CENTER FIELD: Mourn the hikers, don’t imprison their guides

I don’t want to see the leaders of the mechina jailed or the mechina closed.

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May 1, 2018 22:22
4 minute read.
CENTER FIELD: Mourn the hikers, don’t imprison their guides

A HELICOPTER searches for hikers who died in a flash flood.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

We’re all reading the names again and again, looking at those pictures again and again, going over that devastating story again and again. You want to imagine it away, wishing you could conjure a different scenario. You find yourself bargaining like Abraham with God around Sodom: a flash flood hits teen hikers and they’re bruised but survive – or only one is killed or two or five… but 10? Ten beautiful kids. Ten of our best, most idealistic, most patriotic, most thoughtful – for what? It’s so heartbreaking, it’s such a waste, and many fear it was preventable.

When your family includes a 21-year-old son who completed mechina two years ago, a 17-year-old – some of whose friends were invited to that hike – and a 16-year-old you hope will go to mechina, the emotions overwhelm, the eyes cloud with tears, easily, repeatedly.

There are 54 mechinot, pre-military leadership academies which define their mission as “not only to help young Israelis prepare for meaningful army service but to train leaders for civil society after the army.” These attract highly-motivated idealists who willingly “lose” a year – meaning they get no college or army credit – to gain life-enhancing experiences, skills, values, friends.

Every life is precious – any 10 kids wiped out would be horrific. Still, the mismatch between the programs’ life-affirming visions and the unhappy ending intensifies the collective anguish.

I deviate from the national consensus in one dramatic way: I don’t want to see the leaders of the mechina jailed or the mechina closed. Criminalizing a misjudgment for which these educators are already being punished by living this nightmare would waste state resources.

Imprisoning them would validate a primitive search for revenge that will never be satisfied. It will only result in justice denied – and even more loss.

Every mechina I know is rough around the edges. The educators – who are exceptional types, really committed to teaching – facilitate character building through toughening-up, pioneer-style.

They free kids from their suffocating, plastic-wrapped suburban life. That old-fashioned, devil-may-care pioneering spirit is often the secret to many of their triumphs – and is now under assault following this tragedy.

I won’t judge any of the parents. Their pain is unfathomable, whatever their reactions are, it’s understandable. But the rest of us, and especially the authorities, should be more balanced, more mature.

Right now, the romantic ideals that many young Israelis find so appealing in these programs are under assault from our brains’ most-developed and least-developed parts. The bureaucratic mind assumes we can regulate away future tragedies, just as the scientific mind seeks a germ-free, risk-free world where we can forever be prolonging life while improving quality of life. But underlying these hyper-sophisticated, control-oriented impulses I hear more primal cries for revenge.

This reaction is characteristically human but rarely noble. If rather than accepting this flash flood as a natural disaster we can find scapegoats for the mass drownings, we exorcise the ever-menacing demons of chaos and restore our illusion that we can control more things than we can, keep more order than the world allows.

Of course, every educator’s prime directive is Safety First: protect the body before addressing the mind. The safety culture at my summer camp, Tel Yehudah, was so intense we rarely used the Delaware River, despite overlooking it.

The first time I took 50 teenagers on an overnight hike, and realized I at 21 was responsible for their lives, was a maturing moment. It was a truly awesome feeling, “combining,” my dictionary notes, “dread, veneration, and wonder that is inspired by authority or by the sacred or sublime.” You don’t mess around. You act as you will when you’re a parent – treating the kids as your own flesh and blood.

Twenty years later, I remember voting, while chairing Montreal’s Birthright Israel Task Force, to send participants to Israel days after Hamas murdered 21 people at Tel Aviv’s Dolphinarium.

I knew if terrorists attacked us, I’d be blamed. To demonstrate my faith in Birthright’s safety procedures, I cleared my schedule immediately and accompanied the trip.

Those responsible for this tragedy should resign immediately. Their life’s work lies in ruins. But why jail them – or bankrupt them with crushing legal fees after under-paying them their entire careers? And why waste resources by going legal? The state, the Council of Mechinot, and every mechina should clarify whether a better weather-warning system can help – and fix whatever safety procedures possible. But take the money that will be burned in legal fights and invest it in safety training and in perpetuating those Israeli, Jewish, and Zionist values those 10 newly-arrived angels in heaven wanted to embrace in the coming year.

Tzur Alfi was a heroic young man who held on to a rock and let his friends climb over him to safety – until the waters swept him away. “We have no anger, only love,” his father said. “We embrace all the group from this precious program. Condolences to all the program, we aren’t angry at anyone.

Continue hiking and being good.”

We all wish these good people some healing. And, indeed, the best memorial to these good kids lost so tragically is to continue doing what they loved to do – and were looking forward to doing next year. I, for one, would send my 17-yearold to Bnei Zion next year – if he weren’t enrolled in another mechina already.

The writer is the author of The Zionist Ideas, which updates Arthur Hertzberg’s classic work and was just published by The Jewish Publication Society. He is a Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University. Follow on Twitter @GilTroy. www.giltroy.com.


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