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After Israel stampede, some ultra-Orthodox are looking at their role in the tragedy

"It's a call for rethinking what is it that we didn't do right," said Yehoshua Pfeffer, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi in Jerusalem.
Image: Lag Ba'omer stampede
Israeli security officials and rescuers carry an ultra-Orthodox man who was injured during a festival on Mount Meron in northern Israel on Friday.AP

First came the tragedy, then a search for whom to blame.

Days after a deadly stampede resulted in the deaths of 45 people at a religious festival in northern Israel, many are asking who is at fault.

Israel's government watchdog has said it will investigate the stampede at a Jewish religious festival on Mount Meron, in which most of the victims were ultra-Orthodox men and children. Yet some, including activists inside the ultra-Orthodox community, are calling for the ultra-Orthodox to look at their own role in the tragedy, as well.

"It's a call for rethinking what is it that we didn't do right," said an ultra-Orthodox rabbi in Jerusalem, Yehoshua Pfeffer, the founding editor of the journal Tzarich Iyun. "It's not about the leadership. It's about us as a community, as a society, because it's the underlying opinions, the prevailing mindset of the society, that is going to be reflected by the leadership."

Since the stampede, Israeli politicians and the media have questioned whether the government and police were unwilling to limit the number of people at the festival to avoid angering ultra-Orthodox leaders. Some have pointed fingers at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government, whose political survival depends on ultra-Orthodox political parties, for enabling the community to evade state regulations.

"A functioning government could have prevented the terrible disaster on Mount Meron. Everyone knew," opposition politician Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party, who called for a state inquiry, wrote Monday on Twitter.

Ultra-Orthodox parties, which are a crucial voting bloc in the Knesset, Israel's Parliament, were part of Netanyahu's narrow coalition government until the election in March. Although he is not ultra-Orthodox, he relies on the parties' support to remain in power.

Netanyahu's mandate to form a government expires at midnight Tuesday. It remains unclear whether opposition parties could form a government.

Despite their pivotal position in the government, ultra-Orthodox communities remain separate and removed from mainstream Israeli society. Neighborhoods are often segregated, most members don't serve in the Israel Defense Forces, and many men dedicate their days to learning scripture rather than paid work.

The separation and the vast sums the ultra-Orthodox communities get in state aid have caused high levels of resentment in mainstream society.

God's will?

Faith in ultra-Orthodox leaders had already been eroded by the coronavirus pandemic. In a survey by the Israel Democracy Institute, or IDI, nearly 40 percent of ultra-Orthodox men ages 18 to 30 said their trust in ultra-Orthodox parties had been "harmed" or "harmed to a great extent."

The deterioration of trust and demands from the street led ultra-Orthodox politicians to up their advocacy for positions supported by their communities, like fewer coronavirus restrictions, said Gilad Malach, director of the IDI's ultra-Orthodox in Israel program.

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Pfeffer said: "The fact is that politicians aren't really seen as leaders. Ultimately they are attuned to the voice on the Haredi street. Why is it that the Haredi politicians were so intent that the road to Meron would be wide open and everyone would be able to go? The reason they were so intent on this is that they knew that's what their constituency actually expects from them."

The ultra-Orthodox are known in Israel as Haredim.

Still, over the last five days, the focus of many ultra-Orthodox has been firmly on the victims and their families as burials took place. Rabbis and spiritual leaders have emphasized the need for prayer and acceptance that the incident was God's will, for better or worse.

"People are overwhelmed and depressed. Everyone knows someone, and even if they don't know someone who died, they know someone who was wounded," said Pnina Pfeuffer, CEO of New Haredim, an umbrella organization for ultra-Orthodox activists who want to see change in the community. "So many people were affected and traumatized."

Six U.S. citizens and two legal permanent residents were among the victims. Every year on the holiday of Lag BaOmer, tens of thousands of people — most of them ultra-Orthodox Jews — throng to Mount Meron to mark the anniversary of the death of an ancient Jewish rabbi and to light bonfires as part of the celebrations.

Thursday night's event was the first mass religious gathering to have been held legally since Israel lifted nearly all restrictions related to the pandemic.

Last year, the ultra-Orthodox made up around 12.6 percent of the total population, and the proportion is set to reach 16 percent by 2030, according to the IDI.

Image: The site of a stampede at a religious festival in northern Israel
The site of a stampede early Friday at a religious festival in northern Israel near the reputed tomb of an ancient Talmudic sage, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.Jack Guez / AFP - Getty Images

Yet despite its size and political power, the community sees itself as separate from the state of Israel.

"There is a great suspicion of the state government," Malach said. "The community looks to the government as a foreign body and not as our government."

State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman said Monday that he would investigate the actions of all groups leading up to and during the festival, as well as the area's upkeep over the years and whether previous failings had been dealt with. He said he would also seek a strategy to handle large-scale religious events to "prevent a repeat of this kind of tragedy."

Although there those, like Pfeffer and Pfeuffer, who encourage the ultra-Orthodox to separate themselves less from Israeli society, they are on the margins, Malach said

"There are more people who feel like this than if you compare to 10 years ago, and there is a chance that the phenomenon of being modern ultra-Orthodox will grow and bring change in society. But it's still the first steps," Malach said.

For the more modern ultra-Orthodox who are willing to speak out, this moment — after the high number of coronavirus deaths among the group, the criticism it came under for not adhering to regulations and the Meron disaster — is precisely the time for the community to look at its place in wider society, Pfeffer said.

"Once Haredi society becomes so big numerically and so influential on a political, social and economic level, then the 'them and us' mentality needs to fall away and be replaced by an 'us and us' mentality," he said. "We are too enmeshed and integrated, whether we like it or not, into Israeli society for a 'them and us' mentality to be effective."