My Take on the News

Of Putin and Poland

As I told you last week, Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu is greeted with respect on his travels abroad, but in Israel he is received with far less warmth. Last week, he traveled to Moscow. There were many pictures of his visit to the Jewish Holocaust Museum with President Putin and Rabbi Berel Lazar. However, that was not the purpose of his visit. Russia is a major force in the Middle East today, and Putin provides political – and military – protection for President Assad of Syria, allowing him to do as he pleases.

Netanyahu traveled to Russia not only to solicit Putin’s opposition to Obama’s nuclear pact with Iran, but also to persuade him that the Russian influence in the Middle East has been detrimental to the region. For now, though, Netanyahu hasn’t been very successful in swaying him, although it seems that there has been a small amount of progress. Experts claim that Putin’s rigid stance toward Israel stems from his hostility toward Donald Trump. In reality, though, we know that the hearts of kings are in the Hand of Hashem. We cannot fathom the Divine calculations that are the reasons for the actions of world leaders.

This past week found us embroiled in another tense international situation as well, when the government of Poland passed a law that prohibits associating Poland with the crimes of the Holocaust. This sparked widespread outrage in Israel, eliciting many fierce responses. Holocaust survivors were interviewed by the media on the subject. Can anyone really deny that the Poles committed pogroms against the Jews, that they delivered Jews into the Nazis’ hands and stole their property? Does anyone claim that the Poles didn’t hate us? Netanyahu ordered Israel’s ambassador in Poland to speak to the press (on Shabbos, no less) and to protest the passage of the law. The Polish deputy ambassador to Israel was also called to the Foreign Ministry to be berated for his government’s actions.

Finally, the truth of the matter became clear. The Poles objected only to one thing: the fact that the concentration camps were described as “Polish death camps.” They do not deny their country’s involvement in the Holocaust, and they even consider themselves morally indebted to the Jews in some ways. Nevertheless, they insist that the death camps were not Polish camps; they were German camps erected on Polish soil.

 

The Submarine Case Takes a New Turn

Meanwhile, things at home have been quite unpleasant for Netanyahu. First of all, a recording from ten years ago recently came to light in which the prime minister’s wife can be heard screaming as if she were deranged. It was very embarrassing for the family, but Netanyahu responded with aplomb, “Can any of you claim that you have never become angry in the past ten years?”

And then there are the police investigations. One of the country’s newspapers released the bombshell revelation that there have been new developments in the submarine affair and that Netanyahu is due to be questioned under warning. In contrast to ordinary questioning, this would mean that the prime minister is himself considered a suspect in the case. Until this point, Netanyahu was not seen as having any connection to the affair, in which millions of dollars changed hands. Now, that seems to have changed.

This is a much bigger problem for Netanyahu than his other legal woes. This is not a story of a shady agreement with the publisher of a newspaper or the acceptance of gifts of cigarettes and champagne. This is a far more severe offense. If it is true, it would mean that the prime minister made decisions that affected the country’s security and its military on the basis of financial gain. The article claimed that the police asked the attorney general for permission to investigate Netanyahu’s role in the affair and that the attorney general hasn’t yet given them permission to do so. By law, the attorney general must authorize any investigation into a government minister or member of the Knesset (as well as a judge or dayan). That sounds like a fairly severe allegation, but the attorney general’s office has responded that the claim is untrue.

The ups and downs of Netanyahu’s life are simply remarkable. The more accolades he receives on his travels abroad (in America, India, Switzerland, and Russia), the more he is drawn into a legal quagmire on his home turf where he is constantly under investigation, his phone lines are tapped, and his name is blackened repeatedly by the press.

 

The Day Netanyahu Forgot Something at Home

Speaking of Netanyahu’s frequent travels, I happen to know that he returned to Yerushalayim last Friday at 3:12 p.m., slightly more than an hour before Shabbos. How do I know that? Because my apartment overlooks the highway leading into the city, and whenever the prime minister’s motorcade passes by, I can hear the sirens and see the convoy of cars. Of course, I have no doubt that he was able to get ready for Shabbos on time despite his late arrival.

Two weeks ago, when Netanyahu left the country to visit India, I was able to observe another interesting scene. As his convoy was about to leave Yerushalayim, the prime minister apparently realized that he had forgotten something at home and made a U-turn instead of heading out of the city. (Or maybe it was Mrs. Netanyahu who forgot something?) It was very clear that he had made a sudden decision to turn back, since the first couple of cars in the motorcade continued on their way out of Yerushalayim, while Netanyahu’s own car, along with the ones behind it, made an about-face and drove back in the direction from which they had come. What did he forget? Why did he turn back? Those are questions that I can’t answer.

 

Edelstein Bashes the Prime Minister

 

There has also been a good deal of commotion within the Likud. The speaker of the Knesset, Yuli Edelstein, recently held a closed meeting with several journalists from the national religious sector, insisting that his comments were to be kept off the record. Among other things, he spoke against Prime Minister Netanyahu, and a recording of those comments was leaked and broadcast on Israeli radio. This ignited a massive uproar. Edelstein was humiliated. He is a senior member of the Likud party, and is considered second only to the president in ceremonial status. He also aspires to become president himself one day, following in the footsteps of his predecessor, who served as Knesset speaker before being elected to the presidency. Edelstein has also considered vying to succeed Netanyahu at the helm of the Likud party. But this recording has brought the wrath of the party’s upper echelons upon him.

In the same conversation, Edelstein spoke about the other members of the party as well, commenting that he would have been pleased if half of them were not in the Knesset. He also spoke disparagingly of the candidates in the Likud primaries. Of course, his remarks were directed largely at MK Oren Hazan, whom Edelstein detests, but since he expressed disapproval of the prime minister and of half the members of the party, there is tremendous anger against him.

MK Oren Hazan – the same member of the Knesset who took a selfie with President Trump during the latter’s visit to Israel – is universally seen as an unusual politician. Edelstein fights him in any way he can, but Hazan reacts in kind. This past week, Hazan received a severe and possibly unprecedented penalty from the Knesset Ethics Committee: He was barred from the Knesset for a period of six months. During this time, he will not be allowed to speak in the Knesset, to submit parliamentary queries, or to introduce new bills. He will be permitted only to vote; that is a privilege that cannot be denied to him, since he is one of the 120 elected members of the Knesset. This penalty ignited a major controversy in Israel. Many people were pleased by it, but others protested and claimed that it was excessive. Next week, bli neder, I plan to write about it at length.

 

Contaminating the Sacred with the Mundane

Last week, I mentioned to you that there would be a backgammon tournament in the Knesset on Tu B’Shevat. Did you believe me? I wouldn’t blame you if you hadn’t. But the tournament took place. Here is the text of the Knesset’s official announcement: “This morning, the Chagall hall hosted the first Knesset backgammon tournament, an initiative of MKs Dovid Amsalem and Zouheir Bahloul. MKs Yehuda Glick, Omer Bar-Lev, Oren Hazan, Leah Fadida, Hamad Amar, Mussi Raz, and Meirav Ben-Ari took part in the tournament. Knesset speaker Yuli Yoel Edelstein defeated former Defense Minister MK Amir Peretz, who competed against him.” The trophy, known as the “Golden Finjan,” was won by MK Hazan. Amsalem, who played against Hazan, claimed that the dice were weighted.

There were also other events in honor of the Knesset’s birthday. One of those events was a special sitting to mark the 69th anniversary of the Knesset’s founding. At the sitting, which was held on Wednesday, Prime Minister Netanyahu and Yitzchok Herzog, the leader of the opposition, addressed the Knesset. According to the Knesset regulations, whenever the prime minister speaks, he is to be followed by the leader of the opposition. It was somewhat awkward to see Edelstein and Netanyahu together after the recording of Edelstein’s remarks was released to the public.

There was also a tree-planting ceremony in the archaeological garden near the Knesset. That, at least, was an acknowledgement of Tu B’Shevat. The ceremony was the brainchild of a former member of the Knesset, Ruth Calderon. Calderon was joined in her initiative by Rachel Azaria and Aliza Lavie, another two Knesset members with warped views of their own. These three politicians are people whose outlooks we consider particularly tragic, precisely because of their knowledge of tradition.

There was also the tefillah in the Knesset shul. Every year on Tu B’Shevat, there is a festive Mincha in the Knesset shul. This Mincha is attended by the Knesset speaker, who is a regular participant in the minyanim there, and by the director-general of the Knesset, who is not a regular presence in the shul. It is also attended by one of the chief rabbis of Yerushalayim or of Israel. Two or three years ago, Rav Yitzchok Yosef delivered a speech in which he excoriated the members of the Knesset for promoting laws that are opposed to the Torah. I wrote about his speech at the time. Last week, Rav Dovid Lau was the guest of honor. He delivered a speech that is worthy of being quoted. Next week, I will try to present some excerpts.

 

A Sampling of the Latest Laws

From time to time, I report about various proposed laws, some of which are sensible while others are downright bizarre, among the hundreds that are submitted for the Knesset’s consideration. Yaakov Litzman, before he became a deputy minister, advanced two bills, one concerning Shabbos wages and the other setting certain criteria for a candidate to serve as prime minister. After he was appointed to his ministerial position, those bills were canceled; a minister or deputy minister is not permitted to draft legislation, to submit parliamentary queries, or to file motions for the agenda. The ministers of the government are members of the executive branch of the government, rather than the parliamentary branch, and therefore cannot take part in legislative activities. I believe that the first of Litzman’s two laws was adopted by Yisroel Eichler. The other, despite the publicity it received, has not yet been taken up by a different member of the Knesset.

There are a few new bills that are worthy of mention. For instance, MK Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin submitted a bill that would apply a halachic definition to the memorial day for Yitzchok Rabin – i.e., the day would begin on the previous night. “The memorial day is to begin at sunset on the night of the 12th of Cheshvan and to end with tzeis hakochavim on the following day,” the bill states. I am not sure whether to laugh or cry about that.

Two proposed laws dealing with the Kosel were submitted by women who consider themselves religious, but who are members of secular parties. These bills would place restrictions on the rov of the Kosel, Rav Shmuel Rabinovich, and would require biennial reports to be filed on the events that are held there. One of the bills, which was drafted by Aliza Lavie in collaboration with a movement called Ne’emanei Torah V’Avodah, would also limit his term to five years.

Another three laws, all of which were drafted by the Russian contingent in the Knesset, deal with Israelis who are not halachically Jewish, and with the proper registration of such individuals on their ID cards. Yair Lapid’s gang also submitted a bill that would overturn the recently passed Supermarket Law.

In another of her initiatives, Aliza Lavie is attempting to pass a law that would permit women to serve as the directors of rabbinic botei din. Meanwhile, Motti Yogev introduced a law that would commemorate the life of Rav Avrohom Yitzchok Kook. In the explanatory text, he admits that his bill mimics the similar laws regarding Binyomin Zev Herzl and Zev Jabotinsky.

Another bill, drafted by Oded Forer, seemed strange to me. The bill calls for municipal governments to publish tenders in Hebrew and to make them accessible to the general public. I approached Forer and questioned him about the reason for his bill. “What prompted this? Have you seen advertisements in Yiddish or in Amharic?” I asked.

“There are some Arab municipalities that publish their tenders in the Arabic language, and only in Arabic newspapers. The Jewish public doesn’t even become aware of them!” he explained.

“They probably don’t want to use the Zionist language and they don’t want Jewish contractors applying for the jobs,” I conjectured.

“Not only that,” Forer told me, “but they invite contractors to tour the sites on Shabbos. What Jewish contractor would want to participate in a tour that is held on Shabbos?”

 

An Invitation to the Reform Movement

I mentioned to you that Oren Hazan has been penalized by the Knesset Ethics Committee. At this time, he is at the center of a storm for another reason: During an Interior Committee discussion on the subject of African infiltrators, he shouted at a female “rabbi” who was participating in the debate, insisting that she remove her kippah. Now, I am certain that anyone who feels offended by the sight of a woman with a kippah can identify with Hazan’s sentiments. But there is a larger question here: Why was the woman present for the committee session in the first place?

I investigated the matter, and I learned that her name is Nava Hefetz and she represents the leftist organization known as Rabbis for Human Rights, which works to protect Arabs in Israel, as well as Eritrean and Sudanese illegal immigrants. I looked through the list of participants invited to the committee session. Of course, that list included members of various departments of the government, including the prime minister’s office, the Ministry of the Interior, the Foreign Ministry, the Ministry of Justice, and the police force. For some reason, the committee had also invited several university professors, along with representatives of the country’s municipal governments. Then there were other interested parties, including organizations that assist the infiltrators (Amnesty and the Israel Democracy Institute) and those who oppose them. A delegation was present from an entire village where the residents’ lives have been turned into a nightmare. But why were Rabbis for Human Rights invited to the discussion? How did the Reform movement inveigle themselves into the issue?

The Reform movement craves government recognition. Two weeks ago, during the debate over the Kosel agreement, the truth came out. Orly Erez-Lachovsky, the attorney representing them in court, admitted that the movement has “a desire for government recognition” and that “this is a broader struggle than the issue of the Kosel itself.”

Justice Yitzchok Amit replied to her, “You don’t need the law for that… The right to freedom of worship and access [to the Kosel] will be granted to you. This is a discussion over a fight for recognition, and over symbols… The question,” he reiterated, “is whether you are merely fighting over symbols.”

I could not imagine why the Knesset considers these people worthy of an invitation. Indeed, the Interior Ministry informed me that Reform organizations are not invited to the debates, but any organization may ask to be allowed to attend, and permission is granted unless there is a special reason to reject the request.

 

Two Fathers in Heaven

As time passes since the murder of Rabbi Raziel Shevach Hy”d, I am becoming increasingly aware of what an extraordinary person he was. The stories and articles that have emerged about him have exposed me to accounts of his tremendous goodness and purity. Once again, Hashem has taken one of the finest members of our people. This time, it was the jewel of Chavat Gilad and the Shomron. Raziel was a wonderful man who had only one goal in life: to do good for others. He is survived by six small children, who will grow up hearing many incredible stories about their father, but will never have the good fortune of seeing him in this world again.

This week, I read an interview conducted with his wife, Yael Shevach. Mrs. Shevach spoke about the telephone call that she received from her husband when he was shot, about her experience identifying him in the hospital and the Shema Yisroel before his passing, and about his funeral. She was also pained by the IDF operation launched in response to his murder, in which two soldiers were wounded. She related that her children had been told that their father passed away, and they asked what had happened. “I told them that terrorists shot him,” she said. “They asked if it hurt him, and what will happen now, and where he is now.” Then came the sentence that brought tears to my eyes: “My little boy, Ovadiah, who is three and a half years old, said something that he had learned at home. He asked me, ‘So now Abba is learning with Rav Ovadiah in Shomayim?’ That was his way of grasping what had happened.”

If I were able to talk to little Ovadiah, I would tell him that he was correct: that his father is indeed learning with Rav Ovadiah in Shomayim. And then I would tell him something else: An orphaned child once visited Rav Shach, who said to him, “Every child has one Father in Shomayim and one father here on earth. But you have something that none of your friends have: You have two fathers in Shomayim.”

 

A Call from Prison

It was a Monday afternoon when the call came. I wasn’t surprised by the number that appeared on the screen, since I am used to receiving phone calls from the Ramle prison. What surprised me was the ebullience in the caller’s voice. Every phone call that I receive from prison – whether it is Ramle Prison or Maasiyahu Prison, and especially from the religious wings – tends to be distressing. To say the least, the prisoners are not spending their time enjoying succulent platters of Tu B’Shevat fruits. On the contrary, it seems that the Prison Service specializes in making their lives torturous. They do everything in their power to create additional hardships for the prisoners. They constantly devise new methods of accomplishing that.

For instance, there is a rule that a prisoner who has not paid a fine or debt is not eligible for early parole. Well, how do they expect him to pay his debts while he is behind bars? In addition, any employee of the state who is incarcerated has his pension automatically frozen. But what happens to his mortgage, or to any debts that he incurred before his imprisonment? There is also the rule requiring a prisoner in the hospital to be chained to his bed. What is the purpose of that?

Several of the Prison Service’s edicts – such as the ban on bringing kittels into prison, which was enacted this past Erev Rosh Hashanah – have been rescinded. At the same time, I was told this week that the chaplains of the Prison Service have ceased distributing Shabbos candles to inmates. The distribution is no longer funded.

You can understand, then, why the phone number of the prison is so close to my heart. I will almost never reject an incoming call from that number. I cannot bear to ignore the suffering of an inmate in prison who feels compelled to seek my help.

In fact, there were two news items this week that gave me a jolt. One was the report that the government plans to ask the Supreme Court for a nine-year extension before implementing a requirement for every prisoner to have a minimum living space of 4.5 square meters. At this time, the inmates in the country’s cramped prisons are living under inhumane conditions. The government had previously considered increasing the parole rate in order to compensate for the crowding, by releasing first-time offenders – especially those who were convicted of financial crimes – after they had served half of their sentences, rather than two-thirds. Other inmates could be sentenced to community service instead of being kept in prison. The purpose would have been to change the dreadful conditions under which the prisoners are being kept today. But this report signaled that the government is reluctant to show mercy. I wondered who was responsible for the idea of requesting a nine-year extension. And why should it be for nine years, rather than a single year? Or, as one prisoner asked me, “Why didn’t they just ask for ninety years?”

The second item was actually a piece of good news: The District Court in Lod ruled that, in certain exceptional circumstances, it would be possible to release prisoners who did not pay the financial penalties that were imposed on them, provided that this was due to their limited economic means and not to a lack of remorse. Finally, someone was showing at least a modicum of compassion. This was a measure that was so obviously necessary. In fact, I once commented to the Minister of Justice, “You have decided that it is wrong to put people in prison for monetary debts. Doesn’t that mean that it is also wrong to keep them in prison because they have debts?” She simply shrugged in response.

Anyway, let us return to the prisoner who called me this Monday. The man is a talmid chochom, a yorei Shomayim, and a prodigious baal chesed. To those who are familiar with the case, which involved some sort of financial misconduct, it is unclear why he was sentenced to prison in the first place. In any event, he informed me that he ‘needed’ to speak to me. “Did you know that when you recite the brocha on besamim during Havdalah, you are supposed to hold the cup of wine in your left hand?” he asked.

I acknowledged that that was my practice.

“It is an explicit halachah,” he exclaimed. “It is cited in the Prisha in siman 297. He refers to a hadas, which was used for besamim at the time, and he cites the source – a Mordechai in Brachos. In fact, the Shulchan Aruch also says it explicitly, in se’if 6 of that siman. Can you believe it? I looked in the Piskei Teshuvah, and he cites the halacha as well, although he says that there are grounds for defending a person who does not have that practice.” That is the subject that was occupying his mind – in the darkness of prison.

 

When the Defendant is a Judge

Since we are discussing the so-called “rule of law” in the State of Israel, I would like to share another story with you. The chief justice of the District Court in Tel Aviv, Judge Eitan Orenstein, was recently indicted for talking on his cell phone while driving. He was issued a ticket and denied the charges, but the police officer who ticketed him insisted that his story was correct. As a result, criminal charges were pressed against the judge.

The court system released the following statement: “These charges result from the judge’s decision to be judged in court because he contests the facts of the crime… The case will be judged in a different jurisdiction, which will be chosen by the chief justice of the Supreme Court.”

Regardless of the outcome of the case, I wonder how Judge Orenstein will react in the future when a citizen and a police officer appear before him. The courts always give credence to a police officer’s version of every incident. Will Eitan Orenstein begin believing the ordinary citizens instead?

 

“Kipuach Nefesh”

The following is a true story. Two weeks ago, a young man I know was blessed with a baby girl. For a while, he was utterly euphoric, but as Shabbos approached, he had a practical concern. He approached one of the nurses in the maternity ward and asked her to refrain from making notations on Shabbos in the charts for his wife and newborn child.

“I don’t have a choice,” she said. “It’s kipuach nefesh.” Those were her precise words.

The young father went to speak to the rov, who was polite and gracious. “Don’t worry. It isn’t a problem,” the rov assured him. “On Shabbos, they use a special keyboard that works with the principle of grama. The information that they type is recorded only after time has passed.” Neither the young father nor I understood the technical details, but one thing was clear: This technological gimmick had cost Hadassah Hospital a hefty sum of money.

The man went back to the nurse and asked, “Is it true that you have a special keyboard to use on Shabbos?”

“It’s true,” she replied without looking up, “but it’s terribly frustrating to use. You type in the information and it takes time to appear. It’s maddening!”

“In that case,” he said, “please just don’t write anything that has to do with us. We’ll manage without it.”

“I can’t do that. It’s kipuach nefesh,” the nurse insisted. Then she added, “Don’t be more of a tzaddik than anyone else.”

After Shabbos, he called me to share his consternation. “You have to do something about this,” he insisted. “There is no reason and no heter for them to be mechallel Shabbos for something that is completely unnecessary.” He asked me to contact the Minister of Health – who is actually a deputy minister – or to write about the situation. “I know that there are people who read your column,” he added. I was hesitant. I am not eager to write against anyone, even a hospital. I am very reluctant to take the risk of damaging someone’s livelihood or offending someone.

“You know what?” he said, noting my hesitation. “Just arrange for me to meet with Litzman.”

A week later, he called again. I hadn’t done anything about the situation yet, but I answered the call anyway. I preferred to answer and apologize rather than have him call me repeatedly and then figure out on his own that nothing had been done. To my surprise, he greeted me by exclaiming, “I managed to work it out!”

“What?” I asked. “The nurses are going to start using the Shabbos keyboard?”

“No,” he said. “But last Friday, I went to buy some bottles of soda for our Kiddush, and you will never believe who was standing ahead of me on line.”

“Yaakov Litzman?” I guessed.

“Exactly! I told him about the situation in the hospital.”

“And what will he do?”

“I have no idea,” he confessed, “but I can tell you what he bought. I don’t know what he says about diet cola, but that is exactly what he purchased.”

 

The Money Tree

Here is one more story, for your entertainment: One afternoon, a father received a phone call from his son’s rebbi. “I don’t want to make you worried and I don’t suspect anything,” the rebbi said in an ominous tone. That statement was enough to cause the father to tremble. The rebbi went on, “Your son had 70 shekels in his pocket today. I don’t know where that money came from. I think you need to look into it.”

The father relaxed. “He has been saving up his money for over two years already, and he has exactly 70 shekels,” he informed the rebbi. “In fact, he just received 15 shekels for Chanukah. But of course, we will look into this. There is no reason for him to be bringing his money to cheder.”

When the child came home from his Tehillim group, the father brought up the issue of the money that he had brought to school. The child could not understand his father’s confusion. “We learned in cheder that when it rains, there is a brocha even on the money in our pockets. So I decided to put my own money in my pocket!” he said.

When I heard about this exchange, I was reminded of a story from my own childhood. In Be’er Yaakov, we lived near the train tracks, and our yard was filled with fruit trees. One day, my mother caught my older brother taking coins out of her wallet. She questioned him about his actions and he revealed his secret: “I planted the money in the yard.” He had hoped that a money-bearing tree would grow. He had even watered the “seeds” in order to hasten its appearance.