‘Everything went silent’: Mossad chief’s Haredi brother recalls deadly Meron crush

Zohar Barnea says he went to Lag B’Omer events early this year to pray for David’s appointment to lead spy agency; afterward, ‘I didn’t function. I’m still not myself’

Zohar Barnea, the Haredi brother of Mossad chief David Barnea, returns to the site of the Mount Meron disaster he survived earlier in the year, December 2021 (Channel 13 screenshot)
Zohar Barnea, the Haredi brother of Mossad chief David Barnea, returns to the site of the Mount Meron disaster he survived earlier in the year, December 2021 (Channel 13 screenshot)

The brother of Mossad chief David Barnea has recounted his harrowing experience during April’s disaster at Mount Meron, which saw 45 people killed in a crush at a religious festival in the northern shrine.

Zohar Barnea, a Haredi man, told Channel 13 how he and his son were caught in the stream of people as a packed staircase going down from the shrine became a death trap amid the intense crowding.

“I got here with my son around 12:40 a.m. We started up the path and got stuck… We stood for several minutes that felt like an eternity,” he recalled as he visited the site again with the network’s cameras.

“I had a miracle. People around me started to suffocate. I took off my hat and started giving them a bit of air,” he said, simulating a fanning movement. “The thing that worried me most was my son. He stood a little bit above me. I kept shouting to him ‘Are you breathing? What’s going on, are you breathing?’

“I understood that things were not freeing up, people were coming and coming and coming,” Barnea said.

The disaster happened at the annual Lag B’Omer celebrations, which drew some 100,000 worshipers, mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews, despite longstanding warnings about the safety of the site and the dangers of overcrowding. Hundreds of people bottlenecked in a narrow passageway, where a slippery slope caused people to stumble and fall in a human avalanche that killed dozens and injured at least 150.

It was Israel’s worst peacetime disaster.

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

Barnea’s brother David became head of Israel’s spy agency in May, shortly after the disaster. The two grew up in a secular family. Zohar turned to religion at age 13, though he did his military service in the Golani infantry brigade and only became Haredi later on.

Zohar said the two have very close ties. He had come to Meron particularly early this year to pray for his brother’s appointment to Mossad chief. “He has his abilities and his virtues,” he said. “I think he’s fully realized the potential of the job.”

Mossad chief David Barnea at a ceremony marking his taking the helm of the agency, on June 1, 2021. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

At Meron, as people toppled around him, Barnea somehow remained standing amid the pileup.

“I felt that I was alone in the world. At that moment I felt, and this feeling has stayed with me very powerfully, it was as though everything went silent,” he said.

“There were people shouting ‘help, help me’… It was a terrible sight.”

Barnea and others started trying to help people out of the crush. He recalled helping Avigdor Hayut as well as one of his sons, Shmuel.

“I pulled [the boy out] and started to resuscitate him, to do chest compressions,” he said.

The boy survived, but another of Hayut’s sons as well as a student of his who had come with them did not.

Barnea said he could not initially find his son amid the chaos, and was blocked by a policeman who was aggressive toward him as he tried to move around.

The crowd in the moments before the Mount Meron tragedy, April 30, 2021 (Screen grab)

“I told him eventually ‘Listen, I was in the disaster, I survived, I can’t find my son, you’ve got to help me find him.’ He told me ‘A pity you didn’t kick it too.'”

Barnea eventually found his son safe, and then “everything hit me. I fell apart. For the first week or two, I didn’t function at all. I literally couldn’t walk. I stopped working, I kept seeing the events before my eyes. I’m still not myself.”

He put much of the blame for the scope of the disaster on police conduct, which he said was violent and antagonistic throughout. “The feeling was that the cops were not here to help us, they were our enemies… Everywhere you saw cops hitting people, it was heartbreaking.”

After the formation of Israel’s new government in June, a state commission of inquiry was formed to investigate the disaster. In November the panel submitted an interim report Monday to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, though few details have been made public.

Bennett said the government will study the report closely to ensure such an incident never recurs.

“Negligence, failed management, unprofessional appointments cost lives,” Bennett said in a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office.

The report was also submitted to the Religious Services Ministry and Public Security Ministry.

Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana vowed that next year’s celebrations “will be completely different from past Meron events, and will take place according to different safety standards.”

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