There are no silver linings, hidden blessings, or gifts from God in the Mount Meron catastrophe. Forty-five lives have been lost unnecessarily. Hundreds of people, including heroic first responders, have been needlessly injured and traumatized. But as we share stories of the camp friend whose brother died, the close friend whose co-worker lost a son, and the long-lost friend whose cousin the singer with six children died, we are reminded of how interconnected we all are and how much we care about one another. Even though it wasn’t just ultra-Orthodox people who were trampled in the awful stampede, this is stamped as an ultra-Orthodox tragedy.
But let’s face it: the Hareidim are us. They are part of our people, our vast international and multi-millennial network called the Jewish people. It’s why they drive us crazy on many days. It’s why so many of us were particularly charmed by Shtisel. And it’s why we mourned with them in a national day of mourning on Sunday – and are still reeling.
So, no, don’t weep for “them” one day – and curse “them” the next: “they” are us. Don’t humanize “them” when they die and dehumanize “them” because of how they live: “they” are us. Don’t delight in “them” on television and denounce “them” on the street: “they” are us. And don’t embrace “them” as fellow citizens when “they” are being buried tragically but resent “them” when “they” vote democratically: “they” are us.
This does not mean, of course, that Hareidim at this moment – or any other moment – are beyond criticism, individually or collectively. I have often criticized their anti-Zionist rabbis who dominate what should be Zionist religious courts (or should actually, democratically, be privatized, no longer boosted by the state). I have often criticized their resistance to teaching their children basic math, civics, and other core subjects while repeatedly endorsing a draft – or at least national service – for all eighteen-year-olds from all sectors, including Torah scholars. I have also often criticized those Hareidim who see themselves as above the law, be it when it comes to respecting police officers, Covid rules, or safety regulations. And, I assume that a thorough investigation will reveal at least some Hareidi politicians and power brokers who bullied health officials and security experts seeking to put some crowd limits on the Lag Ba’omer festivities. But I have always tried not to stereotype, over-generalize, or demonize hundreds of thousands of fellow Jews – and fellow Israelis.
Moreover, beyond having close friends from that world, I admire many elements of the ultra-Orthodox lifestyle. The sense of tradition and piety, the family values and love of learning, the Torah passion and sense of community, are all impressive – and worth adapting if not actually replicating. And it is that sifting process, that ability to see good and bad, to bless and criticize, that’s an essential first-step to tolerance, periodic partnership and, ultimately, unity.
It shouldn’t take violence or tragedy to unite us – but it’s a common phenomenon. When watching the DSA today- the Divided States of America – it’s hard to remember how profoundly united Americans felt a mere twenty years ago on September 11, when al Qaeda mass murderers attacked. Similarly, in Israel, when Hamas terrorists kidnapped and killed Naftali Frenkel, Gilad Shaer, and Eyal Yifrah in 2014, we all rallied as one – not defining them as “religious” or “settlers” but as “our boys.” And almost exactly twenty years ago – on June 1, 2001 – when a Hamas suicide bomber slaughtered so many Russian teens in the Dolphinarium massacre, many Russian olim for the first time felt truly Israeli, finally, properly embraced by the Israeli public.
Perhaps this horrific moment can become that kind of turning point for Hareidi integration into Israeli society. But it will only happen with leadership. We need a leader with vision and a sense of responsibility. The vision of Israeli and Jewish unity must be far-seeing enough to see past the cheap, easy, political points you can score by indulging some fellow citizens – and demonizing others, and by demonizing some types of Jews while neglecting others. Unfortunately, Twitterdumb and anti-social media today – typos made purposefully – encourage pettiness, fragmentation and sectorial politics, not the generosity of spirit required to compromise and cultivate consensus.
And we are now seeing what a culture of irresponsibility looks like – and often produces. Accidents happen in life; but mass tragedies like this often take great effort, with many people and key politicians failing to do their jobs.
A month ago, on Yom Hashoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day — mourning our traditional powerlessness against evil forces, we asked “what’s wrong with them,” meaning those who continue to hate us. In the 32 days before Lag Ba’omer, as we once again mourned our powerlessness against nature – remembering the plague that killed Rabbi Akiva’s students – we asked “what’s wrong with the world,” wondering how life can turn dangerous in a flash. In the future, as we mourn this Mount Meron tragedy, we will have to acknowledge that we are now in the driver’s seat and ask “what’s wrong with us?”
And as we probe with humility and insight, we will ask another set of deeply Zionist questions: we have a state; we have power – now, what do we do with them? How do we wield our power wisely, intelligently, so our state serves as a model democracy, not another model of how dysfunctional democracies appear to be today?
Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” Gil Troy is the author of the newly-released The Zionist Ideas , an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society and a 2019 National Jewish Book Award Finalist.. A Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University,and the author of nine books on American History, his book, Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, co-authored with Natan Sharansky was just published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.