Blame has no place among believing Jews. But responsibility does
The horrific tragedy in Meron left us shocked and pained. Neither the brain nor the heart can grasp the magnitude of this calamity.
Forty-five souls taken in a storm. A dance of holiness transformed within an instant into a mass eulogy. Widows, orphans, huge voids. What does one say to a mother whose two sons did not return? To a young wife whose baby has not yet learned to utter the word Abba? To a cheder yingel whose rebbi will never again enter the classroom?
In times such as these, when words fail us, silence is a fitting response. When Rav Yonason David, Rosh Yeshivas Pachad Yitzchok and son-in-law of Rav Yitzchok Hutner ztz”l, was asked how the tragedy should be approached, he replied with two words: “Vayidom Aharon.” Precisely within that silence can we hear the call of the Creator.
At the same time, we believe that an event of this magnitude cannot just fade away without leaving an imprint, without effecting a change of some kind. That’s how it’s always been in Am Yisrael: After one singular event, when an elderly man was crushed to death in the Azarah due to the crowding on Pesach in the Beis Hamikdash, that year was remembered as “Pesach Me’uchin” (Pesach of the Crushed) for generations. After one event of multiple deaths caused by panic, Chazal decreed for generations not to go out on Shabbos with a spiked sandal.
But conclusions of this kind are only reached by the sages of the generation, and are not the job of a Torah-guided magazine, whose role is instead to serve as a platform for bringing the words of gedolei Torah to the public. When tragedy strikes, these gedolim guide us to understand: What does Hashem want from us? How are we supposed to react to such events, and what are we obligated — as individuals and as a tzibbur — to fix as a result of the fire that Hashem ignited?
Still, the magazine has another task: to bring the relevant information from the scene to the awareness of the public and the policymakers, to point out areas where improvement may be necessary, and to discuss possible alternatives to the existing protocols. But this is certainly not the time, nor the place, nor is it our intention, to draw conclusions — and certainly not to find people to blame.
After this tragedy, it behooves us to air the issues and to try and do everything in our power so that such terrible things will never happen again. We see this as the simple fulfillment of the halachic dictum of “V’nishmartem me’od l’nafshoseichem.”
Writing these words is not easy. But silence is even harder. In situations such as these, we do not have the right to remain silent, even though we would prefer to. Not when it comes to human lives. Not when it comes to a practice that repeats itself time and again, in various forms.
As believing Jews, we are obligated to conduct a cheshbon hanefesh, an internal reckoning, after a tragedy. But we can and should also analyze the human errors that made it possible for such a catastrophe to happen. And while it’s too early to draw firm conclusions, from the knowledge we do have at this point it seems that there is one central, underlying issue: the question of the State of Israel’s relationship with the chareidi sector.
Regretfully, the state authorities never took responsibility for one of the most important sites in the Jewish world, a site visited each year by more than one and a half million Jews — with Lag B’omer celebrations that draw hundreds of thousands of Jews from Israel and abroad. Kever Rashbi is the second-most visited site in Israel, after the Kosel. Yet there is no government entity that assumes responsibility to assure the necessary infrastructure and conditions that would facilitate safe access to Kever Rashbi.
Did the authorities take full responsibility and do everything in their power to make sure that anyone who came to Meron would return home in peace, as it does in other venues? Did the state turn a blind eye to the fact that the event was organized and run by a hodgepodge of hekdesh entities and a few volunteer organizations that have no ties to governmental authorities?
How is it possible that no one drafted a comprehensive master plan to make sure such a mass event — an event that grows from year to year — is managed properly? Instead, the state chose to let things ride. A few more shekels from the Treasury were tossed out to some groups here and there, but no one thoroughly evaluated the infrastructure, the size and character of the event, or the possible alternatives that could have been put in place to make sure it was held safely.
It’s hard to believe that the state would exhibit such a lackadaisical approach to any similar event. And it’s hard to ignore the feeling that as far as the decision makers are concerned, this event was not “their” responsibility.
When one looks at the overall picture, it emerges that Meron is just one episode in an ongoing saga of systemic failures, and it fits neatly into the overall relationship between the state and the chareidi public. Does the state consider the chareidi sector equal to the others? When chareidim hold a mass event, does the state neglect basic safety standards? Does the state understand that its role must ensure prudent management — which it enforces everywhere else?
These questions grow even more pointed now, nearly two weeks after the tragedy. The wider Israeli public knew how to embrace our community after the tragic events. Many heartfelt gestures were made by people who normally have nothing to do with the chareidi community. However, this solidarity between the various sectors in the nation was not particularly evident when it came to the governmental authorities.
As of this writing, a state commission of inquiry to investigate the catastrophe has not been established, and does not seem to be in the offing. In contrast to similar civilian disasters, the police have made only a lukewarm effort to summon those involved in the management of the event for questioning. And it certainly has not warned these actors against doing anything to obstruct the investigation, as it has in the past.
One gets the impression that the powers that be are doing everything to ensure that things just move on — or, alternatively, that they just don’t care. It’s hard to imagine such behavior if a similar disaster had affected a different sector. The scandalous conduct of the authorities after the event is matched only by their scandalous conduct before it.
We are not issuing an indictment here, but still, the chareidi public and the rest of Israel’s citizens must demand the establishment of a state commission of inquiry — not to hunt down the guilty parties, but to ensure that something this dreadful never happens again. It behooves us to exert the necessary hishtadlus and demand some deep housecleaning, and a deep and thorough shift in the conduct of the government and the relevant entities among us. True, this is not one of the great spiritual lessons of the tragedy, but considering the cost to human life, we cannot ignore the facts on the ground either.
This is a coin with two sides.
It’s convenient for the authorities to maintain the no-man’s-land called the chareidi sector. Yet unless chareidim recognize the vital role of the public sector, and learn to cooperate with the relevant government entities, they cannot consider themselves free of guilt.
Our tzibbur has been blessed with an abundance of organizations staffed by experienced people with very good intentions, but when an event reaches dimensions such as Lag B’Omer in Meron, our existing manpower and infrastructure are far from sufficient. Not because of willful neglect or mismanagement, chalilah, but simply because such a huge crowd cannot be managed by a loose confederation of well-meaning organizations.
In order to manage an event on the scale of Lag B’omer in Meron, it’s not enough to distribute food and drink. There also must be someone holding the reins with a big-picture view. The wonderful entities that provide food and drink to hundreds of thousands of visitors cannot necessarily be aware of the fact that even this food and drink and all the myriad bottles can turn into life-threatening hazards. We all saw the pictures of the plastic bottles strewn in that treacherous passageway.
The talented organizer who arranges the technical aspects of this or that bonfire does not necessarily understand the significance of adding another event — which may likely draw tens of thousands of people to an already crowded site for extended singing and dancing — and the resulting danger. Yet the organizers of these events cannot — and cannot be expected to — calculate the crowd control protocols and capacity limits for such a small site.
The Karlin-Stolin Rebbe mentioned that we are no longer the small community that we were in the past, and that the time has come to take off what he called our “baby shoes.” Responsible and insightful conduct means that in certain places and at certain times, there is no substitute for the professional oversight and management that only the state can provide.
Our community is growing, bli ayin hara. We have reached proportions where it’s no longer viable to rely only on local askanim and organizations. It’s time to cooperate with the authorities and the relevant entities, and not to cast our lot exclusively with those who engage in the tzorchei tzibbur only with emunah.
In order for this cooperation to be achieved, however, trust on both sides is vital. And building trust is no simple task, certainly not in these times, when most of the decision makers have a basic lack of understanding about the chareidi sector. It’s time to replace the fruitless, disinterested conversations of the past with respectful and serious dialogue. Like us, the state cannot rely on askanim and organizations to do its work. It is the state’s responsibility and obligation to understand the dynamics at play here, to be familiar with the data, and to draft suitable plans.
Of course, these changes must come from a constructive place — it goes without saying that there should be no tolerance of fringe elements terrorizing anyone who works for the public good. And there must be no tolerance whatsoever of violence, whether it’s directed toward police personnel, or inward, among ourselves. There is no place for it in any normative society, not to mention in a society that strives to sanctify Hashem’s Name in the world.
We also cannot accept violations of the law that affect the public or public areas, in favor of personal or communal interest. We cannot allow ourselves to become the no-man’s-land of the state, in which everyone who wants to stick his hand in the pot can manage his affairs as he wishes, without considering the consequences. We must not, as a tzibbur, absolve ourselves of all responsibility as we shift the blame elsewhere.
The time has come to press reset. Let us consider how we can emerge from this tragedy with a more mature, responsible approach. The time has come to work with the relevant entities with a deep sense of responsibility, and the time has also come for us to demand the same of the other side. We should not accept the fact that over the years we’ve become used to living in the forgotten backyard of the State of Israel.
The time has come for the state to place the future of each and every chareidi child at the top of its list of priorities, just as it’s expected to do for every other sector.
Of course, blame has no place among believing Jews. But responsibility does. And that means we must do our part and exercise the necessary hishtadlus, along with the fervent tefillah that our Father in Heaven spare us from any harsh decrees and all conflicts and strife, and that we should merit to be sanctify His Name.
Eli Paley is the publisher of Mishpacha Group and the chairman and founder of the Hareidi Institute for Public Affairs.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 860)
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