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Deadly stampede prompts introspection among ultra-Orthodox in Israel

First came the tragedy, then a search for whom to blame.

Days after a deadly stampede resulted in the deaths of 45 people at a religious festival in northern Israel, many are asking who is at fault.

Israel’s government watchdog has said it will investigate the stampede at a Jewish religious festival on Mount Meron, in which most of the victims were ultra-Orthodox men and children. Yet some, including activists inside the ultra-Orthodox community, are calling for the ultra-Orthodox to look at their own role in the tragedy, as well.

“It’s a call for rethinking what is it that we didn’t do right,” said an ultra-Orthodox rabbi in Jerusalem, Yehoshua Pfeffer, the founding editor of the journal Tzarich Iyun. “It’s not about the leadership. It’s about us as a community, as a society, because it’s the underlying opinions, the prevailing mindset of the society, that is going to be reflected by the leadership.”

Since the stampede, Israeli politicians and the media have questioned whether the government and police were unwilling to limit the number of people at the festival to avoid angering ultra-Orthodox leaders. Some have pointed fingers at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, whose political survival depends on ultra-Orthodox political parties, for enabling the community to evade state regulations.

“A functioning government could have prevented the terrible disaster on Mount Meron. Everyone knew,” opposition politician Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party, who called for a state inquiry, wrote Monday on Twitter.

Ultra-Orthodox parties, which are a crucial voting bloc in the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, were part of Netanyahu’s narrow coalition government until the election in March. Although he is not ultra-Orthodox, he relies on the parties’ support to remain in power.

Netanyahu’s mandate to form a government expires at midnight Tuesday. It remains unclear whether opposition parties could form a government.

Despite their pivotal position in the government, ultra-Orthodox communities remain separate and removed from mainstream Israeli society. Neighborhoods are often segregated, most members don’t serve in the Israel Defense Forces, and many men dedicate their days to learning scripture rather than paid work.

The separation and the vast sums the ultra-Orthodox communities get in state aid have caused high levels of resentment in mainstream society.

God’s will?

Faith in ultra-Orthodox leaders had already been eroded by the coronavirus pandemic. In a survey by the Israel Democracy Institute, or IDI, nearly 40 percent of ultra-Orthodox men ages 18 to 30 said their trust in ultra-Orthodox parties had been “harmed” or “harmed to a great extent.”

The deterioration of trust and demands from the street led ultra-Orthodox politicians to up their advocacy for positions supported by their communities, like fewer coronavirus restrictions, said Gilad Malach, director of the IDI’s ultra-Orthodox in Israel program.

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Pfeffer said: “The fact is that politicians aren’t really seen as leaders. Ultimately they are attuned to the voice on the Haredi street. Why is it that the Haredi politicians were so intent that the road to Meron would be wide open and everyone would be able to go? The reason they were so intent on this is that they knew that’s what their constituency actually expects from them.”

The ultra-Orthodox are known in Israel as Haredim.

Still, over the last five days, the focus of many ultra-Orthodox has been firmly on the victims and their families as burials took place. Rabbis and spiritual leaders have emphasized the need for prayer and acceptance that the incident was God’s will, for better or worse.

“People are overwhelmed and depressed. Everyone knows someone, and even if they don’t know…

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