Israel asks whether autonomy of the ultra-Orthodox contributed to the deadly stampede
By Steve Hendrix,
Ariel Schalit AP
JERUSALEM — Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jews exist in a world within the world, citizens of Israel but pledging their allegiance, attention and obedience instead to their rabbis and God. In isolated enclaves, they’re exempt from the military draft, outside the national school system and — in apartments typically without Internet or television — largely oblivious to the surrounding culture.
Now, this shocked country is asking whether that self-segregation — and the secular politicians who for decades have enabled it — is responsible for the worst civilian catastrophe in Israel’s history, the trampling deaths of 45 ultra-Orthodox men and boys at a massively overcrowded religious festival in the early hours of Friday.
The ultra-Orthodox — or Haredim, as they’re known in Israel — follow a strict interpretation of the Jewish scriptures and live a lifestyle based on the Jewish culture that evolved hundreds of years ago in the communities of Eastern Europe. Since Israel’s founding, state leaders have sought preserve this culture after much of it was devastated during World War II.
When more than 100,000 Haredim convened for a boisterous annual festival at an ancient rabbi’s tomb on Mount Meron, they overflowed a narrow, sloped compound known to both government and religious leaders as a potentially dangerous setting.
Sunday, as the final victims were being buried and flags around the country flew at half-staff in a national day of mourning, multiple investigations began targeting police planning, local regulators, site managers and national ministries with responsibility for oversight.
Already, journalists and whistleblowers have unearthed a paper trail of warnings ignored, recommendations overruled and supervision absent. Officials have been called to account for meetings in recent weeks in which specific recommendations from health and safety authorities were overruled at the behest of Haredi groups determined to have the festival. The event was canceled last year in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
Those facing questions include Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has depended on ultra-Orthodox political parties to maintain his governing coalition in recent years, Public Security Minister Amir Ohana and Director General of the Holy Sites Yossi Schwinger.
A man mourns during the funeral of Yehuda Leib Robin, who died Friday in the stampede.
Members of parliament called for an independent national commission to investigate the government’s role. But beneath the inquiries, a broader sense quickly emerged that the tragedy would have been far less likely in a setting — and within a community — that was more fully subjected to normal government strictures.
“It’s part of the fact that the Haredim have their own autonomy, which could not exist without the resources and the acquiescence of the state,” said Yoram Bilu, professor emeritus of anthropology and psychology at Hebrew University. “Look at what goes on at Israeli rock festivals. The demands from the police and the authorities are stricter by far.”
Even some Haredi leaders said the time had come to reevaluate the relationship of ultra-Orthodox communities — which have grown to about 13 percent of Israel’s population — with the state that surrounds them.
“Haredim don’t want to lose autonomy, but becoming big by definition means being much more involved, much more integrated, and handing over a certain degree of autonomy,” said Rabbi Yehoshua Pfeffer, a former official in the office of Israel’s chief rabbi and the head of Haredi programs at the Tikvah Fund, an advocacy group. “That is something that Haredi society hasn’t quite come to terms with.”
The soul-searching began even as medical examiners identified the last of the 45 victims and the final funerals were held around the country. Thirteen people remained hospitalized Sunday, two in serious condition.
The stampede occurred after Haredi men and boys gathered for an annual commemoration at the tomb of a revered second-century rabbi. Women gathered in a separate area. The night of singing and dancing and bonfires turned suddenly to tragedy as the huge crowd surged toward the exits. Some people reportedly fell on slippery steps, causing crushing pileups and panic in the confined setting.
Haredi rabbis and leaders of Haredi political parties reportedly pressed for unfettered access to the site for what is the biggest religious festival on Israel’s calendar. Israel’s Kan radio on Sunday reported details of a meeting two weeks before the event in which officials waved away requests from police and health officials to limit the size of the crowd because the move would require agreement from “relevant Hasidic courts.”
It’s yet to be seen whether the Haredim themselves will take part in the finger-pointing. Several survivors of the stampede expressed more fatalism than anger for the tragedy. “I’m not blaming the authorities or the police — it was written from above, what can we do?” asked Pini Rozovsky, 23, a yeshiva student who lost a friend in the crush. “The issue of who is responsible at the moment is not on my mind.”
The separate-not-separate status of the Haredim is an enduring controversy in Israel. For decades, governments from across the political spectrum have accorded the community autonomy in exchange for their leaders’ support in parliament and subsidized a lifestyle that favors Torah study over employment in the commercial sector. Although increasing numbers of the ultra-Orthodox are taking jobs in secular businesses — including Haredi women working in the tech sector — they’re still vastly underrepresented in the workforce. Haredim are among the country’s largest recipients of public welfare.
Bilu, the anthropologist, said their ability to negotiate both support and independence from the government has led to a “golden age” for communities that were historically persecuted in Europe and almost wiped out by the Holocaust.
“They have adapted so well,” he said. “The phenomenon that Haredi men do not work would be impossible without the state.”
Mourners walk through a cemetery in Petah Tikva on Friday.
Anti-Haredi resentment has grown among other Israelis. Polls show many view the community as aloof, sexist and even anti-patriotic. Some Haredim, who see the Zionist project of a Jewish homeland as a violation of God’s will, refuse to participate in civic tributes, such as standing for the air-raid sirens on Israel’s Memorial Day. A scene in the popular ultra-Orthodox television series “Shtisel” portrays Haredi schoolboys being told to ignore a ceremonial flyover of Israel jets.
The Israeli military said Saturday it was investigating reports that some of the Haredi crowd at Mount Meron physically and verbally attacked female soldiers who rushed to help with rescue efforts.
No politician in recent years has been more identified with kowtowing to the sects than Netanyahu, who is fighting to assemble a new government with the support of Haredi parties. Israel’s two-year political stalemate began in part when his coalition fractured over attempts to weaken the Haredim’s military draft exemption, which Netanyahu has blocked.
Most recently, the prime minister was lambasted for not enforcing pandemic restrictions in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, which were among the most resistant to limits on gatherings and suffered some of the highest infection rates.
To many, the failure to limit the size of the Mount Meron festival, the country’s largest gathering since coronavirus restrictions have begun to lift, was a further example of this cynical deference.
Earlier in April, Netanyahu told representatives from United Torah Judaism, an ultra-Orthodox political party that pushed for free worship at the festival, that there would be no limit on the number of participants at this year’s gathering, according to accounts widely reported in Israeli media at the time.
A senior police official, speaking to the Maariv newspaper on the condition of anonymity, said that whatever police failures may be revealed, the lack of oversight can be traced to much higher levels of government.
“For years there have been events with hundreds of thousands of participants at Meron, and other than saying ‘May God protect them,’ nothing has been done,” the official is quoted as saying. “No decision-maker has even tried to pass a bill or a measure to require organizers of an event like this to obtain a police permit, no one has moved to limit the number of participants or the number of people permitted to enter the site.”
Shira Rubin in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.