One year after the worst civil tragedy in Israel’s history, authorities are gearing up for another massive celebration at Mount Meron in northern Israel on Wednesday night to mark the start of the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer.
The 33rd day of the seven-week period between the holidays of Passover and Shavuot, Lag B’Omer is the traditional anniversary of the death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, known by his acronym Rashbi, a mystical rabbinic figure from the 2nd century. Bar Yochai called on his followers to celebrate the anniversary of his death, a tradition known as Yom Hillula, or day of festivity.
At Mount Meron, where Bar Yochai is buried, the holiday is traditionally marked with ceremonial lightings of massive torches by various Hasidic sects throughout the night, from evening to dawn, with music and dancing and general revelry. The two dozen or so torch-lightings are held in six compounds surrounding the tomb, large areas with bleachers, a stage, sound system and a giant metal torch.
At last year’s event on Mount Meron, 45 men and boys were crushed to death and over 150 were injured as thousands of people descended a far too small, illegally constructed exit ramp, known as Dov Bridge, from one of these compounds, known as the Toldot Aharon compound for the Toldot Aharon Hasidic sect that manages it. As throngs of people made their way down the ramp and the poorly built stairs at the end of it — and a smaller number tried going up — a massive bottleneck formed, sparking a sudden mass panic, which resulted in the unprecedented body count. (Initial but long-lasting claims that police barricades had caused the crush were only dismissed several months later, when videos surfaced showing that the barriers had been removed well before the event.)
Though the disaster shocked and horrified Israelis — particularly ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, Israelis, for whom the Lag B’Omer celebration on Mount Meron had become one of the premier public happenings of the year — it came as no surprise to many, as the annual event had grown into a massive affair over the years with over 100,000 annual participants but without the appropriate safety precautions and government oversight to match.
Though the deadly crush was caused by the specific circumstances on the ramp, the disaster prompted a comprehensive, critical review of the event in the form of a government inquiry.
The event at Meron, frequently one of the largest gatherings held in Israel each year, was found to have been organized and run by a hodgepodge of government offices and private groups, with no clear hierarchy and no one body ultimately responsible for it.
Appearing before the commission of inquiry and attempting to fend off claims that police were to blame for the disaster, Israel Police commissioner Kobi Shabtai said “nobody wanted to take responsibility” for running the Lag B’Omer event, leading to confusion and oversights. Shabtai deemed the engineering of the ramp to ultimately be the culprit behind the disaster.
After six months of hearing testimony, the commission of inquiry released its initial recommendations in November, almost all of which were adopted for this year’s event.
The commission’s findings were applied not only to this year’s Mount Meron event but to other mass religious gatherings that have been held since last year’s Lag B’Omer disaster. These changes have not been without controversy, however.
Though there was little backlash against limitations placed on the annual priestly blessing ceremony that is held each year at the Western Wall over Passover, the restrictions on the Christian Holy Fire ceremony last month faced fierce criticism not only from local churches but also from visiting Christian pilgrims from abroad and from Jordan, which called for the Israeli measures to be “rejected and condemned.”
Knesset member Matan Kahana, who until Friday served as religious services minister and is still tasked with overseeing the Hillula event, has faced an uphill battle in changing the format of the Mount Meron ceremony.
Perhaps most significantly, the commission of inquiry recommended that the event be the responsibility of the Religious Services Ministry, which appointed a project manager for the event, Tzviki Tessler. The organizers of the ceremony have also been given clearly defined areas of responsibility, as have police, emergency services and the other government offices involved in the event — in principle, at least.
The event this year will be far smaller than previous years in terms of both the number of participants and the size of the ceremony.
In place of multiple torch-lightings throughout the night, this year there will be only one lighting at a central location, preventing mass flows of participants between the different compounds.
Only 16,000 people will be allowed in the Bar Yochai tomb complex at any given time — compared to tens of thousands in previous years. In order to increase the number of people who can attend, each pilgrim will only be able to stay in the area of the tomb for four hours. Once they leave, another person can take their place.
The family members of the 45 men and boys who were crushed to death have been granted special passes to the event, allowing them to stay for as long as they like.
The responsibility for enforcing this 16,000-person limit will be put on the private organizers of the event — not on the police — and they will be required to track the ebb and flow of people into and out of the Bar Yochai tomb complex, keeping the number of people inside below 16,000 at all times.
The commissioner of the Northern District police, Shimon Lavi, said the number of visitors was not random but the result of careful consideration.
“We didn’t just pick a number. The quantity is based on analyses and reports from safety engineers. The whole idea is preserving order and public safety,” Lavi told reporters on Mount Meron on Monday.
To further control the crowds, the police are banning entry to the compound on foot or by car. The only way to enter the site will be on buses arranged by the Transportation Ministry, or shuttles from the parking lot.
More than 8,000 police officers will be deployed to the Mount Meron area on Wednesday night and Thursday morning to ensure that these new rules are implemented. In addition to the officers, the police will use drones, a helicopter, all-terrain vehicles, horses and motorbikes.
Lavi said the event would be “challenging” in light of the major changes that were made.
“We are not used to this new format. Please be patient. We are here to serve the public. We want the public to come and then get home safely,” Lavi added.
In addition to these logistical changes, over the past year the government has also made a number of alterations to the infrastructure on Mount Meron: Stairs were fixed and brought up to code around the compound, and the illegally constructed exit ramp where last year’s disaster occurred was destroyed.
In light of these additional safety measures and government oversight, this year’s event will be far more expensive than in years past, the Religious Services Ministry said.
“This year the event will cost NIS 60 million ($17.65 million). This is four times what was done before. The state is investing these funds to ensure that the general population can come, enjoy and get home safely,” Kahana told reporters on Monday.
As religious services minister, he instituted a number of reforms that are deeply unpopular with the country’s Haredi leadership, making him persona non grata in Haredi circles. The changes to the event, too, have met considerable criticism, with some top Hasidic rabbis calling on their followers to ignore the restrictions.
Rabbi Shmuel Yaakov Kohn, leader of the fiercely anti-Zionist Toldot Aharon sect whose compound was the site of last year’s disaster, encouraged his adherents to go without buying tickets and said that even those who have tickets should try to get in without showing them.
“By what right can the authorities limit our ascendance to Mount Meron? Therefore we do not have to cooperate with them,” Kohn said, according to Behadrei Haredim, a Haredi news site.
Speaking to the press on Monday, Kahana dismissed these and similar calls — as well as a recent spate of vandalism of the fences and barriers put up around the site — as coming from a “tiny minority trying to do what it can to destroy the rest of the Israeli people’s happiness.”
Lavi said the police were closely monitoring the situation and “will not allow rioters and those who want to disturb the peace to ruin the Hillula on Mount Meron.”
Kahana added that many rabbis and Haredi leaders had called on their followers to abide by the new guidelines.
“It is very important that people come to Meron at the times set for them, and no less important that they leave when their allotted time is up. Anyone who stays after their time should know that he is only hurting his brothers who are awaiting their turn to enter,” Kahana said.
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