At Mount Meron holy site, man allegedly bites brother of victim of deadly 2021 crush

Spokesperson for minister of heritage cut on arm during altercation ahead of annual pilgrimage to shrine; police let off perpetrator with a warning to ‘make sure things stay calm’

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Haredi Jews attend Lag B'Omer celebrations in Mount Meron on May 8, 2023. (David Cohen/Flash90)
Haredi Jews attend Lag B'Omer celebrations in Mount Meron on May 8, 2023. (David Cohen/Flash90)

In a violent incident Monday at the Mount Meron holy site, police warned, but did not detain, a man who allegedly bit a worshiper whose brother died in a deadly 2021 crush during an annual pilgrimage to the shrine.

Israel Diskind, a spokesperson for Minister of Heritage Amichai Eliyahu, received a cut on his forearm from the bite during the altercation ahead of this year’s pilgrimage, which began Monday night.

The annual event draws tens of thousands of mostly Haredi Jews to celebrate the holiday of Lag B’Omer near the gravesite of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a 2nd-century sage.

According to some witnesses, a number of radical Haredi Jews mistakenly thought that Diskind was an undercover police officer.

Efforts to control crowds at the site since the 2021 disaster have sparked tension between worshipers and authorities. Forty-five people were killed in the crush caused by overcrowding in the most deadly civil disaster in Israel’s history.

Over 200,000 people were expected to participate in the Lag B’Omer festivities on Monday evening.

Police released the alleged biting perpetrator to “make sure things stay calm,” a reporter from the Kan public broadcaster wrote on Twitter, quoting a police officer.

A video posted online by Moked, a Haredi news site, showed a young man said to be the perpetrator screaming as police stood around him.

Zvi Sukkot, a lawmaker for the far-right Religious Zionism party, said that what the police officer said about the incident “defies belief” and urged police to arrest the perpetrator.

Diskind, whose brother Simcha Bunim was 23 when he died, “devoted the past two years volunteering to achieve justice for the families of victims of the catastrophe,” Sukkot wrote. “I truly hope police will lay their hands as soon as possible on the person who bit him on the anniversary of his brother’s death, and that that person answers for his action to the full extent of the law.”

The bite followed two other violent incidents at the site in recent days.

On Saturday, a group of young Jewish visitors to the holy site were filmed brutally beating a Druze security guard, who said the attack began after the assailants heard him speaking Arabic.

Two men were arrested and police said more arrests were expected as the investigation progresses.

On Monday, some Haredi visitors to the Meron shrine clashed with police and security guards, with some throwing stones and bottles at the officers, who were forced to flee their post, according to the Haaretz news site.

The rioters were opposed to the police presence and security restrictions that were put in place last year as a lesson from the disaster.

The assailants were heard shouting “Nazis” at the security guards, demanding that they leave the site.

The 2022 festivities were significantly downsized and several safety measures were implemented to avoid a repeat of the catastrophe.

Organizers also struggled to find insurance companies to cover this year’s events. Last year, the government partially covered the event for potential physical harm to participants.

Political wrangling over the disaster, and an investigation into the incident, were a longstanding issue for the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu-led government in the year following the crush.

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