists” attack our elected representatives for seeming to be inactive on certain issues, and then our political leaders are forced to explain their tactics, it plays directly into the hands of our enemies.

After the Supermarket Law was passed, Lapid sent an e-mail to his supporters with the following comments: “Hi Shlomi… Yesterday, there was an incredible scene during the vote on the Supermarket Law. At 3:30 in the morning, the opposition won a vote on a minor reservation that was completely irrelevant to the law itself. The prime minister and the other government ministers ran to MK Litzman to beg him to ignore it and to allow the voting to continue. It was incredible to see their response. Litzman raised his hand and waved them away, like a person driving away flies, and they backed off in confusion and returned shamefacedly to their seats… This is not the Netanyahu I know. Something is rotten there… Everyone who has been around him has been saying that something bad is happening. It is dangerous and it is taking us to very bad places… In recent months, we have been fighting for the values that have always driven us and that continue to drive us today. Specifically in these days, when the government is busy looking out for itself and passing unnecessary laws, it is important to remember the principles that we founded this party to uphold.”

Lapid will pounce on every mistake we make. He has zero accomplishments of his own, but he is a master of taking advantage of every opportunity for self-aggrandizement. He respects no limits and has no red lines, and that is why it is so imperative for us to curb his growth. At the moment, he is gaining popularity. The polls show that he is approaching the same number of mandates as the Likud party is projected to win. And that is definitely very bad.

The Yungeleit of the Bais Hamussar

I recently attended a hachnosas Sefer Torah at Bais Shlomo, a bais medrash in the neighborhood of Neve Yaakov in Yerushalayim. Bais Shlomo is affiliated with the Bais Hamussar in the neighborhood. Rabbi Eliezer Wolbe, a grandson of Rav Shlomo Wolbe zt”l and son of Reb Avrohom Wolbe of Monsey, oversees both the Bais Hamussar and Bais Shlomo. The yungeleit are baalei mussar. It is evident in the way they dance, the way they sing, and the way they daven. When I was a talmid at the Yeshiva of Be’er Yaakov, the mashgiach, Rav Wolbe, used to watch us dancing in the bais medrash on Simchas Torah. He instructed us to dance for no less than an hour to the words “vechayei olam nota besocheinu.” He disapproved of quick transitions from one song to another. He felt that the conduct was not sufficiently serious.

When the dancing concluded, while the participants made their way to the seudah, a few yungeleit stayed behind to sweep the floor of the bais medrash and to clean up the food and beverages that had spilled. These were the type of yungeleit produced by the Bais Hamussar. The bais medrash was empty, the joyous atmosphere of celebration still hung in the air, and off to one side, a single yungerman was still immersed in the Shemoneh Esrei of Maariv from the minyan that had taken place immediately after the dancing. That is yet another example of what it means to belong to a Bais Hamussar.

Founding the Bais Hamussar was one of Rav Shlomo Wolbe’s most cherished aspirations. Teaching the yungeleit to daven with the utmost seriousness was one of the cornerstones of his approach. In Bais Shlomo, the davening is conducted in accordance with the mashgiach’s ideals. Davening begins earlier than in other shuls and proceeds at a slow pace. There is a minyan for every tefillah.

The seudas mitzvah, which was also imbued with great emotion and intensity, was attended by a number of roshei yeshivos and mashgichim, including Rav Elazar Schwartzman, a son-in-law of Rav Wolbe, and Rav Binyomin Finkel.

In his speech, Rabbi Eliezer Wolbe said, “I invite every yungerman to daven with us and to experience davening with a greater investment of effort, as it should be.” In a kuntrus published in honor of the event, he wrote, “To bochurim who complain that they do not have a sense of satisfaction in davening, I recommend doing what my grandfather did during bein hazemanim, when he had to daven in shtieblach. He would daven slowly and deliberately, reciting every word of Birchos Hashachar, Pesukei Dezimrah, and the brachos of Krias Shema. Then he would find a minyan that was about to begin Borchu, and he would join them and daven Shemoneh Esrei and the rest of Shacharis with them.” Nevertheless, Reb Eliezer adds, this is recommended only when there is no place available where one can daven regularly with greater intensity. “When there is such a place,” he concludes, “they should realize that davening encompasses all of the vitality and emotion that can affect all the other parts of our avodas Hashem. How could anyone give up such an important component of our lives, which is essentially the heart of our existence? …My grandfather often said that every gadol in Torah was also a gadol in tefillah.”