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Chief rabbi, top Haredi MK urge government to assert control over Mount Meron

United Torah Judaism leader Gafni says pilgrimage site, where 45 were crushed to death, has been neglected by politicians since ‘the establishment of the state’

Ultra-Orthodox Jews gather at the grave site of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai at Mount Meron in northern Israel on April 29, 2021, as they celebrate the Jewish holiday of Lag B'Omer (JALAA MAREY / AFP)
Ultra-Orthodox Jews gather at the grave site of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai at Mount Meron in northern Israel on April 29, 2021, as they celebrate the Jewish holiday of Lag B'Omer (JALAA MAREY / AFP)

A chief rabbi and the head of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party on Sunday called for the government to assert control over the Mount Meron pilgrimage site, following the deadly crush last week that left 45 people dead.

Following the disaster during Lag B’Omer celebrations, and under intensifying public, political and media scrutiny of the chain of events that led to the tragedy at the gravesite of 2nd century sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, a picture has emerged of a facility caught in a years-long tug of war between various authorities, religious sects and interest groups that left it bereft of proper, unified state oversight even as constant warning bells were being sounded regarding its potential for catastrophe.

Since the disaster, several former police chiefs have characterized Meron — Israel’s second-most visited Jewish holy site after the Western Wall — as a kind of extraterritorial facility. It was administered by several ultra-Orthodox groups, while the National Center for the Protection of Holy Places, part of the Ministry of Religious Affairs, apparently had some responsibility over it as well, as did the local authority and the police. But ultimately, no single state body has full responsibility.

Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau told Army Radio on Sunday that in the wake of the Meron tragedy, management of the site must be formally determined.

Israel’s Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau March 29, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“The site needs to be handled differently. What is happening at the moment does not respect the place or human life. The state is obligated to take responsibility for it,” he said.

The chief rabbi also suggested spreading out the Lag B’Omer festivities to avoid overcrowding in the future.

“It could be that the events need to be divided over a whole week,” Lau told the Kan public broadcaster. He suggested that some bonfires and prayers could be held before Lag B’Omer, which falls on a particular date of the Hebrew calendar, with the more boisterous revelry taking place during and after the festival.

The head of the United Torah Judaism party, Moshe Gafni, told Kan that the Mount Meron site “looks like Eastern Asia. The place hasn’t been touched since the establishment of the state.”

He added: “You can’t have so many people come to such a small space and not have a disaster.”

Gafni said he personally knows several people who lost family members on Thursday night.

Top row (L-R): Menahem Zakbah, Simcha Diskind, Shraga Gestetner, Shimon Matalon; 2nd row (L-R): Moshe Natan Neta Englard, Yehoshua Englard, Yosef David Elhadad, Moshe Mordechai Elhadad; 3rd row (L-R): Haim Seler, Yedidia Hayut, Daniel (Donny) Morris, Nahman Kirshbaum; 4th row (L-R): Abraham Daniel Ambon; Yedidya Fogel, Yisrael Anakvah, Moshe Ben Shalom

“It’s horrible,” he said. “The State of Israel has never known such a thing. Each of them was an entire world.”

Since the disaster, calls have mounted for a state commission of inquiry to investigate.

Gafni said Sunday that he neither opposes nor supports a state commission of inquiry, but raised questions as to why nothing had been done in the past to make the festival safer.

United Torah Judaism leader MK Moshe Gafni at a conference in Jerusalem on March 7, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“First of all government decisions need to be made, [in which] the government says what it intends to do with this place,” Gafni told Kan. “Why haven’t they done anything until today?”

The tragedy occurred early Friday as thousands streamed through a narrow walkway that was covered with metal flooring and may have been wet, causing some people to fall underfoot during the rush for the exit. Some apparently fell on the walkway and down a flight of stairs at its end, toppling onto those below and precipitating a fatal crushing domino effect.

In an interview two hours before the Meron disaster, the head of the Religious Affairs Ministry’s holy sites administration spoke of apprehension over crowding at the site and claimed police were ultimately responsible for the event — an assertion police officials have contested.

“We are constantly in apprehension that all the systems function correctly,” Yossi Schwinger, head of the National Center for Development of Holy Places, told a Haredi journalist. “That God forbid some mother’s child isn’t in danger of suffocating due to a crush and crowding.”

Israeli rescue forces and police at a mass fatality scene, after a fatal crush in a packed walkway, during celebrations of the holiday of Lag B’Omer on Mt. Meron, in northern Israel on April 30, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

When the reporter noted the police seemed especially tense due to the huge volume of people there, Schwinger noted that earlier he too had been pushed around by crowds and at one point “children were almost crushed. It was an unpleasant sight.”

But he added: “People think if there was crowding, the [Center] didn’t manage things properly.” However, he said, “the manager [of the event] is the Israel Police. We budget everything, plan everything but here on the ground, safety-wise it’s the Israel Police.”

Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, who oversees police, said Saturday night that while he bore overall responsibility for the incident, “responsibility does not mean blame.”

“The disaster that happened this year could have happened any other year,” Ohana said, noting that in fact the number of revelers at the holy site, about 100,000, was far lower this year than in previous years. (The event was canceled in 2020 because of COVID-19, but has drawn hundreds of thousands of participants in the past.) He said the scope of the tragedy went “far beyond the police.”

Northern District Commander Shimon Lavi said on Friday that he bears “overall responsibility” for the disaster as the local police commander. However, an unnamed senior police official told Haaretz on Saturday that “there is a big difference between taking responsibility and blame.”

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