First came the tragedy, then the search for whom to blame.
Days after deadly pressure killed 45 people at a religious festival in northern Israel, many are now asking who is to blame.
The Israeli government’s oversight body has said it will launch an investigation into the silence of a Jewish religious festival on Mount Meron, in which the victims are mostly ultra-Orthodox men and children. Yet some, including activists from the ultra-Orthodox community, are also calling on the ultra-Orthodox to consider their own role in the tragedy.
“This is a call to rethink what we have not done right,” said Yehoshua Pfeffer, founder of the Tzarich Iyun Journal and an ultra-Orthodox rabbi in Jerusalem. “It’s not about the leadership, it’s about us as a community, as a society, because the main opinions, the prevailing thinking of the society will be reflected by the leadership.”
Following the pressure, Israeli politicians and the media questioned whether the government and police were willing to limit the number of people at the festival to avoid the wrath of ultra-Orthodox leaders. Some have pointed to the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose political survival depends on ultra-Orthodox political parties to allow the community to evade state regulations.
“A functioning government could prevent the terrible disaster on Mount Meron. Everyone knew, “opposition politician Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party wrote on Twitter on Monday, calling for a state investigation into the press.
The ultra-Orthodox parties formed a key voting bloc in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, and were part of Netanyahu’s narrow coalition government until last March’s elections. Although he himself is not ultra-Orthodox, he relies on the support of these parties to stay in power.
Netanyahu’s mandate to form a government expires at midnight on Tuesday, but it remains unclear whether opposition parties can form a government.
Despite their main position in government, ultra-Orthodox communities remain isolated and removed from mainstream Israeli society. The neighborhoods are often divided, most do not serve in the Israeli Defense Forces, and many men dedicate their day to scripture study rather than paid work.
This division and the huge sums that ultra-Orthodox communities receive as state aid have caused high levels of discontent in Israeli mass society.
The silence comes after faith in ultra-Orthodox leaders has already been undermined by the pandemic. According to an IDI survey of ultra-Orthodox men between the ages of 18 and 30, nearly 40 percent say their trust in ultra-Orthodox parties has been “damaged” or “severely damaged.”
This deteriorating trust and demands from the streets have led ultra-Orthodox politicians to advocate for positions supported by their communities, such as fewer restrictions on the coronavirus, according to Malach.
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“The fact is that politicians are not really perceived as leaders,” Pfeffer said. “In the end, they are set to sound on Haredi Street. Why were the Haredi politicians so found that the road to Meron would be wide open and everyone could go? The reason they were so tense about it was that they knew what the constituency actually expected of them. “
Still, over the past five days, the focus of many ultra-Orthodox has been firmly on victims and their families as funerals take place. Rabbis and spiritual leaders emphasize the need to pray and accept that this was God’s will, for better or worse.
“People are devastated and depressed, everyone knows someone, and even if they don’t know someone who has died, they know someone who has been injured,” said Pnina Pfeiffer, chief executive of New Haredim, an umbrella organization for ultra-Orthodox activists who want to see a change in the community. “So many people were affected and traumatized.”
Six US citizens and two legal permanent residents are among the victims. Every year on Lag BaOmer, tens of thousands of people – most of them ultra-Orthodox Jews – flock to Mount Meron to mark the anniversary of the death of an ancient Jewish rabbi and light fires as part of the celebrations.
Thursday night was the first mass religious gathering held legally since Israel lifted almost all restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic.
In 2020, the ultra-Orthodox, known in Israel as Haredim, made up about 12.6 percent of the total population, and that share should reach 16 percent of the population by 2030, according to the Israel Trust for Democracy think tank.
And despite the scale and political power of the ultra-Orthodox, the community still feels separated from the state of Israel.
“There is a lot of suspicion about the state government,” said Gilad Malah, director of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox program at IDI. “The community sees the government as a foreign body, not as our government.”
State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman said on Monday that he would investigate the actions of all groups leading to and during the festival, as well as the area’s maintenance over the years and whether previous omissions had been rectified. He said he would also seek to come up with a strategy to deal with large-scale religious events to “prevent a recurrence of this kind of tragedy”.
Although there are voices like Pfeffer and Pfeuffer who encourage the ultra-Orthodox to separate less from Israeli society, they are marginalized, according to Malach.
“There are more people who feel this way than if you compare yourself to this 10 years ago, and there is a chance that the phenomenon of being a modern super-glorious will grow and lead to a change in society. But these are still the first steps, “Malah said.
For the more modern ultra-Orthodox who are ready to speak, this particular moment – after the large number of coronavirus deaths among the group, the criticism it received for non-compliance, and the disaster in Meron – is just the time for the community to seek its own. a place in the wider society, Pfeffer said.
“Once Haredi’s society becomes so large in number and so influential on a political, social and economic level, then the ‘they and we’ mentality must be abolished and replaced by the ‘we and we’ mentality,” he said. “We are too committed and integrated, whether we like it or not, in Israeli society for the ‘they and we’ mentality to be effective.”
Reuters contributed to this report.