On the 14th of July 1997, 20 years ago, a bridge commissioned by Maccabi World Union (MWU) collapsed during the opening ceremony of the 15th Maccabiah Games in Ramat Gan, Israel.
Four Australians – Yetty Bennett, Elizabeth Sawicki, Greg Small & Warren Zines died. Over 60 Australians including Sasha Elterman and 2 Austrians, were injured.
This tragedy resulted in the biggest rupture between Israel and Australian Jewry that I have witnessed in just over 45 years of communal leadership involvement.
With little progress in resolving any of the issues and with the obstinacy of MWU, by November of 1997 it fell to the Zionist Federation of Australia (ZFA) to bring the community together and to lead the efforts to resolve both the outstanding matters and the rift between Israel and Australian Jewry.
Initially the Israeli government delivered US$500,000 in loan money for the aftermath followed more slowly by an equal amount from MWU. After these amounts were expended over 2 years, a further US$500,000 in loans was made available by the Israeli government.
Despite the corruption and double dealing that took place and the denial of responsibility by MWU, ultimately the Israeli justice system prevailed and 4 people involved in the bridge building were sent to jail – Micha Bar Ilan, Yehoshua Ben Ezra, Baruch Karagula and Adam Mishori.
Yoram Eyal, who headed the Maccabiah organising committee, was sentenced to 6 months community service.
On the moral accountability and compensation fronts, things moved more slowly.
It would take an entire book or more, to go through the intrigue and political and judicial machinations and to detail what took place.
Much of the successful efforts to resolve the outstanding issues stemmed from a breakthrough that occurred when the Knesset, after intense lobbying (and in a first of its kind for the Knesset) established on the 29th of July 1998, an official Committee of Inquiry (KCOI) into the bridge collapse.
The KCOI was initially chaired by Micha Goldman MK.
After the Israeli elections in 1999 the 2 previously most active committee members continued the KCOI in the next Knesset with Eliezer (Mudi) Sandberg MK as Chair and Naomi Chazan MK as Deputy Chair.
Beside holding sessions of the KCOI in the Knesset itself, in early 2000 the ZFA facilitated the visit of Sandberg to Australia to hold sessions of the KCOI in Sydney and Melbourne. These sessions and the testimonies presented, were entered into the official KCOI record. Yet another first time event for the Knesset.
In July 2000, the KCOI brought down its recommendations including:
- The call for MWU President Ronald Bakalarz to resign. Uzi Netanel, the MWU Chairman had already resigned following the verdict brought down against the bridge builders and Yoram Eyal.
- That the State of Israel despite not having organised the Maccabiah itself, should ensure that all matters of compensation be properly resolved. It was noted that MWU had been woeful in not taking adequate insurance for such an event resulting in the inability to achieve proper compensation in the usual way.
- That procedures for the future safety and security of such large events be put into place.
In the background, the intense lobbying of Israelis from the President and Prime Minister down, continued unabated.
As a result of all of the above and having been briefed on the KCOI’s probable conclusions ahead of time and after a series of meetings between the Zionist Federation and various members of the Israeli leadership, Finance Minister Avraham Shohat MK in a truly historic first time deal between an Israeli minister and a diaspora community – and against advice from his bureaucrats who were concerned about setting a precedent – penned, signed and presented a letter on the 28th of June 2000 to myself as president of the ZFA.
That letter stated that Israel would contribute to the compensation claims despite not being responsible either for the Maccabiah nor the organisation thereof.
As a result, we were then able to proceed to have all compensation deals agreed to either by direct negotiation or in the Haifa court.
The last claim was finalised by negotiation in the latter part of 2002.
Many Israeli representatives assisted us in resolving the issues as a matter of moral imperative.
I have already noted some Knesset members, and I hesitate to start mentioning people for fear of leaving others out.
However, of special note were the efforts of Judge Berliner in the Haifa Court and Eitan Lederer (State Attorney) who both deserve to be remembered for the way they conducted themselves.
As well as the energy and devotion of the late Frank Stein and his ability to open doors for us, which will never be forgotten.
Australian Prime Minister John Howard, was of invaluable assistance on a number of levels. In particular in regards to Medicare on the one hand and in conveying to Israel the deep pain felt by the Australian Jewish community on the other.
Of course, many other Jewish and non-Jewish, Israeli and non-Israeli individuals and organisations, as well as the collective Australian Jewish leadership and both the United Israel Appeal (UIA) and the Jewish National Fund (JNF) provided invaluable assistance.
In 2001, as a result of the progress that had been made to that date, a conditional green light was given for limited participation in that Maccabiah.
In July of 2002 as President of the ZFA I wrote an open letter to the Australian Jewish community where I stated:
“It is clear that an avoidable tragedy occurred and many lives were changed unfairly and dramatically by the actions of MWU.
However at least one can draw comfort from the way in which the aftermath was handled and by the way in which the Israeli government, Knesset and people dealt not only with the victims themselves, but also with Australian Jewry.”
It was not until 2005 that Australia returned in full force to the Maccabiah Games.
Initially the families of those most affected had not agreed to come with the Australian team, but ultimately not only did many of them do so, they actually led the very large Australian team into the stadium in front of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and to a seemingly endless standing and thunderous ovation.
From the outset, our aims were to achieve justice for the victims, their families and indeed for Australian Jewry and to right what wrongs we could, but also to help Maccabi find its moral compass and take the actions required to both save and rejuvenate that great organisation.
After 8 years, the pain and sense of loss of course remained, but trust in Israel and faith in her concern about Australia Jewry were restored and the strong bonds between us reaffirmed.
We wish the forthcoming Maccabiah a safe and great event whilst remembering the terrible tragedy that occurred 20 years ago.