Reports from eyewitnesses to the catastrophe at Mount Meron last week, on Lag b’Omer, recount a horrifying crush of humanity propelled as if by an external force. The tragedy of 45 lives lost and scores of seriously injured will be investigated by authorities after allegations that the potential for such a disaster had been foretold.
The investigation into Israel’s worst civilian disaster will likely look at structural factors that led to the stampede and the inability of attendees to escape as the throng converged into a choke point at the site.
A small silver lining in the horrific incident was the mobilization of Arab Israelis in villages near the mountain, who set up help stations to provide water and food to attendees as they gathered in the aftermath.
But the tragedy itself was exacerbated when some among the survivors turned on female Israel Defence Forces soldiers arriving to help. The event was attended almost exclusively by religious men and boys. When female soldiers arrived to deliver first aid and evacuation assistance, some were spit on, kicked and punched as they attempted to help the wounded and remove the bodies of the deceased.
Such misogynistic extremism will probably not be within the parameters of a government inquiry. And perhaps that is fine, because this is a symptom of a much larger societal problem and one that should be confronted thoroughly by the entire country. Interfering in the life-saving work of first responders is not only reprehensible, it is an abrogation of a foremost tenet of Judaism, pikuach nefesh, the saving of life. Most of the victims and survivors are shomer negiah, adhering to a religious principle that restricts or forbids contact between members of the opposite sex. In a deeply distorted interpretation, a number of men in the situation chose to elevate shomer negiah above pikuach nefesh. By spitting on rescue workers, the perpetrators were spitting on the very sacredness they imagined themselves to be defending. That is something that deserves serious consideration by religious people and by secular authorities as the country – and Jews worldwide – grapple with the aftermath of the entire incident.
Another tragic byproduct of the disaster has been reactions to the news among people who gravely lack humanity. Within hours of being posted, a story on Al Jazeera’s website about the tragedy was met with more than 10,000 comments celebrating the deaths. Among the representative comments: “Drinks on me, y’all,” “about time we got some good news on our media,” “I feel so happy, actually” and “May God ensure the bodies pile high.”
It is difficult to fathom that we live in a world where people would respond to a mass casualty event in this manner. It is also nearly impossible to imagine such a response if the tragedy had happened to anyone other than Jews.
For years, a robust discussion has occurred around whether, if or when anti-Zionism crosses a line into antisemitism. Did the callous, sadistic comments reflect a political statement about the right of Israel to exist? Were they even more base, a celebration of dead Jews just because they were Jews? Was it anti-Zionism that drove these depraved commenters, or was it antisemitism?
These questions throw a spotlight on the fundamental foolishness of the dichotomy. A semantic discussion about the motivations of people who would behave in this way gives far too much credence to their actions, as if there could, in some convoluted moral universe, be a justification for their cruelty.
Was it anti-Zionism? Was it antisemitism? At this point, does it really matter what we call it?