Let’s begin at the beginning: Israel is a theocracy. Not a democracy. To be more precise, it is an ethno-theocracy, in which a single religion enjoys supremacy over others; and that religion controls dominant levers of social and political state power. This may seem somewhat afield from the post title, but bear with me.
Every Lag B’Omer, over 100,000 Haredim gather on Har Meron outside Tzfat (Safed) to commemorate the death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. He was an ancient mystic sage, and reputed author of the seminal Kabbalistic text, the Zohar. Bonfires are lit on the surrounding hills and they gather in multitudes to pray for the great rabbi’s soul.
As with many other world religious pilgrimage ceremonies, there is great danger when hundreds of thousands or millions of human beings crowd into a limited space. There have been such stampedes before at Hindu sites and the Kabaa in Mecca, where far more have died than the 45 who lost their lives this week.
My purpose with this post is not to blame the victims, nor is it to savage the Haredim in general. I’m making a broader point.
This article points out that the site of the Lag B’Omer ritual is under the “extra-territorial” control of the Haredim themselves. Though there were 5,000 police officers present, they don’t see themselves as responsible for safety on site. They don’t control the hundreds of buses filled with pilgrims which arrive from across the country. There were no monitors, either Haredi or police, at or near the ill-fated passageway in which the victims lost their lives.
This tragedy points to a key contradiction at the heart of Israeli society: it is a state based on an irreversible contradiction. It claims to be a secular western democracy; and it claims to be a Jewish state. At one time the idea of a state based on religion may have seemed resolvable as long as the latter was defined as other western societies do. In a multi-ethnic society, different religions can only co-exist with tolerance and mutual respect. When these competing religions clash or when one religion claims supremacy over the state, then society comes apart at the seams.
Over the past decades, Israel has lost whatever small amount of such tolerance ever existed. The state has been hijacked by a particularly intolerant, virulent, exclusivist, and supremacist brand of Judaism. Personally, I prefer not even calling this Judaism. I distinguish between this pagan cult by calling it Judeanism, since it is entirely alien from the religion that most Diaspora Jews and even a significant minority of Israeli Jews) recognize.
Further, the numbers of religious and secular Jews is almost equal. Yet major elements of the country’s social life are controlled by the Orthodox: birth, death, marriage and divorce, among others. This marks a fundamental violation of democratic principles and essentially disenfranchises secular Jews, who are forced to concede to the authority of the Orthodox in matters vital to life and death. This division is exacerbated when rabbinical leaders voice hateful statements about non-Orthodox forms of Jewish worship.
The tragedy at Har Meron was terrible, but almost inevitable given the compromise Israeli leaders like Ben Gurion forged at the establishment of the state. When religion and state are co-equal, then chaos results. No one is in control. In this case, the state ceded whatever authority it had, assuming religious authorities would exercise their authority responsibly. But they absconded from theirs and this was the result.
The normally reliably pro-Israel Times of Israel even published a report saying that many Haredi Jews themselves have come to agree with at least part of my assessment. Neither TOI nor Haredim of course acknowledge the more far-reaching parts of my analysis, but at least they do regarding the disaster itself. And that is something.
There is talk of establishing a national committee of inquiry to probe the incident and determine lessons from it. Netanyahu has not yet agreed, but he is desperate to avoid responsibility as he flounders trying to create a new government. In fact, he has exploited the tragedy for his own political advantage by asking the president to extend his mandate to form a governing coalition by another two weeks. It seems likely he will come to accept the commission as a suitable way to spread the blame over as many entities as possible.
But it remains unclear whether the report will point to what seems an almost inevitable fact: the Haredim have proven incapable of policing this event. Responsibility must be ceded to civil authorities. If the former will not do so, then it must be wrenched from their hands. Hands that have proven unwilling or unable to provide the safety that is demanded.
The failure to ensure safe conditions only points to the failures of the Jewish-democratic conception of Israel. A continuing refusal to act on these lessons after such a catastrophe will only underline the ongoing tragedy that the modern state of Israel has become.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.