Snippets from Israel

This past Monday, the Knesset passed an amended draft law, whose purpose was to uproot the draft law that was approved under Yair Lapid. I assume that you are interested in hearing precise details about the previous draft law and the new law that has replaced it. You probably want to know what the “criminal sanctions” were that we have opposed so forcefully. After all, it has always been the case that a yeshiva bochur who failed to bring a letter to the draft office signed by his rosh yeshiva and by the chairman of the Vaad Hayeshivos would receive a draft notice, and if he failed to report for military service, he would be seized and placed in a military jail.

One of the experts on this subject is Yaakov Peri, a member of the Knesset from Yesh Atid, a minister in the previous government, and a former head of the Shabak intelligence service. Peri promised me a full explanation of the subject, point by point. We agreed that it would take the form of an interview for the Yated. Of course, I will also speak to him about the terror in Israel and in the world. He is one of the world’s foremost experts on that subject.

There was good reason for the chareidi Knesset members’ insistence that the vote on the draft law coincide with the vote on the budget. For one thing, the intent was to force the government to live up to its commitment to alter the draft law. As everyone knows, things get done much faster and much better when there is a whip, so to speak. But that is not the only reason. Our representatives also knew that in the week when everyone would be talking about the budget and attacking the decisions that had been made, the changes to the draft law would be able to be passed more quietly, without too much of an uproar. Indeed, that is exactly what happened. There were some demonstrations here and there, and a few notices were published in the newspapers, but the issue of the budget dominated the public’s attention. For the opposition, it was more important to attack the budget than to attack the draft law. And the attacks in Paris served as another Heaven-sent diversion.

Collaboration to Replace Coercion

In truth, the amended draft law has merely passed its first reading. The second and third readings have yet to come. According to the agreement, the bill was to be brought for those votes on Monday and Wednesday of this week.

Without going into the details, I will quote the words of Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon this past Monday, when the draft bill was presented to the Knesset: “Honored Speaker and members of the Knesset, I am honored to bring the Defense Service Law, Amendment 21, 5776 – 2015, before the Knesset plenum for its first reading. Amendment 19 of the law, from March 2014, which replaced the law deferring service for full-time yeshiva students that was passed in 2002, added paragraph gimmel-1, which established new arrangements for the conscription of chareidim.

“Since Amendment 19 led to fierce opposition from the chareidi community, there was concern that it would harm the positive process that began even before that, which indicated a gradual yet steady increase in the number of enlistments from this sector, a trend that began on its own before the provisions of the aforementioned amendment were set in place. According to the government policy that was developed on this subject, it is correct and proper to continue advancing the goals of enlistment in the chareidi community for military and national service in any way possible, while creating genuine means of attaining this goal. The proposed law is meant to rectify the change in the law that was established by Amendment 19, with the intent of achieving the goal of meeting the enlistment quotas in the chareidi sector through true collaboration. According to the proposed law, the acclimation period will be extended from three years from the beginning of Amendment 19 to six years from that time, and it will be called the ‘first acclimation period.’ The permanent period will then be replaced by an additional period of acclimation, called the ‘second acclimation period,’ for a span of three years. The two stages of acclimation will advance the chareidi sector’s integration into military and civilian service on a voluntary basis. The proposed structure does not set requirements regarding the nature of the permanent arrangement that will be in place in the future regarding enlistment in the chareidi community.”

A Reaction to Pressure

No one interrupted or heckled the Minister of Defense as he spoke. He continued delivering a professionally crafted speech, smoothly delivering a pointed message to Lapid and his associates. Essentially, Yaalon told them, “You have done nothing but cause harm. You may have wanted to encourage chareidim to enlist, but you have achieved the exact opposite. If a certain number of chareidim was enlisting every year in the past, your actions have caused the numbers to drop.”

After Yaalon’s speech, the Knesset began its debate. There were speeches both from the right and the left, from both proponents and opponents of the bill. There were vitriolic words and empty declarations. The chareidi representatives tried to make sure that the debate would stay out of the news headlines. At the conclusion of the debate, Moshe Yaalon spoke again, this time without a prepared script. Once again, he voiced his view that chareidim should be drafted, but not by force. Not only is it impossible to use coercion to change an arrangement that has existed since the founding of the state, but the fact is that Lapid and his friends have only harmed the cause that they had hoped to advance: universal army service for chareidim.

Ultimately, Yaalon averred, the pressure on the chareidi public and the attack on yeshiva students yielded results that were the exact opposite of what they intended. Even chareidi youths who had left the yeshiva system for reasons of their own, and who understood that they had no choice but to join the army, now refrained from enlisting. Our problem is that we made a commitment to the Supreme Court that we would meet certain enlistment quotas by a particular date. If we do not meet those quotas, then the court, which is the ruling authority in this country, will rule that all the yeshiva students in the country must be drafted immediately.

When the bill was finally brought to a vote, the results were unequivocal. There were 60 votes in favor of the amendment and 45 against. We were distressed by the fact that we didn’t have a full 61 votes in favor. This may be a significant factor when the Knesset’s decision is appealed to the Supreme Court. Incidentally, the gap between the votes in favor and those against, despite the narrow margin between the coalition and the opposition, is because we convinced the Arabs to abstain from the vote. “You aren’t involved in this. Don’t interfere,” we told them, and they agreed. Why did they agree? That is another story…

A Disgrace in the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee

On Thursday night, the Knesset was quiet. The draft law had passed its first reading on Monday, and the budget had been approved late in the previous night. (That sitting of the Knesset drew to a close at 4:25 in the morning.) Now the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee was assigned to prepare the draft law for its second and third readings the following week.

I had just emerged from the committee session. It was 6:00 in the evening and Tzachi Hanegbi, the chairman of the committee, announced that the committee would be voting at 9:00 that night. I had already spent a long time at the meeting, and all I heard was bitter invective against the chareidim and the amended draft law. I don’t know who is in charge of inviting the speakers at the committee session, but all the speakers were from organizations that are demanding immediate and total conscription of all the chareidim. Virtually all the Yesh Atid party members were present for the discussion, including their chairman, Yair Lapid. No one got up and asked the simple question, “Gentlemen, would you rather be right or would you rather be smart? Do you think it is the least bit possible to draft all the chareidim immediately?”

Even the Supreme Court understood that such a goal is impossible, that it can be achieved only through dialogue, understanding, and setting goals. Vicious attacks and legislative terror will accomplish nothing. But a representative of the Defense Ministry who tried to explain this simple reality came under such a fierce verbal assault from Lapid that he decided to remain silent. He sat down next to me and whispered, “There is no one here to talk to.” I left the session feeling very sad.

While the chareidim were slammed repeatedly in the committee’s chamber (even though everyone knew that, after all is said and done, the law was bound to be passed by a majority of one vote), reports arrived of two terror attacks, one in Tel Aviv and the other in Gush Etzion, at the entrance to Alon Shvut. The exact details hadn’t arrived, but I grieved over the news that there had been fatalities. In Tel Aviv, the terrorist was an employee at a nearby restaurant, who had entered a shul located in an office building. If not for the fact that the mispallelim held the door closed, there would have been a mass slaughter. In Gush Etzion, the terrorist drove past a line of waiting cars, shooting into each one. One of the vehicles was actually a bus reported to be transporting “American boys.” I davened that nothing had happened to them, but, I found out, five people had been killed that day. Hashem yeracheim.

Europe’s 9/11

This brings us to the subject of Paris: The terror attacks in Paris left the entire world in shock, with the exception of Israel. It isn’t that we knew that the attacks were going to happen, but anyone who has lived in the shadow of constant terror will not be surprised by anything. That Friday, before the deadly attacks in Paris, Israel suffered a dreadful terror attack outside the community of Otniel. Rabbi Yaakov Litman was driving to the aufruf of his daughter’s chosson. On the way, he and his son were murdered. We went into Shabbos feeling terrible sorrow. The mere thought of the tragedy was heartrending. A time of joyous celebration had suddenly been turned into a mourning period. A kallah was sitting shivah, and her mother would come to her daughter’s wedding as a widow.

And then the French suddenly lived through the same horror. People were sitting in a theater and watching a show, or sitting in a café and enjoying a meal, when their tranquil lives were suddenly invaded by Arab terrorists sowing death and destruction. Why? What did the French men and women do to them? There is no reason. Islamic terrorists have decided to plunge the world into a terrible state of panic and fear.

In the aftermath of the attacks, one of the most prominent and well-known writers in Israel published a column titled, “France Will Feel What It Is Like to Be in Israel.” I feel that it is very important to be cautious about statements such as these. We do not rejoice over their misfortune, chas veshalom. We find no joy in the fact that other people are attacked, even if it might mean that they will now understand what we are going through. Any murder is a terrible thing.

Still, after these dreadful attacks and others like them, we certainly tend to feel that Europe will now understand what Arab terror is, just as America understood it after the attacks of September 11. The two planes that struck the World Trade Center and the third that crashed into the Pentagon made the White House understand the subject better than thousands of Israeli ambassadors could ever have explained it. The very same Europe that has recently begun labeling Israeli products, in an effort to prevent people from buying them, will now have a different perspective on the Middle East. That, in any event, is what we all felt.

And that is why Israelis were so enraged by the words of Margot Wallstrom, the Swedish foreign minister, who indicated in an interview in her own country that the terror attacks in France were a result of the incidents in Israel. In effect, she was implying that we – the Israelis and the Jews – were at fault for the events in France. Here in Israel, the Foreign Ministry was infuriated, and the Swedish ambassador to Israel was summoned for a harsh rebuke. Our deputy Foreign Minister branded her words anti-Semitic. Former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman declared, “The Swedish Foreign Minister’s attempt to connect the ISIS attack on Paris with the Israeli conflict with the Palestinians is a cynical, unacceptable and hypocritical act, which is reminiscent of Sweden’s behavior during the Second World War.” The Swedish Foreign Ministry apologized.

Speaking of Sweden and the Second World War, I should point out that as a member of a family of Danish Jews, I have reason to be grateful to Sweden. Seventy-one years ago, the king of Denmark warned the Jews of his country that a Nazi invasion was imminent. On Rosh Hashanah, 5705, the Jews of Denmark all sailed to Sweden. My grandfather, Rav Binyomin Zev Yaakovson zt”l, led his community across the border and went on to establish the famed Lidingo school for Holocaust survivors in Sweden. But that is another story.

Remarks on Chinuch

We are now approaching Chanukah, which has become known as a time to celebrate chinuch. It is unclear if there is any connection, but this week in Israel, an interview with three mechanchim in Bnei Brak was publicized. I will quote some of the highlights of the discussion:

A shoe salesman in Bnei Brak once commented, “Be’er Yehoshua is a good cheder.” People asked him, “How do you know that?” He replied, “From the boys’ behavior. Every time a boy comes into my store, I can tell which cheder he attends based on the way he behaves.”

One of the mechanchim related that he once went to a cheder to test the students. In that school, the rabbeim always prefer to have the brighter students answer questions, but the visiting educator wanted to hear from the weaker students. The melamed whispered to him not to pose any questions to a certain boy in the class, prompting the visitor to select precisely that boy. He took the boy through a topic step by step, and the child displayed decent knowledge of the subject, to the point that the melamed himself was surprised. Sometimes, the educator concluded, mechanchim themselves stigmatize certain students.

“There was once a boy whose mother told me that he wasn’t capable of learning,” one of the panelists said. “I sat with him and saw that he had the ability. He was simply lazy. I told his mother that she needed to be more authoritative, because there was no telling how far he might decline otherwise. Very often, when the parents lack authority and constantly give in to their children, it can be very destructive.”

“I will never forget that when I was a ten-year-old child, I went with my father and my brother to visit the Ponovezher Rov, and we asked him a question on Maseches Pesachim,” another mechanech related. “The Ponovezher Rov stood up, paced round the room, and said, ‘You are asking an excellent question.’ Then he took out some seforim and began looking into the subject. Today I know that it was a simple question,” he concluded. “He just wanted us to feel good.”

There is a common practice for students to be asked to have their parents sign their tests. This is done primarily when their grades are low. One of the mechanchim related that he once decided to require parents’ signatures from the students who received high grades in order to give the parents nachas. The result was that all the boys made a much greater effort to receive a high grade on the following test. On the other hand, the teacher related that when the boys returned their tests to him, he asked each of them how his father had reacted. Only one said that his father had complimented him.

One of the mechanchim shared a story: Once, a group of boys went to the Chazon Ish to be tested and the Chazon Ish asked one of them to explain the concept of kim leih bederaba mineih. The boy responded, “It means that when the rebbi comes into the class, we have to stand up for him.” Despite this completely incorrect answer, the Chazon Ish maintained a serious expression. After thinking for a moment, he said to the boy, “What you said is true, but this is what the Gemara means,” and he proceeded to explain the true meaning of the term.

“How Do You Daven for Him Without Knowing His Mother’s Name?”

Here are a few stories that are interrelated:

There was a certain bochur who was deeply inspired by Rav Chaim Zelivansky zt”l (whose yahrtzeit was this past week) and was moved by the tremendous love he displayed. This led the boy to apply to be accepted at Yeshivas Maor HaTalmud. The yeshiva, which is typified by the endless toil in Torah study modeled by its rosh yeshiva, was hardly a fitting place for this boy, who was from a much weaker background, but he was accepted on a trial basis, thanks to his connection to the rosh yeshiva.

As could be expected, the bochur did not live up to the yeshiva’s standards. The demands of Maor HaTalmud, in terms of both learning and middos, were simply beyond his abilities. He was not from a Torah home, and despite his aspirations, his background hampered his growth. Rav Chaim advised him to transfer to Yeshivas Shaarei Yosher, the yeshiva of Rav Moshe Goldstein, in order to acclimate to the Torah world. The yeshiva was located on Rechov Ilan in Geulah at the time, and it was already known as a place that worked wonders. Rav Chaim himself arranged an interview for the boy with the mashgiach of Shaarei Yosher at the time, Rav Binyomin Levi (who is today part of the faculty of Yeshivas Mevakshei Hashem).

Rav Chaim prepared the bochur for his interview and taught him a shtickel Torah to be used in the event that he would be tested. “Don’t feel pressured,” the rosh yeshiva assured his pupil. “I will speak to them on your behalf.”

A few hours after the interview, the telephone rang at the Shaarei Yosher. “May I speak with the mashgiach?” the caller asked.

“Who is calling?” the secretary responded.

“Chaim Zelivansky of Rechovot.”

The secretary thought that someone was playing a prank on him. “Rav Chaim Zelivansky of Yeshivas Maor HaTalmud?” he asked.

“Yes,” the rosh yeshiva replied simply.

“I’ll get him right away,” the secretary assured the caller, and he hurried to the bais medrash.

Rav Binyomin Levi quickly made his way to the office and greeted the rosh yeshiva. “I won’t take up too much of your time,” Rav Zelivansky said matter-of-factly. “Did you meet the bochur? Did you approve of him? Will you accept him to the yeshiva? I want to emphasize that he has tremendous potential. You need only to invest effort in him and to encourage him.”

Rav Levi listened intently. It wasn’t every day that a man of such stature called to speak with him. Suddenly, he stopped. “Wait, rosh yeshiva…. Isn’t your daughter getting married today? Isn’t the chuppah supposed to be taking place right now?”

“Yes,” Rav Chaim replied. “May brachos from Shomayim be showered on you, as well.”

“But this is what is on your mind right now, at the time of the chupah?”

“Of course,” Rav Chaim replied. “How can I take my daughter to the chupah without knowing that this bochur has been taken care of?”

And here is another story concerning Rav Binyomin Levi of Mevakshei Hashem. Rav Binyomin once telephoned Rabbi Boruch Yehuda Gradon in Los Angeles to ask him to influence a yeshiva student who had gone slightly astray and was “searching” for direction. Reb Boruch is a leading figure in ruchniyus and kiruv in Los Angeles, who leads a large kollel and is affiliated with the Arachim organization.

“We weren’t very successful with the bochur,” Rav Binyomin admitted, “and he is not in a very good spiritual state right now. He is staying with someone in Los Angeles. Perhaps the rov can find a way to reach out to him or even to have a chavrusahshaft with him.”

Rav Gradon listened, asked a few questions, and replied that he would make an effort to find a way into the bochur’s heart. “I know the person who is supposed to be his host. Let us hope that we will succeed in helping him. What is his name?”

Rav Levi repeated the bochur’s name.

“Yes, but what is his mother’s name?” the rosh kollel asked.

“His mother’s name? I have no idea,” Rav Binyomin confessed.

“I don’t understand,” Rav Gradon replied. “How do you daven for him without knowing his mother’s name?”

“I was just beginning to serve as a mashgiach at the time,” Rav Binyomin now relates when recounting this story, “and I learned from that exchange that davening is part of our spiritual work for a bochur. If you want to work with a bochur, you need to know his mother’s name, and you need to daven for him.”

How does that connect to Rav Chaim Zelivansky?

“One day, a bochur came to Shaarei Yosher from Mir Brachfeld and asked if he could spend a while with us and then return to the Mir. He had a logical basis for the request, and it was clear that he would indeed have a period of chizuk and growth if he came to us. Before accepting him, I wanted to speak with someone on the yeshiva faculty to fill in a few details. I asked him with which of the rabbeim he had a close relationship, and he told me that he was close with the tzaddik, Rav Pinchos Zelivansky. I called Rav Pinchos and he said, ‘Oh, yes, Yehoshua ben Devorah. He is a wonderful bochur, truly precious. He will certainly be great one day.

“‘Yehoshua ben Devorah’? I repeated.

“Yes,” said Rav Pinchos. “I daven for him three times a day!”