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Opinion / The Key Takeaway from the Meron Disaster Report: Every Public Servant Has Personal Responsibility

Commission members were appalled by the culture of "narrow-mindedness and abdication of responsibility" in public bodies | Civil service workers have a personal responsibility to be able to withstand pressure from those in power

מפכ"ל המשטרה, יעקב שבתאי, בסיור במירון לקראת הילולת רבי שמעון בר יוחאי, 2023 (צילום: דוד כהן / פלאש 90)
Police Commissioner Yaakov Shabtai on a tour of Mount Meron ahead of the annual pilgrimage to the tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, 2023 (Photo: David Cohen/Flash 90)
By Oshra Lerer Shaib

The State Commission of Inquiry into the 2021 Meron Disaster, in which 45 people were killed as a result of overcrowding at a religious pilgrimage, did not mince words about the conduct of Israeli governmental bodies when it published its report earlier this month. "We found a rotten culture inside our house: within public bodies, governmental authorities and among public representatives to whom the public has entrusted its safety and security – both elected and appointed."

Undoubtedly, many will focus on the responsibility of politicians and the political class for the disaster at the tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai on Mount Meron, especially the controversial statement of then-Minister of Public Security and current Speaker of the Knesset Amir Ohana, who said "I am responsible – responsibility does not mean guilt." However, it is more important to pay attention to the Commission of Inquiry’s references to the responsibility of civil service officials for the disaster. Ministers, as elected officials, change after every election, while civil servants remain in office through different governments.

Not a "Negative Culture," but a Culture of Lies

Commission members were appalled by the prevailing culture among public servants. "We found a culture primarily concerned with appearances," the commission members wrote, "a culture of ignoring repeated warnings, of complacency and of inflexibility on significant matters relating to public safety and the preservation of human life. A culture of disrespect for governance and the rule of law, and a pattern of procrastination and avoidance of decision-making. Conduct that was adversely influenced by political interests and external considerations. A culture of narrow-mindedness and evasion and abdication of responsibility."

According to the commission, "this culture led to the terrible disaster on Mount Meron on Lag b'Omer 5721 [the Hebrew date of the disaster, corresponding to April 30, 2021]. The writing was on the wall, [the problems were] known to many for many years. This catastrophe could have been prevented, and it should have been prevented."

Everyone who worked or currently works in public service has experienced supervisors running meetings with presentations that are disconnected from reality, with no one present willing to say that "the emperor has no clothes." The commission’s report continues to label this culture as a "negative culture," but, specifically, it is a culture of lies.

The Personal Responsibility of Public Servants

Public service officials are selected by tenders, or search commissions, and are meant to be selected based on their qualifications, experience and training. It is forbidden for the Minister in charge of the given Ministry, or any other political entity, to interfere in the decision making process of the search commissions, because the functions are supposed to be performed professionally, without political biases or personal commitments. The minister in charge of a ministry has the right to appoint only the director at the executive level, and that director is only authorized to appoint their assistants and the deputy director.

Despite these guidelines, it is well known that ministers exert their influence on professional appointments at all levels within their ministries. Additionally, the government sought to expand its powers to appoint civil service employees and to effectively eliminate any judicial review or intervention in cases of unprofessional or improper appointments as part of the judicial reforms proposed last year.

Today, the civil service, like the military, is tainted by constant political interference in its professional work. There are ministers who do not hide their interference in areas that are supposed to be apolitical: take National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who has been ordered by the Supreme Court to stop giving orders to the police on enforcement and implementation methods of government policies that he has created. The candidate search and selection process has also been corrupted by politicization, and often the commissions simply choose the candidate that they have been instructed to by the minister in behind-the-scenes conversations and private messages. This political interference in civil service appointments is one of the drivers of the dangerous culture among public servants that the commission warns about in its report.

This dangerous reality must be taken seriously, as it may lead to the appointments of employees who are unfit for their positions, or to civil servants who are loyal to the minister who ensured their appointment. The Commission of Inquiry report states that these civil servants still must be held accountable and must not be allowed to avoid responsibility. "Public servants fulfilling a professional function … are obligated to meet the standard pertaining to the professional sphere," that is, their commitment is only to professionalism, not to any politician.

Civil service workers therefore have a great personal responsibility to be able to withstand pressure from those in power.  A public servant cannot claim to have done anything on the orders of the minister, or even on orders from their direct supervisor. Their commitment must be,  first and foremost, to their responsibilities, their professionalism, and their consciences. According to the Commission of Inquiry, inexperience is not an acceptable explanation for failure, as once a civil servant has accepted their position, it is their responsibility to consult with others and to learn before making any decisions.

Those Who Have Taken Responsibility

The commission has forced some public officials to accept personal responsibility for the Meron disaster, and some have already done so. Police Commission Yaakov Shabtai was required to resign, but the date of his resignation has been postponed due to the war. Northern District Police Commander Shimon Lavi has accepted responsibility and resigned. The commission would have recommended the resignations of the commander of the Police in the Amakim Region, Assistant Commissioner Shalom Avitan, and the Nof HaGalil Police Commander, Chief Superintendent Assaf Mansour, but they had already resigned. The report’s findings regarding Superintendent Shmuel Piamente were particularly serious, and the commission called for his immediate termination from the Police force as well as for the Attorney General to continue her investigation into his conduct. The commission has called for any promotion for Assistant Commissioner Morris Chen to take into account its findings regarding his conduct, so any career advancement is now questionable. These are a few of the individuals being held personally and professionally responsible for the Meron disaster.

But every employee in every ministry and government office, from the lower echelons to the directors, must read the State Commission of Inquiry’s report on the Meron disaster. The main takeaway, which should resonate for every public servant, is that they each have personal responsibility. At the end of the day, each individual will be held accountable for their decisions.

This article was translated from Hebrew by Paul Weissfellner.

 

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