Israel is not the same small country it once was. When I first visited in 1962, my aunt’s then husband would drive down the Haifa-Tel Aviv highway waving at guys going in the opposite direction he had known as a young teenager in the Irgun. But even today, with a population of over eight million, when tragedy strikes it is often personalized.
Compounding the tragedy of the ten high school students killed last week in a flash flood was the knowledge that the Bnei Zion, pre-induction academy (mechina) they were slated to join next year, had signed just the day before an agreement to participate in Kesher Yehudi’s mechina program. A preliminary meeting between the incoming members of the mechina and the Kesher Yehudi volunteers, who will be their chavrusos and maintain a connection during their IDF service, was already scheduled. That program would likely have constituted the first exposure to Torah learning and first close contact with chareidi Jews for most of those lost.
But that was not the only association triggered by a tragedy that appears to have been the product of unconscionable negligence. In September 2014, Ariel Yitzchak Newman, the 18-year-old only child of Mark and Ellen Newman of Great Neck N.Y., died of exertional heat stroke on a hike in Israel in which every safety rule for hiking was broken. The hikers were not properly acclimated to the climate having just arrived in Israel, there was inadequate water, the hikers were not advised about appropriate clothing and were vulnerable by virtue of their lack of adequate sleep prior to the hike. Moreover, the strenuous hike took place, with inadequate rest stops, on a day so hot that had the Israeli Society for the Protection of Nature been contacted the hike leader would have been advised to cancel the planned hike. Most egregious, Ariel Yitzchak’s cries that he was burning up were ignored.
For four years, the Newmans have been pressuring Israeli authorities to adequately investigate the circumstances leading to their son’s death and to bring criminal prosecution against those responsible. The most recent response from the State’s Attorney office cited a forty-year old Supreme Court case extolling the importance of hiking to the Israeli ethos, and the value to the participants of physically strenuous hikes with an element of risk.
That was precisely the attitude that led to last week’s tragedy. One of the victims sent out a prescient WhatsApp early in the day, “Were all going to be killed.” But the organizers insisted that it would be “wet and fun.”
Had Israeli authorities taken more seriously the deaths of Ariel Yitzchak Newman and other tourists on hikes for which they were ill-prepared and prosecuted the negligent parties, perhaps last week’s tragedy, which will certainly result in criminal prosecutions could have been prevented.