My Take on the News

Population Reaches Eight Million

Every year, in honor of Yom Haatzmaut, the Central Bureau of Statistics announces its newest findings regarding the population of Israel. This year, statistics show that the country is home to 8,842,000 souls, a figure that is over ten times the population of the state at the time of its founding 70 years ago. At that time, the State of Israel had 806,000 residents. According to the bureau’s calculations, on the hundredth anniversary of the state’s founding, it will have a population of 15 million. Logic tells us that the growth will take place primarily in the chareidi and Arab sectors.

Not all of the country’s eight million residents are Jews. In fact, only 75 percent of Israel’s population (6.6 million people) is Jewish. There are 1.8 million Arabs in the country (about 20 percent of the populace), and about half a million additional non-Jews. At least, those are the official numbers. We must keep in mind that even among the residents who are listed as Jewish, many are actually gentiles. The government accords Jewish status even to the child of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother. Therefore, there are about one million non-Jews who are listed as Jews in the population registry.

The bureau also revealed that the city with the largest population, as usual, isYerushalayim, which is home to 880,000 people, Jewish and Arab alike.

 

A Country with a Tarnished Past

Israel is a country divided by internal strife. It is a country whose right is constantly battling against its left, citizens are locked in conflict with their brethren. The government is riddled with infighting; there is open hostility between the judicial and the executive branches. And every entity within the government is in a state of moral decline.

 

Two weeks ago, Alon Hassan, the chairman of the Ashdod Port workers’ committee, was acquitted of criminal charges. The judge who issued the verdict added a scathing condemnation of the judicial system, which targeted Hassan despite the evidence that the charges against him had been trumped up (with the active collaboration of the members of the government, no less). The investigation had been managed by an official in the Lahav 433 anti-fraud unit ( the Israeli FBI) who was himself convicted of corruption and sentenced to seven years in prison. Hassan’s lawyer notified both the current attorney general (Mandelblit) and his predecessor (Weinstein) of a series of improprieties in the case, but both officials, under pressure from the prosecution, ignored the lawyer and his claims. Judge Eden of the District Court leveled intensive criticism at the prosecutor who managed the case, accusing him of severe misconduct. Such is the state of the “rule of law” in Israel today. Meanwhile, the prosecutor in the Hassan case has been appointed as a judge on the District Court.

The government’s handling of high-profile criminal cases says a good deal about the government itself. Recruiting a “state witness” has become standard procedure; to put it plainly, this means that the government frees a criminal from punishment in order to give him an incentive to testify against a partner in his crime who is considered to be a bigger catch. There is much about this tactic that is morally and ethically wrong. But that is the nature of the “rule of law” here in the State of Israel.

 

Hollow Bragging

Last week, the leaders of Israel’s government boasted about its superiority during their trip to Auschwitz. At the same time, they kept a watchful eye on the White House, where President Trump was making an important decision as to whether he would launch a military offensive.

It bears mentioning that there are calls in Poland for a criminal investigation to be opened against President Rivlin, in response to his speech in Auschwitz two weeks ago. Apparently, he violated the infamous law that was recently passed by the Polish government, which prohibits accusing the Poles of complicity in the Nazis’ crimes.

All in all, Israel’s dependence on America can best be illustrated by an exchange that took place many years ago, when Prime Minister Levi Eshkol was warned about an expected drought. “A drought?” he exclaimed in alarm. “Where?”

“In the Negev,” his advisors repliedEshkol breathed a sigh of relief. “As long as it isn’t in America!” he exclaimed.

In the year 1971, a rov in America wrote to the Steipler Gaon to inquire about a pamphlet of tefillos for Yom Haatzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim that had been distributed in Eretz Yisroel. The Steipler wrote in response, “We, who observe the Torah here in the Holy Land, know very well that there is no substance in anything they say, that it is all vanity and nonsense, and that if a person recites a brocha on Hallel, it is certainly a brocha levatalah…. Now, we who live here do not have the power to do anything about this and all things like it. There are breaches beyond number, Rachmana litzlan. The government is under their control, the propaganda system is under their control, and they do not give a thought to the views of those who observe the Torah and are pained by the affront to it… May Hashem have mercy on His people, to save them from destruction and to return those who have been lost…”

 

David Friedman’s Greetings

In honor of Yom Haatzmaut, various ambassadors published letters expressing their good wishes for the State of Israel. I will quote two of those letters.

The first letter was written by Alexander Shein, the Russian ambassador to Israel: “The relationship of friendship and great trust between Russia and Israel is based on mutual respect and has been developing rapidly in many areas, which have supreme importance for increasing the welfare of our peoples and bolstering their security,” Shein wrote. These words were written even as Russia has blatantly taken sides in the Middle East. Vladimir Putin is the only person in the Western world who has backed Assad’s use of chemical weapons, and Russia is known to be contemplating selling weapons of mass destruction to Israel’s enemies. How seriously can we really take their professed interest in Israel’s “welfare” and “security”?

This leads us to the letter written by David Friedman, the American ambassador to Israel. “Seventy years ago,” he wrote, “President Truman bravely became the first to recognize the rebirth of Israel. That step, which was taken only 11 minutes after its declaration of independence, marked the beginning of a relationship the likes of which was never been seen before and has never been seen since. It is a relationship that reflects our shared values of freedom, democracy, pluralism, and human rights. I am honored by the fact that we have reached new heights under President Trump, with the brave and historic decision to be the first to recognize Yerushalayim as the capital of Israel.”

 

Remembering Rav Ovadiah

In honor of Israel’s 70th birthday, Yisroel Hayom published a special supplement in which it identified 70 of the most influential figures in the history of the state. Most of the people on this list were members of the secular Ashkenazic elite, such as David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, Yitzchok Rabin, Dorit Beinisch, Raful and Arik Sharon, Menachem Begin, and Aharon Barak. Most of the artists and media figures profiled in the supplement hail from similar circles as well. There were also a few Sephardim known for their leftist views. There were only a few religious people featured in the supplement, and there were no chareidim at all – with only one exception: Rav Ovadiah Yosef zt”l. His daughter-in-law, Rabbanit Yehudit Yosef, managed to paint a powerful picture of his greatness on the single page that was allotted to his profile. In their introduction to the article, the newspaper’s editors wrote, “Rav Ovadiah Yosef was considered the most senior of the Sephardic rabbonim and poskim and was known as the gadol hador and posek hador. In 1984, he transformed the Shas party into a national movement that participated in the elections under the motto ‘to restore the glory of the crown.’ He served as the party’s spiritual leader until his passing. He passed away in the year 2013. His funeral in Yerushalayim was attended by over half a million people and is considered the largest funeral procession in the history of the State of Israel.”

 

Rav Uri Zohar’s Past Pursues Him

To be more precise, the list of the 70 most influential figures in Israeli history includes one other chareidi person, who is also quite famous. However, the newspaper focuses on the period of his life when he was not yet chareidi, in 1969. That person is Rav Uri Zohar.

As much as Rav Uri tries to avoid media attention or publicity focused on his past, that very same attention seems to pursue him. According to Yisroel Hayom, he was the hero of Israel in the year 1969. That was the year when he was responsible for a cinematic production that, according to the interviewee who was quoted in his profile, constituted “a turning point in Israeli filmmaking.” Today, Rav Uri has no interest in remembering anything about those times. However, television stations replay some of his productions every year on Yom Haatzmaut. They describe the films as “incredible works that enthralled the entire country.”

This profile, too, is introduced by a few words from the editors explaining their choice: “Uri Zohar (82) was one of the leading actors and comedians in the 1960s and 1970s, who left his mark on Israeli cinema, television, and entertainment. In 1976, he was chosen to receive the Israel Prize, but he refused to accept it. At the same time, he began a process of returning to religion. He distanced himself from the entertainment industry and began preaching to others to return to Judaism, and he closeted himself in the chareidi community of Yerushalayim.”

Dori Ben-Zeev, a well-known actor and radio personality, knew Rav Uri through his father, who collaborated with him on his films. Ben-Zeev was interviewed by Yisroel Hayom and said, “To this day, if there is one thing about Uri that I find very strange, it is the fact that a person like him, who worked so hard in the area of filmmaking, could decide one day to leave the field entirely. I have no problem with the fact that he became religious, but why did he have to resign from the field? It is a shame. He is a genius, a very talented man with tremendous abilities. And there are other religious people in show business in this country. Fortunately for us, he left us many remarkable works of art, which will last for eternity.”

 

A Slap in the Face for the Defense Minister

This past week, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman received a ringing slap in the face from the Supreme Court. This is what happened: Alongside the official events honoring the memories of fallen IDF soldiers and the victims of terror attacks – which were held last Wednesday, the day before Yom Haatzmaut – a private event was held jointly by families of Jewish and Palestinian victims who were murdered by both sides. They seem to believe that the deaths of Jewish victims of terrorism, who were murdered by Palestinian terrorists who blew themselves up on buses in Yerushalayim, are somehow analogous to the deaths of Palestinians killed by the Israeli army in defense of the state.

That ceremony has been taking place for 12 years, attended by Palestinians from Yehuda and Shomron. These Palestinians need official approval in order to enter Israel, and they have always received entry permits in the past. This year, about 200 Arabs requested permits, but the Minister of Defense announced that he would not allow it. His public response was impulsive: “I won’t lend assistance to the desecration of Yom Hazikaron. This is not a memorial ceremony; it is a demonstration of poor taste and a lack of sensitivity that offends the bereaved families, who are more precious to us than anything.”

The would-be participants in the ceremony petitioned the Supreme Court against Lieberman’s decision. They knew that the judges always operate by the book and that they value human rights above all else. There was no way that they would allow the government to adopt the attitudes of Lieberman’s right-wing party. Chief Justice Esther Chayut wrote the court’s decision and decided that 90 of the petitioners, Palestinians from Yehuda and Shomron, would be allowed to enter Israel and participate in the ceremony. This came as a severe blow to Lieberman. Chayut wrote in her decision that the defense minister’s authority to forbid entry to Israel must be exercised within reason, in accordance with a proper sense of proportion and the rules of justice. She accused Lieberman of acting in an improper fashion. She also wrote, “We have found that in the thought process used by the Minister of Defense, there was a complete lack of consideration of the sensitivities of the bereaved families who wished to hold their ceremony in the manner they had planned, with the joint participation of Israelis and Palestinians. The defense minister also did not give any consideration to the sensitivities of that portion of the Israeli people who support the existence of this ceremony and identify with its components and its goals.”

Why did the chief justice approve only 90 of the participants? Because that was the number of people who were permitted to enter Israel two years ago. From our vantage point, it was a very good thing that Lieberman received this dressing-down from the Supreme Court. The reason for that will be explained below.

The end of the story, in any event, is that the ceremony not only took place as scheduled, but also received a tremendous amount of public attention, thanks to Lieberman’s attempted interference. At the same time, the political right held a protest against it.

 

Still Working to Put the Brakes on the Supreme Court

We are still embroiled in the struggle between the government and the Supreme Court over the issue of infiltrators. As I reported in the past, Naftali Bennett announced that he plans to introduce a law that will override the Supreme Court’s decision on the subject, and Prime Minister Netanyahu then announced that he would introduce a law to curtail the court’s authority in general. At that point, the attorney general stepped in and proclaimed that he might not permit the government to enact a law of that nature. This led him to be included in a meeting on the subject. Moshe Kachlon, who previously announced that he would never agree to a law that would curb the Supreme Court’s authority (with regard to drafting yeshiva bochurim), understood that the time had come for him to hold his tongue, since the public consensus on the subject of the infiltrators opposes the position of the Supreme Court. Moreover, most of the opponents of the infiltrators are supporters of the right, including Kachlon’s own constituents.

As far as we are concerned, the discord may end up being beneficial for us. We hope that it will soon be possible to pass a law that will directly contradict the Supreme Court’s position on the draft of yeshiva bochurim. Until now, that is something that has been impossible, partly because of Netanyahu but mainly because of Kachlon. Furthermore, we feared that Lieberman would oppose us on this subject, but thanks to the slap in the face that he has just received from the Supreme Court, he will be the last person to speak out in their favor.

At the beginning of last week, Netanyahu announced that he will try to pass his law during the summer session of the Knesset, which begins on Monday, April 30.

 

Rechov Ksav Sofer as an Analogy for the State

I am particularly fond of Rechov Ksav Sofer in Yerushalayim. It is a small street that connects the intersection at the entrance to the city with the crossroads near my home, where the street meets Rechov Givat Shaul. Many years ago, Rechov Ksav Sofer – unlike Rechov Givat Shaul itself – was open to vehicular traffic on Shabbos, and many motorists would innocently drive down the street. This caused plenty of distress to the local residents, as well as potentially life-threatening danger, since the neighborhood children had a tendency to view the street as an extension of the sidewalk on Shabbos.

No matter how much we begged and pleaded for the street to be closed to cars, though, our pleas fell on deaf ears. The mayor at the time, Teddy Kollek, was stubborn and apathetic, and he had no interest in listening to us. When we saw that the situation would not be resolved through ordinary channels, I formulated a bill that stated that if over 80 percent of the residents of a street are Shabbos observant, the local municipality would be obligated to close the street to traffic on Shabbos. I even managed to get a left-wing member of the Knesset to sign the bill (although he stipulated that the percentage should be changed to 90). This initiative, which had a very slim chance of working, was labeled “the Ksav Sofer law” in a headline that appeared in large print in Kol Ha’ir, a local publication in Yerushalayim. Two days later, a sign appeared on the street announcing that it was closed to cars on Shabbosos and Yomim Tovim. Teddy had been frightened enough by the proposed law to accede to our requests on his own. Sometimes, one must use creative tactics in order to fight for the honor of Shabbos.

Due to the heavy traffic, one portion of the street was designated a one-way street. That means that a motorist who attempts to exit the neighborhood of Givat Shaul via Rechov Ksav Sofer will encounter a sign informing him that the last portion of the street is for cars traveling in the opposite direction only. This will leave him no choice but to turn around and drive back in the direction from which he came. Nevertheless, about eight meters further down the street, another sign informs motorists that it is forbidden to turn left, and that they must yield to oncoming traffic. This makes one wonder to whom these instructions are directed. After all, according to the sign posted further up the street, there should be no cars approaching the intersection from that direction at all.

But as I said, Rechov Ksav Sofer is a fitting analogy, in many ways, for the State of Israel as a whole.

 

Rav Landau and Yom Haatzmaut

It happened in 1968. The parliamentary query was filed by MK Emma Talmi of Mapam, who related, “In the edition of Al Hamishmar [the newspaper published by the anti-religious Mapam] on May 14, 1968, an article appeared that described the displeasure in the municipality of Bnei Brak when it was noted that Rav Landau, the chief rabbi and head of the rabbinic bais din in the city, was not present at the main memorial ceremony for the residents of the city who lost their lives in Israel’s wars. At that opportunity, it was noted in the city council meeting that this was not a one-time occurrence and that Rav Landau absents himself every year from the Yom Haatzmaut ceremonies, since he belongs to the circles that have not yet made peace with the establishment of the state. One of the members of the city council even suggested that one lira should be deducted from the rov’s salary, as a symbolic protest of his behavior.” The rov in question wasn’t Rav Moshe Landau, the current rov, but his father and predecessor, Rav Yaakov Landau zt”l.

Talmi went on to pose the following questions to the Minister of Religious Affairs: “First, are these facts correct or at least mainly correct? Second, in light of Rav Landau’s unabashed conduct, did the minister file a complaint with the disciplinary court of dayanim regarding ‘conduct in a way that does not befit the standing of a dayan in Israel’? Third, if the answer to the previous question is negative, what steps does the minister plan to take against the aforementioned rov, who is subject to the authority of the Minister of Religious Affairs in his position as the chief rabbi of a city?”

The minister, Dr. Zerach Warhaftig, employed the art of brevity in formulating his response: “Regarding the first question, Rav Landau wrote to me that he would be taking a vacation this year between Pesach and Lag Ba’omer, and his absence from the ceremonies does not indicate his opposition to Yom Haatzmaut. Second, Rav Landau does not serve as a dayan in Israel. Regarding the third question, see my answer to question 1.”

The story does not end there. MK Shlomo Zalman Abramov, a member of the Liberal Party, demonstrated his liberalism by submitting the following query: “In the newspapers, it has been reported that most of the yeshivos in Yerushalayim locked their doors on Yom Haatzmaut so that their talmidim would not leave the buildings to watch the IDF parade. All of the yeshivos receive funding from the Ministry of Religious Affairs. These yeshivos include the yeshiva and Talmud Torah of Chayei Olam, the yeshiva of the Gerrer chassidim, Yeshivas Bais Hatalmud, Yeshivas Slonim, and Yeshivas Eitz Chaim. The directors of those yeshivos did not give their talmidim even half a day of vacation on Yom Haatzmaut, as is customary on certain holidays and days of Rosh Chodesh. Quite the opposite: They warned the boys in their yeshivos not to participate in the festivities and not to absent themselves from their studies. The talmidim in several yeshivos and Talmudei Torah were also warned not to dare watch the IDF parade.” This was Abramov’s dramatic – and somewhat outlandish – introduction to his query. It was followed by the following questions: “Therefore, I would like to ask the honored minister to answer the following: First, is this information correct? Second, if it is true, should the Ministry of Religious Affairs continue allocating government money to these yeshivos?”

Dr. Warhaftig replied, “The learning schedule in yeshivos is different from the schedule in other educational institutions. They have several hours of study even on Shabbosos and holidays, and their talmidim are required to attend shiurim at that time. On holidays such as Rosh Chodesh and Chanukah, their studies continue as usual. There were indeed a few yeshivos in which the talmidim were asked not to wander the streets on Yom Haatzmaut, but the reason was solely educational, to avoid an interruption to their studies. Even if we have a different view and we consider the participation in public festivities to be a positive thing, I do not consider that a reason to decide to cease providing support of any kind for an educational institution such as a yeshiva.”

This exchange took place in the Knesset during the month of Iyar 5728, exactly 50 years ago.

 

Ignorance in the Media

One day, someone ought to publish a compilation of all the ignorant statements that were made in the Israeli media.

I have a clipping of an article in Haaretz that reported on a shortage of pears – pears! – for Sukkos. The reporter evidently confused hadassim with the similar-sounding “agassim,” the Hebrew word for pears. After all, how could he have known that pears are not one of the four species used on Sukkos?

On Chol Hamoed Pesach, everyone laughed when Reshet, one of Israel’s television stations, broadcast its coverage of the massive Birkas Kohanim at the Kosel. The caption “Chol Hamoed Pesach in Yerushalayim” appeared on the screen – along with footage of mispallelim at the Kosel carrying the Arba Minim. The editorial staff had decided to spare themselves the expense of sending a camera crew to the Kosel and had simply reused footage from their archives – footage that had been filmed on Chol Hamoed Sukkos. But how were they to know that there is a difference between Pesach and Sukkos?

Their ignorance becomes particularly apparent when they compose captions to accompany interviews with religious people. The most talented wordsmiths, with their mastery of the Hebrew language, suddenly become complete ignoramuses whenever they encounter a turn of phrase dealing with a religious issue. Not long ago, someone told an interviewer, “I recommend that you destroy your chometz very quickly.” The person responsible for the captions, who was completely unfamiliar with the phrase “biur chometz,” altered a single letter in the word, so that the picture was accompanied by the quote, “I recommend that you lighten your chometz very quickly.”

It reminds me of the story of a person who was called up for an aliyah and was completely unfamiliar with religious practice. The gabbai announced, “Yaamod Opher ben…” and then motioned for him to supply his father’s name. The person receiving the aliyah misinterpreted his gesture as a request for his age; after all, in Hebrew the word “ben” often precedes a person’s age. “Thirty-two,” he informed the gabbai. The other men in the vicinity, who had overheard the exchange, refrained from laughing in his face and instead called out, “Your father! Your father!”

Opher, who could not understand what they wanted from him, said simply, “My father? He’s fifty-eight!”

One year, I received an angry phone call from a clerk in my bank, who chided me for the ballooning overdraft in my account. I tried to dismiss it with my usual assurances that it would be all right, insisting that there was no need to pressure me. “I never yell at you when I am in the black,” I quipped. “Why should you call to reprimand me when I am in the red?”

The caller did not find this amusing at all, and he insisted that I cover the deficit the very next day. This call took place on the day before Yom Haatzmaut. I pretended to be outraged by the suggestion and exclaimed, “Tomorrow? Absolutely not. It’s Yom Haatzmaut. I don’t write on holidays!”

He immediately became apologetic. “I am so sorry! That is all right. Just make sure to take care of it the next day!”