Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Charedi World

1 Adar 5759 - Feb. 17, 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







Hundreds of Thousands of Torah Faithful in a Great Kiddush Hashem in Yerushalayim

by Betzalel Kahn, Mordecai Plaut and Yated Ne'eman Staff

Led by maranan verabonon, gedolei haTorah vehaChassidus, hundreds of thousands of Jews, from all circles and sectors of the religious and chareidi community of Eretz Yisroel assembled for a prayer rally in Yerushalayim to ask for Heaven's help against the persecution of the Jewish religion in the Holy Land.

Long before the beginning of the rally hundreds of ushers and activists fixed street signs, set up barriers, and connected microphones to the amplifier systems, in anticipation of the hundreds of thousands of participants. A special barrier was placed in front of the dais where maranan verabonon, the gedolei hador were seated throughout the rally.

The stirring spectacle will not be forgotten for a long time. Hours before the rally began, masses of people streamed to the area on Yaffo Street, near the former (and future) central bus station.

Nearly 1000 busses were supposed to bring the hundreds of thousands of participants to the rally, from both out-of-town and the city itself.

In most of the out-of-town regions, the busses filled to capacity rapidly. In places like Eilat, Rechasim, Ashdod, Netanya, Katzrin, Kiryat Shemonah, the Jordan Valley region, Rechovot, Ofakim, Herzliya and other areas, things proceeded very smoothly.

However in two places there were serious shortcomings: in Bnei Brak and in Jerusalem.

In Bnei Brak, tens of thousands of people waited for hundreds of busses to take them to Jerusalem, but the buses arrived very slowly and sparingly. It soon became clear that the Egged Bus corporation wasn't letting enough busses enter the city. The reason for the serious snag still isn't clear.

The long traffic jams at the entrances to the city extended over many kilometers. Many drivers simply let their passengers off at Mevasseret Tzion, from where the thousands marched by foot to Jerusalem, a trek of a number of kilometers. The traffic jams didn't prevent them from reaching Jerusalem and spirits were high.

As the slated hour, 3. p.m., drew nearer, more and more people came from all over the city and all over the country. Many came by foot, as the streets and roads leading to the area filled with people carrying Tehillim. A Kol Nidrei mood prevailed.

Huge placards read: Ani maamin shezos haTorah lo tehei muchlefes (I believe that the Torah will not be changed) and Atzeres Tefilla uZe'oka Negged Redifas Hadas vehaMassores beYisroel (Prayer and Outcry Rally Against the Persecution of Religion and Tradition in Israel).

The Seder Hayom

The afternoon began at about 2:45 p.m. with a massive mincha (this was not part of the official program). It was conducted by R' Moshe Mordechai Lichtenstein, who mounted the special platform prepared for the event. The thundering recitation of Kodosh kodosh kodosh, as it emerged from what were already hundreds of thousands of Yidden, aroused a wave of emotion -- which reoccurred a number of times throughout the rally.

At the conclusion of mincha, the participants began to recite the following chapters of Tehillim: 130, 38, 46, 57, 58, 59, 69,79, 80, 81, 83, 86, 143, 20, 121. The first was said responsively, and the rest were said together, but not posuk by posuk. Following Tehillim, which took about an hour, HaRav Reuven Elbaz, rosh yeshivas Or Hachaim, recited Ovinu Malkeinu, along with the participants, who responded verse by verse.

Afterward, selichos were said (including Yisroel nosha baHashem and Eile ezkero), while shofaros reverberated each time prior to the recitation of the Thirteen Middos after Keil Melech yosheiv. In truth, the sound of the shofaros was not reminiscent of kol Hashem bako'ach, but was more like a plaintive wail for Heavenly help.

The mekubal, HaRav Dovid Batzri, rosh yeshivas Yeshivas Hashalom, chanted two traditional Sephardic selichos, Aneinu and Adon Haselichos along with the participants, who responded verse by verse. Those well- known melodies were on everyone's lips in the following days, hummed by all. This is the power of a niggun. It unites all in one effort: tefilla to the Borei Olom, Adon selichos, to spread his Tabernacle of peace over us.

At the end of the rally, the hundreds of thousands accepted ol malchus Shomayim, with the recitation Shema Yisroel and then Boruch sheim kevod malchuso le'olom vo'ed three times, and Hashem Hu HoElokim seven times, led with deep feeling by Rav Shmuel Yaakov Borenstein, one of the roshei yeshiva of yeshivas Hevron-Geula.

At the end of the prayer, deputy chairman of Agudas Yisroel Rabbi Menachem Porush, who organized the massive rally in so brief a period of time, read out the rally's statements.

The giant crowd then dispersed with exemplary order, while singing tehei hasho'o hazos she'as rachamim, ve'eis rotzon milfonecha. Near the podium, some broke out in a spontaneous dance.

The Week Before: Chareidi Complaints

Though the Atzeres itself was purely dedicated to tefilla to our Creator, the organizers made it abundantly clear in the days leading up to the event what was on their minds -- and what was on the minds of the hundreds of thousands of mispallelim.

The pain is felt most by the chareidim who are suffering the immediate consequences. But the problem identified is one that threatens the foundations of the democracy in Israel that chareidim admire and support. There is no doubt that in modern society the democratic form of government has shown its worth, and that all chareidim support it as such. The attacks on the chareidi community and on the principles of Torah are not the result of the democratic process. The Israeli judiciary currently operates as a closed, independent system, and just as it threatens the chareidi community, it can threaten others, as well as the democracy itself.

Speaking last week at a press conference prior to the rally, former chareidi MKs Rabbis Menachem Porush and Moshe Gafni spoke of a judicial dictatorship in the State of Israel and warned that the religious public would rebel if the High Court continued with its "antisemitic" decisions.

Rabbi Porush, deputy chairman of the Israeli Agudas Yisroel, said the religious public felt persecuted, following a series of court decisions. He cited rulings concerning subsidies for chareidi institutions, mandating that Reform and Conservative representatives be seated on local religious councils and that those converted to Judaism in non-Orthodox ceremonies here and abroad be registered as Jews in the Population Registry (see box of information collected by Manof).

"Court President Barak -- in his decisions, his words, his attitude to us -- has besmirched himself for generations," Rabbi Porush said, adding that "the courts and their decisions can cause a revolt."

Rabbi Porush said: "It is difficult to breathe in the anti- religious atmosphere that prevails here, with all the incitement and the hatred against the chareidi community. We feel that we are obligated to cry out: Enough. There hasn't been a rally like this for many years. It embraces all of the religious parties supported by many circles in the religious and chareidi community."

Rabbi Porush added that the incitement by politicians, the press and the judiciary has gone overboard. "We have remained silent for a long time, and can't be silent any longer. When we receive funds for our educational institutions, we are called blackmailers. The current spate of incitement is the result of jealousy over the growth of the chareidi community, but it will grow even more. We have reached an intolerable situation, regarding the hatred toward us, and in all that pertains to receiving allocations which are actually no more than redress for prolonged underfunding," he said.

He then focused on the behavior of the courts in Israel. "What we have managed to achieve in Israel through democratic methods is now being uprooted by the courts, which behave like dictators. They have deviated form the accepted framework, the social contract hammered out over fifty years, in many areas, and especially in their relations to the chareidi and religious communities. They dictate to us what to do. I have heard similar sentiments about judicial dictatorship also from Chaim Herzog, Yitzchak Rabin and other secular figures.

"The High Court forces the chairman of the Religious Council of Jerusalem to include Reform members in its council, against the rulings of all the great halachic authorities. Youth organizations which received budgets from the state for 50 years, are now called anti-Zionist by the High Court. Not only are they denied their funding, but they are being forced to return allocations they received last year. We aren't Zionists? We're the Zionists of Zion and Jerusalem. Youth groups of the Labor party include Arab youngsters. Yet they receive budgets. Are they Zionists? The kibbutzim received billions, and they still demand more and more money. But they aren't blackmailers. We are. We give the State Treasury no less then they do. In what way have we sinned? What crimes have we committed?

"I recall the first political murder in this country, that of Dr. Yisroel Yaakov Dehan some 75 years ago. [Dr. Dehan was murdered by agents of the Zionists at the time, because he was working on a dialogue with the Arabs under the direction of the chareidi leaders of the time. -- Editor] And this is liable to happen today too. The severe incitement has reached new heights, which compete with the Sturmer newspaper. We're lice? This remark [of a judge] doesn't embarrass us; in embarrasses the judicial system," Rabbi Porush said.

"I want to tell you," he said to the many journalists who were present. "This will be a prayer and protest rally, at which we will beseech the A-mighty to redeem us from this exile. We will denounce the paradox of autocratic judges who do whatever they please. Whoever has the power to halt this incitement should do so, and the sooner the better," he concluded.

The Secretary General of Degel HaTorah, Rabbi Moshe Gafni then spoke and said that the prayer and protest rally has been called due to the problem of the Reform movement, and even more so due to the problem of the judicial dictatorship of the High Court.

"For fifty years, there have been social problems, inter- sector relationship problems, and problems between chareidim, and the secular, yet within the framework of the need to live together a religious status quo, whose basic lines were established in talks between Ben Gurion and Agudas Yisroel, was preserved. During recent years a tiny minority from the Reform movement arrived here from America. Today, everyone establishes parties. But the Reform don't. Why? Because they and the entire public knows that they are a tiny, negligible minority.

"Meretz is taking advantage of the Reform to split the nation. The assimilation abroad [which the Reform aid and abet] may be defined as a Holocaust. Why do they want legitimacy? Why have they come here? Let them run in the elections, and it will be evident that they have no followers. Why have they come to split the nation? And while they split the nation, they claim that we are the ones who are splitting the nation."

Rabbi Gafni declared that their demand to join the religious councils is scandalous. "It's as if the carpenters wanted to join the pilots' union. What have they to do in the religious councils? They have no connection to Judaism. If a Reform rabbi decides that one who wants to be a Jew has to make a pledge of allegiance on top of the Shalom Tower, the High Court will say that he has the right to do so. Every council has criteria. They seek to infiltrate the religious bodies of the country through 1000 gates.

"Let it be clear, the rally is against the High Court. There won't be speeches. But the Jewish people has made many revolutions through prayer rallies. We have reached a situation in which a highly dangerous anarchy prevails. The values on which the rulings of the High Court are based must be Jewish and democratic. The High Court transforms them into non-Jewish rulings. The positions of the justices of the High Court are in general one-sided: against Judaism. This is a judicial dictatorship uncustomary in Western countries. We have reached a critical point. We cannot let the judicial dictatorship continue. We have undergone worse things in our history. We have come to Israel only because of Torah and Yiddishkeit. But the judges of the High Court undermine all of our beliefs.

"The Jewish genius has invented a new idea: dictatorship."

Rabbi Gafni added that the Knesset refused to deliberate on weighty questions for various reasons, and the High Court decided that if the Knesset won't discuss those issues, it will decide.

"All of us will come to the rally, headed by the gedolei horabbonim. Enough. The story's over. You have encroached upon the Shabbos, on conversion, on the religious councils, in a disgusting manner, and also on the status of the yeshiva students. The High Court wipes everything out. The State is a democratic one, and we won't allow a judicial dictatorship."

Rabbi Gafni added that the assaults by the judicial system on the religious and chareidi community stem partially from the fact that Netanyahu received the support of the religious and chareidi communities.

"The leaders of the Labor party told me before the last elections [in 1996] that if we interfere in the elections for the Prime Minister, they'll embitter our lives. They didn't gain power during the last election so they trying to gain it by means of the judicial system."

Rabbi Menachem Porush and Rabbi Gafni disclosed that they had asked to meet with Chief Justice Aharon Barak a number of times, but he firmly refused their requests. Rabbi Gafni added that the Chief Rabbis tried to meet with Barak on this issue, and he refused them as well.

The pronouncements came only a day after Rabbi David Yosef, the son of Shas mentor Ovadia Yosef, characterized Barak as a Jew-hater (tzorer haYehudim) and said the courts are antisemitic.

Rabbi Gafni defended Rav Yosef's attack by saying that an antisemite is someone who makes trouble for Judaism and one could say that about Barak.

Prime Minister Netanyahu said he condemns anyone who used such insulting expressions against Jews in general and against the president of the High Court in particular.

"We must all remember that the High Court, the justices of the High Court, and the president of the High Court are our guarantee of the rule of law in the State of Israel, and it is necessary to respect them and not to attack them," Netanyahu said.

Attorney-General Elyakim Rubinstein said he utterly rejects the chareidi accusations and particularly objects to terms such as "Jew-hater" and "antisemite."

"There must be a clear distinction between criticism of a specific judgment, which is legitimate in public discourse, and expressions from a lexicon which has no place in the State of Israel," Rubinstein said.

He added that he suspects the critics have never read the judgments about which they were speaking. He said he had met with chareidi leaders to try to understand their anger and that such dialogue should continue. He added that chareidi elements complain, sometimes justifiably, about things said about them, and now their own representatives are using expressions which are just as harsh.

Justice Minister Tzahi Hanegbi also condemned the expressions and said the judicial system, justifiably, has achieved a reputation for quality and fairness in the entire democratic world.

Meanwhile, the Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein may order the police to investigate Rav Ovadia Yosef on suspicion of incitement, following Rav Yosef's verbal attack on the justices of the High Court, a Justice Ministry source said.

The justices of the High Court are "wicked, stubborn and rebellious," they are "empty-headed and reckless," they violate Shabbos, and "they are the cause of all the world's torments," Rav Ovadia Yosef said in remarks that were widely publicized.

Rav Yosef called the justices "slaves who now rule us," said they were "not worthy of even the lowest court" and that "any seven-year-old boy is better versed in the Torah than they are."

Shas leader MK Arye Der'i said the court should represent the entire public, including the religious and chareidi populations, Sephardim and Arabs, and "not just a few square kilometers in [Jerusalem's] Rechavia [neighborhood]."

Attorney General Rubinstein said he was deeply sorry that "we have arrived at the need to examine in this connection the utterance of a senior Torah personage." Sources in the Justice Ministry said that it was "absolutely impossible to ignore such statements by a senior Torah figure and spiritual authority."

Rubinstein announced he is also opening an investigation into the reported statements of Rabbi David Yosef, the son of former Sephardi chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef, and also into the statements of former MK Rabbi Moshe Gafni, who allegedly called High Court President Aharon Barak a "Jew-baiter" and "antisemite."

In reaction to the Attorney General's decision, Rabbi Gafni said: "In response to all of the complaints which I and others filed over the daily incitement against the chareidi community, the Attorney General and the State Prosecutor replied that freedom of speech is a supreme value in the State of Israel, and didn't even take the trouble to summon the chief inciters to clarify the issue.

"If the Attorney General thinks that he can silence the genuine outcry of the observant community, for whom Torah is the essence of its existence, he is making a big mistake.

"If the Attorney General indeed issued instructions to investigate us, he is transforming the State of Israel into an undemocratic State, which has first class citizens and third class citizens, and he will bear the responsibility for the consequences.

"Throughout history, no totalitarian government could deter the Jewish people from serving Hashem, and keeping His Torah. Be'ezras Hashem, we will continue this further, and in the future," Rav Gafni said.

How Weizman Tried to "Prevent Bloodshed"

Last week Israeli President Ezer Weizman made efforts to dissuade chareidi circles from holding the mass protest. Weizman traveled to the home of Rav Ovadia Yosef. Weizman and aid Shumer sat closeted with Rav Yosef and Shas MK Arye Der'i.

"This was no pilgrimage or legitimization of the [rabbi's] remarks," Weizman later told reporters gathered outside. "If I can prevent the possibility of bloodshed, it's my duty to do so," he said. "I thought about this all night and decided to throw my weight behind the effort."

Weizman said his aim, he said, was to "reach understanding between the High Court and the chareidi community." Weizman hurried back to his residence, where he began a series of meetings.

First to meet the president was Rabbi Menachem Porush of Agudas Yisroel. Weizman requested that the mass protest be postponed. For his part, Porush said he needed the advice of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah. On emerging from the meeting, Rabbi Porush indicated that he could not agree until Barak agreed to meet him on these issues.

"I have requested such a meeting several times," he told reporters. "As soon as we are convinced that the courts will not rule on matters between G-d and man, we will be quiet," he said.

Chief Justice Barak arrived at Beit Hanassi, and refused to comment to the media. Sources close to him said that he is not prepared to become involved in the machinations surrounding the issue.

Despite these intensive efforts to cancel the rally the plans were not changed and the huge rally is now history.

Politicians Respond

There was widespread anger at the mayor of Jerusalem, Ehud Olmert, for his verbal attacks on the chareidim against the background of the prayer rally.

In interviews, Olmert sharply attacked the chareidi community and its representatives. The chareidi representatives in the Jerusalem municipality expressed shock and anger over Olmert's statements.

Prime Minister Netanyahu said last week: "The attacks on the judicial system and on the justices of the High Court must be halted on the one hand, and on the chareidi community, on the other hand. We must tone down the argument. Arguments are legitimate; defamation isn't."

Netanyahu stressed that it is important to create communication channels, and that he himself intends to meet with rabbonim and judicial officials.

Others supported the chareidim, but they were not given much coverage. Communications Minister Limor Livnat said that no body, not even the High Court is exempt from criticism. "I believe that it is permissible to criticize every person. No body is exempt from criticism, not the Prime Minister or the High Court. It is permitted to criticize the justices of the High Court and to demonstrate against its rulings. There is no problem. A number of years ago, I myself, along with other MKs, demonstrated in front of the court, against the ruling of a judge. I don't see anything wrong with that."

Deputy Minister, Michael Eitan dismissed the attempts to cancel the demonstration. He told the organizers of the rally: "I totally oppose all of the threats and the generalizing and offensive expressions used against the judges. But even if I don't identify with all of the principles for which you are battling, I fully support your right to demonstrate and to express yourselves on every issue and against every government authority, on every topic whatsoever."

Eitan said that "the judicial authority, within the framework its policy of judicial activism, has increased its intervention in the political arena, and in this arena, the use of public pressure, protest and demonstrations are fundamental rights."

Education Minster Yitzchak Levi (NRP) advocated canceling the rally. "I suggest that the two acute problems, the drafting of yeshiva students and the conversion issue be decided in the Knesset, and not in the courts. I am sorry that the Knesset didn't have the courage to deal with this, and I think that the forthcoming Knesset should grapple with the problem immediately.

"I said that the composition of the judges in the courts should be balanced, so that everyone will feel represented. My opinion wasn't accepted, not by the Chief Justice or by the Minister of Justice Minister, and I am very sorry about that."

Transport Minister NRP MK Shaul Yahalom was very critical of the demonstration, which he insists will only undermine the democracy in Israel and is not an "acceptable" way to proceed against the High Court

Following his statements National Religious Party-affiliated Hesder Yeshivot, which officially backed the Atzeres, circulated notices against the NRP Minister of Transportation, Shaul Yahalom.

The fliers circulated by the students said Yahalom is unqualified to reject the instructions of the rabbinical leaders, including former Chief Rabbis Mordechai Eliyahu and Avraham Shapira, who are the unofficial spiritual leaders of the NRP and who backed the rally and attended on Sunday. Chief Rabbis Yisroel Meir Lau and Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron arrived at the rally after a meeting of the Chief Rabbinate Council. The Chief Rabbis and the Council members arrived at the rally together.

The leaders of the left wing national religious movement Meimad called on the leaders of religious Zionism not to lend a hand to the rally. At a press conference their spokesmen called for a halt to the attacks against the High Court.

Members of Meimad attended the rally in Sacher Park in support of the High Court.

The Other Rally

Only a few hundred meters from the chareidi throng, another rally was in a park just opposite the High Court building. Though far smaller than the Atzeres tefilla, it clearly had the ear of the press.

The police permitted seven secular and political bodies including Meretz, the National Union of Israeli Students, and the kibbutzim to hold a counter-demonstration against the chareidim, which they called a gesture of support for the judicial system. It was addressed by politicians from the left, right and center who were clearly playing to the grandstands as they turned up the heat.

The Leftist demonstration was surrounded by a ring of police to prevent the possibility that a number of hotheads would try to reach the massive rally of the chareidi and religious community.

This demonstration was addressed by Minister Rafael Eitan (Tsomet) and Justice Minister Tzachi Hanegbi (Likud) as well as Meretz Leader MK Yossi Sarid and Centrist party leader Roni Milo.

The Minister of Internal Security estimated that some 50,000 people participated in the demonstration a figure that was widely quoted, but other observers said the number was far smaller. (See separate item on the numbers attending both rallies.)

The lawyers and employees of the State Prosecution Office received special permission from the Attorney General to participate in the demonstration, even though it was apparently a totally political one.

Attorney General Rubinstein released his own guidelines along with the State Prosecutor, Edna Arbel, and the Civil Service Commissioner Shmuel Hollander. The latter at first said that government employees could participate only in the counter-rally "in support of the High Court," even though its program showed addresses by a long list of politicians while the prayer rally had no political elements in its program and no politicians scheduled to speak.

At the last minute he modified this to permit government employees to participate in both of the events, which were defined as "a prayer rally for the strengthening of Judaism," and "a rally in support of the High Court," since they "were not demonstrations or parades with a political character."

The three warned that if the events were transformed into political ones, and would include political statements or remarks against the High Court, the government employees would have to leave the area immediately.

State Prosecutor, Edna Arbel called on state employees and the attorneys in the State Prosecutor's office and the judicial system to participate in the counter-demonstration organized by the political left, supporting the High Court.

The storm over the permission or the lack of permission for government employees to participate in the various demonstrations ended after the lawyers threatened to appeal to the High Court if the government employees weren't allowed to participate in the massive chareidi rally.

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