Learning from tragedy

Israel is still reeling from the deaths of 10 youth – nine of them young women – who were killed in what became dubbed “the flood disaster” or “the Arava disaster.”

Only yesterday the country buried the last of the victims.

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Ella Or, Yael Sadan, Maayan Barhum, Tzur Alfi, Shani Shamir, Romi Cohen, Adam Levy, Gali Balali, Ilan Bar-Shalom and Adi Ranen lost their lives last Thursday during a flash flood in the Tzafit canyon, west of the southern Dead Sea, while hiking with the Bnei Zion pre-military academy.

Reading about the short lives of the victims, one can’t help but feel that the country has lost some of its finest. Thirteen of the teenagers made it out of the wadi, traumatized but physically mostly unscathed; two more were injured but were safely evacuated.

Most of those who died were 12th-graders planning to attend the academy next year, participating in a hike that would help them become a more cohesive group. All of them were prepared to give a year of their lives before army service to learn more about the country and contribute to society. Neighbors of the Tel Aviv-based academy noted how the students there made an effort to help the local elderly.

The eulogies for the 10 made it clear that each had already contributed in many ways as volunteers, youth group leaders and in other ways.

The program specialized in bringing together young people from all over the country, from different social backgrounds – religious and secular. This itself provided added value in a society that is increasingly polarized.

Acceptance to the military preparatory program is highly competitive. Those who had been chosen had to have already shown leadership skills and a willingness to give.

While it is one thing to be willing to give your life in the army, no one should expect to die during a preparatory program. Clearly something went very wrong – tragically so.

Their deaths were unnecessary. Whereas weather is an act of God, the decision of where and when to hike is human.

As in any process of bereavement, denial and anger swiftly follow each other. It is natural to want to be able to point a finger and find someone to blame.

On Friday, police arrested the head of the Bnei Zion pre-military academy and another senior staff member on suspicion of negligent homicide. They are being questioned, among other things, over their failure to heed flood warnings and call off the hike, or at least change the route.

Poignantly, even some of the victims had warned that they didn’t feel that the path in the narrow wadi was safe given the weather conditions. Only a day before, two local Beduin had lost their lives in the flash floods. The writing was on the wall.

There was an immediate exchange of accusations over which body should be responsible for granting permits to such hikes – the Education Ministry, the Defense Ministry or the pre-military academies themselves. In any case, the procedures are well-known to every graduate of any Israeli youth group and Israeli school, all of which plan hikes by taking into account the weather conditions – from heat waves to flood warnings, possible security threats, and whether the route itself is appropriate and safe for the group.

Whether or not the police decide there is enough evidence to proceed with criminal charges, it is clear that the infamous Israeli “yehiyeh b’seder” mentality also played a role – the belief that “It will be alright.”

The pre-military academies have been described as a national asset. They have an important role to play in educating the next generation of leaders. It would be a mistake to clamor in anger for the academies to be closed.

But one of the most important lessons they need to teach is that accidents are preventable, that you can’t trust – or tempt – fate.

The lives of 10 beautiful youth were cut down in their prime. They leave behind them a void that their families will never be able to fill. It is a loss that the country is only now beginning to take in – the loss of 10 of its finest, whose dreams will never be realized and whose potential will never be fulfilled. The most important thing now is not to apportion blame but to understand what happened, learn the lessons, and try to prevent any more similar tragedies.