Israel Just Can’t Say No to the ultra-Orthodox

עקיבא נוביק
Akiva Novick
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Mourners gather for the funeral of Eliyahu Cohen, who died during Lag BaOmer celebrations at Mt. Meron in northern Israel, April 2021.
Mourners gather for the funeral of Eliyahu Cohen, who died during Lag BaOmer celebrations at Mt. Meron in northern Israel, April 2021.Credit: Ariel Schalit,AP
עקיבא נוביק
Akiva Novick

The failures that caused the appalling disaster at Mount Meron are rooted in a silenced and disturbing truth: The State of Israel just can’t say no to the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, establishment. It doesn’t know how to. It would never occur to anyone in the government, the police or any other agency we rely on to harm “the thing most precious to Haredi Judaism,” even if the danger was clear and present.

These problematic relations aren’t limited to Mount Meron. We’ve seen them and we’ve felt them over this past year, in our helplessness against the way the ultra-Orthodox thumbed their noses at the coronavirus rules. The state’s inability (and/or disinclination) to enforce restrictions in Haredi society took more lives than what happened at Mount Meron. It seems that the coronavirus now belongs to the past, but the accompanying ills are still with us and they continued to kill us over the weekend.

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For the Meron failure not to be whitewashed, the future investigative committees must not limit their concerns to the strength of the bleachers, the width of the fences or the rickety paths on the mountain. All these are small problems compared to the major malfunction: the absence of governability vis-à-vis Israel’s Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox communities. Sometimes this is seen in huge weddings and the forgoing of coronavirus fines, sometimes it’s seen in negligence like at Mount Meron.

The tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai is an extraterritorial enclave inside the State of Israel. It’s managed by a jumble of religious trusts, wheeler-dealer organizations and cronies of Haredi politicians. The state has problems enforcing even basic building laws there or suitable maintenance and sanitation.

What happens at the site is dictated by captains of the Haredi world: admors – spiritual leaders – who are allowed bonfires of their own. When the Health Ministry asked to have the same small number of bonfires this year as there were last year, the managers of the mountain agreed and somehow when the time came many more were lit.

The problem isn’t the individual worshipper. The people who were crushed at Mount Meron are victims, and heaven forbid that we blame them for the situation they found themselves in. To a certain extent they’re victims of a system that tolerates no government sovereignty, and all too often classifies criticism or a restriction by the authorities as “persecution,” “incitement” or “hatred of the Haredim.” In the mentality of a minority, it’s easy to unite against an external threat, especially if it’s an overlord.

The elders of Mount Meron and the Haredi politicians didn’t want to cause this chaotic situation. They and their constituencies suffer greatly from the collapse of the transportation system every year at Lag Ba’omer, the terrible crowding, the abysmal conditions at the site. They’re certainly not eager to hold funerals.

However, the difficult decisions like limiting the number of people at the mountain and significantly diminishing such a massive and powerful worship event are unthinkable. This isn’t malice. It’s negligence.

If at the end of the investigation the managers of the mountain and the police are held responsible, that will be only a job half-done. In Israel, there is a rank in the hierarchy where decisions have to be made. The “bureaucrats” issued countless warnings, anyone who wanted to know the situation at Mount Meron knew, and the ignoring of the warning lights wasn’t a mistake but nearly a decision. When the state comptroller’s warnings are brushed aside, when the managers of the event are showered with extravagant compliments in the Haredi press every year, this is the result.

It must be admitted that to a considerable extent this behavior pays off – has any politician paid a political price recently for failures? For the Carmel fire disaster, for example? For the coronavirus year, which didn’t detract at all from the power of the Haredi parties? As long as there is no real price, op-eds like this one will merely wrap fish, and the price will be paid by the Haredi worshipper on the lowest rung.

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