Barry Newman

The Long Overdue Meron Safety Net

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It was just about this time of the year in 2021 that Aryeh “The Roaring Lion” Deri felt compelled to guarantee that whoever desired to embrace the spirituality and joy associated with celebrating Lag B’omer at Mount Meron would not be turned away and the rites that are part of that special day would not suffer from choking restraints or restrictions, be they associated with health, safety or security. There is no doubt that he was sincere in those objectives and felt compelled to ensure that the long-awaited festivities would not result in disappointment or frustration. After all, Deri argued, if secular revelers are welcome to spend Shabbat cavorting to their hearts’ content on Israel’s beaches, why should the dati community not enjoy the same freedom of movement and assembly. That the minister failed to appreciate the absurdity of the analogy is cause to be concerned that he ever had a voice in determining public policy.

Well, better late than never, right? This year, the former cabinet minister won’t be opposing any of the safety-related restrictions that have been legislated to prevent a repeat of the Meron disaster of 2021. Sanity, it seems, has finally prevailed and a set of safeguards and precautions governing this year’s Lag B’omer activities at Mt. Meron will be implemented. In addition to forced compliance with engineering specs and police recommendations, the crowds, celebratory activities, and bonfires will be carefully monitored and regulated. Had these same guidelines and policies not been pooh-poohed away two years ago, the untimely deaths of 45 vibrant lives would have been prevented. While it is all but impossible to hermetically seal adverse incidents from happening, ignorance and neglect will not, thankfully, be the cause of any mishaps this year.

Deri, of course, was not the only one wearing the black hat (no pun intended) of the Meron catastrophe. His clout, though, was, then, quite considerable, so when he instructed the police to ignore the danger signs and look away from the crowding-related violations, the response was “In which direction, right or left?”.  I’d like to think that the Shas leader has spent many a sleepless night agonizing over his part in the pointless death of over forty souls who were unknowingly endangering their lives, but I doubt he has.

Others, though, apparently did, and while the religious right and haredim have a powerful presence in the current government, nobody wants the travesty of 2021 to reoccur. Not because of any devotion to human life, but simply because no one is ready to shoulder the blame by demanding the gates remain open when the rules – and sound common sense – demand that they be closed. I’m no great fan of the current coalition and less than thrilled with some of the strong-armed bullying and personality shifts taking place, but I am pleased that no government official will be exerting political force to ensure that red flags and warnings are shrugged aside.

Not that what happened two years ago should be in any way surprising. Cynics argued that the Meron tragedy was inevitable and provided still another example of Israeli indifference to bureaucratic constraints. They’re not entirely wrong. Only after fatal accidents take place will dangerous and uncontrolled intersections be fitted with a traffic light, and it takes incidents of severe stomach poisoning before a check will be conducted on the ingredients and quality control used in restaurants or food production facilities. Few, moreover, will forget the 1997 collapse of the pedestrian bridge over the Yarkon River in which four Australian athletes that were in Israel here for the Maccabiah Games were killed, and many others injured. Reports soon followed of the bridge’s designers and engineers rushing not to the site of the disaster but, rather, to the offices where municipal documents are stored and archived in an attempt to remove and destroy the signed authorizations that permitted the of use shoddy materials and reckless workmanship. So much for accountability and responsibility.

Israeli DNA automatically regards regulatory safeguards as overstatements, and most of us rarely hesitate to ignore them when “nobody’s looking”. Speeding limits are regularly exceeded, construction projects are initiated without the required permits and clearances, and health violations in the restaurant and food industry will go overlooked by municipal inspectors in return for an envelope full of cash. It’s only when an unprecedented tragedy captures the headlines are risky shortcuts and unauthorized workarounds aborted.

At the time of the Meron catastrophe I recalled the early days of the pandemic when international influencers, including then-president Trump, failed to appreciate the severity of the virus and expressed bewilderment as to why the world had to be locked down. Automobile accidents and fatalities occur every day, they pointed out, but no one is suggesting that the auto industry close its doors and cease production. What was conveniently being ignored by these arguments was how much larger those numbers would be if there weren’t safety restrictions in place, or how many of those killed as drivers, passengers or pedestrians would still be walking around if those restrictions were adhered to.

Those who follow the rules are frequently regarded in Israeli culture as freiers (patsies), which explains to a great extent the disregard for authority that is all too commonplace throughout this country. I won’t deny that Israeli confidence and self-assurance played no small role in the economic and military success we have had over the last 75 years, but common sense must still be a factor in day-to-day behavior. Too bad such sense is applied after and not before the onset of tragedy.

About the Author
Born and raised on New York’s Lower East Side, Barry's family made aliya in 1985. He worked as a Technical Writer for most of his professional life (with a brief respite for a venture in catering) and currently provides ad hoc assistance to amutot in the preparation of requests for grants. And not inconsequently, he is a survivor of stage 4 bladder cancer, and though he doesn't wake up each day smelling the roses, he has an appreciation of what it means to be alive.
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