First came the tragedy, then a search for who to blame.
Days after a deadly storm that killed 45 people at a religious festival in northern Israel, many are now asking who is to blame.
The Israeli government guard has said they will open an investigation into the onslaught at a Jewish religious festival on Mount Meron, where the victims were mainly ultra-Orthodox men and children. Yet some, including activists from the ultra-Orthodox community, urge the ultra-Orthodox to look at their own role in the tragedy as well.
“It is a call to reconsider what it is that we did not do right,” said Yehoshua Pfeffer, founding editor of the Tzarich Iyun Journal and an ultra-Orthodox rabbi in Jerusalem. “It’s not about leadership, it’s about us as a society, as a society, because it is the underlying opinions, the prevailing mindset of the society that will be reflected by the leadership.”
Since the onslaught, Israeli politicians and the media have questioned whether the government and police were unwilling to set limits on the number of people at the festival to avoid angering ultra-Orthodox leaders. Some have pointed fingers at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, whose political survival depends on ultra-Orthodox political parties, to enable society to evade state rules.
“A functioning government could have prevented the terrible disaster on Mount Meron. “Everyone knew that,” wrote opposition politician Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party, who also called for a state inquiry into the storm on Twitter on Monday.
Ultra-Orthodox parties form an important voting bloc in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, and were part of Netanyahu’s narrow coalition government until the elections last March. Although he himself is not ultra-Orthodox, he trusts the support of these parties to remain in power.
Netanyahu’s mandate to form a government expires at midnight on Tuesday, but it is still unclear whether opposition parties can form a government.
Despite their crucial position in government, ultra-Orthodox communities remain separate and alienated from ordinary Israeli society. Neighborhoods are often separated, most do not serve in Israel’s defense force, and many men dedicate their day to learning scriptures rather than paid work.
This separation and the large sums that the ultra-Orthodox communities receive in state aid have caused great levels of anger in ordinary Israeli society.
The storm comes after belief in ultra-Orthodox leaders had already been eroded by the pandemic. According to an IDI survey of ultra-Orthodox men between the ages of 18 and 30, nearly 40 percent said their trust in ultra-Orthodox parties had been “damaged” or “severely damaged.”
This deterioration in trust and the demands of the street led ultra-Orthodox politicians to increase their advocate for positions supported by their community, such as fewer coronavirus restrictions, according to Malach.
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“The fact is, politicians are not really seen as leaders,” Pfeffer said. “Ultimately, they are adapted to vote on the Haredi street. Why were it the Haredi politicians who were so keen that the road to Meron would be wide open and everyone could walk? The reason they were so keen on this is that they knew that is what their constituency actually expects of them. ”
Over the past five days, many ultra-Orthodox have still focused heavily on the victims and their families since funerals took place. Rabbis and spiritual leaders have emphasized the need for prayer and acceptance that this was God’s will for good and evil.
“People are overwhelmed and depressed, everyone knows someone, and even though they do not know anyone who died, they know someone who was injured,” said Pnina Pfeuffer, CEO of New Haredim, an umbrella organization for ultra-Orthodox activists who want to see change in society. “So many people were hit and traumatized.”
Six U.S. citizens and two legal residents were among the victims. Every year during the holidays in Lag BaOmer, tens of thousands of people – most of them ultra-Orthodox Jews – flock to Mount Meron to mark the anniversary of the death of an ancient Jewish rabbi and to light bonfires as part of the festivities.
Thursday night’s event was the first religious mass rally held legally when Israel lifted almost all restrictions on the coronavirus pandemic.
By 2020, the ultra-Orthodox, known in Israel as Haredim, made up about 12.6 percent of the total population, and that share is expected to reach 16 percent of the population by 2030, according to the Israel Democratic Institute think tank.
Despite its ultra-Orthodox size and political power, society still sees itself as separate from the state of Israel.
“There is a great deal of suspicion about the state government,” said Gilad Malach, director of the ultra-Orthodox Israel program at IDI. “Society sees the government as a foreign body and not as our government.”
State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman said Monday that he would investigate actions by all groups leading to and during the festival, as well as the area’s maintenance over the years, and whether previous deficiencies had been addressed. He said he would also aim to come up with a strategy for dealing with major religious events to “prevent a recurrence of this kind of tragedy.”
Although there are voices like Pfeffer and Pfeuffer who encourage the ultra-Orthodox to differ less from Israeli society, they are in the margins, according to Malach.
“There are more people who feel this way than if you compare with 10 years ago, and there is a chance that the phenomenon of being modern ultra-Orthodox will grow and bring about change in society. But those are still the first steps, ”Malach said.
For the more modern ultra-Orthodox who are willing to speak out, this special moment – after the high number of coronavirus deaths among the group, the criticism it came under for non-compliance and the Meron disaster – is just the time to society to see its place in wider societies, Pfeffer said.
“When the Haredi community becomes so large numerically and so influential on a political, social and economic level, the ‘them and us’ mentality must fall away and be replaced by an ‘us and us’ mentality,” he said. and integrated, whether we like it or not, into Israeli society so that a ‘them and us’ mentality can be effective. “
Reuters contributed to this report.