Saturday, May 25, 2024

Snippets from Israel

Natural Gas: A Threat to the Government Aryeh Deri's name continues to feature prominently in the headlines. This time, it is over the issue of natural gas.

Most people in Israel, and certainly in America, are not aware of the reason for the hullabaloo, and they certainly are not acquainted with all the details, even though the issue at hand affects every bank account and wallet in the country. These events, after all, are bound to have an effect on the price of gas, and there isn’t a single household or family that will not feel those effects.

The story began a long time ago, when the government decided that it did not have the knowhow, or perhaps the energy, to search for natural gas in the waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Several wealthy people — who would today be called “tycoons” — offered to take over the field. They would shoulder the expenses, and of course, they would also reap the profits. Naturally, the profits would also be split with the government — meaning the citizens of Israel. What was it that Netanyahu said this week? “The new agreement we have reached will break the monopoly, and in the coming decades, it will bring in billions of shekels for education, culture, health care, and many other things that will benefit all the citizens of Israel. After years of discussion and debate, the time has finally come for us to determine that the gas will be extracted from the ground and will reach the economy of Israel and all the citizens of the country.”

The government has put together an agreement that is supposed to create a balance between the demands of the investors and owners and those of the government, which represents the State and its citizens. For instance, they have guaranteed that gas will be sold only within the Israeli economy, and if gas is exported anyway, its price in Israel will not be higher than the amount for which it is sold outside the country. The government, for its part, has promised not to change the agreement for ten years. From the standpoint of the investors, this is a very important stipulation, since the government has already changed the terms of its agreement due to pressure from “socialist” Knesset members.

All the arrangements had been completed, and the deal was merely waiting for the approval of an official in the Ministry of the Economy. But since that official resigned from his post several days earlier, the law placed the authority to approve it in the hands of the Economy Minister — who is none other than Aryeh Deri. At a cabinet meeting several days ago, Deri announced that he was not willing to sign on the agreement in place of the official who had resigned, even though the law permits him to do so; he asked for the decision to be made by the government as a whole instead. The prime minister was forced to accept Deri’s stance, and since the law requires a decision made by the government instead of a single minister to be approved by the Knesset, he was stymied by the fact that he lacked a majority in the Knesset. The opposition announced that all of its members would vote against the agreement — even people, such as Avigdor Lieberman, who had actually been partners in creating the agreement and have no problem with any of its clauses. The opposition doesn’t vote on any proposal for substantive reasons; it simply takes advantage of any opportunity that comes its way to humiliate the government. Since the coalition has a majority by a margin of a single vote, and since two members of the coalition — Moshe Kahlon and Chaim Katz — had announced that they did not plan to vote for this law, due to their relationships with some of the tycoons, there was no majority. Netanyahu tried to curry support among some members of the opposition, but his efforts failed.

The sentiment in the Knesset is that tension over this issue may mount to the point that it threatens the stability of the government, and it will become necessary to bring an additional party into the Knesset at any cost — even Yair Lapid. But these predictions may have been trumped up in order to frighten Deri into reneging on his decision and approving the agreement, thereby releasing the prime minister from the need to secure the approval of the Knesset.

On Monday, the government announced that it is withdrawing the bill. Even though this has been only a symbolic move so far, and not a substantive one, the opposition has won. Deri has been showered with accolades from all sides for his refusal to act as a rubber stamp, especially since his actions have led the government to expose the entire agreement to the public, in the hope that the opposition, or some of its members, will support it now that its terms have been fully revealed.

In any event, it has been impossible to avoid hearing or reading about the Economy Minister throughout the past week.


Shapiro Pressures the Knesset

The American government has its own perspective on the subject. First of all, there is the very simple fact that one of the companies currently controlling Israel’s gas reserves is an American company named Noble Energy. The company is based in Houston, Texas, and deals in locating and extracting natural gas. The company operates in a wide range of locations, including the southern United States, the Gulf of Mexico, Argentina, Ecuador, Equatorial Guinea, the Northern Sea, and China — and, of course, the Middle East.

America therefore has a vested interest in the agreement, and the government suspected Netanyahu of playing to the tune of his political — and perhaps financial — patron, Sheldon Adelson. This past weekend, Haaretz ran a headline story claiming that Adelson had spoken to Netanyahu about the issue. For his part, Adelson responded through the media, especially through his own personal publication, Yisrael Hayom, that he had not contacted Netanyahu at all; rather, he had spoken to the head of a group seeking to advance American trade in Israel. At the same time, it was revealed that the American embassy in Tel Aviv has exerted pressure on the members of the opposition to vote for Deri’s authority to be transferred to the government, or at least to abstain from the vote, thereby making it possible for the law to pass. At least two members of the Arab List confirmed that they were contacted by the American embassy. It is possible that it wasn’t the ambassador himself, Dan Shapiro, who spoke to them; it may have been other senior officials in the embassy. It is also possible that the contact was made not in person, but by phone or text message.

In a written response, Ambassador Shapiro essentially confirmed the accusations that he had meddled in the Knesset’s work, although he tried to make it sound better than that. “The details of any agreement, of course, must be decided by the government and the people of Israel,” he wrote. “We always maintain an open dialogue with our Israeli friends about the economy, security, and the commercial benefits that we believe will be attainable when Israel develops its natural gas industry.”

The gas has already been extracted from the depths of the sea, but the conflict is far from over. It is likely that it will occupy our attention for a long time to come. It can be assumed, now that the details of the agreement have been made public, that the members of the opposition will keep the issue burning for many months to come, raising objections to every clause.


Why Did They Forget Shamir?

Yitzchak Shamir (Yezernitzky), the Prime Minister of Israel between the years 1983 and 1991 (part of which he served on a rotation with Shimon Peres), passed away at the age of 93 in June, three years ago. During the last years of his life, Shamir was very ill and lost his memory, along with his lucidity. But the family’s request for financial support to provide a caregiver for the former head of state was met with derision in the Knesset Finance Committee.

As the leader of Lechi during the British Mandate, Shamir adopted the name “Michoel.” During that time, he also grew a beard and peyos, but it was purely an external move. Shamir’s connection to Jewish tradition was exceedingly weak and lacked much meaning. It was no secret that he did not keep kosher; he sometimes ate treif even in public. He responded to any comments on the subject with a shrug and a dismissive wave of his hand. This week, Yossi Achimeir, who served as the head of Shamir’s office and later as a member of the Knesset, lamented the fact that the former prime minister has not been given the respect due to him. Not even a single street has been named after him, Achimeir pointed out.

Achimeir listed a series of achievements that marked Shamir’s tenure as prime minister, including his uncompromising battle against the intifada, the lowering of the standing of the PLO and Arafat, and the establishment of dozens of yishuvim throughout the country. Above all, though, Achimeir pointed to “the mass aliyah from the Soviet Union,” which Shamir himself, according to the former director of his office, viewed as his crowning achievement. Achimeir claimed that the million immigrants who came to Israel from the Soviet Union actually saved the State of Israel. And then he added a key sentence: “Many of the immigrants didn’t necessarily consider themselves Zionists; they were merely looking to rebuild their lives in a Western country.”

The Israeli government imported one million Russians and Ukrainians, most of whom were not Zionists; some of them were anti-Zionists, and a few were even anti-Semitic. In this address, the right-hand man of the prime minister who worked to bring them to Israel has essentially admitted to that. Achimeir lamented the historical irony that it was those very immigrants who ultimately brought about the downfall of Shamir and the right-wing government. But what is the loss of political power, he concluded, when compared to the satisfaction of the great achievement of bringing one million “Jews” to live in the Jewish state?

A man who brought one million people of dubious Jewish extraction into the country, including tens of thousands of definite non-Jews, while demonstrating complete disregard for the sanctity of the Jewish people and the true definition of Judaism, deserves shame. Yitzchak Shamir was responsible for one of the most insane acts ever committed by the State of Israel in its arrogance. If Sharon has the Disengagement as his ultimate badge of shame, for Shamir, the immigration of masses of non-Jews from Russia and the Ukraine has the same effect.


What Is “Meshisah”?

Two weeks ago, MK Yoav Ben-Tzur spoke in the Knesset about the ongoing vandalism on Har Hazeisim, which is a national disgrace. To think that a sovereign country is incapable of protecting a cemetery in the heart of its own capital city! The title of his motion for the agenda was “Hemshech Meshisah B’Har Hazeisim — Continued Vandalism on Har Hazeisim.” To Ben-Tzur’s good fortune, and to the misfortune of Har Hazeisim itself, the Afghanistan section of the cemetery had been vandalized just the day before, with about 50 matzeivos destroyed; as a result, the topic was never more relevant than on that day. We wrote about the situation on Har Hazeisim last week, but this week we have an interesting postscript to add.

Ben-Tzur had prepared one of his characteristic lengthy speeches, but as he continued pontificating on the subject, it became increasingly clear that something was troubling many of the Knesset members in his audience. All that they were waiting for was for someone to get up and call out, “What does ‘meshisah’ mean?” Apparently, these Knesset members have never davened Kabbalas Shabbos, where the phrase “Vehayu lemeshisah shosayich” appears, nor have they ever learned Yeshayah or Tzefaniah, where the word also appears.

“The best way to resolve all these issues,” Ben-Tzur was saying, “is to set up a round table where all the relevant authorities can meet, which will make it possible for the Knesset to oversee the necessary actions of the body charged with carrying them out. I therefore ask for your support for this motion for the agenda, for the discussion to be moved into one of the Knesset committees, which will continue monitoring every area that requires correction. I have no doubt that during this interim period, the Minister of Construction has already given instructions to his staff to prepare plans for improving the situation as much as possible under the current circumstances. But at a later stage, and on a regular basis thereafter, it will be necessary to conduct a thorough discussion of the subject and to provide the appropriate solutions.”

At that point, Mickey Levi called out, “Sir, can you explain to us, what is…”

“What is meshisah?” interjected Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin.

“What does ‘continued meshisah’ mean?” Levi concluded.

Meshisah means looting or vandalism,” Ben-Tzur replied.

“Looting?” Nahmias-Verbin echoed.

“Thank you,” said Levi. “We didn’t know.”

“We’ve simply never heard the word before,” Nahmias-Verbin added.

“There is a pasuk, ‘Who gave Yaakov over to meshisah?’” Ben-Tzur said.

“Thank you, Knesset member Yoav Ben-Tzur,” said Tali Ploskov.

“At least there are two people here who had the courage to ask,” Nahmias-Verin commented.


A Spotty Track Record

One of the greatest compliments ever been given to the chareidi representatives in the Knesset came recently from a group that does not exactly number among our greatest admirers. An institute calling itself “Al Mishmar HaKnesset” released an assessment of the performance of the Nineteenth Knesset on all matters related to religion and the state. The Nineteenth Knesset, as we know, was dominated by the Yesh Atid party, headed by Yair Lapid. In this watchdog group’s report, it was characterized as having performed exceedingly poorly. That should give you an idea of the group’s agenda.

Here is an excerpt from their report:

“This was a historic opportunity. For the first time, the issue of religion and the state was placed on the public agenda even during the election campaign. A number of parties chose to make this issue a major part of their platforms, and many of the citizens of the State of Israel began to feel hope. The results of the elections were also surprising, and when a coalition was formed that was composed of the more moderate parties, the hope for historic change began to occupy a prominent position. The results of the report of Al Mishmar HaKnesset in summation of the Nineteenth Knesset have led to a bitter sense of an opportunity having been missed. A Knesset that began with a series of initiatives in a broad range of relevant areas, a Knesset in which issues such as the marriage covenant, conversion, equality in sharing the burden, reforms in kashrus, and the character of Shabbos in the public arena were main components of the public dialogue, has ended with merely a whimper. Five percent of all the parliamentary activities of the Knesset dealt with issues pertaining to religion and state. Out of that five percent, only a very small number of initiatives were passed into legislation or approved as government decisions. It would be difficult to say that those that became public policy are creating dramatic changes or dealing with the core issues in a significant way. In terms of religion and state, the Nineteenth Knesset has a spotty track record.”

That “missed opportunity” lamented by the watchdog group is our success!


Memories of Boston and the Rebbe

Here is one final tidbit (bli neder) from my recent visit to New York. I spent Shabbos in Flatbush, at the home of a distinguished yungerman, a talmid of the Lakewood Yeshiva who is originally from Eretz Yisroel and probably is well acquainted with most of the masechtos in Shas, even though he is considered a “working man” today. His primary rabbeim were Rav Nosson Wachtfogel, during his years as a bochur and avreich in Lakewood (from 1980 and on), and Rav Avigdor Miller, whom he adopted as a mentor after moving to Flatbush. He was one of the foremost mispallelim at Rav Miller’s shul. I asked him where he would recommend that I daven on Shabbos, and he directed me to the Boston shul, which is located on the corner of the street where he lives.

Indeed, it was a beautiful davening, and there was even a double kiddush after davening, since the congregation was celebrating both a bar mitzvah and an aufruf that week. Both the name of the shul and the appearance of its rov effectively transported me back in time almost 30 years, to the summer of 1988. At the time, I was part of a group of Israeli youths who were invited by the United States government for a 40-day program of study in the country, which would take us on a trip “from coast to coast.” I responded that I would be unable, for “religious” reasons, to join the program for more than three weeks. The invitation was signed by Thomas Pickering, the American ambassador to Tel Aviv at the time, and it was he who approved my bizarre request.

The “coast-to-coast” trip took us to Washington for a week, where we met with senior government officials, as well as to New York and San Francisco, and plenty of other places in between. We were given a daily stipend of 120 dollars for spending money, and since I was not prepared to squander any of it, I returned home with about 4000 dollars in my pocket, a sum that was equivalent to at least two months’ salary at the time. We were also given tickets to various sporting events. One of the high points of the trip was a two-day visit to Boston, where we were invited to attend a basketball game and to meet with Michael Dukakis, who was the Democratic candidate for the presidency at the time. Later that year, Dukakis lost the election to the first President Bush. How did a presidential candidate find the time to meet with five visiting Israeli youths? I have never learned the answer to that question.

I claimed to have developed “food poisoning,” or something of the sort, just before the basketball game that we were supposed to attend, and when the rest of the group left the hotel, I made my way to the ROFEH Medical Center, where I davened Minchah and Maariv, found out what time Shacharis was taking place the next morning, and had the good fortune of spending a lengthy period of time with the Bostoner Rebbe zt”l. I also received a siddur as a gift — a siddur straight from Boston, with an inscription from the Rebbe that read, “A gift to my dear friend, Reb Tzvi Yaakovson sheyichyeh. With the blessing of Levi Yitzchak Horowitz of Boston.” Below those words, the Rebbe wrote, “Boston, second day of Rosh Chodesh Elul, 5788.”

Since that time, I have made several additional trips to Boston and visited ROFEH, and about three years ago, I had the opportunity to interview the Rebbe’s son and successor, while being amazed once again, at the vast network of chessed that was founded by the Rebbe and continues to flourish to this day, often serving as a vital source of relief for families from all over America. I can also attest to many cases in which people came to Boston from Israel and would have been completely lost if not for the services of ROFEH.


The Joy of Torah Learning

In conclusion, here is a true story. Two small boys were sitting on a bus, and their fellow passengers could not help but overhear their conversation, nor could they help but be moved to tears by what the two were discussing. The boys were seated in the last seat of a 402 bus, which connects Yerushalayim with Bnei Brak, and chatting happily with a woman who seemed to be their mother. One was five years old and the other was seven, and both were ordinary cheder students, albeit, as their conversation quickly made clear, from a broken home. As the bus entered Yerushalayim, the mother asked the million-dollar question: “Boys, tell me, where you like it better?”

“With Abba!” they responded in unison.

“How is that possible?” the woman exclaimed. “You had such a fun day with me, and you did everything you wanted. I even bought you Playmobil!” There was a brief silence, and then the voice of one of the children cut through the tense atmosphere at the back of the bus.

“But, Ima, you have to understand. There is nothing better than learning Torah!”



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