The Israeli cabinet voted on Sunday to set up a commission of inquiry to investigate April’s disaster at Mount Meron, in which 45 people were crushed to death during the traditional celebration of the Lag Ba’omer holiday. But even if the commission’s final report won’t be published for a long time yet, its most important conclusion is already clear.
That conclusion – the dearth of ultra-Orthodox leadership – is evident from the very fact that the commission is being established only now, by a new government that doesn’t include the ultra-Orthodox parties.
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Haredi lawmakers have consistently and vehemently objected to establishing such a commission. The blood of the 45 people killed in Israel’s worst-ever civilian disaster – almost all of them ultra-Orthodox – evidently wasn’t sufficiently heart-rending.
They preferred to minimize the risk to themselves by preventing a report that would expose the flawed conduct of politicians and hacks, and especially the degree of influence ultra-Orthodox representatives had over professional agencies like the police and local governments. This is one of the factors that led to the event being held even though warnings of impending disaster were heard from every side.
The ultra-Orthodox politicians’ opposition to investigating the deaths of so many people isn’t unusual. On the contrary, it reflects the current ultra-Orthodox leadership’s warped attitude toward its voters. Elected officials are concerned mainly with themselves – with winning another term and not rocking the boat. They are less concerned with the real needs of the Haredi public and taking steps that might, for instance, help it to escape poverty.
This system has worked wonderfully for ultra-Orthodox politicians for years. Nobody has ever managed to take their power and positions away from them or other ultra-Orthodox power brokers.
And ultra-Orthodox voters? Most of them, with the best of intentions, will vote for ultra-Orthodox parties in any case, as commanded by their rabbis. These voters have no alternatives, and for the most part, they lack even a public platform from which to voice criticism.
But the disaster at Mount Meron created a new situation in broad swaths of the ultra-Orthodox community. Their politicians’ unwillingness to treat the disaster with the gravity it deserves and to look for ways to prevent a recurrence caused significant sections of ultra-Orthodox society to realize that there was a severe failure here.
The battle to set up an inquiry commission actually came from within the ultra-Orthodox community and was led by community opinion leaders, primarily journalists. They are the ones who, day after day, made sure to bring up the unfairness of the efforts to thwart the commission’s establishment.
These journalists all work for mainstream ultra-Orthodox media outlets. And they are the ones who made the bereaved families’ voices heard and stressed the moral imperative of setting up an inquiry commission for them.
This campaign was actually effective, which is unprecedented. In the process, it also exposed the clear divide between the Haredi community and its politicians. The two don’t always have identical interests.
And this time, even the ultra-Orthodox community realized that just as in that narrow passageway at Mount Meron where the disaster occurred, it’s not always a good idea to close ranks.