The climbing number of construction deaths in Israel is becoming a modern tower of Babel. We must bring down this tower and protect our workers. (Parashat Noach 5780 – 2019)
At the end of Parashat Noach, we find the curious story of the Tower of Babel. The original story in the book of Genesis is quite short, a mere nine verses (Genesis 11:1-9). It describes how after the great flood, human beings all spoke one language. They gathered together to build a great city with a tower that would reach the sky, to make a name for themselves and to prevent themselves from being scattered throughout the Earth. God interferes with their plans, confounding their speech and giving each a different language so they cannot understand one another and thus cannot complete their tower, and scatters them across the world.
Many commentators have struggled to understand what exactly was the sin of the Tower of Babel and why its builders were confounded with such a bizarre punishment. After all, what is so terrible about human beings working together, about making progress together, about building something great and grand together?
Rabbi Pinhas proposed the following midrashic explanation:
“If a man fell and died, they paid no heart, but if a brick fell, they sat down and wept, and said: ‘Woe is us! When will another one come in its stead?’” (Pirke De-Rabbi Eliezer, Chapter 24)
In other words, the sin of the Tower of Babel wasn’t necessarily the construction itself, but rather the attitude and approach of the citizens of Babel, who viewed the construction of the tower, together with its physical materials, as more important than human life.
This week, Shadi Amasha, a 37-year-old man from the Golan, fell to his death from the third floor of a construction site in his hometown of Majdal Shams (a Druze town whose name literally means Tower of the Sun). His death was the 39th construction-related death in Israel so far this year. According to a recent Israel Ministry of Labor report, the rate of construction related fatalities in Israel currently stands at 12.1 deaths for every 100,000 workers, an exceedingly high rate, for example, when compared to European Union statistics.
In recent years, in response to an increase in construction-related injuries and deaths in Israel and subsequent press coverage, there have been numerous efforts (or stated efforts) to curb such accidents, to tighten safety regulations and enforcement, and to increase punishment for those responsible. But none of these efforts (or stated efforts) have yet proven successful. Laws and injunctions remain blatantly ignored. Workers’ deaths often remain un-investigated, and even when they are, those responsible receive at most a slap on the wrist – a nominal fine, a temporary license suspension, some negative press.
It’s easy to point fingers of blame – at reckless site managers, at contractors who underbid and pinch pennies on safety and rush to meet deadlines, at developers who will do anything for greater profit, at politicians whose pockets are lined with funds from developers, are under pressure to address housing shortages, and have ostensibly greater priorities than the lives of construction workers. Indeed, we must address the responsibility that each of these parties holds, but we must also look inward.
Why is it that we, as a society, seem to value progress and construction more than human life? Why do we buy in to this pursuit and this rush to build more, build higher, build faster, build greater, build cheaper – at the expense of human lives? Why do we pressure our politicians and developers to build our houses faster and cheaper, but we do not pressure them to protect the individuals who build them? We care more about the beauty, the height, the view, the price of our apartments than the wellbeing of those who construct them. And why do we need buildings that are so tall and grand in the first place? Yes, there is limited land in Israel, and we must build higher in order to build sustainably for a growing population, but building higher and higher, grander and grander, without adequate concern for the safety of our builders is morally unsustainable and intolerable.
Perhaps part of the issue is that most construction deaths – as most construction workers – in Israel are not Jewish Israelis. Most are Arab citizens of Israel, Palestinian non-citizens of Israel, migrant workers and asylum seekers. We see them as “others”, as “construction workers”, as “foreign workers”, as tools in a job, like bricks, or perhaps even less. We do not see them as individuals with lives and families that deserve protection just like our own. Perhaps because we do not know them and we do not know one another’s language – unlike the builders of Babel. Perhaps we must get to know them better. Who are they? Who are their families? Why do they work in such precarious heights to build our homes, and in order to earn a living for themselves and their families?
We must get to know our fellow laborers better and we must protect them as if they were our own family. We must make it our responsibility – and the responsibility of every site manager, contractor, developer and politician – to get to know our fellow laborers and to protect them. We must publish their names and faces and tell of their families in primetime news and media. We must publish their names and faces and stories on the buildings they build, and especially upon the buildings on which they gave their lives. We must refuse to provide contracts and business and profits to companies who defy regulations and whose workers died on their hands. We must prosecute those responsible for the deaths of workers – not through fines as if they were responsible for mere property damage, but as those responsible for manslaughter and the loss of human life.
We must demand more from ourselves and from our politicians, and we must build higher – not physically, but morally. Lest we become Babel and find ourselves in a moral tumble from precarious heights.
Acknowledgements: Special thanks to my students at BINA Gap Year / Mechinat BINA who helped me in developing the thoughts for this piece.