A Nation Mourns an Unprecedented Tragedy
Life goes on, but nothing will ever be the same.
It is time for me to write my weekly column, but I cannot tear my thoughts away from the tragedy of Meron 5781, which will be seared into our hearts for eternity. This was the deadliest civilian tragedy in the history of the State of Israel. There was a military tragedy with a much higher death toll on February 4, 1997, when two air force helicopters collided while they were transporting combat soldiers to a military operation, killing 74 young men. Unfortunately, there have been many other disasters that resulted in civilian deaths, but this is the largest number of civilian deaths in any event in Israeli history.
As I write this, we are still in the middle of the shiva for the Meron victims, and I am still reeling from the funerals that I attended. I was personally acquainted with some of the niftarim. But what can I write? What is there for me to say? We can all see that the middas hadin has been directed at the entire world over the past year, and our community hasn’t escaped its effects. And now 45 men and children were killed at Meron in a shocking and terrifying way, crushed and suffocated to death. The pictures and videos from the scene flooded the media, and the pain and heartache are too horrific to bear.
The prime minister declared this a period of national mourning. The government might institute a national day of remembrance for the tragedy as well. To be honest, the secular government has a different set of values and ideas than traditional Judaism. It is correct for the government to announce a day of mourning, to lower all the flags on government buildings throughout the country and on all Israeli embassies to half-mast, and to issue public statements of grief on behalf of the prime minister and the president. However, as religious Jews, we have different ways of engaging in a cheshbon hanefesh and pleading with our Father in Heaven for mercy.
The Police Were Warned
This was a tragedy that was foreseen. We are now discovering that many people tried to alert the authorities to the danger in advance, warning that the area was too small to hold such a large number of people. These warnings came over the past few years. After every Lag Ba’Omer—except last year, when the crowds were barred from Meron because of the pandemic—there have been probes conducted after the hillula to determine what sort of mistakes were made. These investigations were performed by the police, the Ministry of Transportation, the Center for Holy Sites, the various emergency services organizations, and even the Knesset. Every year, the Knesset Interior Committee (which oversees the police) would review the events of Lag Ba’Omer in Meron in order to identify improvements that could be made for the future. In some years, a special subcommittee was formed to focus exclusively on the Lag Ba’Omer event.
After the tragedy last week, it was reported that an Israeli journalist warned about this precise scenario three years ago. “The narrow exit path from the lighting area creates a bottleneck that poses a genuine danger of people being crushed. It should be forbidden to hold a bonfire there,” he wrote at the time. The staff of the Center for Holy Sites have also raised the alarm every year about the inadequate safety measures at the site.
Today, someone sent me a video of a session of the Knesset Interior Committee in 2013, when the chairman of the Meron subcommittee, MK Dovid Tzur (a former police superintendent) related that there was “chaos” at the site and that the visitors’ lives were in danger, but insisted that he wasn’t interested in finding anyone to blame. “I am not looking to hang people in the town square; I am interested in preparing for the future,” he said. Of course, it was the police themselves who were to blame; Tzur didn’t want to point any fingers in their direction because he considered himself one of them. I was present at the committee session (not that I remember it, but this is what the video shows), and I demanded, “Why shouldn’t you identify the people at fault?” Tzur threatened to eject me from the room, but I didn’t back down. “Why not find the people who are to blame? What if they are still in their positions next year as well?” I pressed. And Tzur shouted at me again.
Nevertheless, I feel that none of us—myself or anyone else involved with the government—have much reason for pride. Had we done our jobs faithfully, we wouldn’t have let the issue of safety at Meron go unaddressed. I can justify my own inaction, at least, on the grounds that I am not very familiar with Meron at all. I have been at Meron on Lag Ba’Omer only once in my entire life—two years ago—and even then, I wasn’t able to make it to the tziyun itself.
We have also learned that there were some people who warned of the danger on Lag Ba’Omer itself, mere hours before the tragedy. One of those people was Yossi Deitsch, a member of the Yerushalayim municipality, who was jostled by a large crowd in the exact spot where the disaster occurred later that night. Deitsch warned the police that the visitors were in danger, but his warnings fell on deaf ears.
Avi Mimran, a journalist who spent the entire night broadcasting from a studio in Meron, related that he and Yosef Schwinger, the director of the Center for Holy Sites, warned the police that disaster was imminent. They couldn’t have predicted what would actually happen, but from their vantage point on a balcony, where they stood along with several police officials, they were able to see the chaos that was unfolding in the area. I am certain that all of this will be thoroughly investigated.
Callous Headlines in Israeli Newspapers
One of the most infuriating aspects of this catastrophe is the fact that even before the blood of the victims had dried, the secular media began pointing accusing fingers at the chareidi politicians. Take The Marker, the economic newspaper published by the Haaretz group, which some would consider borderline anti-Semitic. The Marker’s story about the disaster in Meron ran under a headline that blamed the deaths at Meron on the personal interests of Netanyahu, Deri, and Litzman. “Over a decade of warnings, state comptroller’s reports, and passing the buck ended with a catastrophe that everyone knew was bound to occur sooner or later,” the writers fulminated. “The Netanyahu government avoided a conflict with the chareidi activists and the interested parties who have taken over Mount Meron, some of them with public funding. The state hesitated to act on its plan to nationalize the site. And what happened to the millions of shekels that the government pumped into the entities that managed it? This event was approved every year in the hope that nothing would happen until the following year.”
This paragraph mixes together many different issues to create a veritable indictment of “the chareidim,” but it does not stand up to scrutiny. What does this have to do with Netanyahu? What is the connection to Deri and Litzman? And what are the “millions of shekels” to which they are referring? This is nothing but a compilation of cheap, baseless slander. For instance, while the newspaper laments the failure to place Meron under state control and remove it from the hands of the private parties who manage it, the chareidi politicians actually supported this initiative. The idea also received the support of the Center for Holy Sites and of Rav Shmuel Rabinovich, who is responsible for the site on behalf of the Vaadat Hachamishah (a group of five hekdeshim that control Meron). But every effort to remove control from the groups that dominated the site and to place it under the government’s jurisdiction was unsuccessful, due to stiff opposition from certain chareidi elements.
There is one criticism that might be leveled against the chareidi politicians—for the fact that they pressured the government and the police to open Meron to the public without restrictions. That is true, but they weren’t resisting an effort to avert the type of tragedy that happened; the government’s objections to crowding in Meron were due to the Covid pandemic. The Ministry of Health wanted Meron to be closed to the public again this year, and all the chareidi politicians and leaders of the chassidish communities objected to this demand, arguing that there was no logic in closing Meron while 200,000 Muslims are permitted to crowd onto Har Habayis every Friday. The government and the Health Ministry ultimately gave in, but their decision also related only to the danger of the coronavirus.
The safety measures that were needed to prevent dangerous crowding were entirely within the purview of the police, who are responsible for examining the conditions at the site and issuing all the requisite permits for events to be held. The police are the sole arbiters of safety at Meron, and their instructions are diligently carried out every year by the staff of the Center for Holy Sites.
This isn’t the time to point fingers, and my intent isn’t to blame the police for the tragedy. My purpose here is only to silence the voices that are busy faulting the chareidi politicians.
Anti-Semitic Reactions to the Disaster
There is another point that I feel compelled to mention here. This disaster revealed the beautiful face of the Jewish community in Eretz Yisroel. The vast majority of Israeli Jews came together to show solidarity with the grieving chareidi community. The Tel Aviv municipal building was lit up in the shape of an Israeli flag to show solidarity with the victims of the tragedy, and thousands of people gathered in Rabin Square to express their grief. Most of the media gave voice to the profound sorrow that held the country in its grip, chiloni public figures released sympathetic statements, and people spanning the entire spectrum of society, including chilonim, offered assistance to the injured and the families of the victims.
Someone alerted me to a series of comments written by the readers of Vesti, a Russian-language newspaper that is a subsidiary of Yediot Acharonot. I read these loathsome comments with growing revulsion. One person wrote that he was sorry about the tragedy but that it was only to be expected, since religious zeal can transform an ordinary crowd into “a veritable horde of beasts.” Another person wrote, “Look at this picture; it’s a cloud of black locusts!” Even more appalling was a third commenter’s callous reaction: “To be honest, I am not sorry. In fact, it’s too bad that there only four dozen [fatalities] and not thousands. That would be a lesson to them!” And a fourth commenter wrote, “Who cares? They were peyotnikim [a Russian term for Jews with peyos] and not normal people.”
Anti-Semitism in the State of Israel, from people who were brought here by the Israeli government. Israel has brought this unfathomable hatred upon itself.
I showed the comments to someone who speaks Russian, and he confirmed that the translations were correct. He also told me that he had argued with several Russian chilonim who had made similar remarks to him that very morning. An hour later, he called back to tell me that Vesti had erased the anti-Semitic responses and had closed the article to further comments.
Candles in the Knesset
The Knesset often mirrors the Israeli secular public, and the country’s grief over the tragedy in Meron reached the Knesset as well. The three flags at the building’s entrance were lowered to half-mast as a sign of mourning, and the Knesset speaker also lit a memorial candle in a designated area. Inside the building, 45 memorial candles had been placed on a table, to be lit by anyone who desired to do so. An additional large candle had also been positioned nearby.
On Monday, the Knesset held a special sitting to discuss the tragedy. There are different formats for a Knesset session, and this one was to be a “personal” sitting, meaning that all the Knesset members and government ministers would be permitted to speak.
An internal e-mail was circulated by the Knesset Sergeant-at-Arms (a position that is the equivalent of a major general in the army or the commissioner of the police force), quoting the Knesset medical clinic, which serves the members of the Knesset and its employees. The clinic staff wrote: “Employees of the Knesset, members of the Knesset Guard, and honored Knesset members, in light of the tragedy on Mount Meron, we invite you to come together and donate blood for the victims of the tragedy. The blood drive will be held tomorrow on the floor containing the party offices, between the hours of 11:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. The drive will be conducted by personnel from Magen David Adom. May we see healthier and happier days.”
At Mincha in the Knesset Sunday, the mood was somber. Everyone was grief-stricken, and there were two people in the Knesset who were actually mourning the loss of family members. One was MK Yisroel Eichler, whose brother-in-law, Rabbi Chanoch Slod of the Gerrer community in Ashdod, had been killed in Meron. Eichler spent many hours in the Abu Kabir Forensic Institute on Friday in order to ensure that the body would be released for burial before Shabbos. In addition, Mrs. Rivka Zaivald, one of the most talented employees of the computer company that is located in the Knesset building and provides services for the Knesset, is sitting shiva for her brother, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Rubin of Beit Shemesh, who was another of the Meron victims. A large sign was posted at the entrance to the building expressing condolences to Mrs. Zaivald and her family on her brother’s tragic death.
Will Netanyahu Agree to Be President?
I don’t have much to say about the political situation. First of all, the tragedy in Meron seems to have brought all political dealings in Israel to a halt. Nevertheless, the deadline for Netanyahu to assemble a government is only two days away. I have no way to predict what will happen two days from now. There is some speculation that Netanyahu will ask for an extension, and that the president might even agree to it. The law indeed provides such an option. Others believe, however, that the president will reject that request and will transfer the mandate to Naftoli Bennett or Yair Lapid, who are still squabbling over which of them should get to make the next attempt.
Netanyahu doesn’t have many options at this point. He can assemble a majority only with the support of Mansour Abbas, but Betzalel Smotrich is completely opposed to that course of action. His other option is to step aside and announce that someone else in the Likud will serve as prime minister. This would essentially force Bennett and Saar to join the coalition, since they would have no way to justify their refusal to do so. This would leave room for speculation as to Netanyahu’s plans for the future. Would he plan to return to the office of prime minister in another year or so, or would he allow Bennett or Saar to take over? And if Netanyahu himself plans to return to office, will Bennett and Saar agree to it?
There is one more possibility that has been discussed: Netanyahu can become the next president of Israel. Reuven Rivlin is completing his term in the coming days, and the law requires the next president to be elected now. If Netanyahu agrees to become president instead of prime minister, and someone else in the Likud takes his place as the country’s premier, the political deadlock might be finally resolved.
A recent furor arose over the decision of a French court to cancel the trial of Kobili Traore for the murder of Sarah Halimi. The court confirmed that the crime was anti-Semitic in nature (in fact, the murderer screamed anti-Jewish slogans in Arabic) but decided that the defendant wasn’t mentally competent at the time of his crime. The trial was called off, sparking widespread outrage. Tens of thousands of Jews demonstrated against the ruling, both in Paris and in Israel. Mrs. Halimi’s family members have announced their intention to bring charges against the murderer in an Israeli court.
President Macron of France insisted that the court must explain itself. Meyer Habib, a Jewish member of the French parliament who has been supporting the family since Mrs. Halimi’s death, said in response, “We feel tremendous frustration, bewilderment, and simple anger…. The judges have indirectly given a license to kill.”
Rav Yisroel Meir Lau’s reaction may have garnered the most publicity of all. “I was appalled by the decision of the highest court in France that this lowly murderer should not stand trial,” he announced. “Our Torah is a Torah of life, and Chazal understood the ramifications of these things when they said that anyone who has mercy on the cruel will ultimately be cruel to the merciful. A genuine judge must take a firm stand against evil, out of compassion for the victims.” Rabbi Lau called on the French court to reconsider its decision.
Life and Death Are Only in the Hands of Hashem
Here in Israel, b’chasdei Shomayim, the coronavirus pandemic is nearly behind us. We are now exempt from wearing masks in outdoor areas, and most people are not bothering with masks even in closed spaces. In a sign that Israel truly feels that the pandemic has been sealed out of its borders, the Ministry of Health announced this week that Israelis will be banned from traveling from Israel to seven countries that are being hard hit by the coronavirus. (I have to admit, though, that I do not understand how they can institute such a ban. I can understand that the government might prohibit people, even Israeli citizens, from entering Israel from those countries, but how can they prevent people from leaving Israel to travel there?)
Last week, Rav Chaim Kanievsky and Rav Gershon Edelstein issued an open letter calling on the public to show gratitude to Hashem for the miracles that our country has witnessed. The two rabbonim urged the public to strengthen themselves in learning Torah and in other areas of Jewish observance. “Everyone knows the afflictions of his own heart,” they added.
I once read an incredible story that the Klausenberger Rebbe shared in his weekly shiur on Chumash: Rav Mordechai of Nadvorna, one of the famed tzaddikim of recent generations, used to distribute portions of his leftover kugel from Pesach on Sukkos. Even though the kugel had become moldy and green, he would share it with people who were suffering from stomach ailments, and it would serve to heal their conditions. The Klausenberger Rebbe added that a previous Sanzer Rebbe had once told a man who was suffering from a heart condition to drink a cup of black coffee, which was considered at the time to have a detrimental effect on the heart, and had promised him that he would be cured. Sure enough, the ailing man drank the coffee and was healed. When the story reached another person who suffered from the same condition, he decided to replicate the Sanzer Rebbe’s “cure” for himself and proceeded to drink black coffee as well. In his case, however, his condition took a turn for the worse, and he was hovering on the brink of death. The man’s family members hurried to inform the Sanzer Rebbe of the incident, and he became irate. “How could you give black coffee to a man with a heart condition?” he demanded. They begged him to daven for the patient to recover, and the Rebbe replied, “Very well. Have him drink some black coffee, and he will be healed.” Sure enough, the man was given another drink of coffee and recovered immediately from his illness.
The moral of the story is clear: Neither the coronavirus nor a cup of coffee can be the real cause of a person’s death, just as no vaccine or beverage is truly the power that heals. Only Hashem controls whether a person will live or die.
A South American Siyum
This week, dozens of yungerleit formerly from South America traveled from Yerushalayim to Rav Chaim Kanievsky’s home to celebrate their siyum on Maseches Sanhedrin, which they have been learning with great intensity for the past three years. The poignant siyum took place in Rav Chaim’s home, and I was invited by my neighbor, a rosh kollel and outstanding tzaddik by the name of Rav Dovid Alter, to attend. It was a deeply moving experience.
The yungerleit from Kollel Ohel Shimon were dressed in their Yom Tov finery. Many were accompanied by children who will certainly remember the experience for years to come, and by parents who had come to Eretz Yisroel and were visiting the home of the gadol hador for the first time in their lives. The siyum was conducted by the rosh kollel, Rav Dovid Alter. The yungerleit were treated to a l’chayim with wine brought specifically for this purpose, and received a brocha from Rav Chaim.
Kollel Ohel Shimon serves a large community of Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking immigrants from South America. Most of the yungerleit hail from traditional families and studied in public schools during their childhoods. Rav Dovid Alter, who is the spiritual leader of several communities in South America, has been working for years to influence the members of this community and to attract them to the world of Torah learning. Most of the yungerleit in the kollel are products of his efforts, and some of the former members of the kollel have gone on to become marbitzei Torah in South America and Eretz Yisroel.
The kollel was the brainchild of Rav Yisroel Kleiner, the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Beit Hakerem, who recognized Rav Dovid Alter’s capabilities. Six years ago, Rav Alter opened an additional branch of the kollel in the Kiryat Herzog neighborhood of Bnei Brak, which now serves a group of about 40 yungeleit. Under his leadership, Ohel Shimon also operates chessed organizations to assist the yungeleit’s families and distributes various products to needy yungerleit. The kollel is located in the Prushim shul in the neighborhood of Givat Shaul in Yerushalayim. Maseches Sanhedrin was the eighth masechta learned by the kollel, which maintains a rigorous program of intensive, in-depth learning. Some of the yungeleit’s parents, who visited Israel specifically for the occasion, attested that it was the first time they had ever attended a siyum or had the privilege of seeing Rav Chaim Kanievsky.