My Take on the News

The Draft Law: The Beginning of the End?

Monday night, the Knesset passed a bill that would draft chareidi men into the Israeli army. 63 MKs voted in favor of the legislation and 39 MKs voted against it. The bill needs to be approved three times in order to become law.

Yahadut Hatorah MK Yaakov Litzman immediately said that if the bill passes its second and third readings, UTJ will pull out of Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu’s governing coalition.

Defense Minister and Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman tweeted after the vote, “The Knesset showed responsibility and approved the draft law in its first reading. Four months ago we torpedoed a bad law that made a mockery of the sharing of the burden. Tonight, most of the Knesset stood behind the law of the defense establishment. I hope that the law will be approved, in its currents language, in its second and third readings during this Knesset session.”

As previously reported, the Israeli Supreme Court gave the Knesset twelve months to pass a law instituting the drafting of chareidim.

The current law would require yeshivos to meet a quota of talmidim entering IDF service, with the numbers increasing each year. In years 3 and 4, yeshivos that don’t adhere to the law would lose government funding, with this slashed funding growing in years 5 and 6.

The law seeks to double the number of chareidi soldiers by 2027 – for a goal of about 6,900 chareidi soldiers at that time.

Since the Supreme Court insisted that there must be sanctions if the annual draft “targets” are not met, and since the justices insisted that the previous law – which was passed in the beginning of the current Knesset’s term – was a farce, it was known that a stricter law would have to be passed. Everyone davened that it would not be too strict. This bill, which was formulated by the Ministry of Defense, is the least harmful version of the draft law that could have been created at this time.

Originally, the MKs of Degel HaTorah planned to vote in favor of the bill, and the Shas party would have followed suit. (On these issues, Shas generally follows the lead of Degel HaTorah, trusting the decisions of the gedolei hador who guide the party.) Nevertheless, in this case, the chassidishe Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, which guides the representatives of Agudas Yisroel – Litzman, Eichler, and Moses, along with Porush, although he is not a member of the Knesset – ruled that it is forbidden to vote in favor of the law, and that if the law is passed, the chareidim must immediately resign from the coalition. As a result, the rest of the chareidi lawmakers decided to adopt a united front. Rav Chaim Kanievsky sent messengers – Moshe Gafni and Avrohom Rubinstein – to several members of the Moetzes, including the Belzer Rebbe, in order to ensure that positions would be coordinated. Last Thursday, Litzman visited Rav Gershon Edelstein, Rav Chaim Kanievsky, and Rav Moshe Hillel Hirsch. All three stressed the importance of the chareidi community remaining united, especially in the face of chiloni opposition, and especially with regard to an issue of such fundamental importance.

 

The Chareidi Stand

The idea of resigning from the government was then dropped by the Moetzes. Meanwhile, the Degel HaTorah and Shas parties aligned themselves with Agudas Yisroel, choosing to vote against the bill. (Degel HaTorah is represented in the Knesset by Gafni, Maklev, and Yaakov Asher, while Shas has six members of the Knesset: Yinon Azulai, Yoav Ben-Tzur, Yaakov Margi, Yitzchok Vaknin, Michoel Malchieli, and Dani Saida. Ministers Aryeh Deri and Dovid Azulai, as well as deputy ministers Yitzchok Cohen and Meshullam Nahari, are not members of the Knesset.)

The decision of the Moetzes to drop the notion of resigning from the government was not without reason. Netanyahu already pledged to attempt to make minor changes to the bill after it receives its initial approval, before it is finalized and passed into law. A special committee has been established to work on the bill, and that committee has been tasked with making any necessary changes. Uri Maklev and Yoav Ben-Tzur are chareidi representatives on the committee. The goal is to rectify the issues that I described in my article two weeks ago. Most importantly, the quotas must not be part of the law itself; furthermore, the sanctions in the event that the quotas are not met (which consist of budget cuts for the yeshiva world as a whole) should be left to the government’s discretion rather than being an inherent part of the law. In addition, the bill currently states that if the quotas are not met for three consecutive years, the law will be canceled automatically. This will hopefully be changed as well, so that the Ministry of Defense will reevaluate the law, rather than it being automatically annulled.

The Knesset’s summer recess is approaching, and the single year that the Supreme Court gave us to pass a new law is rapidly coming to an end. After that deadline passes, all the yeshiva bochurim in the country will officially be considered criminal draft dodgers. That is why there was so much pressure for the law to be passed.

 

An Exaggerated Win in Poland

 

This week has brought us two major stories on the diplomatic front. One was the decision of the Polish parliament to repeal the law that prohibited attaching blame to Poland itself for the crimes of the Holocaust. Prime Minister Netanyahu has already taken credit for this accomplishment and has announced his thanks to a long list of people and organizations who ostensibly helped him achieve it. He praised the Polish government for the move and expressed his satisfaction with the outcome. “For months,” he said. “we have been engaged in ongoing discussions with the Polish government. I am pleased that the Polish government, its parliament, its senate, and the president of Poland have decided to completely repeal the laws that were enacted and that sparked outrage and disapproval in Israel and in the international community.”

Now, let us take a step back. For one thing, it has turned out that it was President Trump who pressured Poland to repeal the law. Incidentally, it was his predecessor who provided the impetus for the law in the first place. In one of his speeches, Obama mentioned the “Polish death camps,” a phrase that enraged the Poles.

Furthermore, the law hasn’t actually been changed. All that happened is that the punishment of incarceration was rescinded. Nevertheless, Polish law still prohibits the use of the phrase “Polish death camps.” The law also prohibits stating that the Poles participated in the atrocities of the Holocaust, which is not justified; the Poles were certainly accomplices to the Nazis, although a handful of Poles also saved Jewish lives.

Another factor that should put a damper on Netanyahu’s pride is the fact that his “accomplishment” came with a price: He had to issue a joint statement with the prime minister of Poland, Mateusz Morawiecki, which praised the country.

The second incident of interest this past week was the visit of Prince William of London to Israel. The Israeli public loved the prince, and he made it clear that the feeling was mutual. He visited Yad Vashem, an experience that left him in a state of shock. He met with Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Rivlin, he explored Tel Aviv, and he held an event in the British embassy in Tel Aviv. He visited the Kosel as well. But even though his visit was presented as a historic occasion and the first sign of the British monarchy’s recognition of the State of Israel, there was a certain sting to it: His visits to Har Hazeisim and the Kosel were part of his official visit to the Palestinian Authority, rather than Israel.

 

The Yahrtzeit of the Ohr Hachaim

This past week, the yahrtzeit of the Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh was marked. Like thousands of others, I visited his tziyun on Har Hazeisim on the occasion of his yahrtzeit. This time, the visit was much simpler and easier than in previous years. The area is guarded by the police, since it is still frightening to visit Har Hazeisim despite the improvements of recent years. The transportation also improved; there was now a steady stream of buses making the trip to and from the kever. The kever has also been made more accessible. It is no longer necessary to reach the site via a circuitous route where one must take great care not to stumble. Instead, a bridge had been erected leading from the street to the closest spot to the kever. I applaud everyone who was involved in these improvements.

 

Is Every Book Good?

We have reached the end of Book Week. Here in Israel, the chareidi community has its own “Book Week,” which takes place concurrently with the secular book festival. It is an opportunity for authors and publishers to get rid of excess books that can be sold at low prices, and it is also an excellent opportunity for families with many children to purchase books at little expense. It is also an opportunity for bnei Torah to acquire seforim at relatively low prices.

Looking around during Book Week, I was struck by a question: There are some people who purport to be book critics, yet they never have a single word of criticism for the books they review. Somehow, the books are invariably excellent. Is it really possible that there are no books or authors of substandard quality? Is every book truly worthy of being read?

I myself used to write about books, and I sometimes found myself in a quandary when I came across a book with poor content, poor messages, and even a poor writing style. I told myself to look for the positive, and sometimes, for lack of an alternative, I praised books for the quality of their graphic design and the fonts chosen by the publishers. But can a review really be considered “critical” if it is always positive? If an author knows that his works will always receive high praise, what reason will he have to strive for quality? What guarantee do we have that any recommendation for a book will really be genuine and meaningful? Is there even the slightest possibility that a reviewer will ever recommend not reading a book?

A good book – and, of course, I am not referring to seforim with Torah content – is a book from which there is something that we can learn. Even an adult can learn something from stories of Hashgacha Protis, or from the biography of a person who always saw the good in life, or from a story of a person who succeeded in contending with hardships. Aharon Margalit’s memoirs, for instance, served as a source of great inspiration to me. Stories from the lives of tzaddikim can also be of tremendous value, and books of humor can provide some welcome relief from the stresses of life. And then there are the books of Dovid Zaritzky and other famous authors – books about the Holocaust with important messages, and biographies of gedolei Yisroel whose examples inspire us to strive to improve ourselves.

 

Rav Yaakov’s Chiddush

Speaking of new books, it behooves me to mention Yerushalayim Klilas Yofi, a recently published sefer that depicts the lofty planes of spirituality and avodas Hashem that were exemplified by the great men of Yerushalayim. This volume bears the subtitle “Torah,” which indicates that the sefer is probably going to be the first installment of a series. The author has compiled a series of stories about renowned talmidei chachamim that illustrate their commitment to learning, their hasmodah, their ability to learn even while suffering from material privation, and similar themes. The book, which was released by the Kulmus publishing house, contains anecdotes about 250 different individuals.

I visited the publisher’s warehouse, and I was enthralled by its contents. The facility was filled with seforim from which I could barely pull myself away. Many of them were seforim that are used in the bais medrashKisvei Rav Chaim, Birkas Shmuel, Rav Elyashiv’s Kovetz Teshuvos and He’aros on Shas, Mishnas Rebbi Meir al haTorah by Rav Meir Soloveitchik, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel’s chiddushim on Shas, the shiurim of Rav Moshe Shapiro, and so forth. There were also plenty of children’s books and books for general reading.

As for this particular sefer, I found a beautiful story in the introduction: “On one of Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky’s visits to Yerushalayim, he paid a visit to the home of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach. As he prepared to leave, Rav Yaakov commented to Rav Shlomo Zalman, ‘I daven for you every day in the Shemoneh Esrei.’ Then he added, ‘You probably think that I am referring to the brocha of Al Hatzaddikim, but that is not the case. Rather, I have you in mind during the brocha of VeliYerushalayim Ircha, for the gedolim and Torah sages of Yerushalayim are the beauty and glory of the city.’”

The beauty of this sefer is that it cultivates love for Torah learning, while drawing attention to the lives of certain talmidei chachomim about whom little is known.

 

Separate Seating Under Attack

Last week, I wrote briefly about the decision of the mayor of Tel Aviv, Ron Huldai, to prevent a Chabad event known as “Moshiach in the Square” from being held at Rabin Square. His reason was the fact that it was announced that men and women would be segregated at the event. The organizers explained that it was intended to be a religious event, including Kiddush Levanah and the recitation of Tehillim, and the law permits separating men and women at such an occasion. Nevertheless, their explanations were of no avail, as the mayor refused to rescind his decision.

Since I reported to you on the issue, the mayor was overruled by a decision of the court, which in turn sparked a major uproar. This story illustrates the fact that even when our actions are eminently justified, it is virtually impossible to convince the chilonim of our position.

The chiloni protests were actually out of place: for a different reason: The court’s ruling was based on the fact that the municipality had failed to follow the necessary procedure for canceling an event. According to the law, the organizers should have been summoned for a hearing. Since the mayor did not do that, and instead summarily canceled the event, the court ruled that it could proceed (after the municipality admitted to its failure to follow the protocol). From now on, though, events at which men and women are segregated will not be permitted.

Another issue relating to the chareidi community focused on seating on airplanes. An El Al flight from Israel to America was recently delayed because of three religious passengers who refused to sit next to women. The incident sparked an outpouring of criticism against Orthodox Jews. El Al responded by announcing that in the future, any passenger who refuses to sit next to another passenger will be removed from their plane, even though their flight crews have always tried to find alternative seating arrangements for chareidi passengers in the past.

In the wake of this incident, Barak Eilam, the CEO of a computer company known as Nice, announced that his company would no longer deal with El Al. “We will not do business with companies that discriminate on the basis of race, gender, or religion, and that maintain rules and practices that discriminate against women,” he proclaimed.

 

New Proposal:
A Voluntary Draft

You are certainly aware that I enjoy perusing the proposed laws that have been placed on the Knesset table. When a law is introduced that is a replica of a previous bill, whether from the current Knesset or a previous term, the lawmaker behind the bill must note that fact. The same is true if a bill is introduced on the initiative of a specific organization.

I pay close attention to the bills that duplicate previous proposals. Some of them are pure acts of plagiarism, but others are praiseworthy, for they are essentially resurrections of previous bills whose authors have left the political scene. Yaakov Peri, for instance, left behind a rich array of proposed laws that any member of the Knesset can adopt as his own. Similarly, Yinon Azulai introduced two bills this week, one concerning supervision of day care centers, and the other dealing with government oversight over pension plans. He made a point of stressing that identical proposals were submitted by MK Yigal Guetta at an earlier time during the Twentieth Knesset. In effect, Guetta’s bills have been granted life after his political “death.”

All of the MKs of UTJ and the Shas party (with the exception of Vaknin) have lent their support to an initiative of Betzalel Smotrich that is titled “Proposed Law: Chief Rabbi of the Military.” According to this proposal, the rov of the IDF would no longer be appointed by the chief of staff. Rather, the position would be assigned by a public committee consisting partially of former military chief rabbonim, as well as representatives of the Hesder and Zionist yeshivos, and members of the Vaad HaYeshivos. The chairman of the committee would be the Rishon Letzion, Rav Yitzchok Yosef. In the text of the bill, this is phrased as follows: “The president of the Chief Rabbinical Council would be the chairman of the committee.” The chief rabbi of the IDF would also be given the rank of a major general.

Another proposed law relating to the army states that “in the Security Service Law, the definition of ‘one who goes forth in the army’ will include the phrase ‘and who has not expressed an objection to enlisting for ordinary service.’” This piece of legal jargon would actually create a major change in Israeli law. Under the current law, every Israeli citizen is required to join the army upon reaching the age of 18. This bill would restrict that requirement to those who agree to serve, meaning that the draft would become completely voluntary. Indeed, the bill is titled, “Proposed Security Service Law (Amendment – Cancellation of Compulsory Induction).” The bill was introduced by Mussi Raz, who was joined by MKs Dov Khenin, Moses, Glick, and Esawi Frij.

Omer Bar-Lev, meanwhile, has reintroduced a bill that would be damaging to the students of Hesder yeshivos. That law has already been debated six times, and each time it was removed from the agenda. Now it has been submitted for the seventh time. Any time a law is rejected by the Knesset, it must be resubmitted if there is interest in bringing it up for discussion again.

Another law, whose exact motivation is not clear to me, would shorten the term of the president of Israel. The explanatory text states that the job of the president is very demanding; therefore, it is proposed that his term should be shortened from seven years to five. Penina Tamanu-Shata insists that there is no malice behind the law, although she agrees that it might be appropriate to qualify it so that any president who wishes to remain in his position may continue.

Yet another law suggests increasing the discount on public transportation for the disabled from 33 percent to 50 percent. Finally, there is a proposal of the type that I have long grown tired of seeing: a law entitled “Canceling the Recognition of Institutions That Encourage Refusal to Obey Orders and Create Incitement.” This law, which is intended to silence political dissent, is the work of the Meretz party.

 

United Hatzalah in Real Time

This week, on Rechov Zichron Yaakov in Yerushalayim, I saw an elderly man stumble and fall. Blood began pouring from a nasty gash in his forehead, and he was completely disoriented. Someone in the vicinity dialed 1221, the number of United Hatzalah, while a pleasant Yerushalmi fellow hurried to calm the old man down, escorting him into a nearby shul to wash his face. The bystander identified himself to me as Avrohom Zaivald.

Exactly seven minutes later, a black Buick with a flashing red emergency light pulled up with a squeal of its brakes. A man emerged from the car and hurriedly took a huge emergency medical kit from the trunk. He immediately began treating the elderly man, with the utmost courtesy and professionalism. It was clearly a stroke of Hashgacha Protis that he was called, for he spoke English, as did the elderly patient. His name, I was told, is Aharon Sanders.

About a minute later, a motorcycle arrived, bearing a large sticker that announced “Ein od milvado” in large letters. The motorcyclist also produced a medical kit and hurried into the shul. His name was Dovid Kenigshoffer.

Under the careful ministrations of the two paramedics, the elderly man recovered. The color returned to his face, and the two volunteers went on their way, albeit not until they had made certain that someone would take him to an urgent care center for further treatment. A couple of police officers also appeared on the scene, but they quickly realized that their presence was superfluous in light of the excellent care provided by the two Hatzalah volunteers.

I was thoroughly impressed.

 

Rav Michel Yehuda and the Soldier

I will conclude with a story about Rav Michel Yehuda Lefkowitz, who passed away on the 26th of Sivan 5771 (June 27, 2011). Rav Michel Yehuda, in addition to being a gadol baTorah of towering stature, was also an expert in chinuch. He once related that the Chazon Ish had told him that every child needs “a teaspoon of kavod.” Rav Michel Yehuda then added, “That was true in the times of the Chazon Ish. Today, every child needs a gallon of kavod every day!”

Rav Michel Yehuda served alongside Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman zt”l as the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Ponovezh L’tzeirim. Late one night, when Rav Michel Yehuda had finished learning in his office in the yeshiva, a maggid shiur came to consult with him about an issue that had arisen in the yeshiva. Rav Michel Yehuda answered him with his characteristic patience, and before the maggid shiur left, he added, “If you are not in a rush, I would like you to accompany me on my walk home, and I will tell you something that it would be good for you, as a person who teaches bochurim, to know.”

That was a golden opportunity that the maggid shiur could not possibly turn down. As they walked from the yeshiva to the rosh yeshiva’s home on Rechov Wilkomir, Rav Michel Yehuda related, “There was once a talmid in the yeshiva who did not learn at all. Not only did he not learn, but he was also completely devoid of Torah and yiras Shomayim. As much as I tried to find some positive quality in him, I was completely unsuccessful. The yeshiva administration discussed the bochur and decided that there was no reason to keep him in the yeshiva. There was no benefit to the yeshiva from his presence, nor was he benefiting in any way from remaining there. The decision was made to expel him, but I asked for a delay. I approached the bochur and said to him, ‘I am looking for someone to learn with me. Would you agree to be my chavrusah?’ The bochur was astonished and expressed his joy. We decided to learn Mishnah Berurah together, once every other week.

“I immediately realized that I had found something positive in the bochur. If he had possessed no positive qualities at all, he would not have rejoiced at the offer to learn with me. That meant that there was something good about him. We began learning Mishnah Berurah together every other week, and the bochur underwent a complete transformation. Slowly but surely, he began growing in Torah, he began learning and davening appropriately, and he remained in the yeshiva and completed his time there with great success. Three months after he began yeshiva gedolah, though, he left the yeshiva and enlisted in the army. When I heard about it, I was very distressed, but I was not surprised. I knew him well, and I knew that it had been liable to happen.

“A few months passed after I received that distressing news, and one day there was a knock at my door. I opened the door and found that very bochur standing before me, wearing his army uniform. I was shocked at first, but I immediately came to my senses and exclaimed, ‘My chavrusah has come! I am so happy to see you!’ I ushered him inside and said, ‘You must have come to continue our chavrusa.’ I took out two copies of the Mishnah Berurah, and we sat down to learn together as usual. When we had finished, I could see from his expression that he had enjoyed it. I expressed my joy once again at the fact that he had made the effort to continue our chavrusashaft and I praised him for it. We took our leave of each other and I wished him a fond farewell.

 

“Ever since that time, whenever he had an opportunity to take a furlough from the army, the first thing that he did was to come to Bnei Brak to spend a half hour learning Mishnah Berurah with me. He did this even before he went home to visit his parents. As soon as he had concluded his service in the army, he enrolled in a yeshiva for baalei teshuvah. It was not easy for him, but he persisted and continued growing until he married a wonderful bas Yisroel. Today, he has a family of full-fledged bnei Torah.”

Rav Michel Yehuda turned to the maggid shiur who was accompanying him and said simply, “I wanted to tell you this story, because you deal with talmidim.”

 

Two Lessons in Modern Communications

Lesson 1: The e-mail was very clear, but none of the files that it claimed were attached were actually there, and that was enough to arouse my suspicions. There was no letter from a hospital in Germany, no recommendation from the Prisoner Rehabilitation Authority – nothing. I wrote back to the sender to clarify, but my e-mails went unanswered. My suspicions deepened when I tried calling him. For three hours, I continually pressed “redial.” Over and over, I heard the primitive tones that signaled that the line was inactive. Had he given me a fictitious telephone number? I sent one final e-mail, in which I wrote, “There were no files attached to your message, and even the phone number you gave me is inactive. Do you think that is normal?”

That evening, I decided to make one last effort to contact him. When I dialed his number from my office, my call was answered by the Knesset Guard. “I wasn’t trying to reach you,” I told them apologetically. “I was calling a phone number, and it seems that the system only picked up the first digit, which was a zero.” The number zero is the internal number for the operator in the Knesset; after work hours, the calls are automatically transferred to the Knesset Guard.

“You are wrong,” the person on the other end of the line informed me. “It isn’t that the system picked up only the zero. The entire telephone system crashed. Haven’t you noticed that it’s been impossible to call anyone from the Knesset since this afternoon?”

It seemed that my suspicions may have been unfounded, after all….

Lesson 2: About a month ago, I wrote an article about Reb Moishe Reich zt”l. While I was preparing the article, I tried to reach his brother Ephraim for an interview. Ephraim and I have known each other of a long time. I once wrote about his role in the counting of the votes in the national elections, when he was responsible for the entire computer system. Ephraim was Moishe’s partner in running ImageStore, an electronic archiving company that has won many tenders from the government and has even been hired to store highly sensitive information.

In any event, I wanted to speak to Ephraim about his brother and about their company, which had actually been opened more for the purpose of aiding families of bnei Torah than for the potential profits it offered them. I didn’t have his phone number, so I called ImageStore, and his secretary told me that she would send him an e-mail to notify him that I was trying to contact him. When he failed to return my call, I called the office again, and the secretary agreed to send him another e-mail. This scenario repeated itself several times, until the secretary revealed that he had traveled to Europe for a few days to visit various kivrei tzaddikim. I scoffed at the notion that that would explain his failure to be in touch. Is there no e-mail in Poland? Are there no telephones there? Today, every businessman receives constant updates from his office on his cell phone, and I was certain that Ephraim Reich was no exception to that rule. But he did not return my calls, and I felt somewhat offended. After all, it wasn’t for my own benefit that I was trying to reach him….

Two days later, he finally called. “Reb Tzvi, I heard that you were trying to reach me!” he greeted me when I answered the phone.

“Days ago,” I acknowledged.

Ephraim laughed. “You won’t believe what happened to me!” he said. “I forgot my cell phone in a taxi in Kiev. Ordinarily, the odds of recovering the phone would have been less than the probability of winning the lottery in America. But a miracle happened for me, and Hillel Cohen of Hatzalah Ukraine was able to use his connections to retrieve it. I got the phone back just a few minutes ago…”

 

Road Work

Recently in the Knesset, the Minister of Transportation responded to parliamentary queries. MK Yisroel Eichler presented a question regarding the development of Route 60, and the minister, Yisrael Katz, responded to him. The chairman of the session, Betzalel Smotrich, then asked Eichler if he had another question. (Every MK who presents a parliamentary query is entitled to ask an additional question after hearing the minister’s response.) Eichler replied, “Yes, I do. Mr. Minister, why did it take you over a year and a half to answer this question?”

 

Another parliamentary query from Eichler dealt with the establishment of an additional exit from Bnei Brak. However, the question had become irrelevant in the time that passed since it was submitted, since a new road had been opened to enable motorists to leave Bnei Brak. Yet another query dealt with the lack of an additional exit from the city of Modiin Illit. Last week, following a car accident, it was impossible to enter or leave the city for a period of four hours.

The answer, as usual, was that the ministry is working on the problem…