Why is allowing 100,000 people to go down a narrow staircase different from an 8-year-old fixing his kite with chewing gum?
About thirty years ago, I heard a story about an expert Israeli tech team that was hired by the American Army to do maintenance on a complex and perhaps secret computerized installation. The army sat down with the team and gave them the Maintenance Manual. It was, of course, complicated and intricate, but it boiled down to:
- Every week do A, B, C, D, E, and F in order.
- Every two weeks do G, H, I and J.
- Once a month: K, L, M, N and O.
After a year, the Israeli team had the best record of maintenance of any tech team that had ever served the installation, and the army fired them. The Israelis simply wouldn’t do what they were instructed to do.
“We didn’t do A,” the head of Israeli team explained. “A was stupid. We did D before B because Yossi did those, and B was closer to his barrack than D. C, we did every other week; it didn’t need every week. We never found out what G and M were, but it seemed to be okay without them. As for N, the industrial adhesive we were supposed to use smelled bad, so we just used crazy glue. K we liked.”
The story was told in praise of what is called “iltur” or “l’alter,” to improvise. It is a trait of which Israelis are proud and to which they point as one of the keys to how the little country survived militarily in the face of a region of enemies dedicated to its extermination. There is a story that after the long, difficult military capture of Safed in 1948, the Israeli army moved north toward the Lebanon-Syrian border. Being low on munitions and with their forces exhausted, the Israelis spent some time in a “whisper” campaign to several local Muhtars that major reinforcements armed with heavy artillery were on their way north to take the border towns. The whispers spread, the towns basically emptied themselves, and the towns were taken quickly. Iltur. This ability to improvise – to use whatever is available in creative ways – has sometimes been presented as one of the national characteristics not only of the modern State but of the Jewish people throughout the millennia of dispersal and persecution.
In the modern state, though, this quality is somehow tied together with the definition of the strength of the “new Jew,” the transformation of the Jew into the Israeli, the brave, unstoppable fighting machine. That there is validity in the birth of this symbol is certain. We are, all of us, so proud and so grateful to the women and men who bought us our Homeland with their strength and dedication and their blood.
To the generations that settled the land and built the new state, this Legend of the Israeli Warriors was more than a proud new symbol; it was a refutation of thousands of years of Jewish humiliation, the antithesis of the cartoon of the hypocritical, sycophantic Jewish moneylender of Medieval Europe: the coward, the cheat, the miser, selling out even God for a few pieces of silver.
So shameful was this traditional anti-Semitic trope to the New Israeli that the very existence of the Jewish people before the Modern State of Israel was an embarrassment. While it was useful as a comparison, a demonstration of what we were no longer and would never be again, the very fact that such a humiliating portrait even existed, however false and bigoted its elements might have been, became abhorrent. It became almost a disgrace to even admit that there had ever been pre-Warrior Jewish people.
As a result, for more than twenty years, the Holocaust was not an acceptable topic in Israel. It was not taught in schools. It was not broadly researched or discussed. The “old” Jews had not been warrior enough. Six million were not martyrs; they were simply not good enough, not strong enough to resist. “They could have drowned the Nazis in their spit” went one critical phrase. The criticism was nonsense. There was resistance. There was incredible bravery. Jewish spit wasn’t much of a match for German machine guns, tanks, bombs. The criticism was born of shame, not facts, and underlying it was a fear and insecurity that could not be spoken aloud. What if we are not as invincible as we say we are? What if Masada could fall again? What if we don’t prove to be good enough?
I accompanied one of the early March of the Living student groups in 1990. We flew from Poland to Ben Gurion, and many kissed the ground when we got off the airplane. From there, they loaded us onto the buses and took us to . . . where? The Kotel? Knesset? No, Yad Vashem, to the Rapoport Memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto. There are two parts to the memorial: “The Last March” depicting the broken, defeated victims of the ghetto being led off to the death camps, and “The Uprising” showing the proud, strong women and men who stood up to fight heroically even a battle that could not be won.
The guide led our group first to “The Last March” and said to the students, “In Poland, we saw these Jews who were led to the slaughter and were sent off to die.” And then, he took us to “The Uprising.” “And now, in Israel,” he said, “we will see the Jews who will never be defeated, who will never be beaten, the Jews who will fight and who will win!”
The early image of “The New Jews of Israel” was reasonable and even important in the early years of the State. A self-image stressing our bravery, our self-confidence, our intelligence and initiative was an important role model to a people quite literally fighting for its survival, especially in light of the staggering annihilation of two-thirds of the Jews of Europe. There had to be an icon to model to our children of confident invincibility in those most vulnerable years of our founding.
All of the traits that we invested in that crucial icon might have been best epitomized in the Israeli phrase: “HaKol B’Seder,” literally “Everything is fine,” but more correctly translated as: “We’ve got this.” Whatever it is, we are ready for it. And if we are not exactly ready, we will figure it out….or make something up….or improvise. But we won’t fail because we don’t fail. Whatever it is, we’ve got this.
Imagine this: You are eight years old, flying your kite in the park on a windy day, and one of the long wooden sticks (they are called “spars”) over which the kite fabric stretches suddenly breaks, flinging the kite to the ground. You are very upset, but you are smart and innovative and brave and resourceful. “I’ve got this,” you say. You try a little scotch tape which doesn’t really hold well; then a whole mass of duct tape which actually makes the kite so heavy you can’t get it into the air. Finally, you try a few pieces of freshly-chewed Bazooka, throw a little where the stick is broken to held the two parts together and stretch the rest of a gum out into a long sticky strand and wrap it around and around the stick to strengthen things. Then you give the gum two or three minutes to dry and the kite goes back up and you’re in business.
Your Mom and Dad are so proud of you, and you all laugh and watch the kite weave up and down on the air currents for about twenty minutes until it all comes apart again. But by then it’s time to go home for supper.
But you are not eight years old, and it is not a kid’s kite. We are a 73-year old country, and it is no longer enough to be self-confident and creative and confident that you will figure things out as you go. “We’ve got this,” isn’t good enough anymore.
Thirty years ago, doctors and scientists were still trying to convince the Israeli army that soldiers could not be “trained” to do without sleep, any more than they could be “trained” to do without water or oxygen. A physical body cannot survive without rest, but it took more than forty years for Tzahal to admit that soldiers had to be given time to rest. We were supposed to be better than that.
How many children and others are injured each year on the trails throughout the country that run along the edges of heights and rock faces? How can it be more than 70 years since the State was established and we have not yet put up railings and fences to protect children? We’ve got this. You want to raise tough Israelis; you have to start by training children to face danger. Like training our soldiers not to sleep.
We couldn’t be bothered to clean up the Yarkon and check the reliability of the temporary bridge over the river for the 1997 Maccabiah Games. We’ve got it. Everything is fine. And then the bridge collapsed, killing one Australian athlete and wounding more than sixty, and three more athletes died from infections they got from contact with the Yarkon, one of the most polluted rivers on the continent. We didn’t have it. We needed to have prepared and inspected and not simply rely on whatever chewing gum we had used to improvise the bridge.
And now Meron.
On April 11th, Aryeh Deri, Minister of Internal Affairs, announced that there were no problems with a mass of celebrants coming to visit Meron on Lag Ba’Omer. We’ve got this. After the world fell apart three weeks later, however, Rabbi Deri explained that he had been talking about concerns regarding a mass Covid spread event. That was certainly not going to be a problem, he had insisted, because of how much open space there would be.
As for the landslide of human beings crushing people to death, that was, he said, “an act of heaven,” but it seemed to him now that it had happened, that it would be a good idea to examine and reconsider the infrastructure in place for the annual gathering before next year’s onslaught.
Thanks, Mr. Minister. But we didn’t have it. We didn’t have protection from the Covid spread any more than we did for the avalanche and stampede. Look at the picture of something like 100,000 people jammed into Meron. There was no two-meter or one-meter or six-inch gap between people. No one with the sense God gave a duck could ever have expected that there would be. We know what mass gatherings are. We have seen it at the weddings and the funerals that have been reported all year long. But that’s the cost of religious freedom, isn’t it? We’ve got it. It always works out. But we have been told for the last ten years that Meron was a tragedy waiting to happen. No, no, it always works out. HaKol B’seder.
The first job, ladies and gentlemen of the Government of Israel, is NOT to get your party re-elected. It is to safeguard the lives and the safety of your citizens. The Government of Israel was criminally responsible for allowing an overtly, unambiguously deadly gathering to take place when it was clear that there could be no possible way of constructing a safe, supervised system to guard human lives.
Every third grade yeshiva student learns that “Saving life takes precedence over violating Shabbat.” Is there any more basic principal in our understanding of the structure of God’s law? And if a life takes precedence over the sanctity of Shabbat, is dancing in front of the kever of Rav Shimon bar Yochai so important that tens and tens of thousands of people will be encouraged by their Rabbis, their Yeshivot, the tradition of the neighborhood to risk their own lives and, God have Mercy, the lives of their children on such a madness?
Please let me be wrong. Please. But if in two weeks, a wedding of an appropriately important Chassidic family is called or the funeral of a venerated Rabbi takes place, will we not see the same leadership that sent the masses to attend Meron call again for the masses to perform the mitzvot of “bringing joy to the groom and bride” or “accompanying the departed”? And don’t worry about Covid. And don’t worry about crowding? And certainly don’t worry about the law and the lives and safety of others.
We’re got this. Ha’Kol B’seder.