TOWERING SOLITARILY above its surroundings, Mount Tzin may well have been the place from which Abraham and Lot surveyed the Sodom Valley before sending their quarreling shepherds in opposite directions.
The fire and brimstone that later befell Sodom produced what now is a moonscape of whitish hilltops, waterless creeks, and scorching heat where volleyball-sized rocks strewn at Mt. Tzin’s foothills were once – according to Beduin tradition – the heads of sinful people whose town God laid to waste.
Not only is this region notoriously arid, it is one of Israel’s most remote corners ever since the Tel Aviv-Eilat road migrated 25 km west of here, to Route 40. Finally, as if to validate its biblical curse, the area became associated with a 1954 terror attack in which 12 bus passengers were murdered at the Maale Akravim serpentines, 10 km north of Mt Tzin.
This, then, is the foreboding setting in which, on April 26, Israel faced its worst-ever naturally driven disaster, when ten teenagers were whisked to their deaths by a flash flood that spotlighted not only this extraordinary geography but also the uniquely Israeli institution of the pre-military academy, and the equally unique Israeli attitude toward responsibility.
Yalek River flooding / Video by Mark Katz, courtesy of the Israeli Nature and Parks Authority
WITH SUMMERTIME temperatures averaging 40 degrees Celsius and frequently exceeding 45 degrees, aridity in the Sodom area is such that an entire year can elapse with hardly one drop of rain.
Even so, water does sometimes erupt between the bronzy canyon’s walls, creating a contrast of the sort visible in Chile’s Atacama Desert, whose desolation is stoically overlooked by eternally snow-capped peaks, or in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert, where snowflakes land gently on sand dunes after having been carried hundreds of miles by Siberian winds.
In Israel’s two deserts – the Judean and the Negev – the wet world’s visitations are neither stoic nor soft, but a celebration of gush, cacophony, and violence, which, if approached properly, makes for a breathtaking scene, but if approached improperly becomes a deadly misadventure.
The 19 high-school seniors and six pre-military academy students and staffers who arrived in the Tzafit Creek, a series of boulders, clefts, and dry waterfalls some 25 kilometers northeast of Mt. Tzin, were led there improperly, in disregard of forecasts that warned of the calamity that awaited them.
With heavy rains falling that Thursday along the Judean and Negev ridges to their south and north, two-thirds of the group were on the creek’s opposite slopes when a roaring tide descended from the summits
to their west carrying with it rocks, thorn bushes, tree trunks, and soon enough also the main part of the group, those trapped within the creek’s walls where a raging river now burst forth.
Several managed to hold on to branches and somehow climb back to safety, but most were pulled into the merciless current.
IDF, police, and Red Magen David rescue teams arrived quickly, sending divers into the creek, medics to canvass its slopes, and six helicopters to scan the stream. By dusk they retrieved nine bodies, and a tenth the following day.
In a country where tornadoes, typhoons, and tsunamis never happen, flash floods are the most dangerous natural disaster, if one sets aside the wildfires that do plague the country, but are generally manmade, most memorably the 2010 Carmel Mountain fire that took 44 lives.
The flash flood is not man-made. Caused by dramatic drops in elevation from Israel’s central mountains to the Dead Sea Rift, which is the lowest place on earth; and accelerated by the desert’s dry soil, which refuses to swallow the outpour – flash floods are part of the Promised Land’s nature, as echoed in the Psalmist’s plea that God bring redemption as rapidly as “watercourses in the Negev.”
What is man-made is the human encounter with the flash flood, whose Israeli locations are invariably devoid of human settlement, but whose spectacle is a major attraction for nature lovers.
When done properly, visiting a flash flood means choosing an observation point close enough to a creek’s terminus, where the flow is fiercest, but also high enough above its riverbed, where the water cannot reach. That is not what happened on April 26.
“ENTRY INTO all the footpaths in the creeks where floods are suspected is strictly forbidden,” warned the Nature and Parks Authority on the eve of the hike, following weather forecasts that “floods might occur in the low places.”
The Tel Aviv-based pre-military academy Bnai Zion allegedly disregarded this order, and went ahead with a scheduled hike for the class that is planned to join it next fall.
Reportedly, academy instructor and hike leader Aviv Berdichev chose to relocate the hike from the originally planned Tzin Creek, rather than altogether cancel.
Now under house arrest along with Bnai Zion director Yuval Kahn, Berditchev’s rationale is a matter of speculation at this writing, but one thing is obvious: Had he led his group safely to a location atop the flood, he would have inspired them with one of nature’s most exotic scenes.
Better yet, such an experience would have served Bnai Zion’s and all other pre-military academies’ broader quest to equip their graduates with a value system and skill set that are priceless for youngsters seeking a meaningful military service.
The values include patriotic love for the wilderness, an aim that would surely be served by the sight of a flash flood that, perhaps more effectively than anything else, demonstrates how surprising the Land of Israel can be, and how rewarding patience with its seemingly unpleasant parts can prove.
As for the skill set pre-military academies nurture, it includes the resolve to accomplish assignments even in the face of changing circumstances, in line with the veteran IDF aim of dvekut ba-mesima, meaning “devotion to the mission.” In this case the mission was to hike.
Indeed, the Tzafit Creek disaster has brought the pre-military academies to the awareness of an Israeli public that is largely unfamiliar with the unique framework that evolved from below, and became an incubator of elite soldiers with a sense of moral conviction, patriotic commitment, and social duty.
THE PRE-MILITARY academies, or mechinot, were born 30 years ago to serve one part of Israeli society, but soon morphed into something much more varied, colorful and far-reaching.
It started with several observant officers’ conclusion from their own military service that if only given some preparation before enlisting, modern-Orthodox youths can become leaders in the IDF. They therefore set up the Bnai David Academy of Eli, offering a curriculum that mixed hiking, jogging and workouts with lectures, workshops, and social volunteering. Demand soared, and over the next three decades thousands of Eli’s graduates became combat officers.
Eli’s success was soon emulated by secular officers, who thought demand for what Eli offered should exceed the religious circles that pioneered it.
Three decades on, there are 52 pre-military academies including ones sponsored by secular kibbutzim, one affiliated with the Reform movement, and some designed for ultra-Orthodox youths.
Blending the buzz and thrill of college campuses and summer camps, and enrolling annually some 2,700 students – less than one-tenth of the IDF’s (undisclosed) annual crop of conscripts – the academies attract idealists prepared to delay their enlistment by a year.
As they vary ideologically, the academies also vary in their programs, with some emphasizing physical training and others stressing humanistic studies and self-expression.
All, however, invite public figures to speak about everything that troubles Israeli society, and all send their students to do social volunteering like tutoring in schools, visiting oldage homes, or working with disenfranchised teenagers. This alone added up to a potent engine of social commitment. Yet most academies also deliver an entirely new gospel, by defying the religious-secular divide into which their students were born.
Most academies, including Bnai Zion, welcome men and women, both religious and secular, and deliberately mix the intellectual baggage they bring. Thus, during a visit to the academy in Natur, this writer saw on its students’ desks an eclectic literary forestation ranging from Maimonides, Herzl, and Spinoza to Hemingway, Agnon, and Freud.
Towering above this cultivation of curiosity, pluralism, idealism, and unorthodoxy is the supreme educational aim to teach what could have prevented the Tzafit disaster: responsibility.
RESPONSIBILITY IS taught by the pre-military academies not through abstract lectures, but by letting students manage much of what happens in the academies, from requisitioning food and inviting speakers to planning day trips and leading hikes.
Such foretastes of responsibility are priceless for aspiring commanders in the IDF, which educates its officers to initiate and to lead from the front, in the spirit of its veteran slogan “Follow me.”
The hike in Tzafit was unusual, as its participants only planned to enroll next year and were therefore led by Bnai Zion’s staffers, which only aggravates the question it raised: What happened to their sense of responsibility, and what does it mean about the broader Israeli psyche? The first question will be answered after the legal process currently underway ends.
The second can be probed already now.
Responsibility has two sides: daring before action, accountability after it.
Israeli history is checkered with impressive examples of the daring side, and bad ones of the accountability side: On the one hand, daring decisions like Ben-Gurion’s to declare independence in 1948, or Levi Eshkol’s to wage war in 1967; on the other hand, flights from responsibility like Moshe Dayan’s following the 1973 war, or more recently Arye Deri, Moshe Katsav, and Ehud Olmert’s refusals to assume responsibility for the misjudgments that landed them in jail.
In that disturbing spirit, the morning after the flash flood Education Ministry and Defense Ministry officials claimed the hike’s prevention was the other agency’s responsibility.
Watching this bickering, Israeli media counted more cases of managerial negligence, like the 1997 collapse of a pedestrian bridge during the Maccabiah Games, which cost four lives; the 2001 Versailles wedding hall collapse where 23 were killed; or the 2016 parking lot collapse on Tel Aviv’s Habarzel St. that killed six construction workers.
Many cited in this context Yitzhak Rabin’s warning in a speech to IDF colonels in 1992 that the Israeli phrase, yihye be’seder, “it’ll be fine,” actually “conceals what is not fine: unwarranted conceit and overconfidence.”
While this insight pertained to common Israelis, Rabin also defied Israeli leaders’ troubled relationship with accountability, by resigning from the premiership in 1977, due to his wife’s violation of currency laws.
Ironically, the secular pre-military academies emerged as a response to Rabin’s assassination.
Fittingly, their response to the disaster that befell them is as humble as his legacy instructs.
“A pall has befallen my world,” said Yuval Kahn, Bnai Zion’s founder and director, and also a reservist lieutenant-colonel, who said he intends to meet with each of the bereaving families. “I cannot find words of sorrow and consolation to express what I feel,” he added, before announcing his resignation and stating, as if speaking from Rabin’s mouth: “This harsh disaster happened under my responsibility.”