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Bid to block Meron disaster inquiry sparks first glimmers of a Haredi rebellion

Sunday marks 30 days since the disaster at Mount Meron in which 45 people were killed and 102 wounded as thousands tried to squeeze through a narrow staircase at the annual Lag B’Omer festival.

It was the worst civilian disaster in Israel’s history. Yet 30 days on, as the traditional shloshim mourning period draws to a close, all attempts to establish a formal state investigation into what went wrong have failed.

Perhaps most shocking of all:

Though the dead are almost all Haredi, it is the Haredi political parties who have resisted most fiercely a formal probe.

On May 24, in a vote in the Knesset brought by the secularist Yesh Atid party to establish a state investigation commission, the right-wing bloc walked out of the plenum at the behest of the Haredi factions Shas and United Torah Judaism. The proposal failed.

Haredi parties accused Yesh Atid of cynically trying to score political points with their proposal. But the Haredi parties had no answer to journalists who asked why even 25 days after the disaster, Yesh Atid was still the only party to have brought any proposal of any kind to a vote.

The Haredi resistance to an investigation has drawn expressions of shock and disgust from across the political spectrum.

Yamina MK Matan Kahana, reflecting the views of many, including in that right-wing bloc, was mystified and outraged by the walkout.

“The more deeply I think about this, the less I understand how MKs can disrupt, foot-drag and try with a thousand different excuses to prevent the formation of a state investigation that can uncover the truth and prevent the next disaster. What are you afraid of??” Kahana demanded on Twitter.

Excuses and explanations

The Haredi parties have offered no shortage of explanations for their refusal.

Some have argued such a committee would take too long to publish its conclusions. “We need next year’s festival at Meron to already be safe,” Shas MK Moshe Arbel said in the Knesset.

Arbel did not explain why the need to immediately improve safety procedures precluded carrying out a slower, deeper investigation.

Some ultra-Orthodox MKs protested that formal state investigative committees are led by judges. Haredi media and politicians are deeply suspicious of Israel’s judiciary, often depicting the country’s judges as a liberal, anti-Haredi elite that, they now argue, would not give the Haredi community a fair shake in the investigation.

That concern is real and serious. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis view the Meron pilgrimage as the highlight of their religious year.

It’s not unreasonable to be worried that a commission of non-Haredi jurists and safety experts might not take their religious needs into account when recommending changes to the infrastructure and oversight of the holy site.

But that doesn’t absolve the Haredi leadership. In the immediate aftermath of the April 30 disaster, MK Betzalel Smotrich, head of the Religious Zionism party, a social conservative who shares the Haredi distrust of the civil judiciary, drafted a proposal for a parliamentary commission of inquiry instead. It would be made up of Knesset members, including the religious parties.

The Haredi factions nixed that proposal as well.

As anger at their inaction has grown, Haredi MKs began to present alternative proposals, each more toothless than the last.

UTJ’s Moshe Gafni suggested a commission chaired by Israel’s chief rabbi, a figure that could be trusted not to find fault with the Haredi leadership.

Moshe Arbel proposed a body whose chairman would be appointed by Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, leader of Shas — the politician most identified with the Meron festival and the coordinator of most of the government’s support and planning oversight for the event.

MK Meir Porush, meanwhile, has argued that no investigation was required at all.

These proposals share one unifying theme, best uttered, according to Hebrew media reports, by MK Uri Maklev at a UTJ faction meeting:

“We have to make sure our people aren’t hurt.”

Looking after their own

There’s little mystery behind the resistance of the Haredi political establishment to an investigation. Many of its institutions are implicated in the disaster.

The Meron festival’s ostensible organizer is the Center for the Development of Holy Sites, an NGO wholly controlled by the government that operates under the aegis of the Religious Affairs Ministry.

The Center oversees some 120 Jewish holy sites around the country and is de facto controlled by the Haredi political leadership. The Religious Affairs Ministry itself is led by Shas appointee Yaakov Avitan.

Those government-run agencies may have overall responsibility for the site and the Lag B’Omer festival, but they don’t actually control what happens on the ground.

The site is divided each year into plazas controlled by fiercely independent Hasidic courts and religious endowments, a splintering of responsibility and oversight that played a large role in the tragedy.

Several popular bonfire ceremonies were canceled this year as a result of internal politics and squabbling between the factions at the site, sending larger crowds into fewer courtyards.

The deadly crush may have occurred at the exit ramp of the Toldot Aharon Hasidic sect’s compound — a group famous for its jealously-guarded independence from state oversight — but the failures that claimed the lives of 45 pilgrims touched every level of planning and every small sect that believed its independence was more important than a unified, coherent management of the event.

In other words, Shas fears that its control of the state bodies responsible for the event may implicate its leadership in the tragedy, while UTJ, whose MKs are partly appointed by the country’s most powerful Hasidic groups, worries that blame will ultimately attach to the religious leaders of the various sects.

The families speak

The sense that the Haredi political elite has spent the 30 days since the catastrophe desperately fending off any inquiry that might see it blamed for the tragedy is driving a new outpouring of rage at the Haredi leadership from within its own community.

When a Shavuot celebration on May 16 held by the Karlin-Stolin Hasidic sect ended in yet another tragedy as a grandstand collapsed under the weight of dancing worshipers — killing two, including 13-year-old Meir Gloiberman, and wounding over 200 — that anger could no longer be ignored.

And when news broke that some of the families of the Meron dead had been contacted by people claiming to be from United Torah Judaism asking if they would agree to sign a letter opposing a formal state commission, it boiled over.

On May 23, the families found their voice.

They formed an organization called “The Forum of the Bereaved Families of the Meron Martyrs” that sent a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with copies to Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, Police Commissioner Yaakov Shabtai, as well as UTJ’s Gafni and Shas’s Deri. Their message was crystal clear.

“To our great anguish, there are those in recent days who have called for an investigation that isn’t an independent state investigation commission,” the letter begins.

“We want to say in a loud, clear, unequivocal voice, without ambiguity, all the families speaking as one, that we demand only an independent state investigation commission. We are convinced that only a state investigation commission will conduct a comprehensive investigation.”

Some families weren’t satisfied with the letter. Haredi radio station Kol Barama reported on Thursday that the family of Shraga Gestetner, an American who died at Meron, has threatened to involve the American government “if a state investigation into the disaster isn’t established in the coming days.”

When everything is at stake.

No similar disaster in Israel’s history, nor even one with a quarter of Meron’s death toll, has failed to result in an investigation commission. Why do the Haredi parties believe they can hold the line? Why would they be willing to face the inevitable public condemnation?

So much of what went wrong at Meron — the bickering sects, the refusal to accept police safety regulations or government oversight, the mobilizing of Haredi political leadership to guarantee the event’s independence from state oversight — cuts to the heart of Haredi culture, to its sense that it has achieved a kind of purity and superiority over the surrounding society through its separatism and isolationism.

On May 17, a day after the Karlin disaster, the Haredi journalist Moshe Glassner of Kol Barama put the point bluntly: Haredi separatism is leading the community from one deadly failure to another.

“After yet another disaster in the Haredi community,” Glassner wrote, “it’s about time for all the various [Haredi] communities to grasp the message: Safety regulations, like health regulations, aren’t a ‘Zionist plot against religion.’ That anachronistic way of thinking cost us lives in the pandemic, at Meron, and again on Shavuot.”

The religious commandment to “guard your lives,” he added, “isn’t a mitzvah [just] for troubled youth, but an obligation from the Torah” that supersedes nearly all others.

In Haredi society’s terms, the politicians are protecting not just themselves or their religious sects. They are safeguarding the psychic walls that Haredi society has constructed around itself, the deep-seated ethos of resistance to state interference in their lives and communities.

For a growing chorus of critics in the community, however, the 45 dead at Meron are too high a price to lay at the altar of isolationism and self-regard.

As the May 24 walkout in the Knesset showed, secular Israel is no longer the primary threat to that isolationism. Likud and other factions proved willing to play along with the Haredi leadership’s efforts to stymie an independent investigation.

After a year of the pandemic’s devastation, followed in quick succession by the dual shocks of the Meron and Karlin disasters, it is now the families of the dead and the increasingly independent-minded media outlets of the Haredi world that are not.

Source: Haviv Rettig Gur – TOI