A stampede at a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) religious festival in Israel last week resulted in 45 deaths and many more injuries. The tragedy took place on Mount Meron across from the city of Ts’fat (Saphed), center of Jewish spiritualism. What can we learn?

One hundred thousand Haredim—all male, teenagers included—gathered to celebrate Lag B’omer, a festive break in the somber 50-day post-Passover period leading to Shavuot, commemorating the giving of the Torah at Sinai. Bonfires remember the death of the second-century mystic sage Shimon Bar Yohai.

The number of attendees has been placed at many times the allowable given the site’s physical limitations. For years, Jerusalem failed to impose safety measures, fearing Haredi political opposition. “Everybody could do or build what they wanted,” said Mordechai Halperin, former mayor of Meron.

What caused participants to storm out only to be trapped in narrow exits? That remains to be determined.

Did the tragedy reflect God’s justice? This week’s Torah double portion, Behar-Bechukotai, presents God’s threat of harsh retribution (tochechah) if the Israelites refuse to follow His commandments (Leviticus 26:14ff). 

Interior Minister Arye Deri of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party and Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, a major Haredi figure, both called the disaster “a decree from above.”

Did God rebuke the attendees? Could new safety measures have thwarted God’s intent? 

Rabbi Gunther Plaut writes from a Reform perspective that modern Jews question “that virtue and piety are requited with material benefits and wickedness with material punishment.” Elie Wiesel answered the accusation of God’s absence during the Holocaust, “Where was man?”

Israeli man and woman face a great political divide of their own making. The secular majority—along with many Modern Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews—stands apart from the ultra-Orthodox, the Haredim splintered into many sects, some antagonistic to each other. When female soldiers came to the rescue, ultra-Orthodox men attacked them.

The divide weakens Israel’s many-partied parliamentary system. The insular Haredi parties long have been minority power players, bargaining for special favors for which secular Israelis must pay. After four recent elections, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu failed to form a lasting government based on a coalition that includes Haredi parties. Rival Yair Lapid will attempt to form a government, partnering with rival Naftali Bennett. Lapid even offered Bennett first crack as prime minister.

The United States is in no position to point fingers. Our two-party system has broken down. We elect Representatives and one-third of Senators every two years, presidents every four, so fundraising and campaigning often take precedence over governing. Also, the Democrat–Republican chasm may be too wide to bridge. Internally, the far left is out of step with Democratic centrists. The far right ignores stands on issues on which many Republicans, along with Democrats and independents, agree.

As well, Donald Trump insists that the 2020 election was stolen. Most Republican leaders refuse to deny this. They see running for re-election—or the presidency—as demanding approval from Trump and his base. 

The tragedy on Mount Meron might have been avoided if the Haredim accepted Israeli law in general, those relating to safety in particular. They never have, as witnessed by Haredi violations of pandemic regulations. 

God did not punish the fallen. We often punish ourselves—needlessly. 

There’s a sad lesson there but one from which we can learn.

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  1. Carolyn Power Perlstein on May 7, 2021 at 11:23 am

    Excellent parallel between the recent tragedy in Israel and the political tragedy taking place before our eyes in this country. Heartbreaking.

    • David Perlstein on May 7, 2021 at 11:48 am

      Indeed, Carolyn.

  2. Joan Sutton on May 7, 2021 at 5:45 pm

    I really enjoyed this article of yours, David. It is so well-balanced and wise. I wanted to point out that your conclusions about whether God should be blamed for the tragic stampede matches the statement of Zeus at the beginning of Homer’s Odyssey. During an assembly of the gods on Mt. Olympus, Zeus speaks out. He says that so often men are blaming the gods for their own foolish decisions and asserts that the gods did not influence those decisions. Man must take the consequences for his own destructive foolishness.

    You also align the situation in the USA with that of Israel, saying we shouldn’t feel somehow superior. I agree and I wanted to add that the Haredi, from my point of view are a giant cult. The MAGA people are also a giant cult. In cults, common sense doesn’t hold sway; instead cultic beliefs dominate, and often have nothing to do with common sense or reality. It’s all very dangerous and this incident is just another example of what can happen when people deny reality.

    Thanks for your article!

    • David Perlstein on May 7, 2021 at 7:06 pm

      You are most welcome, Joan. Wonderful comment.

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