First there was the tragedy and then the search for who to blame.
Days after a deadly stampede resulted in the deaths of 45 people on a religious holiday in northern Israel, many are now wondering who is at fault.
The Israeli government watchdog said it would open an investigation into the stampede at a Jewish religious holiday on Mount Meron, in which the victims were mostly ultra-Orthodox men and children. Yet some, including activists inside the ultra-Orthodox community, are calling on the ultra-Orthodox to also look at their own role in the tragedy.
“It’s a call to rethink what we haven’t done well,” said Yehoshua Pfeffer, founding editor of the Tzarich Iyun Journal and ultra-Orthodox rabbi in Jerusalem. “It’s not about leadership, it’s about us as a community, as a society, because it’s the underlying beliefs, the dominant mindset of the society that is going to be reflected by the leadership. “
Since the stampede, Israeli politicians and media have questioned whether the government and police are willing to limit the number of people present at the festival to avoid angering ultra-Orthodox leaders. Some have pointed to the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose political survival depends on ultra-Orthodox political parties, for allowing the community to evade state regulations.
“A functioning government could have prevented the terrible catastrophe of Mount Meron. Everyone knew that, ”opposition politician Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party wrote on Twitter on Monday, who also called for a state investigation into the stampede.
Ultra-Orthodox parties are a crucial electoral bloc in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, and were part of Netanyahu’s narrow coalition government until the elections last March. Although not ultra-Orthodox himself, he relies on the support of these parties to stay in power.
Netanyahu’s mandate to form a government expires at midnight Tuesday, but it remains unclear whether opposition parties could form a government.
Despite their central position in government, ultra-Orthodox communities remain separate and estranged from mainstream Israeli society. Neighborhoods are often separate, most do not serve in the Israel Defense Forces, and many men spend their days learning the scriptures rather than paid work.
This separation, and the enormous sums ultra-Orthodox communities receive in the form of state aid, has caused strong resentment in mainstream Israeli society.
The stampede comes after faith in ultra-Orthodox leaders had already been eroded by the pandemic. According to an IDI survey of ultra-Orthodox men between the ages of 18 and 30, nearly 40% said their trust in ultra-Orthodox parties had been “damaged” or “to a large extent.”
This deterioration in trust and demands from the streets has led ultra-Orthodox politicians to step up their advocacy for positions supported by their communities, like fewer restrictions on coronaviruses, according to Malach.
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“The point is, politicians aren’t really seen as leaders,” Pfeffer said. “At the end of the day, they’re listening to the voice on Haredi Street. Why were the Haredi politicians so determined that Meron’s road would be wide open and anyone could go? The reason they were so determined to do this was because they knew this is what their constituency expected of them.
Yet for the past five days, the attention of many ultra-Orthodox has been firmly focused on the victims and their families as the funerals proceed. Rabbis and spiritual leaders emphasized the need to pray and accept that it was God’s will, for better or for worse.
“People are overwhelmed and depressed, everyone knows someone, and even though they don’t know someone who is dead, they know someone who has been injured,” 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 have been touched and traumatized.”
Six U.S. citizens and two lawful permanent residents were among the victims. Every year on the feast of Lag BaOmer, tens of thousands – mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews – flock to Mount Meron to mark the anniversary of the death of a former Jewish rabbi. and to light bonfires as part of the celebrations.
Thursday night’s event was the first mass religious gathering to be held legally since Israel lifted nearly all restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic.
In 2020, the ultra-Orthodox, known in Israel as the Haredim, made up about 12.6% of the total population and that proportion is expected to rise to 16% of the population by 2030, according to the think tank of the Israel Democracy Institute.
Yet despite the size and political power of the ultra-Orthodox, the community still sees itself as separate from the State of Israel.
“There is great suspicion about the state government,” said Gilad Malach, director of the ultra-Orthodox Israel program at IDI. “The community sees the government as a foreign body and not as our government.”
State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman said on Monday he would investigate the actions of all groups before and during the festival, as well as the maintenance of the area over the years and whether previous failings had been corrected. He said he would also aim to come up with a strategy to deal with large-scale religious events to “prevent a recurrence of this kind of tragedy.”
While there are voices, like Pfeffer and Pfeuffer, who encourage ultra-Orthodox to separate themselves less from Israeli society, they are on the fringes, according to Malach.
“There are more people feeling 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 about a change in society. But these are always the first steps, ”said Malach.
For the more modern ultra-Orthodox who are ready to speak out, this particular moment – after the high number of coronavirus deaths in the group, the criticisms leveled at it for not complying with regulations and the Meron disaster – is precisely the moment for the community to seek its place in the society at large, said Pfeffer.
“Once Haredi society becomes so large in numbers and so influential politically, socially and economically, the ‘them and us’ mentality must crumble and be replaced by an ‘us and us’ mentality,” he said. he declares. “We are too entangled and integrated, whether we like it or not, in Israeli society for a ‘them and us’ mentality to be effective.”
Reuters contributed to this report.