Tragedy and Rejoicing
It has now been two weeks since you last read this column. As you know, the events of a single week in this country could fill an entire volume; after two weeks, the amount of material is even greater. Let us begin with Shavuos and with the dreadful terror attack that preceded the Yom Tov.
Actually, that juxtaposition is very much representative of life in Israel. In this country, tragedy and rejoicing seem to mix all too often. While we were all preparing for the festival of Shavuos, we suffered a dreadful attack in Tel Aviv. Just try to envision the scene: At the Max Brenner restaurant in the Sarona complex in Tel Aviv, just a two-minute walk from the Ministry of Defense, a group of innocent people were sitting with their families. The restaurant was occupied by families – parents and children whose only “crime” was seeking a few moments of relaxation. In the middle of this prosaic scene, a couple of young men dressed in suits and ties entered the establishment and asked for soda and ice cream. Then, before their bill arrived, the two youths produced a pair of Kalashnikov rifles from the satchels they were carrying and began firing in every direction.
There are many words to describe the horrific scene: It was terrifying. It was sad. It was a bestial act. Miraculously, one of the rifles jammed; the footage from the restaurant’s security cameras shows one of the terrorists throwing his weapon on the floor in fury. The two left the restaurant after their shooting spree, whereupon one was shot and killed and the other was wounded and captured. The second terrorist was rushed to Beilinson Hospital in an effort to save his life. Meanwhile, four Israelis had been murdered.
Several public officials rushed to the scene of the attack: the chief of the national police force, the Minister of Internal Security, and Avigdor Lieberman, the newly minted Minister of Defense, who announced immediately that Israel would no longer respond only with words. The time has come, Lieberman asserted, to take action. One can only imagine what he is planning. Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu landed in the country several hours later, returning from his visit to Moscow, and decided to convene the cabinet immediately in response to the attack. All the officials made the usual statements: that we will capture the terrorists and those who sent them, and so forth. But what can a country do to stop two young men who suddenly decide to commit mass murder? There is almost nothing that can be done.
One of the most outrageous reactions to the terror attack came from Ron Huldai, the mayor of Tel Aviv. “Only a tragedy on a scale that we have never seen before will open Israelis’ eyes to the fact that we cannot continue keeping the Palestinians under an occupation,” Huldai declared. “This is the only way that change and understanding can come about.” Upon reading his statement, I could not help but be reminded of a comment someone once made: “I would like to call upon the residents of Tel Aviv to move to Israel…”
A Miracle or a Failure?
Americans seem to love conspiracy theories. After every tragedy, a dozen books are published that “prove” that the murderer’s father was from Nigeria and that he was actually a cousin of Obama, who was hired to commit murder by a person who used to work as Donald Trump’s chauffeur…or something of that nature. After Yitzchok Rabin’s assassination, someone claimed that the murderer was actually an agent of the Shin Bet and that he had forgotten to replace the bullets in his gun with dummies.
At that time, a certain “intellectual,” a journalist named Amos Keinan, who enjoyed frequenting the coffeehouses of Tel Aviv, came up with a theory of his own: Clearly, the mastermind of the Rabin assassination had to be the person who gained from it, and that person was Shimon Peres, who succeeded Rabin as prime minister. Thus, Keinan concluded, it was Peres who was behind Rabin’s murder. To this bit of drunken reasoning, Keinan added, “In exactly the same way that Johnson was behind the assassination of Kennedy.” In other words, John F. Kennedy must have been murdered by his own successor, then-Vice President Lyndon Johnson, for whom the assassination paved the way to the presidency.
With that introduction, here is an incredible sequence of events that took place in Tel Aviv at the time of the attack: Both terrorists, as I mentioned, were wearing suits and neckties. Immediately after the attack, one of the terrorists joined the crowds fleeing the scene and made his way to a nearby apartment, where he knocked on the door and asked for a drink of water. The resident of the apartment, a policeman, informed his visitor that he was rushing to leave, since he had to respond to the scene of a terror attack, and he proceeded to leave the stranger alone with his wife and mother-in-law. The terrorist sat in the family’s home and did not harm the women who were there. In fact, he waited until the owner of the apartment returned – despite the fact that he knew that the man was a police officer and carried a gun. Is there any logical explanation for this? It appears to be nothing short of an open miracle!
This bizarre turn of events, though, has led some people to advance an elaborate theory: The terrorist who escaped, they suggest, was a Shin Bet operative who had accompanied an actual terrorist on the way to carry out a murderous attack. The plan, according to this theory, was for the pair to be arrested en route to the restaurant and for the Shin Bet mole to be clandestinely released. Something went wrong, though, and the attack was allowed to begin. This is why the operative posing as a terrorist didn’t actually fire his gun; instead, he threw it on the floor, pretending that it was broken, as the security footage from the scene reveals. Nevertheless, he was unable to stop his companion from shooting the innocent restaurant patrons, since he would have blown his cover if he had tried to stop him. This would also explain why he waited for the policeman to return home, in order to inform him that he was a Shin Bet agent and could prove his identity. In fact, that would explain why he entered a Jewish home at all. Still, if this theory is true and the agent allowed his companion to slaughter innocent civilians, it certainly represents a major failure of the Shin Bet – or a conspiracy of some kind.
Parenthetically, the police officer whose home the terrorist entered is a son-in-law of Assaf Heifetz, the former chief of the Israel Police Force and commander of the most elite unit in the army.
A Moment of Panic in Givat Shaul
Not too long ago, when we were counting the 44th day of the Omer, a dreadful wailing sound suddenly echoed though the neighborhood of Givat Shaul, as a police car with its siren blaring raced through the neighborhood, broadcasting an announcement for the residents to clear the streets. The mispallelim in the shul were frightened. Ever since the terror attack at Kehillas Bnei Torah in Har Nof, we have lived with the constant fear of another such attack in our own shul, chas veshalom.
I quickly calmed down the other men in the shul, explaining that it was merely the prime minister’s motorcade passing through the neighborhood. I was already familiar with the shrieks and wails of the sirens. I have had many opportunities to hear them from my own window, which overlooks the main highway running from Yerushalayim to Tel Aviv. But what brought Netanyahu and his entourage to Givat Shaul? The prime minister had visited Yeshivat Merkaz Harav in honor of Yom Yerushalayim, and his bodyguards had decided, for security reasons, to take an uncharacteristic route on his way home – and what could be more unusual for Netanyahu than passing through Givat Shaul?
The next day, I drove past the yeshiva and was astounded by what I saw: The entire three-story building had been covered in fabric sheets, as part of its efforts to maintain security for the prime minister’s visit. How can a person live in such a carefully secured bubble without losing his sanity?
Personally, I have a good deal of pity for Netanyahu at this time. “Our love for Yerushalayim connects all of us, like one person with one heart,” Netanyahu declared in his speech, receiving a standing ovation for his words while his thoughts undoubtedly focused on the allegations that he had received 170,000 euros from the Jews of France. “After the Six Day War, tens of thousands of Jews made their way to the Kosel and touched its stones with great emotion,” the prime minister went on, while in his mind’s eye he probably saw the image of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who will soon be deciding whether to open a criminal investigation against Netanyahu’s wife. “We are protecting and will continue to protect Yerushalayim,” he proclaimed, while his mind likely worked feverishly to determine how to protect his own government. It would be difficult for anyone to survive under the conditions in which Netanyahu has been forced to function. In fact, it is likely impossible for him to continue this way much longer.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu is now faced with the need to decide whether he will sign an agreement with President Obama or wait for the president’s successor. The deal that is currently under discussion concerns the amount of military aid that the State of Israel will be receiving from Uncle Sam in Washington. You are probably aware of the fact that our new Minister of Defense has been visiting Washington since Sunday. Let us daven that only good will come out of that.
Reform Rabble-Rousing Continues
Then there was the Yom Tov of Shavuos. Here in Israel, we are not accustomed to observing a two-day Yom Tov; in chutz la’aretz, you are quite familiar with the phenomenon. When Yom Tov is observed immediately after Shabbos, as it was this year, it means that the entire country is paralyzed for two days. Boruch Hashem, the festivity of Shavuos was felt throughout the country – in yeshivos and shuls alike.
In Yerushalayim, as usual, large crowds of people made their way to the Kosel on Yom Tov, but this year saw fewer people making the walk than in previous years. It is undeniable that there was a certain sense of fear in the air, especially in the Old City. In a rather questionable move, the police decided to close the path from Shaar Shechem into the Old City on the night of Shavuos. According to their official statement, the reason was that the Muslims would be observing the fast of Ramadan on the Har Habayis during the Yom Tov. Mispallelim were instructed to access the Kosel via an alternate route. Of course, the intent of the move was to increase security for the Jews, but it still created an oppressive feeling, as if Yerushalayim isn’t exactly in our hands. The police also prohibited Jews from leaving the Old City via Rechov Hagai.
If this had been a one-time incident, I would not complain, but it is actually reflective of a general trend. Whenever there is a threat to the public order, the police respond by closing off public areas or roads: the roads to Meron, the paths leading to the Kosel, or the road approaching Kever Rochel. This is the exact opposite of being in control of a situation. It is very easy to cordon off roads and redirect traffic; it is much more difficult to keep things running smoothly despite difficult circumstances. A country that always reacts with fear will only harm itself. While a government must safeguard the welfare of its citizens, closing roads should be a last resort; it should be a response to exceptional situations, not a standard policy.
Nevertheless, there was still a large crowd at the Kosel on Shavuos. And since we have mentioned the Kosel, let us note that the Reform Jews are continuing their quest to foment upheavals at the “regular” Kosel. They did so on Sunday, claiming that it was in response to Rav Shlomo Amar, who davened two weeks ago at the area designated for their use and wept bitterly over the affront to the sacred site.
One more comment on Shavuos: A few days ago, I gave a ride to Rav Tzvi Partzovitz, one of the roshei yeshiva of Yeshivas Mir in Modiin Illit and a son of the legendary Rav Nochum Partzovitz. “Tell me,” he said to me in the car, “how is it that we make the transition from Shavuos to an ordinary weekday in one day?”
I responded to his question with one of my own: “And how do we go from a weekday to Shavuos in a single day?”
Terror on the Road to Har Hazeisim…
The same “policy” of avoiding confrontation rather than restoring calm is practiced on the road to Har Hazeisim as well. In fact, this road provides one of the best examples of the weakness caused by perpetually reacting to terror rather than acting to prevent it. We all know that the Arab boys and girls in the school in Abu Tor regularly throw rocks at the cars of Jews traveling to Har Hazeisim and that nothing is being done to stop them. When the rock-throwing causes harm, as is often the case, the police are called in to try to apprehend the perpetrators, but finding them is about as easy as locating a needle in a haystack.
Gilad Erdan, the Minister of Internal Security, was recently called upon to respond to a parliamentary query following one such incident in which the Jewish victims barely escaped with their lives. His response: “The Yerushalayim division of the police force told me emphatically that they are well aware of this serious phenomenon, which affects visitors to Har Hazeisim and to Yeshivas Beit Orot, and that special forces are engaged in both covert and regular operations at the location. Even during the incident that was described [in which ten Molotov cocktails were thrown at Jewish motorists by a group of Arab youths this past March], the police took action on the spot. According to the information given to me, a pursuit began while the Molotov cocktails were being thrown. Even though the suspects ultimately eluded capture, the quick response of the police on the scene served to deter the criminals from escalating the incident and caused it to end without injury or property damage.”
I am not sure whether I should be amused or saddened by his response, which sounds like nothing but a bunch of empty words. The police boast that the tragedy would have been even worse if their officers hadn’t been on the scene. After all, they point out, the cars may have been damaged, but their occupants survived. And the youths responsible managed to escape.
…And Walls Around Kever Rochel
At Kever Rochel, where Rav Chaim Kanievsky paid a visit last week to daven for the donors of Lev L’Achim, the situation is actually much worse. I was there myself on Motzoei Shabbos and I have nothing but praise for Shachar Feierman, the representative of the National Center for the Development of Holy Places who is responsible for the site. The kever is properly maintained and is a stellar example of a well-run holy site. As I have noted in the past, there is a certain man who has invested millions out of his own pocket to refurbish and maintain the kever. By now, the site has been upgraded to the point that it is hardly recognizable. We must also be deeply grateful to the dedicated security forces, who use their weapons and their bodies to protect the visitors to the kever. The watchtowers are manned by Border Guard police, who constantly monitor the nearby Arab village, which has been a source of much violence.
When I arrived at Kever Rochel, I found an armored Border Guard car parked at the entrance, with the driver – a man with an officer’s insignia on his uniform and a radiant smile on his face – reciting Tehillim by the light of a tiny flashlight. I was surprised to see that he was bareheaded. If he appreciated the value of Tehillim, it would have made sense for him to demonstrate respect for the sefer by donning a yarmulka, and if he lacked that sensitivity, I had to wonder why he was reciting it at all. My surprise grew further when I realized, based on his accent, that he was Druze. Never before have I seen a Druze reciting Tehillim.
The final stretch of the drive to Kever Rochel is a scene that I always find disheartening: over a kilometer of winding road fenced in by towering walls built to protect us from violent Arab rioters. Once again, it is the Israeli syndrome of remaining perpetually fearful and on the defensive. The Arabs throw stones and we build walls, and when they continue to throw stones and jeopardize our lives, we react by making the walls even higher. Is this the way a sovereign state conducts itself?
Tear Gas at Kever Rochel
One of the last documents signed by outgoing Minister of Defense Moshe Bogie Yaalon (and yes, Yaalon himself signed his name “Moshe Bogie”) was a response to a parliamentary query on the subject of Kever Rochel. Several months ago, it was reported that a number of mispallelim were taken for emergency medical treatment after they had inhaled tear gas. The questions presented to the minister were: Was the gas sprayed by the Palestinians or by soldiers aiming at Palestinian rioters? If the Arabs sprayed the gas, were they captured? And how many such incidents took place at Kever Rochel in the year 2015?
Here are the “answers” (if one can call them that) presented by the minister: “The area of Kever Rochel is prone to repeated episodes of violence. The security forces have been operating in the area intensively and regularly, with the goal of maintaining Israeli sovereignty and making it possible for the prayers at the kever to continue… Among the means used to disperse rioters, as part of our forces’ methods of dealing with disruptions of the order, is the use of tear gas, which may have indirectly affected other individuals who were present in the vicinity. That is, it is possible that the use of tear gas to contend with violence affected the immediate vicinity.” In short, the tear gas was sprayed by our own people.
Yaalon then continued, “It must be made clear that as part of the efforts of our forces to make it possible for visitors to Kever Rochel to pray there, it is not possible for them to refrain from responding to incidents of violence that may endanger the lives of the security forces themselves or of the visitors to the site.” I cannot understand which question was meant to be answered with these words. Furthermore, what could possibly be wrong with driving away the Arabs who live in the area just outside the walls?
Finally, to answer the most significant question of all, Yaalon said, “In response to your request for the number of incidents that took place in the area of Kever Rochel during 2015, I will inform you that various types of incidents have been reported at the site with a high frequency.”
This is the answer of a person who does not wish to answer a question. When a government minister makes a statement of this nature, it means that he does not wish to reveal what he knows. This is yet another example of the State of Israel’s defensive attitude.
A Shas Hater Unmasked
The Rami Sadan affair is another episode that has rocked the country over the past couple of weeks. It shouldn’t interest you all that much, but there is something to be learned from it.
In Israel, there is a news station known as Channel 10. It is a private commercial station, and it somehow manages to find itself perpetually in trouble. The station is a militant opponent of Netanyahu, and its management probably hopes to gain popularity by attacking the prime minister, but that tactic, for some reason, has not proven successful. The station’s board of directors recently selected a new chairman named Rami Sadan, who “happens” to be very close to the prime minister and previously served as Sarah Netanyahu’s spokesman. How did a kippah serugah-wearing political right-winger become the chairman of a station that is owned primarily by leftists? That is unclear.
As for the controversy, this is what happened: While presenting his agenda, Sadan told the station’s directorate, “I hate Shas and Aryeh Deri just as much as you do, and I also belong to the elites, but despite that, this station must not ignore Massouda from Sderot.” The name “Massouda from Sderot” is often used to refer to the members of the “second Israel” – the impoverished and disadvantaged lower class of the country’s Sephardic sector. These were Sadan’s words, and he managed to overcome his competition either because of this statement or despite it. His opponents in the station directorate, meanwhile, chose to leak his comments to the press, and Shas demanded his resignation. The party’s umbrage snowballed into a coalition crisis, and this time, many members of the Knesset supported Shas. The affair hasn’t ended yet. As of now, we are waiting for the Supreme Court to rule on an appeal that was submitted to challenge Sadan’s appointment.
The Ahavas Yisroel’s Clock
Reb Mendel Rosenfeld doesn’t actually live in Givat Shaul, but he is still one of the well-known personalities of our neighborhood. He comes to Givat Shaul every morning from Romema, making a few purchases on the way, and he proceeds to climb the steps between Zupnik and Pressburg while clutching two plastic shopping bags in his hands. On the way to his daily shiur, Reb Mendel greets everyone he passes and receives their greetings in turn. Warmed by his radiant smile, some of the passersby offer to help him carry his bags. On the way, he generally rests on a low wall made of Jerusalem stone that sits next to a playground. He is an elderly man with a disposition that is as sweet as honey.
Reb Mendel’s shiur is not a Daf Yomi shiur; it is devoted purely to iyun. At the moment, the participants are learning Maseches Yoma. The shiur was delivered for many years by Rav Yitzchok Cohen zt”l, father-in-law of Rav Binyomin “Hatzaddik” Finkel, until his passing. Reb Mendel Rosenfeld is not only one of the most dedicated participants in the shiur, but also likely the oldest. In his youth, he was acquainted with the Ahavas Yisroel, Rav Yisroel Hager of Vizhnitz. If you ask him to share his memories of the Ahavas Yisroel or the Imrei Chaim, his eyes will begin to glisten with tears. This week, I approached him and asked him to share a few recollections.
“I was fifteen years old when he passed away,” Reb Mendel related. “I was a young man in Grosswardein. I saw him only three times, since I spent most of my time in Vilkovitz in the Carpathian Mountains, where his son, Rav Chaim Meir, lived. I lived with my grandfather there; he was close with the rov, who later became the rebbe of Vizhnitz. The Imrei Chaim was the rov there until the Ahavas Yisroel passed away.”
What do you remember about the Ahavas Yisroel?
“In shul, everyone would hear him weeping during Nishmas Kol Chai, at the words ‘hein heim.’ He cried for his father and his grandfather, both of whom had passed away at a young age. His father, the Imrei Boruch, was 47 years old when he passed away, and his grandfather, the Tzemach Tzaddik, passed away at the age of 55.”
Did you witness that yourself?
“I davened with him on Shabbos only once in my life.”
Were you at his levayah?
“No. I was in Sighet at the time and I couldn’t get there. The levayah took place during a fierce downpour. People came from all the surrounding villages in the midst of a heavy rain. The levayah took place on a Motzoei Shabbos.”
There was heavy rain during Sivan?
“Yes. It was in Europe.”
You once told me a story about his clock stopping.
“Yes. When he passed away, the clock on his wall stopped. He passed away at home, and the clock showed the exact time of his passing.”
Did you see it?
“No, but everyone knew about it. The entire world was talking about it.”
You were better acquainted with his son, Rav Chaim Meir?
“Certainly. I was with him in the town where he was a rov. Rav Chaim Meir became the rebbe and moved to Grosswardein only after the Ahavas Yisroel passed away. I myself moved to Grosswardein at the time as well. His father had hinted that Rav Chaim Meir should become the next rebbe.”
Did you ever see him here in Eretz Yisroel?
“Of course. Once, I took my young son to Bnei Brak to receive the rebbe’s brochah. The rebbe was very happy to see me. He had known my grandfather and my father. My grandfather was a very good friend of his.”