The Meron Tragedy and Israel’s Autonomous Communities

Forty-five people attending a festival to celebrate the holiday of Lag b’Omer at the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai on Mt. Meron were crushed to death last weekend, in a catastrophic but totally predictable stampede which – one official of a first-responders group said – had only been prevented by annual miracles. This year there was no miracle. The facilities at the site were woefully inadequate to support even a tenth of the 100,000 people that showed up, an agreement to limit the number was ignored due to political pressure, and what had been predicted occurred.

The site had not been improved over the years despite many reports from various bodies including the police and the mevaker hamedina, an independent official who oversees the operations of the government and reports to the Knesset, which is required by law to respond and if needed, act on them.

Why has nothing been done? Because the site, which is officially under control of the government, in practice “belongs” to several Haredi [“ultra-Orthodox”] sects, who object to changes proposed by any of the others, and even more to outsiders telling them what they can do. They have depended on the protection of Hashem, based on the principle that nothing bad can happen to someone who is in the process of performing a mitzvah, an idea which ignores the fact that Hashem gave his human creations brains and expects them to be used.

The authorities, who recently forced an acquaintance of mine to stop using his tiny (and licensed) ham radio transceiver on a deserted beach for “safety reasons,” do not dare interfere with Haredi events. This is a particular case of the partly unwritten principle of Haredi autonomy: although they live in the State of Israel, Haredi communities are not in practice subject to the same laws or expectations as secular, traditional, or national-religious Jews.

At the time of the founding of the State of Israel, in order to obtain the support of the observant community, Ben Gurion and other secular Zionists found it necessary to promise them certain things, such as rabbinical control of family law, observance of Shabbat and Kashrut in all official functions, and freedom to determine the content of their school curricula, as long as certain secular subjects were included.

As time passed, the official “status quo” between secular and observant Israelis grew to include draft exemptions for Torah students, and government funding for educational systems outside of the state system. At the same time, there developed an unofficial hands-off attitude toward the Haredim. Haredi schools reduced or eliminated instruction in secular subjects such as English and Mathematics, in violation of the status quo. Laws to limit exemptions from military or other national service could not be enforced. Tax evasion is common in Haredi communities. During the Covid epidemic, Haredi schools and yeshivot were opened in defiance of the regulations when other schools were closed. Rules established by the Ministry of Health were widely flouted, with high-profile weddings and funerals attended by thousands of tightly-packed people.

Video of such events, while police were harassing non-Haredim for walking maskless in the park, created a great deal of animosity toward Haredim, especially among those whose memories of massive traffic jams caused by Haredi anti-draft demonstrations were fresh. The political interference with the extradition of Malka Leifer to face sex abuse charges in Australia was another flashpoint. It doesn’t matter that the small extremist faction that blocked traffic, or the particular Hasidic group that counts both Malka Leifer and perennial government minister Ya’akov Litzman as a member, do not represent all Haredim; anti-Haredi feeling is widespread.

The other side of the coin is that Haredi communities distrust and disrespect the state. Some are explicitly anti-Zionist, but even those that aren’t believe that “Torah law” – which is whatever their rabbi says it is – overrides the laws of the State of Israel. They believe that secular and non-Haredi religious Jews have no right to criticize them in any way, and in some cases consider such criticism “antisemitic.” They relate to the State of Israel the way their great-grandfathers related to the Tsar or the Porte.

The problem is that the “status quo” has developed into a complete autonomy, a mini-state into which the organs of the larger state don’t reach. The Haredi political parties have been in almost every Israeli government, and they often hold the balance of power. Police and other officials don’t even try to enforce laws when they know they will be countermanded (and possibly punished) by the political connections of the communities.

Haredi leaders have demanded more and more autonomy, and have received it, both officially and in practice. But this disaster has illustrated that it has gone too far. After the deaths, many blamed the police. But it’s clear that the police cannot be blamed for failing to protect people when there are laws for that very purpose that they are prevented from enforcing. Some Haredi rabbis and politicians are beginning to understand this.

The Haredi autonomy is not the only one in the country. Arab citizens of Israel also live in an autonomy that is in many ways similar. They have been granted an exemption from the draft and national service. There is rampant tax evasion in Arab towns. During the epidemic, they persisted in holding large weddings. Today they are suffering from a wave of violent organized crime which has placed law-abiding citizens in fear for their lives. Every week sees new murders. They too, blame the police, which is ironic since – like the Haredim – they previously preferred to keep the police as far away as possible.

There is yet another autonomous group in Israel, and that is the Bedouin tribes of southern Israel. They too have experienced an increase in criminal behavior which has been ignored by the state; but unlike the Arab villages of the North, their banditry victimizes the Jewish residents of the area.

These problems have been shoved under the rug by successive governments, for various reasons. In the case of the Haredim, it’s a combination of factors. The most important, of course, is the political power wielded by this community, which represents about 12% of the population; as well as the mistrust, and dare I say it, dislike on both sides.

The Arab and Bedouin communities have never fully cooperated with the Jewish authorities, and law enforcement is difficult without cooperation. As long as the crime stays within the community, it’s tempting for police officials to concentrate their effort elsewhere. That, however, is wrong, as well as stupid, because the crime will not stay in the communities where it starts.

Israel is not a large country and it can’t afford have several autonomous enclaves that don’t consider themselves part of the state. The lack of respect for the laws made by the national government is corrosive. It wouldn’t hurt to pay more attention to the reports of the mevaker hamedina, and ensure that problems in law enforcement as well as in the allocation of all kinds of resources are dealt with in a reasonable time.

To some extent, Israel is like Russia, a country where everything is illegal but laws are enforced selectively.  The psychological and political issues, for both Arabs and Haredim, are difficult. I don’t know how to change their deeply alienated mindsets, or if it’s possible. But I think the first thing that has to change is that the laws must be enforced, fairly, on all citizens.

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