My Take on the News

Lingering Memories of Purim

On Thursday, it felt as if the entire country descended upon Bnei Brak. The next day, everyone flocked to Yerushalayim. In Bnei Brak, the streets were utterly impassable. A motorist who tried to traverse one of the main thoroughfares in the city (Rechov Rabi Akiva, Rechov Chazon Ish, Rechov Nechemiah, and, of course, any street in the Vizhnitz area) would be doing so at his own peril. It was impossible for a car to move. The streets were filled with people celebrating and rejoicing. The same was true in the frum neighborhoods of Yerushalayim.

Purim and Shushan Purim are days of intense activity for yeshiva bochurim in this country. In every yeshiva, the bochurim divide into groups and set out to collect money for the Tomchei Torah funds that assist the talmidim. All year long, these funds help bochurim of limited means purchase clothing; the money is also used to pay for the wedding expenses of bochurim who become engaged. The funds are collected on Purim, when the bochurim make their rounds in religious neighborhoods. The beautiful part of all this is that their refinement and nobility become evident precisely when they are drunk.

Here is a vort that I heard from one of the bochurim (although I have actually heard it in previous years as well). The Torah commands us, “You shall love Hashem with all your heart,” and Chazal explain that this teaches us to serve Hashem with both the yeitzer hatov and the yeitzer hara. This seems to be a peculiar statement: How can a person serve Hashem with the yeitzer hara? Why should a person ever listen to the yeitzer hara instead of the yeitzer hatov? Obviously, it is impossible to obey both the yeitzer hara and the yeitzer hatov at the same time. Why would anyone ever choose to comply with the yeitzer hara?

One of the bochurim answered this question as follows: “Let’s say that a group of bochurim come to collect money from you, and you are debating what to give them. Your yeitzer hatov tells you to donate a full thousand shekels, but your yeitzer hara tells you to give only 50. In that case, you should listen to both the yeitzer hatov and the yeitzer hara. You should give them one thousand and fifty shekels!”

Well, I hope that you enjoyed Purim as well. We are now on the road to Pesach. In a day or two, we will all be practically barred from entering our homes…

The Dispute Over the Draft Law

The joy of Purim was somewhat dampened by the ongoing battle over the draft law. The need to create a new law exempting yeshiva bochurim from the draft has been weighing on us for a long time. The Supreme Court gave the government one year to enact a new law that will satisfy the need for “equality”; the alternative is for all the talmidim in the country’s yeshivos to be drafted. The previous law was overturned by the court on the grounds that it was not “equal” – meaning that it discriminated in favor of yeshiva bochurim.

The chareidi representatives in the Knesset are therefore contending with a major responsibility. We do have some justification for assuming that the issue will be resolved; after all, Prime Minister Netanyahu signed a coalition agreement that requires a new law to be passed. On the other hand, we must always be concerned about anti-chareidi incitement and that the prime minister may be intimidated by the resulting public sentiments. Still, all we are asking is for the status quo to be preserved; a new law will fulfill the instructions of the court. But at the same time, there is always the possibility that someone from the coalition will announce that he is opposed to the law.

That last scenario is precisely what has now happened.

Last week, the chareidi lawmakers began insisting on passing the new law immediately – or at least getting it through the first stage of the legislative process. Their reason is that the Knesset is scheduled to begin its recess this week. The winter session might be extended by another week, albeit solely for the purpose of discussing the state budget. We wanted the draft law to be passed before the budget. In essence, this was an ultimatum: If the draft law is not passed, the chareidi legislators will not vote for the budget. And if a budget does not pass, the law considers the government to have fallen.

A draft of the new law was prepared. There were many discussions about exactly how to deal with the Supreme Court’s ruling, and several different versions of the law were proposed. Each version had its own advantages and disadvantages. Ultimately, it was decided that the law would dictate that any person involved in Torah learning, whether they are secular or religious, should be exempt from the draft. This law, which is highly unprecedented, would actually be worthy of an entire article on its own. We initially wanted the law to pass its preliminary reading last Wednesday. Without getting into the details, I will tell you that we failed. The question now is what will happen in the Knesset as you read this article.

Defense Minister Lieberman, who has recently assumed an anti-religious attitude, announced that he and his party will vote against the bill. To explain his refusal to honor his own commitment to the coalition agreement, Lieberman told a press conference, “We will support a bill only if it comes from the army.” At the same time, we managed to convince the Arabs to abstain from the vote. Lieberman’s party has five members in the Knesset (now that MK Orly Levi-Abekasis left them), while the Arabs have fourteen. That means that the balance is in our favor.

Netanyahu Under Investigation

Of course, the investigations into Prime Minister Netanyahu’s activities are continuing apace. In a separate article, I have written about the embarrassing facts that came to light in the Shalom Court in Tel Aviv during a hearing about extending the remand of the suspects in the Bezeq case. In that case, the investigator who was working for the Israel Securities Authority was caught exchanging text messages on his phone with the judge. It was later revealed that the judge and the investigator are old friends. In one of their exchanges, the judge wrote to him, “Please ask the police representative to return at 10:30. The court hasn’t yet returned from riding bicycles.” The investigator responded to her, “Okay. The court should be careful not to fall.”

This revelation sparked an uproar that shook the country. The Minister of Justice referred the case to former Justice Eliezer Rivlin, the ombudsman responsible for overseeing the courts. Rivlin decided that there was no need to press charges, and that an internal disciplinary hearing was sufficient to address the breach of protocol. He also criticized the judge sharply, calling her a “disgrace” and accusing her of improper conduct. “The relationship between the investigator and the judge should never have happened,” Rivlin said. It is unclear if the Minister of Justice will accept his recommendation. There is a reasonable chance that she will force the offending judge to resign.

As for Netanyahu himself, he prepared for his own interrogation, which was scheduled to take place at the beginning of this week. Netanyahu has already postponed the questioning several times. A leak from the police force revealed why they were so insistent on keeping two of the suspects (Shaul Elovitch of Bezeq and Nir Hefetz, a former spokesman for Prime Minister Netanyahu who subsequently turned state witness) in jail; the police do not want the two to be freed until after Netanyahu has been questioned. They want to see to it that there is no way for the prime minister to receive information from the suspects. That, at least, is understandable, even if the behavior of the police has been shameful in other areas. Netanyahu, for his part, is continuing to maintain a veneer of calm and normalcy.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu visited Washington. His trip was arranged so he could attend the AIPAC conference and meet with President Trump in the White House. Netanyahu traveled with two members of the Likud party, Minister Yuval Steinitz and MK Sharren Haskel. The reason for his choice of traveling companions is not clear. Steinitz is approaching the end of his political career, and Haskel is one of the least significant members of the Likud party; she is not even assured of a place in the next Knesset.

Caught in a Speed Trap

Yours truly was recently mentioned in an article in Yediot Acharonot, one of Israel’s most heavily read newspapers.

All right, the article didn’t actually mention my name, but I was one of the people whom it referenced in a story about a traffic camera that brings in millions of shekels in revenues. “The Golda Meir junction near the neighborhood of Ramot in Yerushalayim has been the site of the largest number of fines issued to motorists during the past year, mainly for speeding. A total of 13,279 tickets were issued there,” the article revealed. And I was one of those motorists.

I recently received a letter informing me that I was subject to a fine of 250 NIS, plus 125 NIS in interest for delayed payment. “On May 20, 2017,” the letter informed me, “you drove through the intersection of Golda Meir Blvd. and Yigal Yadin at 20 kph above the speed limit.” This was identified as a “class A” ticket, meaning that it was issued by a speed camera.

The problem with these cameras is that their purpose is to collect fines, not necessarily to prevent accidents. That intersection is a place where drivers have a tendency to speed, and the cameras will serve only to increase the government’s revenues, not to decrease the number of accidents. The fatal accidents generally take place at the intersection of Golda Meir Blvd. and Rechov Shmuel Hanavi. The Yigal Yadin intersection is a place where the road widens and drivers tend to accelerate naturally.

According to the article in Yediot Acharonot, this issue was discussed in the Science Committee, and “Deputy Commissioner Cohen refused to reveal the breakdown of traffic tickets between fines for speeding and fines for running red lights.” That certainly sounds ludicrous. Are these state secrets? How could a police official refuse to answer such a legitimate question? In any event, the chairman of the committee, Uri Maklev, had a sensible response: “The only thing that has been done is the placement of a camera at the intersection to give out tickets. No one is thinking outside that box. The infraction [of speeding] is a choice that is often made because of poor planning at the junction.” I would guess that Maklev himself, who lives nearby, was another of the recipients of those 13,279 tickets.

Speaking of Rechov Yigal Yadin, this is a phenomenon that should not exist in a properly functioning country with a responsible Minister of Transportation. Michoel Malchieli, another member of the Knesset who lives in the vicinity, recently queried the Minister of Transportation about the issue. This was the response he received: “The Ministry of Transportation is currently paying for a detailed design of Route 22, which will connect the intersection at the entrance to Ramat Shlomo with Har Chotzvim. This road will have two lanes in each direction, along with a public transportation lane in the center. The road will create a new entrance to Har Chotzvim, and redirect traffic away from Golda Meir Boulevard in the direction of Har Chotzvim, to Yigal Yadin Boulevard and Route 22 in the direction of Har Chotzvim. This road will thereby significantly decrease the congestion of private vehicles on Golda Meir Boulevard.”

The minister continued, “At this time, we are also developing the Blue Line of the light rail (which is currently in the advanced stages of receiving statutory approval), which will service the neighborhoods of Ramot, Har Chotzvim, and the chareidi areas until the neighborhood of Gilo.” He concluded, “I am certain that these two projects will visibly improve the accessibility and safety of Golda Meir Boulevard.”

There is an old joke about a person who was terrified upon encountering a fearsome dog. Someone reminded him that there is a posuk that is recited as a segulah for protection from such creatures (“ulekol Bnei Yisroel lo yecheratz kelev leshono”). He replied, “Of course, I remembered that segulah, but I was afraid that the dog wouldn’t know it!” These new developments may be viable solutions to our traffic woes, but we must hope that the motorists themselves will become aware of them. For the time being, those “large volumes of traffic” are continuing to grow to ever greater levels, and the situation is becoming intolerable.

Yasher Koach to Dovid Azulai

It recently came to light that the kever of Don ben Yaakov had been sealed. The mispallelim who arrived at the kever – which is located in the Eshtaol area near Beit Shemesh – were shocked by the discovery. MK Michoel Malchieli submitted a parliamentary query about the closure, and the cabinet secretary’s office directed that query to the Minister of Religious Affairs. As it turned out, the minister himself was working hard on the issue.

This was the response delivered by the minister, Dovid Azulai, to Malchieli, his colleague in the Shas party: “Indeed, the Israel Lands Authority’s unit for land preservation did seal off the grave. However, on the very day when it was sealed, it was also reopened by other parties. According to the information provided to me, this action [i.e., the sealing of the kever] was taken because of fear concerning the building’s stability. An engineer from the Israel Lands Authority examined the structure and ordered it closed.”

When asked whether he would take action to make sure that the kever would be open to visitors, Azulai responded, “Yes. I have been working for several months to preserve the building. In the month of Elul 5776, I contacted the chairman of the Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael and demanded that he prevent any demolition and/or sealing of the site. In addition, several days ago, I received word that a truck was about to seal the building. I immediately contacted the Israel Lands Authority and ordered the move canceled.” Azulai added, “I would like to bring to your attention the fact that in a discussion on this subject that was held on October 30, 2017, in the Public Petitions Committee, the representatives of the ILA informed us that they would reinforce the building in accordance with a plan submitted by a contracted engineer. According to what we have been told, those plans will be carried out immediately. At the request of a representative of my ministry who was present at the committee session, the KKL has also announced that they will provide appropriate infrastructure surrounding the kever, including access roads, parking, and so forth.”

Dovid Azulai has proven once again that he is a quiet man of action. He is not interested in publicity or fanfare, and that is far from his only virtue. If not for this parliamentary query, no one would ever have known that he had made the slightest effort to address the issue of the kever. At this time, we must all daven for him to make a complete recovery and to be able to return to his dedicated work. He is now battling a relapse of cancer. I visited him in Shaarei Tzedek on Motzoei Shabbos and I was saddened by his condition. May Hashem give him the strength to triumph in this battle.

Unemployment at a Historic Low

Sometimes, I have the feeling that there is some flaw in my reading comprehension. For instance, take this headline: “Taub Report: Wages Rising, Unemployment in a Historic Slump.” The fact that wages in Israel are rising is excellent, of course. However, I thought at first that the “historic slump” in unemployment meant that our country was heading for an economic nadir, with numerous people out of a job. When I read the actual article, though, I realized that I was mistaken. “The past year,” it reported, “has been characterized by an increase in employment rates and in real wages, along with a drop in unemployment.” That means that this “historic slump” is actually a good thing. However, my initial instinct may have been correct, even if it wasn’t the intent of that specific headline. A different report claims that the situation in the job market at this time is not good at all, and that the number of layoffs has been steadily increasing.

Regardless of what the article actually meant, I must say that I have my doubts about its statistics. The article went on to state, “The report reveals that there has also been an impressive increase in the rate of employment among chareidi men and women. Between 2008 and 2013, the rate of employment among chareidi women increased to 73 percent, and the employment rate among chareidi men increased to 36 percent. The largest increase was reported among men and women in the chassidic community.”

Now, I haven’t conducted a survey of my own, but from my own perspective as a member of the chareidi community, I am prepared to wager that these numbers are completely skewed. They claim that the employment rate among chareidi women “increased” to 73 percent. What was it before the increase? Fifty percent? That is absurd. Don’t they know that the vast majority of chareidi women work while their husbands learn?

A Voice from the Negev

This week, the Knesset debated the motions of no confidence in the government. One of those motions was submitted by the Joint Arab List and decried “the government’s failure to quash the violence and crime in Arab society.” There were other motions of no confidence as well. Each party launched its own attack on the prime minister.

Incidentally, there has been a procedural change with respect to these motions. In the past, it was possible for motions of no confidence to be submitted every week. The Knesset Committee has now limited this practice to once every month. In place of this weekly routine, the committee instituted the “Forty Signature Discussion,” which requires the prime minister to listen and respond to every speaker when the requisite number of signatures is collected.

After the motions of no confidence are presented and a response is delivered by a minister of the government, every party appoints a representative to speak on its behalf. On Monday, MK Yaakov Margi spoke on behalf of our party. To many people’s surprise, he chose to address the motion filed by the Arabs, concerning the crime in their communities. What interest does Margi have in Arab crime? “I do not envy you, the Arab citizens of Israel,” he said to them. “I listened to MK Ahmed Tibi, and I am not surprised.”

Tibi had shared the following account: “In the village of Jadida-Machar, the postal service opened a branch, and a tender was issued for someone to manage the post office. A woman won the tender, and then someone threatened her. They told her, ‘If you open this office, you will not remain alive.’ Because of the threat to her life, the post office has not been functioning, and the residents of Jadida-Machar have been left with no mail service at all. Is that a way of life? Is it possible for anyone to live that way? Where is the centralized government?”

To this, Margi responded, “Honored minister, I know that you have been fighting this crime. I know that you desire to deal with this phenomenon. But I can tell you that it will not happen unless the Israeli police force sets specific goals for itself: to reduce the crime rate by 50 percent by a certain year, then by 70 percent by the following year, and so forth, until the phenomenon has been completely eradicated or reduced to a minimum… When the police want to deal with something like this, they know how to do it.”

Margi went on to explain his own connection to the issue. “We live in the Negev…. I remember a time when it was difficult to take out car insurance in the south. The insurance companies simply didn’t want to cover the cars there. How many times was this discussed in the Knesset? But when the police decided to fight the crime, it managed to eradicate the phenomenon. Therefore, I believe that the Israeli police, together with the Arab populace, is capable of eradicating this scourge. Thank you.”

The Hungry Cats of Neve Yaakov

The following story might sound like a Purim spoof, but it is completely true. Last week, I wrote about a chareidi neighborhood in Yerushalayim named Ramat Shlomo, where a flurry of parking tickets were issued on Shabbos. The following news item relates to a different, equally distinguished neighborhood in Yerushalayim – the neighborhood of Neve Yaakov.

Last Sivan, I wrote about an article that appeared in the local paper published in Yerushalayim by Yediot Acharonot. Although it seems more in keeping with the Purim spirit, the article reported in all seriousness that the street cats in the chareidi neighborhoods of the city are suffering from severe malnourishment. It went on to reveal that a new organization known as the Committee to Save the Street Cats of Yerushalayim had come to their aid. I commented at the time that the cats in these neighborhoods are likely far more sated than those in the communities of Rechaviah and Mishkenos Ha’Umah. In those areas, there is very little food available to the feline population; the residents tend to dispose of their leftover sushi in sealed containers. In our neighborhoods, on the other hand, the cats can gorge themselves on copious quantities of leftovers, including delectable foods from our Shabbos meals.

This week, the newspaper reported on the “starving cats” once again. Once again, the story was attributed to a “chareidi activist.” The only change in the story was that it related to a different neighborhood. “Existential danger faces the street cats in Neve Yaakov,” the article warned. “The neighborhood’s transition from open dumpsters to underground garbage receptacles is endangering the cats’ lives.” The solution, according to the article’s writers, is to publicize “quotations from sources [in the Torah] that may convince the chareidim to assist the animals in distress.” These quotations are to be disseminated through notices distributed in chareidi neighborhoods.

Do the chareidim really need their neighbors from Pisgat Ze’ev to teach them to help people – or animals – in distress? The “chareidi activist” is quoted as relating that she sends her husband to Neve Yaakov every day with several bags of food for the long-suffering felines, yet the cats are still plagued by malnutrition. Apparently, even a daily distribution of several bags full of food is not enough to satisfy the animals’ hunger. They must be accustomed to consuming huge quantities of food every day. I would be curious to know where these cats lived before they arrived in Neve Yaakov…

This story is actually less amusing, and more disturbing, than the previous version. The residents of Neve Yaakov have never seen a man toting bags of food and distributing the morsels to starving cats. This is clearly fiction that is being peddled as news. Any article that paints a negative picture of chareidim – or cats in chareidi neighborhoods – does not need to pass much inspection in order to be published. After all, who would complain about it? I asked the writer if she had decided to become an advocate for the cats, and if she had simply accepted everything that her source had told her without bothering to investigate the matter further. Her reply was terse: “I am a reporter. I am not anyone’s advocate.”

Noise Enforcement

Reb Shlomo Cohen, a Seret-Vizhnitz chossid and well-known singer, is known for many popular songs, including “Lemaalah,” “Mareh Kohein,” and “Da Lecha Beni.” He is universally admired for his vocal talent, and anyone who gets to know him is equally enchanted by his personality. But Reb Shlomo recently found himself in an unpleasant situation at a wedding in Bnei Brak, when the police interrupted the festivities and ordered him to stop singing.

Many people were bewildered by the officers’ interruption of the wedding, which was held in a hall in the city’s industrial area. And Reb Shlomo is not the first singer to have this experience. The same thing happened to Arik Dvir at the Wagshal wedding hall in Bnei Brak, and to the singer Shmuel Loterman at a hall known as Heichalei Malchus.

The incident involving Loterman, which took place one month ago, was the subject of a parliamentary query sent to Gilad Erdan, the Minister of Internal Security. Erdan was questioned about why the police felt the need to prevent noise in a non-residential area, and why they had fined the singer when there did not seem to have been any complaints about the noise level. Erdan’s response was written by the police themselves: “According to the information provided to me by the Israeli police, the Heichalei Malchus wedding hall is located on Rechov Shlomo Hamelech in the heart of Bnei Brak and is surrounded by residential buildings. I have also been told that since the beginning of the year, 160 complaints from various citizens about noise from the hall were received at the police headquarters in the Tel Aviv district. The large number of complaints and the impressions of the police officers indicate that the noise emanating from the hall is a source of ongoing disturbance to the residents of the area. On November 30, 2017, in response to a resident’s complaint about noise from the hall, police officers arrived at the scene and issued fines to the violators, including the operator of the sound system. There were also two other events in the same area where illegal noise levels were maintained, and they also received fines.”

The Treasured Picture – P.S.

Last week, I wrote about Rav Shmuel Auerbach. One of the stories I shared was about a picture of his father, Rav Shlomo Zalman, that I presented to him as a gift. I wrote that Rav Shmuel appreciated the picture so much that he asked for it to be hung in his living room. My son, who accompanied me when I gave him the gift, corrected me after he read the article. As he remembered the incident, Rav Shmuel actually asked for the picture to be hung in a different room.

My son also reminded me that my daughter became engaged several weeks later. I didn’t have the temerity to invite Rav Shmuel to the celebration, but he arrived anyway, to the astonishment of all the guests. Of course, his presence enhanced the celebration, and it undoubtedly raised my mechutanim’s level of esteem for me.

Clearly, Rav Shmuel’s presence at the simcha was his way of repaying me for the kindness I had shown him by giving him the gift of that cherished picture.

Animal Rights in Israel

Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein was asked the following question: A young child came home one day with a small aquarium containing a fish. His father did not wish to be obligated to feed the fish before having his own meals, and he announced that he would not take ownership of it through any means, neither by virtue of his son’s acquisition nor because of its presence in his home (through the mechanism of kinyan chatzeir). Rav Zilberstein ruled, however, that this made no difference; the fish belonged to the father, and as long as it remained in his possession, he would be bound by all the halachos pertaining to its care. That was a lesson in the scope of the laws of tzaar baalei chaim.

When it comes to the laws of the land, though, our legislators’ ideas of tzaar baalei chaim tend to border on the absurd. For instance, Nurit Korn has asked for a law to be passed that will state, “An animal is a living creature with feelings and emotions. It does not have the status of ordinary property, and it is forbidden to harm it, physically or emotionally, except where the law permits.” In other words, if a person goes abroad on vacation and leaves his pet dog behind, and the dog is saddened by his departure or pines for him, he is liable to punishment under the law. The same is true of a person who embarrasses his pet cat. That makes for a bizarre law indeed…