David Horovitz: Fire alarm [pg. 24]

"My mum told me to go to building sites and ask them politely for any spare wood," one of my son's pre-teen friends chirped to me on Lag Ba'omer. "She said they'd be so surprised that I was asking, rather than just taking, that they'd give me stuff. And she was right. They did." So at least there's one impressionable Israeli youngster who got something backhandedly positive out of the Jewish calendar's most abused festival: Since so many other people this time of year are grabbing everything flammable without any thought as to who may actually own it, the unusual expedient of maintaining a degree of honesty and courtesy pays dividends. Israel's Bonfire Night - marking the Bar-Kochba revolt against Rome, or the end of the plague that wiped out thousands of Rabbi Akiva's pupils, or the death of the Kabbalist Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yohai, or whatever it is we can't quite agree we're recalling and plainly don't much care - has deteriorated into a national disgrace, an orgy of theft and pyromania. Sure, there are many who feed their fires with wood legitimately acquired, celebrate with gentle singing, dancing and camaraderie, and conscientiously clean up after themselves. But the scarred morning-after national landscape is shameful proof of how many don't: blackened debris on every open lot, parks strewn with litter, smoke still rising from innumerable undoused bonfires, all topped off with the pervasive scent of arson. At some bonfire zones on Monday night peopled by youngsters far too immature to be out fanning flames unsupervised, it seemed as though parents had essentially abandoned parenting - dropping off their children at the fire place and then forgetting about them, from evening through to the small hours. Free to risk their own wellbeing and that of their friends, they cast everything that came to hand into the mouth of the fire god, flammable or not - plastic bottles, mini-fireworks, Formicacovered old kitchen cupboards. At one site, marauding kids demanded of the youngsters in situ that they hand over some of their wood. At another, a child of maybe 12 walked from bonfire to bonfire, waving an old gasoline container, raising shoots of flame; his friends were gleefully twirling wooden batons within inches of each other's hair. Lighted wooden batons. Incredibly, first thing Tuesday, a friend of ours saw youngsters who had evidently been burning all through the night, and had finally run out of combustible objects, now attempting to set fire to a line of metal shopping trolleys. In all, the fire services had to put out more than 1,000 dangerous fires nationwide, and one fireman was smashed in the face by "celebrants" in Petah Tikva for his trouble. Magen David Adom reported 278 calls related to burns and other bonfire injuries, with two people in serious condition the following morning. Lag Ba'omer - the festival of robbery, irresponsibility, wanton destruction and environmental disregard. And of behavioral norms that all too plainly insinuate themselves, like the foul odor of all those unnecessary pyres, into our ever-more selfish and violent everyday interactions.