Parents always worry about their children's welfare and certainly when they send their young adult children to an Israel gap year program. Rightly so, although in just about every case, the year passes and the kids come home, vastly enriched by the programs in which they took part.
We, however, have had the tragic experience of having our worries come true. Our son, Ariel Newman, died due to heat stroke seven days after getting off the airplane on September 3, 2014. To this day, the Israeli government has, for some inexplicable reason, gone out of its way to protect those responsible for Ariel’s death.
Ariel was in Israel to attend a gap-year program at Mechinat Yeud. This yeshiva was a member of MASA, an organization founded by the Prime Minister’s Office together with the Jewish Agency for Israel. MASA brings young people from around the world to Israel to deepen their connection with the country.
On September 9th, only six days after Ariel arrived in Israel, the yeshiva’s Program Director led the group of twelve young men on a two-day hike into the Judean desert. The yeshiva’s Education Director was to drive the car that would bring supplies and would serve as the evacuation vehicle in case of an emergency.
This two-day hike was originally scheduled for January 2015 in the winter time when the Judean desert is cooler. Instead, for a reason known only to them, those in charge changed the date of the hike to September 9-10, 2014.
On the second day, the hike was to go from Nachal Tzeilim to Nachal Mishmar in six hours, from 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. The Ministry of Education website states this hike takes 8-10 hours, should not be conducted in the summertime, and should be made only by those with intermediate to expert hiking experience.
With the full knowledge of the administration, the Program Director took young men out with little to no hiking experience, and made them hike in six hours what would take 8-10 hours for an expert hiker—in the summertime on the second day of a two-day hike. When the police asked an official from the Ministry of Tourism if this was an appropriate hike for rank beginner hikers in the summertime, the official said no, it was not a reasonable hike.
In the program's promotional material it said that the leader of the hike was licensed by the Ministry of Tourism and was a certified medic. Israeli law demands that tour guides of adults and foreigners be led by someone with a Ministry of Tourism tour guide license. Unfortunately, the promotional material was false. Upon examination after the tragedy, it turned out that he did not have a Ministry of Tourism tour guide license and he did not have a valid medic certification.
Ariel was wearing long black nylon pants on the hike which means the heat in the lower half of his body was trapped during the two-day hike. No one else on the hike wore long pants made out of material that trapped their body heat. The Program Diirector\hike leader's response as to why he allowed this was that checking clothing wasn’t his responsibility.
Since hiking is an Israeli past-time, MASA correctly had one absolute requirement for all its members in respect to hiking: you must coordinate with a safety organization such as the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI). SPNI provides advice about any possible danger while hiking. Neither the Program Director or Educational Director contacted SPNI (or any other safety organization) but, if they had inquired, they would have been told on September 10, 2014 in that Judean desert area, no one should be hiking from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., due to excessive heat.
An absolute mandate from MASA was ignored and our son is now dead because of that. What is the administration's response? The Rosh Yeshiva says that it was only a MASA rule and not Israeli law and that paying SPNI is too expensive.
What actually was the cost to inquire? 150 shekels.
At lunch time on September 10th, by all accounts, Ariel clearly looked beyond worn out. He was saying all day that he couldn’t do the hike anymore and when the Education Director came with the car, Ariel cried out to the Program Director that he must be taken back because he has heat stroke and can’t go on. He was told by the Program Director that there’s no room in the evacuation vehicle and he doesn’t have heat stroke.
After about an additional half hour of hiking, Ariel dropped to the ground. Upon admission to Hadassah Ein Kerem hospital in Jerusalem, Ariel’s inner core body temperature was 43 degrees Celsius or 109.4 degrees Fahrenheit. The hospital made a valiant effort to keep him alive but to no avail. The hospital’s medical report stated the cause of death was heat stroke and that, after multiple testing while still alive, Ariel’s heart was fine.
In August 2017, we meet Natan Bozna, the police commander of the entire Negev Region. Looking at the circumstances of Ariel’s death, he made it clear he thought this was negligent homicide and told us the investigation up to that point was incomplete. One example is the Arad police never even attempted to interrogate the Education Director, driver of the evacuation vehicle,, and still have not to this day. Bozna created a new task force to uncover all relevant evidence and testimony in both the US and Israel.
Are you ready for what happened next? The State Attorney’s Office then ordered Natan Bozna to stand down and conduct merely a few trivial tasks that would have no real bearing on the case.
Compare Ariel’s death to an incident where ten Israeli kids on a formal Mechina pre-military program were negligently killed in April 2018. Those responsible were immediately arrested. If the prosecutors had carried out their job —they still can!—and prosecuted the two men responsible for our son’s death, it would have sent a powerful signal to all hike leaders to take safety much more seriously. And yet, even after those ten kids were killed, the prosecutors continue to do everything in their power to ensure that there will never be justice in our case.
What has Bagatz, the Israel Supreme Court, done since we filed our petition on May 1, 2018? Ignored everything. They automatically deferred to the prosecutors and claimed that the investigation was comprehensive and thorough. The facts as laid out above, and as so powerfully displayed in Channel 10 TV’s very recent ten-minute expose broadcast, reveal that the prosecutors have not performed their job in a professional unbiased manner. Bagatz has not yet issued its final ruling but their deference to the prosecutors in this case may cause a travesty of justice and not prevent such tragedies in the future.
Why are the two men responsible still being protected by the Israeli government? Bagatz still has time to look into this and demand that justice be done. We have been grieving most terribly every day for over four years and believe Israel can and must do better to alleviate our suffering. “Justice, justice you shall pursue so you will live and take possession of the land that the Lord your God is giving you. (Deuteronomy 16:20)”