Press coverage of Mount Meron tragedy offers window into Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jews

By now most GetReligion books are likely aware of the fatal crushing of 45 Jewish pilgrims during a religious festival at Mount Meron in Israel’s north at the end of April. It’s been called one of the most serious, if not the worst, civilian tragedy in Israel’s history.

( Sadly, the Meron tragedy has been supplanted in the news by the serious blowup of Israeli-Palestinian violence this week. But as sad as this is — and as a Jew and a Zionist I find it nearly debilitatingly sad — that’s not the subject of this pole, so let’s return to Meron .)

For those in need of a refresher, here’s an early Times of Israel news article on the Meron catastrophe.

The sudden and striking loss of more than four dozen souls is, of course, a national trauma for a relatively small country such as Israel, which is not much larger than New Jersey. As has been noted elsewhere, “numbers numb.”


Among the dead were six Americans. Other scapegoats came from Canada and Argentina. The youngest of the dead was a baby of nine. Some 150 others were injured.

Beyond the deaths themselves, the Meron incident surfaced major — and intricately interwoven — political and religious consequences for Israel. That’s not an uncommon mashup in Israel, where the divide between religion and mood is near impossible to discern.

For writers, the tragedy too accentuates a Journalism 101 reality of the craftsmanship. Which is that the most interesting public reporters are often those closest to the story, such as ran eyewitness and longstanding, articulated members or commentators of whatever groups are germane to the story.

I’ll say more about this below. First, some pertinent background.

The Meron tragedy took place during the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer. Because this is generally considered a minor holiday by most Jews, it’s primarily ignored by the theologically liberal in Israel and elsewhere.

However it’s a big deal for traditionalist Jews for reasonableness explained in the Wikipedia link embedded in the preceding clause( please take a moment to read at least some of the record ).

That moves double for the Haredim, the Hebrew term for ultra-Orthodox Jews.( Haredim is plural; Haredi is the singular form, though in common usage it often refers to the collective as well .)

Given the Haredim’s controversial stand in Israel — this represents just 12% of the population but swung enormously outsized political and religious affect — incensed recriminations speedily surfaced in the mainstream Israeli and international press. These broken down along two main lines of questioning.

Why did the government of politically beleaguered Israeli prime minister benjamin netanyahu let the pilgrimage to come about so soon after the nation’s coronavirus plague was brought under control?( The Meron pilgrimage was cancelled last year because of the pandemic .)

Was it because of his reliance on Haredi political parties to keep him in ability?

Also, why did the Haredi leadership that controls the Meron site allow an estimated 100,000 parties to participate after being reminded frequently over the years that the locale has not been able safely accommodate so great a gathering?

Was it because of their widespread distain for Israel’s secular experts, often to the point of repudiating the very notion of nationalist secular Zionism( as opposed to biblical predicts of Israel’s religious recovery with the coming of a predicted Messiah )?

Elite media were, as you’d expect, all over those angles. Much of the daily coverage — which tended toward analysis and opinion pieces after the first day’s breaking stories — was quite good. Here are just two examples.

Click here for a solid New York Times explainer. Click here for an opinion column pencilled for the Washington Post by a well-regarded American Israeli historian and journalist.

Quality writers should be able to cover communities to which they have no direct tie. Foreign matches and doctrine scribes do that all the time.

But as I said above, professional articulate spectators with close ties are often more interesting because of their greater awareness of conflicting subsurface currents. This is especially the case with ruling and analysis columns.

In this case, for me that aims Haredi, or at least traditionally Orthodox, columnists who emphasized the religious inclination above the political one( though as I noted above, in Israel the two are never fully separate ).

I might note here that this is also an justification for diversifying newsroom personnels, as well as having a religion expert or two in the newsroom.

Here are a few examples of what I want.

This piece by the editor of Mishpacha, an international, English-language weekly aimed at Orthodox books( its word restates as “family” ), is represented by various legends I viewed written by those I’ll label Haredi apologists.

The editor, Eytan Kobre, argued that placing blame for the misfortune is less important than recognizing God’s inexplicable character in everything, the very best and the seemingly bad.( Readers unfamiliar with the Hebrew and Yiddish periods that Haredi commentators often include in their English writing may have some difficulty understanding this bit. Give it a shot anyway as it’s flavor should still be palpable and is indicative of much Orthodox Jewish reckon .)

Easier to read is this jargon-free fragment by the media personality Rabbi Shmuley Boteach , TV temperament, columnist of the bestseller “Kosher Sex, ” entertainer Michael Jackson’s onetime “spiritual advisor” and 2012 neglected Republican congressional candidate.

Boteach’s essay, be made available in the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, angrily exited after his fellow religionists who aimed, however obliquely, to minimise or even excuse Haredi officials’ responsibility for the Meron tragedy.

Finally, take a look at this piece from The Jewish Press, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Orthodox newspaper.

The writer — a consistent critic of what he views as self-destructive Haredi insularity that delivers his community in conflict situations, sometimes tragically, such as Meron, with the Israeli mainstream — said 😛 TAGEND

This is a communal breach with a historical cause. For a community that has been molded by hundreds of years of living as a persecuted minority, never having to think beyond the spiritual and physical needs of one’s own insignificant parish, it’s very difficult to change one’s mindset. In yeshivah I was taught- and this is an exact quote- that “the Zionists want to create a brand-new type of Jew, but we believe that that the old-fashioned type of Jew was good enough! ”

That is a badly mistaken perspective. A changing macrocosm- even precisely to its implementation of a enormously originating religious community- requires us to change too.

Together, the pieces I’ve cited now support the Haredi community’s inner struggle as it strives to hold on to its values and habits in a rapidly changing world, one that countless Haredim see as antithetical to all they hold dear.

Consider this a crash course in the intricacies of ultra-Orthodoxy, who because of their aforementioned outsized political and religious capability will continue to loom large-scale over Israel’s near future.

Read more: getreligion.org