Leaving the ultra-Orthodox High and Dry

The public hardly noticed when official mismanagement led to dangerous traffic jams at this year's Lag Ba'omer celebrations at Mount Meron, because the ultra-Orthodox are seen as second-class citizens.

Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson
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Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson

More than 500 people suffered from dehydration during the Lag Ba’omer celebration at Mount Meron earlier this week, and dozens of them had to be taken to the hospital. The problem occurred when the bus system that was supposed to operate shuttles to and from the site broke down, and thousands of people were left sweltering in the hot sun.

There is a reason you did not hear about this. More than 90 percent of the people who come to the Tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai at Mount Meron every year are ultra-Orthodox Jews. These are people we don’t take orders from. Plus, they don’t post pictures of themselves with whiney captions on Facebook in hopes of garnering attention. You don’t have to believe that prostrating yourself on the tomb of a barren woman will ensure that you give birth to a boy to respect the desire of the large group of people who want to celebrate there.

The Israel Antiquities Authority, Israel Police and Transportation Ministry failed miserably in their handling of the event. According to people who were there, the chaos started when the parking lots for private cars, which are some distance from the mountain, filled up completely and people started parking on the roads leading to the site without the police stopping them. The buses subsequently had difficulty getting through.

At 6:30 A.M., the area the police established for loading and unloading buses at the entrance to the mountain was blocked. With 150 buses stuck in traffic, tens of thousands of people started walking in the 95-degree heat after a sleepless night. Hundreds packed into the idling buses.

Prior to the celebrations at Mount Meron every year, the ultra-Orthodox press warns that the authorities are not prepared. In previous years, ultra-Orthodox Knesset members have exerted last-minute pressure to release the necessary funding, set up infrastructure and solve the problem. But that did not happen this year. It is unclear why the authorities were not ready for the event. After all, the date was set 2,000 years ago when Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai died. Next year, too, the celebration will be on the 18th of the Hebrew month of Iyar. The police and the Transportation Ministry can start preparing now if they want to.

Arrangements for United States President Barack Obama's visit to Israel in March show that the authorities can meet strict American standards. So why not at Mount Meron?

The ultra-Orthodox are human beings as well as citizens of the State of Israel. They deserve transportation, police services and so on. If the chaos at Mount Meron had happened at a secular event, Knesset members would be sounding the alarm, ministers would be making threatening, rousing speeches from the Knesset rostrum and the police commissioner, looking for a little more recognition and glory, would be pledging to look into matters, investigate and learn lessons.

Remember the storm that was unleashed over the Tel Aviv Marathon, when thousands of people decided to go for a morning run in a March heat wave, leaving one runner dead and dozens dehydrated? Committees of inquiry were called for, energetic researchers adjudicated between the versions of events proffered by the Health Ministry and the Tel Aviv Municipality and the social networks split in debate over whether the runners or the organizers were to blame. In the end, a committee was established to determine standards for sport running.

The ultra-Orthodox are second-class citizens in this country. Before we demand they share the burden equally, we should give them equal treatment.

Lag Ba'omer celebrations at Mount Meron.Credit: AP

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