After Meron calamity, Haredim question the price of their own autonomy

Ultra-Orthodox media figures are calling for a commission of inquiry, and lashing the state for letting their community endanger itself

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man weeps at a cemetery in Bnei Brak, during the funeral of one of the victims of the Meron crush on April 30, 2021. (GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)
An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man weeps at a cemetery in Bnei Brak, during the funeral of one of the victims of the Meron crush on April 30, 2021. (GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)

The shock of Friday’s catastrophe at Mount Meron is still raw. The graves of the victims, including the children killed in the crush, are still fresh. Yet the debate over what it all means for the country and for Haredi society has already begun.

A few overpowering facts, not least that nearly all the victims were Haredi, are driving an unusual new introspection, and leading the major media outlets of the community to turn against one of its characteristic traits: its longstanding and much-criticized “autonomy” from the Israeli state.

Haredi Israelis are simultaneously part of and apart from broader Israeli society. Making up as much as 12 percent of the Israeli population, the community is not uniform; different sects and subcultures interact in very different ways with the state and with other subgroups. While the “autonomy,” as Israelis often refer to the phenomenon, does not encompass all Haredim, it encompasses enough of the community to be — so growing numbers of Haredim now believe — a serious problem.

One sees the autonomy in studies of Israel’s cash economy that point to mass tax evasion in the Haredi community; in routine clashes with police in parts of Mea Shearim, Beit Shemesh, and other places; in the refusal to take part in national service; in school networks that refuse to teach the basic curriculum taught in non-Haredi schools; and, most recently, in the refusal of many Hasidic sects over the past year to obey pandemic lockdowns.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews gather at the gravesite of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai at Mount Meron in northern Israel on April 29, 2021, as they celebrate the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer. (JALAA MAREY / AFP)

It is a community that talks about itself in the language of weakness, always a street scuffle or political squabble away from talk of “decrees,” “persecution,” and “antisemitism.” Proposals for welfare cuts or calls to introduce more math education in their schools are described in Haredi media in terms borrowed from czarist oppression in Eastern Europe.

That rhetoric of weakness and victimhood has a purpose: to cloak or perhaps to justify the opposite reality. As a group, Haredim are not weak. They are powerful enough to constantly expand and defend their separate school systems, to found towns and neighborhoods for their communities, to maintain a kind of self-rule that forces Israeli politicians to literally beg Haredi rabbinic leaders — usually unsuccessfully — to adhere to coronavirus restrictions.

The story of the Meron disaster cannot be divorced from this larger story of Haredi autonomy, from the Haredi habit of establishing facts on the ground that demonstrate their strength and independence, and then crying “persecution” when those steps are challenged.

The strange meaning of ‘spontaneous’

In the two days that have passed since the disaster, investigators and journalists have uncovered a despairingly long litany of warnings from past years about the safety problems at the Meron site. State comptroller reports, police site analyses, dire admonitions by earnest safety officials in Knesset hearings — all fell on deaf ears.

These records reveal that if the Mount Meron site had hosted any other kind of event — a rock concert or a political rally — then police safety regulations would have limited attendance to roughly 15,000 people. Friday’s event saw more than 100,000 in attendance.

Men covered with prayer shawls at Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s grave in Meron. October 11, 2017 (David Cohen/ Flash90/ File)

They reveal, too, that Israeli officials simply do not believe it is possible to demand such limitations from the Haredi community.

As one former senior cop told the Yedioth Ahronoth daily over the weekend, “If a safety engineer from the police, in their last inspection of the site before the commemoration, would have tried to shutter the Toldot Aharon courtyard [where the disaster occurred] — do you believe that decision would have been enforced? … Not even the chief of police can do that. If someone tries, that’s their last job in the police.”

Haredi political parties, acting at the behest of Haredi religious leaders, would have made sure of it.

As journalist Nadav Eyal noted in his Yedioth Ahronoth column on Sunday, the Meron festival was officially classified by the police as a “spontaneous religious event.” It’s a preposterous term for the gathering. It’s not just that the Lag B’Omer festival takes place in highly non-spontaneous fashion on a known holiday (i.e., Lag B’Omer) but it also constitutes the largest annual religious gathering in the country.

Months of planning go into it. Its many different lots and bonfire ceremonies and musical performances are carefully divvied up among the competing sects and religious endowments that run the pilgrimage.

Thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews celebrate the lighting of a bonfire during celebrations of the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer on Mt. Meron in northern Israel on April 29, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

The government spends a small fortune each year on stages, grandstands and chartered buses from Haredi towns. And each year, a half-dozen government agencies all try to take credit.

So when police label the event “spontaneous,” they do not mean that it is literally spontaneous. It is a way to acknowledge that the police have no control over the event, that they could not impose attendance caps or infrastructure standards even if legally required to.

On Thursday, hours before the disaster, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri bragged to the Haredi radio station Kol Hai that he had successfully prevented Health Ministry officials from limiting the number of attendees over coronavirus fears. Deri lamented that the professional echelon at the ministry did not grasp that attendees would be protected by the spiritual influence of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the second-century sage commemorated at the Meron festival.

Shas party head Aryeh Deri casts his vote in the general elections in Jerusalem on March 23, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“The government clerks don’t understand,” he said. “This is a holy day, and the largest gathering of Jews [each year].” Bad things, he suggested, don’t happen to Jews on religious pilgrimage: “One should trust in Rabbi Shimon in times of distress.”

Even as he bragged of his and the Haredi community’s political power, he then deployed, instinctively, the rhetoric of victimhood. He urged listeners “to pray for the world of Torah and for Judaism, which are in danger. They’re in great danger.”

An end to the autonomy?

Children were crushed to death at Meron. Hardened paramedics wept on television. When cellular networks on the mountain went down, fearful families were reduced to sharing photographs of their missing loved ones on social media in a desperate attempt to make contact. One rescuer described to reporters the moment he had to yell at a tormented colleague to stop trying to resuscitate a child: “It was hopeless, and we had to try to resuscitate others.”

Rescue forces and police at the scene after a mass fatality scene during the celebrations of the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer on Mount Meron, in northern Israel on April 30, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

No complaint from secular Israel could make Haredi society question the strange autonomous bubble it had constructed as a cultural defense against the state’s modernizing influence, nor the power of the Haredi rabbis and their courts, whose egos and squabbles had divided the holy site into disconnected courtyards and helped drive Friday’s deadly chaos. But the shattering images from Meron cut through the glib self-assurance and silenced, at least for the moment, any boasts about Haredi self-rule.

And as the confident voices dwindled into shocked silence, other voices came to the fore, cries of angry self-critique that are rarely heard from the mainstream of Haredi society.

The voices all carried a single message: The state’s kowtowing to our leaders has brought this disaster upon us.

A hat at the scene of a deadly crush during the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer on Mt. Meron, in northern Israel on April 30, 2021 (David Cohen/Flash90)

Yossi Elituv, editor of Mishpacha, the largest-circulation Haredi weekly, urged his followers not to focus only on police errors or lack of government oversight.

“Our community also has a duty to learn lessons,” he wrote on Friday. The first lesson: That the state must step in and end the chaos. “Our first and immediate task is to free the mountain from the control of the [religious] endowments…. The state needs to establish a professional authority to run the site….Take the mountain away from the endowments and confer on it the status of the Western Wall, with zero tolerance for rule-breaking.”

On Sunday morning, Elituv followed up with a four-word tweet: “State investigative committee, now!”

Moty Weinstock, an editor at the Haredi weekly Bakehilla, reached the same conclusion.

“Any solution at Meron that amounts to less than bringing order to the entire mountain, canceling the religious endowments and dismantling all the areas designated [to specific sects] will ensure the horrifying images come back,” he declared.

On social media, in other newspapers, including the Hasidic mainstay daily Hamevaser, and in countless media interviews, Haredi Israelis asked the same questions and leveled the same complaints.

Top row (L-R): Menahem Zakbah, Simcha Diskind, Shraga Gestetner, Shimon Matalon; 2nd row (L-R): Moshe Natan Neta Englard, Yehoshua Englard, Yosef David Elhadad, Moshe Mordechai Elhadad; 3rd row (L-R): Haim Seler, Yedidia Hayut, Daniel (Donny) Morris, Nahman Kirshbaum; 4th row (L-R): Abraham Daniel Ambon; Yedidya Fogel, Yisrael Anakvah, Moshe Ben Shalom

A community that had convinced itself it could flout the demands of state authorities has suddenly and with growing confidence and earnestness begun to cry out for “order” and “authority,” to demand that the state impose its control, the rabbinic courts’ pride and vanity be damned.

New assumptions

Contrary to its most basic claim about itself, Haredi Judaism is neither rigid nor unchanging. New ideas filter in, old ones are reinterpreted. Scholars of Haredi life speak of profound changes across a broad spectrum of cultural and social mores, from a growing number of Haredim in higher education, in the workforce and in the military to new roles for women and new political loyalties that are collectively driving the community into ever deeper integration with mainstream Israeli society.

Yet change requires one underlying condition: It must happen quietly. Assumptions shift unacknowledged, new practices are treated as old and commonplace.

Take Haredi Zionism as an example. Ten years ago, the Shas party formally declared itself a Zionist party and joined the World Zionist Organization. But the declaration was whispered, not shouted. Today, no Shas voter would believe that until a decade ago the party would not officially call itself Zionist and had avoided joining Zionist institutions.

It’s the same story on the Ashkenazi side. Twenty years ago, Ashkenazi Haredim in Israel refused to acknowledge the ceremonies conducted at military cemeteries on Memorial Day. The military rituals were borrowed from other nations, they complained. Jews must commemorate in their own ancient ways. Then, over the course of the past decade, without fuss or fanfare or explicit acknowledgment of any kind, United Torah Judaism politicians have taken to officiating at those very ceremonies as official representatives of the Israeli government, standing alongside pants-clad female soldiers and laying wreaths at concrete memorials.

Haredi society can change with the times, as long as it does not admit the change aloud.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews wearing prayer shawls gather next to a bonfire, as they take part in prayers next to the grave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai during Lag B’Omer celebrations at Mt. Meron in northern Israel, early Thursday, May 10, 2012. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

In 2018, just after he took part in that year’s Lag B’Omer pilgrimage to Meron, Haredi journalist Aryeh Erlich tweeted his concerns about a certain narrow walkway at the site: “The narrow exit path that leads from the bonfire ceremony of the Toldot Aharon [Hasidic sect] creates a human bottleneck and terrible shoving, to the point of an immediate danger of being crushed. And it’s the only exit…. They must not hold the bonfire at that site again before they open a wide and well-marked exit.”

Erlich’s tweet went viral on Friday, exactly three years too late.

In an interview Sunday with the Tel Aviv-area radio station 103 FM about the disaster he predicted so precisely, Erlich rejected any blame directed at Haredi society for the deaths.

“How can you blame the Haredi public?” he demanded. The Meron pilgrimage “is a tradition that’s been going on for 550 years.”

Then who was to blame? “It’s the police that approve the event. There are clear regulations. No event can take place without a safety officer, a policeman who signs off on it and approves it, and that’s what happened at Meron.”

There’s a “sovereign,” he added. That sovereign “decided to ignore [the danger], chose shoddy improvisation instead, and failed to impose safety standards. The Haredi political parties are victims here; it’s not serious for the police to now say that because of [the Haredi parties] they didn’t do what they were supposed to do. The police are supposed to enforce the law.”

Israeli rescue forces and police at a mass fatality scene during celebrations of the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Oomer on Mt. Meron, in northern Israel on April 30, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

It is a pivot in expectations that by its very denial of Haredi culpability signals the shift away from Haredi autonomy. Erlich couches his critique as a defense of Haredi political leaders. But even here, with the blame directed exclusively at the Israel Police, the argument is the same: The police no longer have the right to ignore safety rules merely because Haredi religious sects demand it. How dare the state risk the lives of its Haredi citizens by allowing Haredi autonomy to trump their safety?

The catastrophe at Meron will not lead any in the community to question other elements of its separate existence, such as its independent school system. Nothing so fundamental will change from a single tragedy. But those now asking the state and the police to take over at Meron, those now questioning, openly and not-so-openly, their leaders’ wisdom and their community’s ethos of separation, will apply that lesson to other things in the future.

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