A recent disaster has raised, once again, the question if individual negligence somehow accompanies the personal and collective initiatives, creativity, and successes that Israelis have demonstrative over more than 70 years.
What links them is the prominence of individualism, or individual initiative. It appears in the best and worst of this society. At the low end, among individuals who ignore the rules and/or the sense that is common, and insist that they know best.
Or maybe it's simple sloppiness, that appears among individuals in every society.
After several weekends of coping with massed Gazans on or over the edge of violence, the country has been obsessed with the deaths of teenagers, seemingly caused by the negligence of an upper status pre-army program. The disaster also reflected one of the country's natural attractions: spectacular desert canyons (wadis) that present challenging experiences of hiking, climbing, and descending along with impressive beauty, but marked by occasional and predictable flash floods likely to be deadly for anyone who has ignored media warnings.
Bodies were found badly battered as far as eight kilometers from the point where they were swept away.
In contrast to previous Fridays' news about problems alongside Gaza, this Friday's news was about funerals, and the thousands who attended.
It was a case of adults overlooking several days' warnings about heavy rain and flash floods, and leading a group of teenagers on a hike likely to be dangerous.
A Knesset Member provided a decent balance of sentiment as the disaster was becoming apparent. Today, he said, was a time of mourning and compassion directed at all involved. Tomorrow will be the time to identify who is responsible and hold them accountable.
Given Israel's practice in such matters, the MK's conception of tomorrow could stretch on for some time.
It was apparent early in the coverage that the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Defense, and program personnel were doing what they could to pass the buck. The organization involved was not a school subject to the Ministry of Education, but a program of pre-military preparation, supported financially but not controlled by the Ministries of Education and Defense. It is one of several that provides a year of studying national history, community service, and challenging experiences such as hiking through a wadi that involves difficult terrain in the best of circumstances.
Among the problems in assigning responsibility in this case is that some of the participants were students in regular high schools who were joining the pre-army group to see if they would like to participate in the program after graduation. This detail may enroll the Ministry of Education in the list of those held accountable.
Such tragedies of ignoring well publicized warnings about the dangers of predicted flash floods, join warnings about dehydration that are ignored by tourists who do not take enough water into the desert during normal weather. The present case was unusual in the number of people killed and the organizations that may be held responsible.
Other examples of Israeli negligence occur with parents who forget about babies or infants in closed cars.
Those deaths from heat and dehydration are more common among Jews than Arabs. More common among Arabs, and especially Bedouin, are deaths of infants crawling near the home, and backed over by the family car.
A common response of authorities to deaths by being forgotten or deaths by negligent backing is to avoid prosecution on the grounds that the tragedy itself is ample punishment for the parents involved.
More challenging for law enforcement will be the recent case where professional personnel of an up scale organization, as well as two government ministries, appear to have been negligent.
In this case, moreover, those killed were highly motivated young people, at least some of them from families well endowed with education, money, and connections. Parents were quick to express themselves about the need to enforce accountability, and seem likely to challenge the well known attorneys already engaged by those being accused of negligence.
One of those lawyers is talking about an act of a Higher Power, for which no one can be held responsible. Another said that one purpose of the pre-army program is to teach young people how to cope and to improvise in the face of difficult circumstances.
We've seen text messages sent by some of the young people who were killed, indicating their concern about flood warnings, and saying that their guides had assured them that appropriate safeguards were being followed.
Any discussion of national morality in such matters should also note that numerous Israelis volunteer for difficult and dangerous work to help others. Prominent in the cases of dangers in the desert are the cadres, mostly of people living in desert kibbutzim and other communities who are on call to rescue those who wander beyond their capacity to help themselves, are reported missing, or are caught in the catastrophe of a flash flood. Helicopter pilots of the air force and police fly searches in narrow canyons, while police and emergency medical personnel risk their own lives to locate and extract those in trouble or their bodies.
Absent from Israeli culture is the norm apparent in Japanese history that an individual responsible for disaster should take the honorable route of suicide.
Israel scores #143 on the World Health Organization's statistics for suicides per 100,000 population in a recent year, while Japan is #26 and the US #48.
Suicide as a form of atonement is said to have declined in Japan. A friend wrote, "More frequently, the person in authority resigns, accompanied by deep, long bows and apologies, sometimes tears of contrition."
Characteristic of Israel, apparent early on in this instance, is employment of high profile attorneys, a precise reading of law and regulations by those seeking to avoid responsibility, and the deliberate procedures of police, prosecutors, and judges. Current dealing with high profile politicians accused of corruption suggest that we may be with last week's tragedy for months or years.
It's hard to judge the amorphous links between irresponsibility with respect to a desert wadi likely to be the scene of a flash flood, and cases of parental negligence resulting in child deaths.
Could the failure to follow obvious common sense be part of Israeli individualism and resistance to authority, which also has something to do with personal creativity and community success?
Occasional disasters due to individuals thinking they know better, and negligence in the face of what should be well known dangers, may be the unpleasant other side of what the Jews do well.
Perhaps we can't have one without the other.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Hebrew University of Jerusalem