Meron tragedy underscores dangerous divisions in Israel - opinion

Haredim cannot be expected to respect secular culture. Secular people, meanwhile, cannot be expected to respect the haredi way.

PEOPLE CELEBRATE the lighting of a bonfire  on Mount Meron during Lag Ba’omer last month. (photo credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)
PEOPLE CELEBRATE the lighting of a bonfire on Mount Meron during Lag Ba’omer last month.
(photo credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)
 Last week’s Lag Ba’omer disaster is a heartbreaking event that cannot fail to move any decent person contemplating the lives and dreams cruelly cut short. But there is also dishonesty in the narrative that presents it as an all-Israeli tragedy that has brought the country together. 
It is true that Arab-Israelis in the Galilee participated in the rescue effort on Mount Meron and Tel Avivians donated blood. But such welcome solidarity should not obscure the fact that the secular part of Israel feels less kinship toward the 45 victims than the country’s earnest media rather piously suggests.
The perhaps shocking truth should be faced because it contains more than a hint of a percolating cultural war driven by more mutual antipathy than a society can contain without imploding.
It derives not from ignorant “phobias,” but rather a head-on civilizational disagreement yielding nearly maximal disrespect of each other’s lifestyles and beliefs. Such conflict cannot be papered over with platitudes or easily resolved through listening and compromise, though these things will be needed alongside honesty and focus.
People cannot reasonably be expected to respect and acquiesce to everything. The principled have red lines.
Haredim (ultra-Orthodox), who believe in the literal truth of ancient Jewish teachings and truly desire religion to dominate their lives, cannot be expected to respect secular culture. And increasingly many make no pretense about viewing secular culture (from Ancient Greece to the Enlightenment to contemporary empiricism and liberal democracy) as an “empty cart” worthy mostly of disdain.
Secular people, meanwhile, cannot truly be expected to respect the haredi way. Liberals among them face the classic paradox of how to confront illiberalism.
They cannot be expected to respect a way of life that encourages all adult men to study religion all their lives and expect to receive stipends from the taxpayer rather than pay tuition. They cannot be expected to respect gender dogma that bars women from haredi parties’ Knesset lists and in some cases from singing in public or sharing common spaces on a bus (and the list goes on, with strong haredi support).
Secular people cannot be expected to respect (and happily fund) an educational system that in most cases refuses to teach high schoolers math, science and English, and thus renders them unemployable in a modern economy (indeed, male haredim have an abysmal workforce participation rate of under 50%, and many of the employed occupy make-work positions in a vast, state-funded rabbinical apparatus).
Secular people cannot be expected to respect the argument that religious study should forever excuse the student from the military service which is imposed on non-haredi Jews. That the haredi vote is almost totally right-wing – and thus blocks peace efforts with the Palestinians – makes this position unendurably hypocritical to many.
Secular people cannot be expected to forever accept the “status quo” with the haredim which denies civil marriage (for secular people of any religion or none) and commerce and public transportation on the Shabbat.
Then there is the issue that normally dare not speak its name: a haredi birthrate that has few equals on the planet (7.1 children per woman on average) in part enabled by taxpayer-provided child subsidies. This means that the haredi population – currently at 12% of the nearly 10 million people – doubles itself every 16 years, four times the rate of all other groups. As the haredi attrition rate is minimal, Israel is marching toward a haredi majority in a few generations, whereupon the house of cards will collapse.
This genuine conflict came into relief during the pandemic year in which a considerable part of haredi society made clear its preference for the word of rabbis over government guidelines, resulting in widespread ignoring of school closings and bans on gatherings (which adversely affected wider society and contributed to one of the highest infection rates in the world). They were not the only violators – but few others were obeying a proclaimed alternative power structure.
Which brings us to the foreseeable Meron tragedy. Civil authorities warned as early as 2008 that the tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was not suitable the masses that descend upon it every Lag Ba’omer. The governments of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu acquiesced to haredi insistences because they depend on the haredi parties politically. Indeed, secular authorities allow all manner of rules-ignoring demanded by haredi apparatchiks, generally to the detriment of haredi citizens foremost; they simply do not care, essentially, about the other.
In such a catastrophic context, did we really have a national coming together in the wake of the disaster?
THERE IS a problematic idea that lies behind the notion of a “national” tragedy. Seasonal rains in Yemen killed at least 13 people roughly at the same time as the Meron disaster – but Israelis are expected to care more about tragedy at home. Is that expectation logical or ethical? Is it imperative? I cannot say, but it’s certainly human to care most about those closest to you – provided that they genuinely are close.
Last Friday, a day after the disaster, a Jewish colleague in the US texted me to console and inquire how I was. I told him I was at a wedding, and he replied: “Sad day for a wedding.” I had to admit the issue had not come up at the event.
I conducted a thought exercise, asking a non-trivial and broad sampling of secular Israelis what scenario would make them saddest: the Mount Meron disaster or the trampling of 45 people at a Mecca Hajj stampede, a US MAGA rally or a European soccer stadium disaster. Not one person chose Meron.
This is not a small problem. It should be a wake-up call that things cannot continue as they are. Israelis of all stripes should keep in mind the biblical truism that you reap what you sow.
The writer is the former Cairo-based Middle East editor and London-based Europe/Africa editor of the Associated Press. He is also the managing partner of the New York-based communications firm Thunder11. Follow him on Twitter: @perry_dan.