My Take on the News

Will the Nationality Law Bring Down the Government?

Talk has already begun about moving up the next elections.

There are many reasons that Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu might decide to disband the current government. For one, he might want to show the prosecution that the Israeli people are continuing to vote for him despite the obsessive criminal investigations surrounding him. If Netanyahu wins the next election, which everyone thinks he will, his victory would send that message to the prosecution and the attorney general. And even though it would not obligate them to alter their approach, it could influence their decisions.

That, however, is not the only motivation that the prime minister might have. Even more important is the draft law, which is becoming an increasingly complex issue. On the one hand, the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah ordered the Agudah MKs to resign from the coalition if the new draft law, which has already passed its first reading, does not undergo some changes before it is passed into law. When it became clear that it was impossible to make those changes in the small amount of time remaining in the Knesset’s summer session, which ended before Tisha B’Av, the Moetzes changed its instructions and ordered the MKs to resign from the government if the Supreme Court does not grant an extension to allow the law to be passed in the upcoming winter session.

Netanyahu has no control over the Supreme Court. Nevertheless, he made sure that the government would request an extension for another seven months – until the end of the Knesset’s winter session. This was in addition to the original grace period of one year that the government was given by the Supreme Court to pass a new law, after the previous draft law was struck down by the court last year.

Last week, the court announced a partial acceptance of the government’s request for an extension. Instead of granting an additional seven months for the law to be passed, the court allowed the government three months – until December 2, 2018, just before Chanukah. This amount of time may or may not be sufficient to allow the legislative process to take place. And that raises the question of what the MKs of Agudas Yisroel will do.

At this point, Netanyahu seems to have grown tired of being threatened by Agudas Yisroel. He claims to have been angered that the chareidi parties cannot seem to coordinate their stances. He has hinted that if the three parties – Degel HaTorah, Agudas Yisroel, and Shas – do not settle on a position on which all three agree, he will dissolve the government.

In a statement released by the Likud party, it was phrased as follows: “Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke separately today with MK Litzman and with Defense Minister Lieberman. There is a shared desire to resolve the issue of the draft and to hold the elections at the scheduled time. The discussions will continue over the coming weeks.”

 

Threats in the North, Rockets in the South

Meanwhile, Netanyahu must contend with several domestic issues. First of all, there is the security situation. Israel is currently dealing with issues on two of its borders. In Syria, Assad is taking control of an increasing number of areas in the Golan Heights; his forces are now overlooking the cities of northern Israel, especially those that are near the border. The security establishment fears that Assad, the president of Syria, will decide that since he has finished slaughtering his own people and quashing the rebellion against him, the time has come to open a new front in the battle – against Israel itself. Naturally, such a move would earn him the appreciation of the Arab world, which is hostile to Israel.

In the south, meanwhile, there has been talk of a ceasefire with Hamas, but we have witnessed a rise and fall in hostilities. Last Wednesday night, dozens of rockets were fired at the settlements in southern Israel. A few of the rockets fell in inhabited areas, including the city of Sderot. There were two incidents in which it was a sheer miracle that the rockets did not cause significant loss of life. This information is not publicized in Israel in order to avoid encouraging the terrorists to continue launching rockets.

In Sderot, two people were wounded and about 20 people required medical treatment for shock and hysteria. The widespread panic was visible in the footage that emerged from the scene. One can see hundreds of people racing to the bomb shelters while rockets shriek audibly in the background, leaving bright streaks in the sky. People see the signs of approaching rockets and have no idea where the projectiles will fall. They run into the shelters, rushing en masse to the doors amid utter chaos and hysteria, with children screaming in fright. These are scenes that we had hoped never to see again.

The IDF announced that it retaliated for the missile strikes. Israel’s security establishment is tensely monitoring the developments, the army is organizing its troops, and some are concerned that we may be on the brink of war.

 

The Cabinet Convenes

On Thursday, after the violence reached its peak, the IDF spokesman released a statement announcing that the aerial assault on the Gaza Strip had concluded and that the air force had destroyed a military compound belonging to the East Rafiach battalion, the shaft of a combat tunnel, and two combat tunnels that were discovered near the coast in the center of the Gaza strip, which belonged to Hamas. Beginning in the morning hours, three cells of terrorists launching rockets and missiles into Israel were bombarded from the air. The IDF has attacked 150 military targets belonging to Hamas. The statement added that Prime Minister Netanyahu will conduct an evaluation of the security situation with the Minister of Defense, the chief of staff, and the director of the Shin Bet. At the same time, the political and security cabinet is meeting on a constant basis. But although the cabinet is convening, it has not made any quick or far-reaching decisions. A senior Palestinian official also announced that the latest round of fighting had ended, albeit provided that Israel would cease its attacks on the Gaza strip. “The return to normal is dependent on Israel,” he stressed.

On Thursday morning, prior to the IDF spokesman’s announcement, air raid sirens sounded several times in Netivot, Ashkelon, and the Gaza envelope. During the course of a single day, over 180 missile launches in the direction of Israel were identified. Beginning at midnight on Wednesday night, a series of 80 launches from Gaza were identified and the Iron Dome system intercepted over 30 missiles. Most of the projectiles exploded over open areas. Throughout the night, red alert sirens sounded in Sderot, the communities of the Gaza envelope, Netivot, and Ashkelon. This week, things were a bit calmer.

 

A Fabricated Furor

There is much that we can learn from the recently passed Nationality Law, which is discussed in a separate article and which resulted in a frenzy of condemnation against Prime Minister Netanyahu. This law was Netanyahu’s effort to avoid being upstaged by Naftali Bennett by presenting himself as a dyed-in-the-wool right-winger. Netanyahu felt that he demonstrated leadership by forcing the chareidi representatives to support the law, as well as standing strong as the leader of his own party and suppressing dissent from insubordinate members within its ranks, such as Benny Begin. Netanyahu decided that the law had to pass, and so it did. With that, it seemed that he had emerged triumphant, having asserted himself and proving his might.

But then the public outcry erupted, and Netanyahu became frightened – as usual – and announced that several alterations would be made to the law. He promised that it would now stress equality for the Druse, who are not Jewish even though they serve in the army. A ministerial committee was urgently assembled to determine how to improve their situation. This week, the Knesset is scheduled to convene for a special mid-recess discussion in light of the situation, and Netanyahu plans to explain himself at that sitting. In truth, he already tried to explain his actions at the recent cabinet session, but the furor did not subside. To make a long story short, the move that was supposed to cement him as a powerful leader ended up highlighting his weakness instead. The lesson is clear: Even the most powerful human ruler is subject to the authority of the King of all kings.

As for the media’s reaction, it is clear that the frenzy of outrage has been manufactured as a political ploy. Netanyahu’s enemies pounce on any hot topic that suits their agenda – in this case, the plight of the Druse – and his detractors were all too happy to unite to stage a massive demonstration in Rabin Square. Only a tiny percentage of the participants in that demonstration were actually Druse. In fact, the protest would never have even gotten off the ground if not for the backing that it received from the media – and the media would never have rallied around it if not for the fact that most of its members are hostile to Netanyahu. With its ersatz outrage, the media muzzles not only the silent majority of the public, but even the few members of the press who think differently than they do.

In all likelihood, Netanyahu does not even understand why he has evoked such fury. His actions seemed to be the embodiment of Zionist and Israeli ideals, yet everything has blown up in his face.

Sometimes, we have to learn the hard way that we are wrong when we think that we run the world.

 

Lessons from the Agreement with Poland

Things have not been going well for Prime Minister Netanyahu. Before the tumult over the Nationality Law, he came under a barrage of condemnations for the agreement that was reached with Poland. It began when Netanyahu boasted that he had succeeded in convincing the Polish parliament to soften the law against blaming Poland for the atrocities of the Holocaust. The Polish lawmakers repealed the mandatory criminal sentence for the use of the term “Polish concentration camps” – only the sentence but not the legal prohibition itself – and Netanyahu viewed that as a diplomatic accomplishment. But after the six-paragraph joint document (titled “Joint Declaration of the Prime Minister of the State of Israel and the Republic of Poland”) was published, Netanyahu was bombarded with criticism, especially from Yad Vashem. His critics went so far as to accuse him of cheapening the Holocaust and collaborating with the guilty parties. The outpouring of fury reached the point where Netanyahu announced that he was considering changing the agreement (although that was completely unrealistic). It served as a lesson for all of us – a lesson to remember how small we are.

After the agreement was announced, an elderly man named Avi Kustin began protesting outside the Knesset. I stopped beside him several times to greet him and even to invite him inside the building for coffee, but he was determined to remain at his post. The 85-year-old Kustin was born in Warsaw. When Poland was invaded, he fled with his mother and sister to the home of relatives in Lithuania. At the beginning of the war, they were in the ghetto in Vilna. A few days after the ghetto was liquidated, when he was ten years old, Kustin managed to escape into the forest, where he met a group of Jewish partisans under the leadership of Abba Kovner. Kustin became a member of the group and remained with them until the liberation.

Despite his advanced age, Kustin felt compelled to stand outdoors and protest the agreement with Poland – an isolated old man standing firm against the entire world. He wore a distraught expression and held signs denouncing the agreement. A young man stood beside him. “I salute your grandfather,” I told the youth.

He laughed. “He isn’t my grandfather. He’s my father,” he corrected me.

The elderly Kustin, too, can teach a lesson to all of us. When something hurts, we must cry out – and when we do so, we can make a difference. Of course, it is proper to protest even if one will not succeed in effecting a change, but in any event, it seems that Kustin has indeed succeeded in making a difference.

 

The Latent Righteousness of All Jews

Rav Ovadiah Yosef once related in one of his shiurim during the month of Elul, “Twenty years ago, I was in Eilat during the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah. The only schools there were secular; there wasn’t a single religious school. I was asked if I was willing to come and speak to the children there, and I said, ‘Yes, I am willing.’ I went, and even the sixth and seventh graders wanted to come in and hear me, but the principal said that only the eighth graders could come in, since there was no room for the other two grades. They tried to argue, but they were forced to remain outside. That was the principal’s decree.

“I began speaking about teshuvah and good deeds. Believe me, gentlemen, it is impossible to believe this, but those wonderful young men began to cry. They asked me where I would be that night, and I told them that I would be in a certain place for Selichos. They all came to Selichos, and they recited the Selichos in tears, the way people recite Selichos on Yom Kippur. All Jews are holy tzaddikim!” he concluded.

 

The Ingredients of Confusion

Recently, I have begun noticing some poorly phrased newspaper headlines. This week, for instance, I came across a headline that read: “Yitzchok Herzog Has Resigned Completely from the Knesset.” I found that choice of words quite peculiar. What does it mean for him to have resigned “completely”? Is there such a thing as a partial resignation?

Speaking of Herzog, I should note that the fact that Tzipi Livni succeeded him as the leader of the opposition was the best possible scenario for him. It is now guaranteed that he will be missed in the Knesset, especially his speeches. The opposition leader always speaks after the prime minister, and Livni’s addresses are bound to leave the Knesset members yearning for the days when Herzog held the position in her place. Indeed, in Wednesday’s debate over the Nationality Law, Livni was first to speak, going on the offensive against the prime minister. The Knesset secretary even issued an official announcement in advance: “In accordance with the regulations … I am honored to inform you that MK Tzipi Livni will serve as the head of the opposition, in accordance with the notice provided by the chairman of the Zionist Camp party, MK Yoel Hasson, to the Speaker of the Knesset.”

In any event, the phenomenon of poorly written texts is not limited to newspaper headlines. I recently came across a carton of ice cream that bore the words “50 percent fruit.” I could not imagine how any ice cream could contain that much actual fruit and still be sold for a reasonable price. I examined the small print, which informed me that the box contained strawberry-flavored pareve sorbet, made with crushed strawberries and blueberries, along with cherry concentrate. This made it sound as if it wasn’t actual fruit but merely fruit concentrate that made up 50 percent of the product. Indeed, the ingredients listed reconstituted strawberry puree, consisting of water and strawberry concentrate, along with reconstituted blueberry puree and reconstituted cherry extract, as well as an assortment of sugars and other artificial ingredients. After a concerted effort, I found a footnote that explained that the “50 percent fruit” was indeed referring to the fruit concentrates and purees. Reading the information on the package left me drowning in a sea of bewildering information and contradictions, but it seemed clear that the ice cream was not “50 percent fruit” after all. Nevertheless, it was quite tasty.

 

The Best Bochur in the Yeshiva

Two weeks ago, we marked the yahrtzeit of Rav Yaakov Yisroel Kanievsky, the Steipler Gaon, on the 23rd of Av. Several days earlier, I attended a wedding celebrated by the Schwinger and Weitman families, where I received a copy of a kuntres titled Karan Ohr Panav, which had been authored by the father of the kalah, Rav Berel Avrohom Halevi Weitman (who hails from America). The kuntres is about Rabbi Weitman’s illustrious rebbi, Rav Refoel Shmulevitz, and includes three remarkable stories that Rav Refoel told about the Steipler Gaon.

“On Thursday night of the week of Parshas BeshalachShabbos Shirah – of the year 5752/1992,” the kuntres relates, “Rav Refoel Shmulevitz came to New York to serve as the mesader kiddushin at my wedding. In his speech on the first night of sheva brachos, he told a story about his father, Rav Chaim zt”l, who used to travel to Novardok to spend the Yomim Noraim with his revered grandfather, the Alter of Novardok. On one of his visits, Rav Chaim entered the yeshiva of Novardok and encountered his uncle, Rav Avrohom Joffen. Rav Avrohom pointed to a specific bochur and said to Rav Chaim, ‘That bochur is the best bochur in the yeshiva.’ Rav Chaim asked, ‘Is he the greatest lamdan in the yeshiva?’ Rav Avrohom replied in the negative. Rav Chaim then asked if he was the greatest masmid, but Rav Avrohom replied that that was also not the case. ‘Then what makes him the best bochur in the yeshiva?’ Rav Chaim asked.

“Rav Avrohom replied, ‘He is the greatest mevakeish in the yeshiva.’

“That bochur was Rav Yaakov Kanievsky, who later became known as the Steipler. Rav Refoel added, ‘The most important trait for a yeshiva bochur to possess is the trait of being a mevakeish – constantly striving to grow and accomplish. It is the attribute of harboring a deep desire for the Torah and pursuing it with all of one’s being.’

“On another occasion,” the kuntres continues, “Rav Refoel related that when his father, Rav Chaim, was in Novardok, the Steipler showed him the chiddushim that he had written and asked him what to do with them. Rav Chaim replied, ‘One third are already being discussed in yeshivos, another third appear in other seforim, and the last third are original and worthy of publication.’ Rav Refoel added that the Steipler followed his father’s advice, and those chiddushim were eventually published as the Steipler’s magnum opus, Kehillas Yaakov. Many years later, when Rav Chaim Shmulevitz passed away, the circle was closed when his son traveled to Bnei Brak to consult with the Steipler about what to do with his father’s written chiddushim. Rav Refoel asked the Steipler if it would be better to prepare his father’s chiddushim for publication or to devote his efforts to his own original chiddushim. The Steipler replied that he was obligated to do both, and so he did.

“Rav Refoel once told me that he once visited the Steipler to ask him to daven for a person who was ill. The Steipler asked him, ‘Why did you come to me?’ Rav Refoel replied, ‘The Gemara states that if a person is sick, one should go to a talmid chacham and ask him to daven for him.’

“The Steipler responded by telling him a story. When he was a child in Hornosteipl, there was a man in the city who was known to be mentally unbalanced and who claimed that he was Eliyahu Hanovi. The children of the town used to mock him for that. After he had suffered from their taunts and derision for many years, the man gathered all the children in the bais medrash and said, ‘Now I will prove to you beyond a doubt that I am Eliyahu Hanovi.’ He began removing seforim from the shelves – Gemaros, Medrashim, and other texts – and showing the children what was written in each sefer about Eliyahu Hanovi. The children – and presumably the Steipler himself was one of them – began laughing and shouted at the man, ‘We know that Eliyahu Hanovi exists, but what does that have to do with you?’

“With that, the Steipler said to Rav Refoel Shmulevitz, ‘It’s true that the Gemara says that one should ask a talmid chochom to daven for a sick person, but what does that have to do with me?”

 

Kiruv Memories

In Elul 5755/1995, I published a series of interviews with people who were among the driving forces behind the kiruv movement. One of those people was Rav Aryeh Weinberg, who passed away just a week ago.

At the time, I wrote, “Over 30 years ago, Rav Aryeh Weinberg – then a young married man – was already highly active in the world of baalei teshuvah. He was one of the founders of the yeshivos in Netivot and Ofakim, the founder of Chinuch Atzmai in Netivot, and one of the heads of the Israeli division of Ohr Sameach. In general, he was considered a pioneer in establishing kollelim for baalei teshuvah and creating learning programs for inmates in prison. I visited Lev Bonim in the hope of hearing from this man – who is a rebbe of chassidim and a posek for his talmidim – some solid perspectives and facts about the world of baalei teshuvah then and now… I arrived at Lev Bonim in the middle of a shiur klali. Rav Weinberg was engaged in a detailed discussion of a sugya in Maseches Shabbos. The yungerleit were debating the finer points of the halachos of sechitah, dosh, and mefareik. As I listened to the discussion, it would have been easy to imagine that I was standing in the bais medrash of the Mir or of Kollel Chazon Ish. I could not believe that these yungeleit, who were already delivering shiurim and teaching their own talmidim, were baalei teshuvah.”

It was also at that time that Rav Leibel Weinberg founded the Center for Prisoner Rehabilitation. The article was accompanied by a picture of Rav Leibel, Rav Avrohom Ravitz, and Rav Dovid Yosef visiting a prison. Another photograph showed Rav Leibel delivering a shiur klali in a kollel, with the yungeleit listening raptly. I asked him about his memories of the world of kiruv 25 years earlier, and he replied, “That was the time when Rav Ika Yisraeli established an institution within Ohr Somayach, and I was invited to deliver shmuessen there. Those were the first baalei teshuvah. Eighteen years ago, I was given an official position.” That was when Rav Leibel became the menahel ruchani of the Israeli division of Ohr Somayach. Prior to that time, he had served as a faculty member in a yeshiva tichonit, where he had also been involved in outreach. “Although I wasn’t drawing the youths there from secularism to mitzvah observance,” he related, “I was still influencing them to make the transition from their background in the non-yeshiva world to the world of yeshivos.” Before his time in Ohr Somayach, Rav Leibel was also one of the founders of Yeshivat Hanegev.

 

Reaching Out to the Disconnected

Portions of my discussion with Rav Leibel Weinberg at the time are as relevant today as they were then. Nowadays, for instance, the country has become obsessed with combating “religious exclusion.” Any action that is even suspected of having religious overtones is bound to come under fierce attack. This week, there was a massive uproar after a group of religious soldiers averted their gazes from a female instructor (who happens to be the daughter of a general in the army) who was teaching them how to parachute from a plane. As it turns out, this has been the practice of religious soldiers for years; I even spoke about it with Rav Leibel at the time.

Around the time of that interview, Rav Reuven Elbaz had been invited to speak at an army base, but the invitation was then withdrawn. Widespread incitement against kiruv activists was raging throughout the country. Rav Leibel said, “They have prohibited rabbonim and religious lecturers from entering IDF schools and bases. They have banned the soldiers from visiting Ohr Somayach. It is not just incitement; they are blocking us from reaching the people with whom we were already in contact… At the Tel Nof base, there was a veritable yeshiva of sorts. Every day, the rabbeim would travel to the base and teach, but now they have been barred from doing so. Today, they are also requiring air force pilots to shave their beards. One of the most successful people in the air force, Amir Yahel, was told that he could not continue serving unless he removed his beard.”

The kiruv activists concluded that their only option was to keep a low profile “We made a mistake in believing that publicity would help our cause, and we tried to capture the public’s attention. Today, we are no longer doing that. There are things that we used to work to publicize, yet today we are struggling to prevent those same things from becoming public knowledge. I know about some large-scale initiatives under Uri Zohar’s aegis, which are specifically kept away from the public eye.”

We also spoke about Ohr Somayach’s efforts to target the intellectuals among the chiloni populace, in contrast to Ohr Hachaim, which focused on the less educated sector of the populace. (Lev Bonim, incidentally, embraced everyone equally.) Rav Leibel explained, “Ohr Somayach deals with the intelligentsia not because it is indifferent to everyone else, but because it has the tools to reach out to them, whereas Rav Reuven Elbaz established his own organization to target the rest of the populace, and Machaneh Yisroel serves the same purpose. In practice, though, our efforts overlap, and all of the kiruv entities address the population as a whole.” Rav Leibel also revealed to me that the kiruv efforts targeting the bohemian populace of Tel Aviv were guided by Rav Chaim Greineman, with strong support from Rav Shach.

Last week, after Rav Leibel’s passing, there was much talk about the affection that he demonstrated for Sephardic Jews. Indeed, those sentiments were very apparent in our conversation, in which he spoke about the differences between kiruv targeting Sephardim and Ashkenazim. “The Ashkenazim received higher education and were taught anti-religious values, whereas the Sephardic community is entrenched in Torah; they just do not observe the mitzvos. It is like the difference between a mumar lehachis and a mumar letei’avon, a person who sins to rebel against Hashem and a person who sins merely because of his desires. The latter is much easier to influence.”

“Does that place a greater responsibility on us to reach out to those people?” I asked.

“Yes,” Rav Leibel confirmed. “For these types of people, everything depends on our efforts. We have no need to debate with them or to outwit them; the more we reach out, the more people we will be able to influence. If we have the ability to do that, then it places an enormous responsibility on us.”

One of my final questions was whether today’s kiruv world is doing the maximum possible to influence our irreligious brethren. Rav Leibel’s response was characteristically terse and to the point: “Not even the minimum!”

May Hashem grant all of us the ability to return to Him in complete teshuvah.