On Saturday night, as Tel Aviv’s City Hall lit up with the image of the Israeli flag to commemorate the dozens killed and 150 injured in the crowd-crush two nights earlier on Mount Meron, Israelis of all backgrounds came together to light yahrzeit (memorial) candles.
Some of the people present at Rabin Square that evening, like others around the country, configurated tea lights in the shape of the numeral 45—the number of people trampled to death during the Lag B’Omer celebrations that would become the source of multiple funerals.
The outpouring of nationwide grief over the victims and empathy with their families was not unusual in a state sadly accustomed to burying citizens who are, by all measures, too young to die. Nor was it novel for Israel’s Kan Radio to play sad music, out of respect for the gravity of the hour.
The same can be said of the public’s lining up in droves, and for hours on end in the sweltering heat, to donate blood for the treatment of those still in the hospital. Though less frequent an occurrence, the offer by Israel’s national carrier, El Al, of free passage for anyone from abroad needing to pay their last respects or provide bedside comfort to loved ones was also not surprising.
Even the fact that Arab villagers from the Meron area in the north rallied to help their Jewish brethren in distress—distributing free food and drink to survivors—wasn’t totally out of the ordinary.
But all of the above has been noteworthy nevertheless, due to the identity of the casualties. All were ultra-Orthodox (haredi) Jews who had made a pilgrimage to the gravesite of second-century sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai to dance around the holiday’s traditional bonfire—hosted, as it happened, by the Jerusalem-based, anti-Zionist sect, Toldot Aharon.
Throughout the past year, since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, already strained relations between the haredim and secular Israeli society have been particularly fraught. Indeed, COVID-19 is one force majeure that hasn’t been a unifying factor in the way that other shared traumatic experiences have been, due in large part to its dragged-out duration.
Israelis may be used to war, terrorism, road accidents and forest fires, but an invisible microbe dictating and altering the entire course of our daily existence for months without letup is a different story entirely. Coupled with incessant lockdowns in small quarters with cranky children trying unsuccessfully to attend Zoom classes, the situation came to be more like a pressure cooker than cause for solidarity.
None of this was alleviated by the shaky “unity” government, which spent the past 12 months duking it out at Cabinet meetings—albeit wearing masks, rather than boxing gloves—over every imaginable piece of policy. That a hefty chunk of it involved confusing coronavirus restrictions directly affecting our every movement made matters worse.
The notion that “we’re all in this together,” which Israelis often feel and express in times of adversity, quickly morphed into mutual suspicion. Instead of leading to introspection, state-imposed isolation caused heightened resentment towards others.
This took the form of rampant “whataboutism.”
Take the parents of fallen soldiers, for instance. While grudgingly accepting last year’s ban on large ceremonies at the country’s 53 military cemeteries on Yom Hazikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism), mourners were rightly incensed by the hordes flooding Ikea in pursuit of couches and kitchen gadgets. Anger about the Swedish home-furnishing conglomerate being allowed to open its doors while gravesite attendance was severely limited was inevitable.
But it was magnified by rumors that then-Health Minister Yaakov Litzman had given special dispensation to Ikea Israel owners Shulem Fisher and Matthew Bronfman, due to their substantial annual donations to his Gur Chassidic sect.
Though Litzman denied the allegations, nobody believed him. For one thing, he’d already lost credibility where his office’s coronavirus directives were concerned. Despite the strict curtailing of gatherings, he was caught violating his own rules by praying in a crowded synagogue. To top it all off, he and his wife contracted and likely spread the virus, sending several important officials, such as National Security Council head Meir Ben-Shabbat, into quarantine.
Litzman was but one of many prominent ultra-Orthodox figures who aroused the ire of those adhering to COVID-19 restrictions. Meanwhile, the shoe was also on the other foot, with haredim justifiably questioning why they were being accused of wantonly spreading germs, while unvetted and unfettered protests were regularly taking place with government and police approval against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Then came the Mount Meron disaster. For a brief interlude in its aftermath, sectoral battles took a pause, as did coalition negotiations.
On a visit to the scene of the catastrophe, Netanyahu declared that Sunday would be a national day of mourning. Israelis, both secular and from every religious stream, wept for the dead, not giving a damn about their sidelocks, rituals or beliefs.
However fleeting—now that the blame game has begun and the political fray is back in full swing—this uncommon display provided a reminder of and glimpse into Israel’s beautifully paradoxical nature.
Ruthie Blum is an Israel-based journalist and author of “To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring.’ ”