Thursday, Oct 28, 2021

Yigal Guetta: A Splash of Color in the Knesset

Since Yigal Guetta joined the Knesset, he has added a good deal of color and energy to the building. Guetta pays no attention to what the newspapers say about him. He remains focused on his goals without concern for what others feel about them. Last Tuesday, his new proposal was approved. Dubbed the “Sarona Law,” his bill makes it illegal for business owners to be forced to open their establishments on Shabbos. Guetta always manages to surprise or amuse the members of the Knesset, occasionally even offering them a glimpse into his own unique past.

After a tense summer session, the Knesset has finally begun its vacation. By and large, our goals have been achieved, as the anti-religious decrees of the Yesh Atid party have been overturned, and a law was passed on Tuesday providing government funds to kollel yungeleit. The law was passed in relative quiet, after the uproar surrounding the amendment to the Liba law over the past two weeks, as well as the controversy over the draft law that marked the beginning of the Knesset’s session.

The past year, including both the winter and the summer sessions, can be summed up in many different ways. The summer session, in particular, was marked by internal strife. Unfortunately, during the past few months, we have seen some rather undignified infighting between various Knesset members within the Shas and UTJ parties, as well as between the Agudas Yisroel and Degel HaTorah elements of UTJ itself. Let us hope that all that is behind us now.
Yigal Guetta, a relatively new Knesset member who joined the Shas list after the resignation of Deputy Minister Meshullam Nahari, has added a good deal of color to the chareidi parties in the Knesset. A 50-year-old member of the Bnei Brak City Council who hails originally from Kiryat Shemonah, Guetta swept into the Knesset like a storm. Almost as soon as he had arrived, he entered into a dispute with Moshe Gafni, who was somewhat taken aback by the newcomer’s blustery demeanor. Until Guetta’s arrival, Gafni was not accustomed to having anyone confront him head-on. Before long, another clash showed us that Guetta is not afraid even to oppose the prime minister himself. In both cases, Aryeh Deri, the leader of Guetta’s party, was forced to restrain him. In any event, Guetta’s colorful personality offers us another angle from which we can recap the events of the past season.

Guetta’s very arrival in the Knesset was greeted with extreme reactions. Some applauded him, while others showered him with insults. But neither the effusive praise nor the harsh condemnations had any effect on him. In fact, Guetta does not read the average chareidi newspaper, nor does he give much thought to what is written in it. As far as he is concerned, the journalists can feel free to write whatever they please, and he will continue to promote his agenda. Guetta went so far as to say to one chareidi journalist, “Don’t drive me crazy. I don’t represent the chareidim. I represent the transparent sector. You can write about me whatever you wish; it won’t change a thing.”
Guetta’s unique style is evident in the Knesset committees as well. He is a member of many committees, some of which are relatively minor – such as the committee that combats drug abuse, or the committee that oversees urban renewal – while others are much more significant, such as the Knesset Interior Committee, the Committee for Immigration and Immigrant Absorption, and the Committee for the Rights of the Child. Guetta is also a member of the Special Committee for the Transparency and Accessibility of Government Information. Yes, that committee truly exists. And in every committee of which he is a member, Guetta is invariably an active and outspoken participant. It is hard to miss him.

There is no doubt that he is a diligent worker. Guetta runs from one committee to the next, working hard never to miss a single session. He is assisted by a trained, professional staff. His most noteworthy aide is Shimon Gigi, a yungerman who studied law and became an attorney. Gigi is the driving force behind a number of Guetta’s most prominent legal initiatives. His most famous bill prohibits forcing a business owner to sign a contract that will obligate him to work on Shabbos. Guetta calls this bill the “Sarona Law,” since he claims that it came about in response to a complaint he received from a business owner in the Sarona complex in Tel Aviv. “He is not a religious man,” Guetta always takes pains to add. The bill was approved on the day before the Knesset began its vacation – a decent accomplishment for a young, inexperienced lawmaker. Guetta’s staff works hard. His daily workload is almost unfathomable.

At the beginning of his career in the Knesset, Guetta became famous when he advertised his own cell phone number to the public, causing many others to reluctantly follow suit. He is consistent in his efforts to promote accessibility for the public. You can test him on it.

A Circle Is Closed

Yigal Guetta has an extraordinary life story. He was born in Kiryat Shemonah, where he suffered as a child from the lack of government services for the city’s populace. Ultimately, his father was persuaded by Pe’ylim volunteers to send him away to yeshiva. This changed the course of his life irrevocably. He became a yeshiva bochur and later went on to study business management and public administration. Guetta soon became a prominent activist in the Shas party and served as the director-general of the municipality of Elad before making his way to the Knesset. He was always one of Aryeh Deri’s most prominent supporters, even when Eli Yishai was the party chairman. Yigal Guetta’s positions and public statements are not calculated for political gain. He follows only the dictates of his conscience.

In his maiden address in the Knesset, which was delivered in the presence of Prime Minister Netanyahu and a packed plenum, Guetta promised, “I will try to bring with me a legacy of unity, giving, and love for others… My door will be open to the entire nation of Israel… I will focus on social causes.” He also mentioned “the crown of our heads, Maran Rav Ovadiah Yosef zeicher tzaddik vekadosh livrachah.” And then he uttered a line that captivated his audience: “This is the legacy of my parents, who raised a beautiful and highly diverse family, which is part chareidi, part dati-leumi, and part residents of Kibbutz Ginosar. That legacy accompanies us, and it is the glue that binds us together with love, despite our differing views.”

At the time, Guetta also shared the story of the terror attack in Kiryat Shemonah that claimed the lives of his brother and sister-in-law: “Forty-two years ago, the city of Kiryat Shemonah was infiltrated by terrorists on Chol Hamoed Pesach. They came into the city under cover of darkness, and in the morning they tried to enter an elementary school. Bechasdei Hashem, this was a miracle: They didn’t know that it was a holiday and the children were on vacation. Had that not been the case, there is no telling how many children would have been murdered. The terrorists waited until morning, and when they saw that the children were not arriving, they crossed the street on Rechov Yehuda Halevi and went to the building across from the school. My brother, who was a social worker, and my sister-in-law, who was a nurse in a public health clinic, lived on the third floor of that building. When they heard the gunshots, they began leaving their home to see if there were people who needed help. They were murdered in the doorway to their home. My brother was shot in the head, and my sister-in-law was shot in the heart. He was my oldest brother.” Guetta related that President Katzir offered his parents a kiosk in Tel Aviv, but his father asked for a Sefer Torah in memory of his son instead. On Yom Hazikaron this year, Guetta represented the government at a memorial service at the cemetery in Kiryat Shemonah. In a way, it marked the closing of a circle.

A Tortured School Career

About a month ago, Guetta heard about the planned dismantlement of a yeshiva for disaffected youths. The Israel Land Administration insisted on demolishing the yeshiva’s building, which was located in the Ramat Eshkol neighborhood of Yerushalayim. The yeshiva had been a haven for dozens of youths who had not been able to integrate into other frameworks. The chareidi members of the city council expressed sympathy for the youths, the chareidi media shared their story with the public, and many ordinary citizens were pained by the city’s campaign against this special institution. There was only one person, though, who took action, and that was Yigal Guetta. Guetta invited the talmidim of the yeshiva and its administrators to join him in the Knesset. For a brief time, as the visiting youths filled the headquarters of the Shas party, the office appeared to have been transformed into a center for impassioned young Breslovers.

Guetta proceeded to address his audience: “When I grew up, my parents were already old. When I came home from school, there was no one who could help me with my homework; my father was too old. I was punished in class every day. I was made to stand in the corner. The teacher would make me stand next to her desk, right behind her. I would stand there and make faces, and the class would go crazy. Because of that, I went through my school years constantly being ejected from class. The entire educational system, with all its teachers, didn’t understand that there was a child with potential who simply didn’t have the tools to succeed. And do not think that the school system today is any better! It is completely indifferent. It appears more advanced, but there is total indifference. They do not understand a child’s heart.”
46-COLOR-Guetta_02
The bochurim listened in shock. They understood that the man sitting before them, a member of the Knesset, had been caught in his own youth in a trap no less daunting than the one that had ensnared them. Guetta went on, “One day, Pe’ylim came to my father and said, ‘This child is suffering. He is barely learning. He is being thrown out of class and punished almost every day.’ And that was true: I was punished all the time. My teachers would tell me to write fifty times, ‘We must do our homework.’ And I was an obedient child. I wrote those words a thousand times! I had to have my parents sign notes for me all the time, but that wasn’t a problem, since they didn’t understand Hebrew. I simply told my father that he had to sign a permission slip for a school trip.

“But every punishment led to another punishment, and I was constantly being sent to the principal. No one ever suggested looking into the story of this ‘problem child.’ It was only Pe’ylim, under the leadership of the incredible Reb Aryeh Fromowitz, who did that. He was an amazing man, and he advised my parents to place me in a yeshiva. My parents were wholesome Sephardim, and they did what the rov said. I took my suitcase, which was tied shut with ropes, and a few garments, and I got on a bus. The suitcase ripped on the bus, but I managed to get to the yeshiva. They cut my hair short, leaving the peyos, and they placed me in the last seat in the class. It was very interesting: We sat in a U-shaped formation, and the first child was the best in the class. Every Sunday, they would test us on the material we had learned during the past week, and if a different child came out the best, then they would switch seats.

“I was sitting in the last seat, and I began working hard. The nice thing about that yeshiva was that we did homework in class. When I didn’t understand something, I asked a question and it was explained to me. I am very bright and I had no problem grasping the material. Previously, I simply never had anyone to explain things to me. Without trying to boast, I will tell you that I reached the top of that class, and then I moved up to the next class. Once again, I was put in the last seat and I made my way up to the first. After two years in the yeshiva, I was moved up from the seventh grade to the eighth grade.”

Once Guetta had captivated his listeners with his story, he concluded, “I visited you on Purim; I remember it. You should know that you have a brother here; you have someone who will help you. I will come to your aid for everything you need.” Pointing to their menahel, he said, “You have a wonderful man there. It shouldn’t be taken for granted that there is someone who does the things he does. It comes from his heart and his soul; that is the only way he can accomplish those things.” Regarding the battle over their place of learning, Guetta added, “If we have to wage war, we will wage war. We will fight again and again; we will build tents, if necessary.”
A young man named Natan – one of eight boys with the same name – commented, “We have already built a tent.”
“That’s fine,” Guetta said. “I also ran away from school and lived in a tent.”
“Then does that mean that I will be a member of the Knesset in the future?” Natan asked.
Natan revealed that he had nowhere to sleep that night, and Guetta was unfazed. “Come home with me to Bnei Brak,” he said. “You can sleep in my house.” He offered his personal cell phone number to the entire group. “I am at your disposal,” he informed them.
That, too, is what Yigal Guetta is all about.

A Badge of Shame for the State of Israel

Yigal Guetta’s infusion of color has penetrated not only his own party, but the Knesset plenum as well. Guetta has submitted a relatively large number of motions for the agenda, and has spoken in the plenum on quite a number of occasions. Here are a few of the many verbal gems that have made the other Knesset members smile.
In a motion for the agenda titled “The Center vs. the Periphery: Affluence vs. Poverty,” Guetta declared, “My subtitle for this subject is the statistic that there is a huge disparity in the investment of resources per capita for Sephardim and other minorities. We can bury our heads in the sand, or we can throw sand in our own eyes and disguise this with all sorts of nice words: the periphery vs. the center, affluence vs. poverty, growth vs. despair. Gentlemen, take a look at the ten poorest cities in the country, based on the investment per capita in their residents: Rahat, Ofakim, Baka-al-Arabia, Dimona, Bnei Brak, Elad, Sderot, Tira, Kiryat Yam, and Shfaram. The common denominator among all these cities is that they are home to Sephardim, minorities, and chareidim.”
The Knesset plenum is not accustomed to a member of a chareidi party speaking in this fashion. Guetta speaks like an ordinary Israeli. He gets his message across without burying it in elegant-sounding words. He also has a habit of drumming on the Knesset podium when he speaks. He has been questioned about it in the past, but he hasn’t yet managed to cure himself of it. He learned only recently how to adjust the microphones so that his voice can be held clearly throughout the room.

In that particular speech, Guetta continued, “What is important now is for us to show concern for the transparent citizens of this country. The findings of this report are a badge of shame for the State of Israel. It is unacceptable that the city of Raanana invests 6,000 shekels per citizen, while Ofakim invests only 500 shekels per citizen. There are several parameters by which a city’s wealth is measured in this report: the city’s investment in its residents, in education, and in real estate. In Ramat Hasharon, the per capita investment is 5,500 shekels, yet in Rahat it is only 218 shekels!

“But that is only the beginning,” Guetta said. “Now listen to this: A resident of Kiryat Yam benefits from an investment of 360 shekels. It takes him 17 years to receive as much as a resident of Raanana receives in a single year from his municipality. There, the investment is 6,158 shekels annually. This is not normal! And if you look at what is happening in the schools, it is even less normal. In Rahat, the municipality invests seven shekels in each child; in Herzliya, it invests 1,180 shekels. That means that a child in Rahat must wait 170 years – and I will repeat that so that you will be shocked, honored minister: 170 years! – to receive the same investment that is given in one year to a child in Herzliya. So he is certainly not getting any education out of this, although perhaps it is a segulah for a long life….”

The Ben Ish Chai’s Story

On another occasion, Guetta commented during a discussion about the housing crisis, “In 2011, Binyomin Netanyahu said that grandchildren will soon have to live with their grandparents in this country. We use all sorts of whitewashed terms to describe people who are ‘residentially challenged’ and the like, but the truth is that these are people who simply have no place to live. I know this is unusual, but I would like to shake up the people here – and myself as well – by using a somewhat harsher English term, which I do not generally do. Gentlemen, these people are homeless. Yes, they are homeless. I said that today in the committee. In Israel, there are close to 2 million homeless people. Nissan Slomiansky,” he added as an aside, “if you were shaken by that, you wouldn’t still be talking. Two million homeless people in the State of Israel!”

Guetta then proceeded to quote the Ben Ish Chai. “I must share with you a story that I read in the Ben Ish Chai’s sefer. This is an astounding story about a wealthy man who was very fond of horses. Once, he heard that there was an exceptionally rare horse being sold at a public auction in a country far away, and he took a 20-hour plane flight in order to buy that horse. He arrived at the auction and began bidding for the horse, which was truly one of a kind. There was no horse like it anywhere else in the world. He bid one million dollars, and he won the auction: The horse was his. After housing it in special quarters until he was ready to depart, he flew it home in a specially designated plane.

“When he got home, he began wondering how he could keep the horse safe. After all, the horse was worth one million dollars. He couldn’t simply hire an average worker to guard the horse for a mere 25 shekels per hour. So the man decided that he would go to a university and find someone who would be truly qualified to guard this expensive horse.
“The man went to the university, met with the dean, and explained his situation. ‘I need to hire the brightest student in your entire school to guard my horse,’ he said. ‘I am willing to pay him 500 shekels an hour.’
“The dean introduced the wealthy man to a brilliant young student, and the man brought the student to his home and showed him into the stable. ‘Do you see this horse?’ he said. ‘I will pay you 500 shekels an hour to guard this horse. That is all that you need to do.’
“‘Okay, sir,’ the student replied, and he began standing guard.
“Satisfied that he had hired the most proficient watchman possible, the wealthy man returned home to shower and rest after his exhausting day. After he had taken a shower, he decided that before he went to bed, it would be a good idea for him to pay a visit to the stable and to make certain that his new guard was handling his task appropriately. The horse, after all, was worth a million dollars. The wealthy man came to the barn and found the brilliant university student with a pensive expression on his face. ‘What are you thinking about?’ the wealthy man asked.
“‘There is something I do not understand,’ the student replied. ‘I have a very difficult question.’
“‘What is your question?’ the man asked.
“‘It is something I simply don’t comprehend,’ the student said. ‘When you drill a hole in a wall, what happens to the part of the wall that was in the place where the hole is made? Where does it go?’
“The wealthy man could not help but admire his newly hired watchman for his intelligence and depth of thought. He returned home and decided to go to sleep, but he still felt restless. He went back to the stable to check on the student again, and he found him pacing back and forth, looking even more troubled than before. ‘What are you thinking about now?’ the man asked.
“‘I have a very difficult question,’ the student replied. ‘When you eat a bagel, what happens to the hole in the middle of the bagel? Where does it go?’
“‘That is truly an excellent question,’ the wealthy man said approvingly. He returned home feeling even more certain that he had hired the most brilliant young man in the university. But as he lay in bed, he found himself tossing and turning, unable to fall asleep. Finally, he decided to check on the student just one more time. He went back to the stable and found his new employee pacing back and forth frantically, looking more troubled than ever. ‘What are you thinking about now?’ he asked.
“‘I have an even more troubling question than before,’ the young man replied. ‘How can it be that I have been standing here and guarding the horse, and I haven’t moved even a single millimeter all night long, yet the horse is no longer here?’”

The Knesset members burst into laughter, but Guetta quickly brought them back to reality. “It is amusing,” he said, “but if it hadn’t been funny, we would all be crying. Gentlemen, that is exactly what is happening here: How is it possible that an entire government, with all its ministers and advisors, and with its cabinet and its committees, cannot find a solution for the housing shortage? The State of Israel spends billions to protect the homes of its citizens, but unfortunately, the citizens have no homes!”

“I Was a Lazy Child”

Here is one last quote, this one from a Knesset debate following Yesh Atid’s motion of no confidence due to the amendment to the Liba core curriculum bill. “Members of the Knesset from the Yesh Atid party,” Guetta began, “I see that you are not interested in hearing the answer; you only wish to talk among yourselves. My friend, MK Ofer Shelach, you have submitted a motion of no confidence over the Liba issue. Are you interested in a response, or was your motion merely a form of posturing?” Once the offenders had quieted down, Guetta went on, “To begin, I would like to thank the members of the Yesh Atid party for the sense of solidarity and concern that they show for the future of chareidi society. I have never seen Elazar Stern being so concerned for the chareidim. But I would like to ask you a question: Why is there a need for coercion? When you perceive something as religious coercion, you protest vociferously against it, but you don’t see imposing certain subjects on schoolchildren as a form of secular conversion.

“For your information,” he said, “I would like to present you with one small statistic. The former director-general of the Shas party’s educational network, MK Rabbi Yoav Ben-Tzur, happens to be here. In that school system, the Liba core curriculum is taught. I am certain that if your efforts were conducted a bit more pleasantly, they would be more effective. That is truly the only way for us to work together. We are here in Eretz Yisroel today only because the Jewish people in every generation upheld the mandate to remember the Torah. It is only the holy Torah that has sustained our nation throughout many generations and many exiles.”

Guetta’s words evoked a storm of angry responses from the Yesh Atid party. When their voices finally quieted down, he continued, “I would like to say one thing on a personal note. This is truly a personal statement: Until I was in the sixth grade, I attended a completely secular elementary school in Kiryat Shemonah. Now, I admit – and it is being recorded now, isn’t it? – that I was a lazy child, but not by my own fault. After all, what could I do? My parents were in their eighties when I was in school. When I came home and I wanted help with my homework, I would try to ask them questions, but there was no one to speak to. They didn’t even know the language. I actually started learning in school only when I was in sixth grade and I went to a yeshiva. I am telling you this in all earnestness. I invite you to look at my report cards through the fifth grade. In every subject, I had the lowest grade possible. When my father went to ask the principal about my test grades, he would tell him that I had grades of ‘adequate’ on every subject – and that is the lowest grade that is given! So my father said to him, ‘If it’s adequate for the teacher, then everything is fine.’ I turned into a good student only when I went to yeshiva. You can check this out for yourselves!”47-COLOR-Guetta_03

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