Following Teen Flood Deaths, Counselor Under Investigation for Manslaughter

Police are investigating the more serious charge in connection with last week’s disaster in which 10 teenagers from the Tel Aviv-based pre-army academy died in a flash flood ■ State Comptroller launches overall inquiry into the pre-army academy system

Bnei Zion pre-army academy in Tel Aviv, April 27, 2018
Ofer Vaknin

The police investigation against Aviv Berdichev, a counselor at the Bnei Zion pre-army academy, is now focusing on suspicions that he is guilty of manslaughter rather than the less serious charge of negligent homicide.

A source familiar with the investigation said police are investigating the more serious charge in connection with last week’s disaster in which 10 teenagers from the Tel Aviv-based pre-army academy died in a flash flood in the Tsafit stream in the south due to suspicions that Berdichev was given specific warnings about the weather in the area. The director of the academy, Yuval Kahan, is suspected of negligent homicide.

The difference between negligent homicide and manslaughter relates to the suspect’s state of mind. One element of the crime of negligent homicide is that the defendant could not have anticipated the outcome of his act, while the crime of manslaughter involves an element of indifference or recklessness in connection with the outcome. Law enforcement officials suspect that the warnings received by Berdichev were more serious than those received by Kahan. Kahan and Berdichev were arrested on Friday, the day after the disaster.

According to the police, Berdichev is suspected of “actively organizing the hike to the Tsafit stream, although he knew about the flood warnings.” For his part, Kahan is suspected of approving the trip despite the danger. Berdichev’s defense lawyer, Zion Amir, said his client is “a very ethical person, who regards the entire issue as a national tragedy and is very sorry about it.”

Under police questioning, a counselor who accompanied the hike to the Tsafit stream said she had warned her colleagues of the dangers of the weather before the trip and recommended not going after consulting her father, who is a senior member of a rescue unit. According to the police, the counselor backed up her claim with other evidence. The Israel Television News Company reported that a weather forecasting firm had advised the academy staff not to hike in the area and that an officer in the Israel Air Force weather forecasting unit with whom Kahan and Berdichev had consulted had warned them about heavy rainfall.

In a related development, the council of pre-army mechinot, as the programs are known in Hebrew, announced the appointment of former Israel Police commissioner Shlomo Aharonishki as an outside safety consultant for field trips the academies sponsor.

Investigating the system

The death of the teens have aroused concern regarding the lack of supervision over the programs, which get a combined budget of tens of millions of shekels a year from the government.

In response, State Comptroller Joseph Shapira said on Sunday that his office would conduct an examination of the entire mechinot system. The investigation will be conducted by members of his staff that monitor the education and defense ministries — the two bodies that fund the programs.

Israel’s approximately 50 mechinot provide programming to students finishing high school for one or two years before they enter the army, offering them leadership skills development, educational programs, volunteer experiences and a rigorous program of hiking and camping.

Launched in 1988, the number of participants in the programs is now 4,000, two-and-a-half times initial numbers, and funding, which is provided by the education and defense ministries, has also grown since a law was passed a decade ago governing their activities.

Last year, the government provided 80 million shekels ($22.3 million) in funding for the mechinot, up from 35.2 million in 2009. That is about half their total budgets, with the rest coming from donations and fees the participants themselves pay. In the case of Bnei Zion, funding comes from the Avi Chai Foundation, the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Joint Distribution Committee among others.

Despite the size of the mechina network at this point, supervision by the Education Ministry mostly involves confirming the number of people enrolled in each program. Since 2013, program directors have been advised, but not required, to consult with the ministry about weather and security issues before going out on hikes like the kind that ended in last week’s tragedy.

This week the ministry said it was convening a panel to examine guidelines for activities taking place outside the programs’ own facilities.

Unlike other institutions supervised by the ministry, there is no inspector or other official responsible for the mechinot. The ministry said this week that this is because they are private organizations set up as nonprofits and not as educational institutions.

The ministry gets monthly and annual reports from the mechinot and mechina directors meet from time to time with Education Ministry officials. The ministry is also entitled to inspect programs it thinks may not be meeting conditions, but there is no thorough system of reporting, so it is unlikely the ministry would be aware of problems.

Another difference between the mechinot and other Education Ministry-funded programs is that the ministry has no say in the programs’ curriculums. The only requirement for a mechina to be entitled to funding is that it enroll at least 25 participants, that it follow the rules for nonprofit organizations and ensure that at least 90% of its participants will be serving in the Israel Defense Forces.

The defense and education ministries have never divided up their areas of responsibility for the mechinot, and since last week’s tragedy, the two have bickered over who should take the blame.

Most participants are 18 years old and many have yet to complete their matriculation (bagrut) exams. As a result, the Defense Ministry asserted in a statement this week that they should be considered students under the Education Ministry’s purview. Beyond that, it declined to discuss the matter further. “The Defense Ministry does not intend to conduct the dialogue with the Education Ministry through the media,” it said in a statement.

The Education Ministry claims that, since the program participants have already received their initial draft notices prior to their participation in a mechina programs, they are the responsibility of the Defense Ministry.