Shi­mon, stay out of pol­i­tics

The Jewish Chronicle - - Comment&analysis - GE­OF­FREY AL­DER­MAN

DUR­ING THE re­cent Suc­cot fes­tiv­i­ties, an ex­traor­di­nary meet­ing took place in the suc­cah of rabbi Yosef Elyashiv in Jerusalem. Rabbi Elyashiv — now in his hun­dredth year — is a tal­mu­dic sage without equal in the Charedi world. As spir­i­tual leader of the Degel Ha­torah party (now part of United To­rah Ju­daism, which has two seats in the cur­rent Knes­set) he also nat­u­rally wields a cer­tain amount of po­lit­i­cal in­flu­ence within as well as be­yond Jewish state.

Th­ese days, Rabbi Elyashiv spends most of his wak­ing hours in re­li­gious study. But dur­ing Suc­cot he took time out from his de­vo­tions to wel­come to his suc­cah no less a per­son­age than the pres­i­dent of the state of Is­rael, Mr Shi­mon Peres. A touch­ing pho­to­graph was taken, and widely cir­cu­lated, of th­ese two el­derly gen­tle­men (Peres is nearer 90 than 80) deep in con­ver­sa­tion. But what — you may ask — was their con­ver­sa­tion about?

Be­fore I an­swer that ques­tion, I need to pro­vide some con­sti­tu­tional back­ground.

In some coun­tries, where the pres­i­dent is elected by pop­u­lar vote, the of­fice ful­fils and is meant to ful­fil an overtly po­lit­i­cal role. But in oth­ers the pres­i­dent is merely a cer­e­mo­nial head of state, en­joy­ing some resid­ual pow­ers but gen­er­ally ex­pected to be “above” pol­i­tics. Is­rael is one such state. Elected by the Knes­set for one term (only) of seven years, the pres­i­dent of the state of Is­rael is ex­pected to stay out of day-to-day pol­i­tics, and to spend his time in­stead for­mally wel­com­ing for­eign dig­ni­taries, open­ing schools and hos­pi­tals, and en­gag­ing in purely char­i­ta­ble en­deav­ours. Pol­i­tics are the re­mit of the Knes­set, and it so hap­pens that the Knes­set cur­rently sup­ports a vi­able gov­ern­ment headed by a prime min­is­ter — Bibi Ne­tanyahu. Mr Ne­tanyahu is the prime min­is­ter of the state of Is­rael. Mr Peres is just its pres­i­dent. It is Mr Ne­tanyahu who chairs the weekly meet­ings of Is­rael’s cab­i­net, on which Mr Peres, as pres­i­dent, has no seat at all.

That does not mean that Mr Peres should not visit Rabbi Elyashiv in his suc­cah. On the con­trary, it seems (or seemed) to me, in prin­ci­ple, en­tirely ap­pro­pri­ate that he should have done so. But when I turned from the pho­to­graph of th­ese two el­derly gen­tle­men deep in con­ver­sa­tion to var­i­ous press re­ports about the sub­ject-mat­ter of their dis­course, I be­came con­cerned. For theirs was not a pri­vate con­ver­sa­tion about the weather, or their re­spec­tive states of health, or their chil­dren, grand­chil­dren and even (kein ein ho­rah) great-grand­chil­dren. Theirs was, in fact, a very pub­lic con­ver­sa­tion about one of the most sen­si­tive and in­flam­ma­tory mat­ters at is­sue in the con­flict be­tween Is­rael and its Arab and Mus­lim neigh­bours. It was about the right of Jews to as­cend the Har Habayis — the Tem­ple Mount — in Jerusalem.

Not to beat about the bush, Mr Peres ap­pears to have vis­ited Rabbi Elyashiv in or­der to med­dle in mat- ters that, as pres­i­dent, are not his con­cern, by ask­ing him for a p’sak — a re­li­gious rul­ing — that for­bids Jews from as­cend­ing the Tem­ple Mount, whether for the pur­pose of prayer or merely sight-see­ing.

Rabbi Elyashiv — whose stand­ing in the Charedi world has been some­what di­min­ished of late by his rul­ing against shab­bat el­e­va­tors (a rul­ing that many Charedim are ig­nor­ing) — no doubt saw an op­por­tu­nity to bol­ster his sta­tus, and duly obliged.

Ac­cord­ing to one re­port, the rabbi “asked Mr Peres to ar­range that Jews be pre­vented from go­ing up to the Har Habayis, both be­cause the halo­choh for­bids this and be­cause the Arabs would re­gard it as a provo­ca­tion”. Ac­cord­ing to an­other, rabbi Elyashiv “agreed to Peres’ wish to pub­li­cise his rul­ing on the is­sue”.

Now, as to the ques­tion of whether the halo­choh does in­deed for­bid Jews from tread­ing upon the Tem­ple Mount, there are in fact di­vided opin­ions, as I sus­pect Rabbi Elyashiv must know bet­ter than me. The Provençal Rabbi Avra­ham ben David (Mai­monides’ con­tem­po­rary and fierce critic) ar­gued that since the Tem­ple has been de­stroyed, a pro­hi­bi­tion on Jews en­ter­ing the Har Habayis could no longer be sus­tained.

What re­ally in­ter­ests me, how­ever, are the mo­tives that led Pres­i­dent Peres to break with pro­to­col and tres­pass upon a mat­ter that is not his pres­i­den­tial con­cern. Did he act on his own, or with the knowl­edge (and ap­proval?) of Mr Ne­tanyahu? If the an­swer is yes, Mr Ne­tanyahu owes us an ex­pla­na­tion. But if the an­swer is no, Mr Peres needs to be re­minded, very firmly, of the con­sti­tu­tional lim­its to his of­fice.

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