Judah Savitt
Judah Savitt

A Farewell to Fanaticism

Mt. Meron’s crowd crush, Israel’s greatest domestic tragedy in its history that left 45 dead and countless injured, has come and gone, leaving in its wake heartbreak and disillusionment. Noticeably absent, however, is the bearing of responsibility or solutions to rectify systemic errors that led to such horror amongst Israel’s religious and political classes. For Israel’s Haredi constituents, the victims of Mt. Meron’s crowd crush, such an event is nothing less than perplexing: How could holy blood be shed on the holy day of Lag B’Omer in a supremely holy place? After all, the grave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, where the holiday and the tragedy took place, is thought in Haredi circles to be imbued with divine powers, even unto death. Perplexing indeed. Doubly so for a community typically so self-assured that the path they stride is sanctified from on high. The aftermath of this tragedy, though stirring up a greater degree of soul-searching in a community that has long prohibited any introspection of its core tenets, has (amongst Haredi leadership and Netanyahu loyalists at least) nevertheless nestled itself somewhere in between aghast inscrutability and shameful distortions. 

Who Can Foresee an Act of God?

Without a doubt, failure of leadership in the past government was legion. In the aftermath of the Mt. Meron tragedy, the dereliction of responsibility fell roughly into two camps: those who mourn the dead, and yet, offer no practical solutions, only divine mystery; and those who discharge responsibility entirely, such as Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, who, though technically in charge of security affairs of the event, opined that “responsibility does not mean [he is to] blame.” Such a wedding of responses is perhaps best exemplified in Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, who in the tragedy’s wake offered this piece of wisdom: “[The Mt. Meron Tragedy] is a decree from heaven and we cannot know the considerations of heaven.” Kanievsky added that rectification must come from strengthening in the study of Torah and women adhering more stringently to the rules of modesty. Such a commitment to seeing everything through the lens of what God ordains can be similarly heard from Aryeh Deri, leader of the Shas party and longtime senior member of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. Deri, who, according to his personal aide Yosef Schwinger, “fought like a lion” to have the celebration on Mt. Meron occur at full capacity despite Coronavirus concerns, had this to say the morning of: “Bad things don’t happen to Jews on religious pilgrimage, one should trust in Rabbi Shimon (Bar Yochai) in times of distress.” Piety detached from practical consideration needs miracles to handicap such precariousness. 

The reason why there are many questions and few answers in the Haredi community is the same reason why Coronavirus deaths wreaked disproportionate havoc on their communities in contrast to secular Israelis, and the same reason Bnei Brak is the most impoverished city in Israel. By rejecting and distrusting modernity and abandoning the tools of independent reasoning apart from the Torah, Haredi communities have become unassailable in the heavenly realms but dangerously vulnerable in the terrestrial. Arguably worse, these communities have been allowed to lead an autonomous existence, bucking health and safety rules and avoiding integration into the workforce and military as well as comptroller warnings concerning Mt. Meron’s need for attendance limitations. This has occurred by the hand of politicians who ought to know better, and yet are willing to trade in Haredi subversion for crucial votes and political expediency. Those at the top of the political echelon, those whose duty it was to safeguard Israel and its institutions, instead left them to rot. Their abandoning of the national interest that past Zionists such as David Ben Gurion and Yitzhak Rabin made their raison d’être is worse than mere political malpractice; it dangerously erodes a country’s institutions whose very survival, past and present, is inextricably linked to its ability to outstrip its hostile neighbors capabilities by large margins. 

A Most Unenviable Meritocracy 

Religion, as valuable as it may be, has always had a corrosive effect on politics. Replacing pragmatic considerations with ancient edicts is more than mere benevolent anachronism; it inevitably results in intellectual acrobatics needed to fuse ancient edicts with public necessity, too often with lackluster results. Such subpar execution fails to meet an exception in Israel where the hollowing out of the integrity of institutions on behalf of dogma occurs without exception by politicians willing to bankroll Haredi affairs for temporary political gain, irrespective of the consequences. An advanced liberal democracy branded as such should have civil marriages, not only religious ones; it should have public transportation during Shabbat for those that feel their or others piety need not affect where and when they seek work. Similarly, Haredim ought to serve in the armed forces of which they are exempt. Defending the state through compulsory service is one of Israel’s pillars of success and cohesiveness that has existed since its genesis. The state as a whole, as well as Haredi men and women, suffer greatly from their institutional absence. Finally, an advanced liberal democracy should take measure of future economic trends and demand that a common core curriculum of science and mathematics be taught to all students, regardless of religious background. Sadly, however, under Netanyahu’s long reign, no such headway has been made. The “startup nation” has failed to enact basic legislation and social liberalization that will not only garner economic triumphs, but will begin a process of integration and national healing that has been long overdue. 

Under Netanyahu’s tenure, gone were the days of a technocracy where the most qualified experts led, and in its place a system of feudal hierarchy was instantiated. This most unenviable of meritocracies granted blank checks to Haredi affairs to pursue policies harmful to the state (and, as is now readily clear, themselves) as long as those in leadership roles greased the wheels of its reigning monarch, Bibi Netanyahu. This absurd replacement of expertise for loyalty necessitates the instantiation of radical change. Emblematic of such a trend is the fact that Yaakov Litzman, head of the United Torah Judaism faction (a group opposed to studying modern concepts such as science and math, lest this takes away from Torah study), would head the health portfolio during the Coronavirus epidemic. Litzman’s ascendence to the pinnacle of scientific responsibility is farcical in the extreme in as much as it is tragic. This ironic reversal of values can only serve to weaken the state and render it increasingly defenseless to tackle crises, be they foreign or domestic. 

Why Can’t We Be Like Normal Democracies?

Indeed, when weighing responses to tragedies, one can’t help but be reminded of the stark difference between Italy’s response to the recent faulty cable car crash that left 14 dead, five of them Israelis in their wake, and Israel’s response to its own 45 dead. In the former, words were backed up by concrete actions. An independent government probe was launched without delay, perpetrators guilty of negligence arrested, and vows were uttered by government officials to get at the root of the problem to never allow such a hideous event to occur again. Contrast this with Israeli officials slow-peddling an official committee of inquiry, leaders failing to take responsibility, and a prime minister terrified of unearthing the root of the problem, lest it uncover the depth of his mismanagement, or anger the Haredi block whose support he so desperately needed to evade criminal eviction. Haredi leaders, those entrusted with ensuring the safety of their community, perplexingly allowed a bill ensuring an independent investigation of the Mt. Meron tragedy by Israel’s supreme court to die on the Knesset floor on the flimsy grounds that such an investigation may have subversive anti-Haredi predilections. Such seemingly paradoxical sentiments, where those outside of Haredi life are more dedicated to uprooting systemic failure than the aggrieved community, strike oneself as more fearful than it does righteous; fearful, perhaps, of what a truly independent investigation may unearth. 

Upon reflection, it’s hard to imagine any other liberal democracies given a similar situation not requiring the likes of Aryeh Deri to resign his post as government minister and perhaps even criminal charges levied as a minimum exemplification of culpability for the systemic causes that have led to this tragedy. The outcry would require justice, not sympathy alone. But no such groundswell has been in the offing. Israel, after burying the dead and mourning the loss of life, has returned to business as usual. Platitudes were pervasive, and yet talk is cheap. Perhaps Public Security minister Amir Ohana was right when he stated that though he had responsibility for security measures, that does not mean he is to blame. A system infected with decades of corruption does not readily bend to the will of dissenters or those willing to question the status quo; they are simply replaced or driven out (such as Avigdor Lieberman when he committed himself to Haredi reforms) or self-terminate (as many former Netanyahu acolytes have jumped ship in the most recent election to establish a government of change in the political party New Hope). In both cases, those who have turned their back on the feudal system are labeled as leftists, a word that has lost all meaning, apart from failing to support Netanyahu and the feudal system he helped create. Instead of experts, we get “yes” men. Instead of scientists, we are rewarded with clerics. Israel, a state built upon rationality, justice, and cerebral might so cherished by its forefathers has fallen sway to ancient dark-arts such as demagoguery, bureaucratic self-preservation, and shameless politicking. Israel’s Jews, long versed in the methods of survival and maintaining vigilance vis a vis foreign adversaries, have had no extended history of governing themselves, and thus no immunity to the destabilizing dangers of bad governance. In such a dangerous region, one hopes that Israel can learn the error of its ways sooner rather than later. 

A Glimmer of Hope

Indeed, perhaps, Israel’s wayward vessel long unmoored from the beneficent arts of reason, pragmatism, and long-term planning, has found safe harbor at last. Perhaps a “government of change,” led by Lapid and Naftali Bennett will be the vaccine for Israel’s troubles. Undoubtedly, however, the rot is deep, necessitating more revolutionary changes than mere topical measures that, albeit less painful, don’t get at the root of the problem. At the time of this writing Benjamin Netanyahu and the Utlra-Orthodox parties have ceded power to a government devoted to change. It is the hope for a flourishing Zion that they take their cronyism and permanent opposition to reform with them. This new government, one that does not have Benjamin Netanyahu at the helm he commanded for over twelve years, has promised a commission of inquiry into the Mt. Meron tragedy. And yet, it appears that new prime minister Naftali Bennett, perhaps out of deference to the sages, perhaps out of a desire to enlarge his political clout through future Haredi support, has largely intimated that the tenuous balance between religion and state will largely remain the same. Such a static quo, however, is hardly static. By allowing the institutional rot to continue calcification, with separate rules and standards for Haredim to further ingrain themselves, you continue down a path that makes real reform ever more difficult to realize. 

There are those who trumpet this new government as the culmination of sanity, reason, and decency that Israel has not seen in over a decade. This may be true, and yet, hardly sufficient. Now is not the time to allow a problem to fester for future governments or play custodian to institutions that harm the State’s integrity and cohesiveness. Such “kicking of the can” is nothing more than reckless. It speaks to the severity of the problem that one of the reasons reform hasn’t come sooner is precisely because of the intractability of the problem. However, there are some glimmers of hope. Bennett is enmeshed in a coalition awash with liberal Zionists such as his foreign minister and alternate prime minister Yair Lapid, Nitzan Horowitz who is openly gay, and ardent secularist Avigdor Lieberman for whom liberalization and freedom from religious intrusion into public life is a linchpin of their ideology. The majority of coalition members in this nascent government have dispositions more akin to Lapid than Bennett. And yet, in order to pass legislation there must be a parliamentary majority, crucial votes that the secularists lack, but may be able to procure, if compromises are made in order to keep the government afloat. Israel’s new government, therefore, is a step in the right direction and is a triumph over corruption in and of itself. However, its ability to enact real change or last long enough to be little more than a liberal mirage defenseless against Israel’s behemoth rightwing, remains to be seen. One may be forgiven for becoming intoxicated on the fumes of victory, and yet, the lachrymose history of the Jewish people has taught me one need not be so optimistic, and that the embers of fanaticism may burn bright again.

About the Author
Judah's scholarship seeks to cultivate a more enlightened, rigorous discourse in service of the Middle East in general and Israel in particular. Though Israel's vindication internationally represents a prime intellectual goal of his, seeing justice for all in the region is equally important. He has a Bachelor's degree in Philosophy and a Master's degree in Middle Eastern and North African History.
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