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Why Haredi Leaders Whitewash Meron Disaster

עקיבא נוביק
Akiva Novick
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The funeral in Jerusalem of one of the 45 people killed at Mount Meron, in early May.
The funeral in Jerusalem of one of the 45 people killed at Mount Meron, in early May.Credit: Emil Salman
עקיבא נוביק
Akiva Novick

If on the day after the disaster at Mount Meron anyone had suggested that representatives of the ultra-Orthodox public were going to paper over the debacles that caused it – they would have been accused of inciting hatred against Haredim. Who could have imagined the possibility of such shameless behavior? The answer: Anyone who is familiar with the relationships between the Haredi political parties and their voters.

Interior Minister Arye Dery of Shas and Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman of United Torah Judaism are letting themselves behave this way simply because it pays for them to. There are very few fiascos for which they would be punished in an election. Disdain for a deadly pandemic isn’t one of them – and they apparently also believe that neither is disdain for an appalling disaster.

The United Torah Judaism slogan every time there is an election is from Deuteronomy 17:10: “thou shalt observe to do according to all that they shall teach thee” (full disclosure – it was my bar mitzvah portion). This line gives instructions from Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky and the Council of Torah Sages to bring in votes, open talmudei torah (elementary schools for boys) during a pandemic and administer a flourishing autonomy within the state. Even those Haredim who are battling to bring to justice whomever is responsible for the disaster at Mount Meron say that they will continue to vote for Shas, “according to all they shall teach.” For two years now, the Haredim have had about 16 lawmakers in the Knesset.

Anyone who is not worried about losing customers isn’t going to invest in keeping them. When a politician knows he is not going to be punished, he allows himself to whitewash a horror of this sort and he also isn’t going to make efforts to prevent the next horror. This is in contrast to a politician who knows each time he faces an election that he could be held accountable.

Yaakov Litzman and Arye Dery at the Knesset, in early May.

Instead of examining their consciences, the Haredi functionaries are now busy closing ranks. Their major weapon is “the Sages of Israel.” According to a report by Akiva Weiss on Kan 11 public television, bereaved families were asked to sign a petition against the establishment of a state commission of inquiry, because “the sages of Israel oppose that.” Once again, the cynical use of rabbinical branding in the service of personal politics; and once again there is the ridicule of Rabbi Kanievsky, who is not a sophisticated politician and understands nothing at all about matters of safety or site management. But who would dare to defy him and demand an investigation? Who would refuse to obey the sages of Israel? Only the very few who might contemplate not voting for their parties and transforming them into people who owe a reckoning to the public.

The campaign to escape responsibility could not have existed without the generous help of the gaggle of sycophants in the Haredi press – people with press cards who have decided to become the flak jacket for the people with power. “Who is trying to cause fissures in the Haredi leadership?” blared the disgraceful headline of the editorial on the major website Behadrei Haredim. The site, which is owned by a businessman who is close to Dery, published in effect a defense brief for the model of the Haredi autonomy. A secular judge, they explained, would not understand the complexity of the Meron site (the very same complexity that led to the disaster) and would be liable to act like a judge in civil or criminal court – and not like a dayan in a rabbinical court.

The thinking that tries to solve all the sector’s problems within its own walls, leaving epidemiological decisions in the hands of rabbis’ grandsons and perpetuating all the ills from the days of the shtetl is also manifested here. They defined the demand from most of the bereaved families as “a propaganda campaign that threatens to blur Haredi identity and instill national and statesmanlike values in our midst.” Heaven help us.

A commission of inquiry is not intended to chop off heads, but rather as a reminder that human life is a supreme value, that it is not possible simply to carry on as usual after a disaster like this one and that the Haredi politicians have to feel some kind of fear – because they simply don’t feel the fear of those who elected them.

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