Twenty years after the Maccabiah bridge collapse, an Australian community leader from the time speaks out about the unfinished emotional business for victims’ families and the community
Twenty years have passed since Australian Jews plunged from a temporary pedestrian bridge into Tel Aviv’s poisonous Yarkon River – ending four lives and injuring 69 more. As Australians commemorate the loss of life in ceremonies here and in Israel, the broader socio-political fallout from the disaster – a protracted compensation process, a bungled investigation and the fracturing of relations between Australian Jewry and the State of Israel – has all but been relegated to a footnote in history.
At commemorations in Sydney and Melbourne during May and June, candles were lit to honour those who died and dignitaries paid their respects. Some survivors attended others preferred to stay away. Overall, however, the acrimony of that period was all but forgotten. It was an occasion for lives to be remembered and Australian Jewry’s relationship with Israel to be celebrated.
“We all have a role to play in our community and in respect for our support for Israel. For Israel needs us and we need Israel,” said Adam Zines at the Sydney commemoration. Zines’ father Warren died of a respiratory-tract infection sustained in the bridge collapse.
There were no words spoken about the awful mishandling of the investigation, the failure of Maccabi World Union and its leadership to accept blame for the disaster, the long and cruel fight with Israeli insurers, the botched Knesset inquiry that kept victims and their family members away, and he weak sentences handed to those responsible for constructing a lethal bridge.
Perhaps more significantly, there was no mention of the frustration Australian Jews directed towards Zionist organisations for failing to speak honestly and forthrightly with their counterparts in Israel.
For some people, the memory of this last disappointment abides.
Phillip Bliss, was a prominent Australian Jewish communal leader in 1997: President of the Jewish Community Council of Victoria (JCCV) and Vice-President of the Executive Council of Australia Jewry (ECAJ). Bliss still feels the pain of 1997 and the years that followed, describing the bridge collapse as just the beginning of three years of “extraordinary bitterness”, in an interview with Plus 61J on the eve of the anniversary.
Bliss says the trouble started less than a few months after the bridge collapse, at a community meeting of the Zionist Federation’s executive in Melbourne to hear from Israel’s then Ambassador Shmuel Moyal.
Regarded by many as the epitome of the perfect ambassador, Moyal spoke well and was statesman-like in appearance. Bliss remembers him as someone “we were very proud of him as the ambassador for Israel.”
Yet what the Ambassador had to say that day astounded many others in the room. “The Australian Jewish community is very wealthy. And it’s going to have to be the community that looks to compensation. Because it’s not going to be the State of Israel,” Moyal told the meeting, according to Bliss.
It struck an insensitive and inhumane tone. Bliss believes Moyal was delivering orders from above. “From the very beginning it was very clear that rather than the State of Israel acting to minimise the fall out, it was going to have to be the Australian Jewish community who would help support and pay for compensation,” he says. “And that was just not on.”
In the period that followed, the victims and their families were frustrated in their efforts to obtain compensation. In August 1997, a loan of $500,000 was made by the Israeli government to help the victims of the bridge collapse – payment until money was paid by the insurance companies. However, insurers for games organisers, Maccabi World Union, and the bridge constructors, Irgunit, refused to accept liability.
Several years passed. With the initial loan payment monies exhausted, medical expenses mounting and no further sign of compensation payments being made, anger spread. Australian Jews halted donations to Zionist fundraisers and Israeli causes. Israel-related programs experienced a drop in numbers.
Through his community roles, Bliss formed close ties with the victims and their families.
He heard their frustrations with the belligerent insurers. They wished for the Israeli government to intervene, remove the victims from the litigation process and cover the compensation until the insurance liability could be determined. But the government would not do so.
There was a palatable sense of betrayal. “Considering the strong Zionist support this community had given Israel ever since the beginning – and before – when push came to shove, it meant nothing,” says Bliss.
“All of a sudden, we realised it was a one-way street. We give, we produce, we work on their PR. Millions and millions have been given. But when a disaster affected our people in Israel … it meant nothing.”
The posturing of the Zionist organisations under the Zionist Federation of Australia (ZFA) was particularly galling to Bliss and the survivors’ families. None more so than Colin Elterman, the father of Sasha, who endured years of surgeries and treatment. He became an articulate and outspoken voice, calling for compensation and action from the State of Israel (Elterman declined to be interviewed for this article).
“They (the victims and families) felt they really weren’t being heard. They felt they weren’t being represented. And they were left to deal with the whole situation themselves.”
Bliss’s view contrasts starkly with one long-serving Zionist leader.
In a recent post on the ZFA website, former federal president Ron Weiser shared his memory of that period. Weiser cast the ZFA as chief facilitator and lobbyist in the bid to obtain compensation to the families.
“With little progress in resolving any of the issues…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,” Weiser wrote.
It’s a view Bliss struggles to comprehend. “Ron is welcome to his own opinions and memories. I won’t comment on that. But it’s not as I remember it. And it’s certainly not how people who were working at the coalface remember it.”
The State of Israel eventually would intervene. A July 2000 Knesset report into the fall-out of the bridge collapse recommended that the Government assume “public responsibility which will guarantee that the injured persons will not be left without compensation and that their legal interests be pushed ahead with the greatest possible speed until completion.”
This would see the Israeli government contribute one third of total compensation payments of $US20 million ($A26.12 million) by 2004. It was a major win that, in Bliss’s eyes, took “three unnecessary and painful years”.
Two decades after the collapse of the bridge, he admits that time has healed many of the old wounds. However, he continues to hold misgivings about the way the State of Israel ignores the diaspora’s views, particularly in the wake of the controversial conversion bill being debated.
“It’s the same attitude again. When Israel needs you, we respond. But it doesn’t seem to be a likewise support from Israel for the diaspora. It was very disappointing (during the Maccabiah bridge disaster) and I would have hoped that that it would have changed.”