One of the first decisions expected to be made during the first meeting of the new cabinet next week will start this government off on the right foot: It is likely to establish a state commission of inquiry into the disaster at Mount Meron, in which 45 men and teenagers were killed.
It would have behooved the previous government to have immediately okayed Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s proposal to set up such an inquiry into the disaster at Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai’s grave site seven weeks ago.
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But the Netanyahu government’s evasiveness on the issue stemmed not just from the fear of several ministers that their alleged blunders and those of their associates would be uncovered. It also reflected the refusal of the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox parties, whom Benjamin Netanyahu so depended on, to expose the scope of Haredi autonomy to an in-depth state examination.
For decades, Haredi activists and Hasidic courts did as they pleased at the Meron compound, ignoring safety regulations. They did this with the support of the Haredi parties, which blocked every attempt to limit the number of participants in the annual Lag Ba’omer celebrations there.
On the eve of the disaster, support was also provided by several Likud ministers, including former Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, who even spent time at the site a short time before. It’s no wonder, then, that no inquiry of any kind has been launched.
With feigned innocence, Haredi politicians claimed they were not opposed to an investigation, but to a commission headed by a judge appointed by the president of the Supreme Court, because it would not have the required “sensitivity.”
This was a direct continuation of the Haredi leadership’s refusal to obey the coronavirus lockdown directives during the pandemic and their entrenched resistance to any state intervention, even at the cost of Haredi lives, which were lost to the virus in numbers vastly disproportionate to their share of the population. Like those who perished in Meron, they, too, were victims of this autonomy. The cabinet would also be well advised to set up a state commission of inquiry to examine the administrative failures during the pandemic.
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A state inquiry into the Meron disaster is needed immediately, not just so that the ministers, officials and police officers involved can be held publicly accountable; it’s needed to send a message that in Israel there can be no autonomous communities that are not subject to the state’s laws and whose members’ lives are forfeit. This is as true regarding “the Arab autonomy” – citizens should not have to live in fear of crime organizations.
The commission’s establishment should not be viewed as an attempt to do harm to the Haredi public; indeed, many relatives of the Meron victims, themselves Haredim, are demanding such a state inquiry. This is a basic obligation: The state must ensure that its citizens’ lives are not forfeit, and that those responsible for the disaster will be identified and the necessary conclusions drawn.
The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.