Location 'an attempt to Israelize East Jerusalem'

Fearing Hezbollah in north, state moves Lag B’Omer event to East Jerusalem flashpoint

With Mt. Meron in the Galilee closed due to missile fears, 30,000 pilgrims are expected to stream into the Shimon HaTzadik tomb in Sheikh Jarrah on Saturday night and Sunday

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

Haredi Jews watch preperations for the Lag B'Omer festivities at the Shimon HaTzadik tomb in Jerusalem on May 22, 2024. (Photo by Arie Leib Abrams/FLASH90)
Haredi Jews watch preperations for the Lag B'Omer festivities at the Shimon HaTzadik tomb in Jerusalem on May 22, 2024. (Photo by Arie Leib Abrams/FLASH90)

In what it described as a painful but necessary move, the government has canceled the annual Lag B’Omer pilgrimage to Meron in the Galilee for fear of rockets from Lebanon.

Now, critics warn that an alternative mass event organized by the government at the Shimon HaTzadik tomb in Jerusalem is also inflammatory because of its location in Sheikh Jarrah, a predominantly Arab area in East Jerusalem that is a frequent flashpoint for violent clashes between police and Palestinians.

Up to 100,000 gather annually at Mount Meron for the main holiday events, which are usually held there because it is the presumed burial place of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, a second-century sage who is said to have died on Lag B’Omer.

In 2021, the Lag B’Omer crowd crushed 45 people to death, spurring police and other authorities to be increasingly cautious in determining their deployment, preparations and forecasts ahead of the holiday. This year Lag B’Omer begins on Saturday night and runs through sundown on Sunday.

Several controversies around this year’s events show, as in previous years, emerging divisive issues, separating many who view the Lag B’Omer observance as secondary in importance to safety considerations, and revelers who are driven by their faith to take risks.

On Thursday, at least two major Lag B’Omer venues with the potential of attracting many would-be Meron pilgrims appeared to be on course — in Sheikh Jarrah and Beit Shemesh, where 30,000 are expected to attend in each location. However, there is concern that many pilgrims intend to defy the ban on attending the pilgrimage in Meron and Tiberias, whose municipality also banned Lag B’Omer celebrations at the Rabbi Akiva gravesite due to safety issues.

In many secular and national religious communities, Lag B’Omer is a relatively minor date. Children and families enjoy bonfires on the eve of Lag B’Omer, whose name means the 33rd day of Omer, the 49-day period that separates Passover from Shavuot.

For many Haredim, it is a major occasion. The Talmud ties it to a plague that claimed the lives of thousands of students of Rabbi Akiva, one of the greatest early rabbinic figures and one of 10 holy martyrs later executed by the Romans for teaching Torah. The plague ended on Lag B’Omer, according to legend.

Official government alternative in Jerusalem flashpoint

The event in Sheikh Jarrah is organized by the Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage Ministry under Meir Porush of the United Torah Judaism party, which is also responsible for the Meron event. The Jerusalem event is meant to offer an alternative to the Meron one, a spokesperson for the ministry confirmed to The Times of Israel.

The gravesite of Shimon, a Second Temple-period sage, usually receives up to 10,000 pilgrims over the 24 hours of Lag B’Omer. This year, it may receive 30,000 and has the infrastructure and capacity to safely accommodate them, said the spokesperson.

An invite sent out by the ministry said that Chief Sephardic Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef would attend the Sheikh Jarrah event.

Border Police officers try to disperse Palestinians and activists gathering to demonstrate in the flashpoint neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in east Jerusalem, February 18, 2022. (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP)

Ir Amim, a dovish organization that terms the presence of a Jewish minority in Shiekh Jarrah and other predominantly Palestinian areas a “constant source of provocation,” warned in a statement Wednesday against the arrival of many pilgrims to the Jewish gravesite in that Jerusalem neighborhood.

“For the authorities to sponsor this event in a context in which they also promote the eviction and displacement of Palestinians from Sheikh Jarrah is NOT a gesture for diversity but an attempt to Israelize East Jerusalem,” Ir Amim wrote in the statement.

The Jerusalem Lag B’Omer event in Sheikh Jarrah is an annual affair, Ir Amim noted, “involving many Border Police officers, road blockages and violent clashes. This year, because of the cancelation of the Meron event, tens of thousands of Jewish revelers are expected to arrive and that’s a whole other story,” Ir Amim wrote.

Production workers prepare for the Lag B’Omer festivities at the Shimon HaTzadik gravesite in east Jerusalem, on May 22, 2024. (Photo by Arie Leib Abrams/FLASH90)

When asked to respond to the objections raised by Ir Amim, Shmuel Karmasky, a spokesman for the Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage Ministry, said, “We’re not ashamed of anything, developing the Shimon HaTzadik gravesite is a national priority headed by the ministry.”

“It’s not meant to provoke and we have good ties with community leaders in the neighbourhood. We don’t expect disturbances,” Karmasky said.

‘No budget’ for memorial event for Meron crush victims

Meanwhile, a memorial event for the victims of the 2021 crowd crush tragedy at Meron was canceled. The event, which the Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage Ministry canceled this week, was also supposed to take place in Jerusalem.

Karmasky said the Finance Ministry has declined to allocate funds necessary for holding the memorial event and that the Shimon HaTzadik compound is unsuitable for it.

“It has to be a separate event and the treasury won’t release the funds,” he said.

The Finance Ministry did not immediately reply to a query by The Times of Israel.

Victims of the April 30, 2021, Mount Meron disaster: Top row (L-R): Chen Doron, Haim Rock, Ariel Tzadik, Yossi Kohn, Yisrael Anakvah, Yishai Mualem, Yosef Mastorov, Elkana Shiloh and Moshe Levy; 2nd row (L-R): Shlomo Zalman Leibowitz, Shmuel Zvi Klagsbald, Mordechai Fakata, Dubi Steinmetz, Abraham Daniel Ambon, Eliezer Gafner, Yosef Greenbaum, Yehuda Leib Rubin and Yaakov Elchanan Starkovsky; 3rd row (L-R): Haim Seler, Yehoshua Englard, Moshe Natan Neta Englard, Yedidia Hayut, Moshe Ben Shalom, David Krauss, Eliezer Tzvi Joseph, Yosef Yehuda Levy and Yosef Amram Tauber; 4th row (L-R): Menachem Knoblowitz, Elazar Yitzchok Koltai, Yosef David Elhadad, Shraga Gestetner, Yonatan Hebroni, Shimon Matalon, Elazar Mordechai Goldberg, Moshe Bergman and Daniel Morris; 5th row (L-R): Ariel Achdut, Moshe Mordechai Elhadad, Hanoch Slod, Yedidya Fogel, Menahem Zakbah, Simcha Diskind, Moshe Tzarfati, Nahman Kirshbaum and Eliyahu Cohen.

Boaz Strakovsky, whose son Elhanan was killed in the 2021 stampede, called the cancelation of the commemoration an “insult” to the families of the victims. The fact that an alternative celebration is being organized in Jerusalem “makes it even more incomprehensible,” he told The Times of Israel. “If there’s money for security at the alternative Lag B’Omer event in Jerusalem, why not for the commemoration?”

The Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage Ministry’s budget includes a NIS 11 million (nearly $3 million) allocation for the canceled Meron event.

Karmasky said that almost all of the Meron budget was to cover the cost of a police operation to prevent pilgrims from reaching Meron. The event at Shimon HaTzadik’s grave will cost about NIS 2 million ($544,000) to produce, Karmasky said.

Smoke rises after rockets fired from Lebanon hit an open area in Mt. Meron, northern Israel, May 15, 2024. (Photo by David Cohen/Flash90)

David Stav, an Orthodox rabbi who chairs the centrist Tzohar rabbinical group, said it was “very difficult to understand” why the Jerusalem commemoration event had been canceled. But, Stav added, it is “perfectly legitimate” to hold a Lag B’Omer event in Sheikh Jarrah.

“My only concerns are crowdedness, because the site there is not very big, and possible clashes with the Arab population, but as long as sufficient measures are taken to avoid that, it seems to me there’s no reason to not allow it: It’s a well-known Jewish heritage site in Jerusalem.”

The Sheikh Jarrah event is not on a list of 48 locations approved by the Municipality of Jerusalem for Lag B’Omer celebrations, which typically involve lighting bonfires. The municipality is not involved in the Sheikh Jarrah event, it has said.

Idan Ilouz, a police spokesperson, confirmed that a “special compound has been prepared” at Sheikh Jarrah and “the relevant authorities are in the final stages of approving the plans” for the event. He did not reply to questions on how the police are preparing to enforce the ban in Meron or make sure events in Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh, and beyond are held safely despite a likely uptick in attendance by would-be Meron pilgrims.

Rabbi Elimelech Biderman and his followers celebrate the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer in Meron, on May 9, 2023. (Photo by David Cohen/Flash90)

Privately funded mass event in Beit Shemesh

In Beit Shemesh, the municipality expects about 30,000 revelers at the main torch-lighting event led by Rabbi Elimelech Biderman, whose lighting ceremonies in Meron are widely considered the main event on-site. The municipality and the event’s production team built a compound for the event that Tzvi Frankel, the municipality’s point man for the Lag B’Omer event, says was approved by police and emergency services.

The budget for the event came from private donors, Frankel said, after attempts to obtain government funding for it failed.

Rabbi Akiva’s grave in Tiberias also draws pilgrims on Lag B’Omer. But this year, Tiberias Mayor Yossi Naba’a issued a ban on events there because he deemed it unsuitable for the volume of visitors anticipated there following Meron’s closure.

Police block the entrance to Meron, northern Israel, ahead of the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer, May 22, 2024. (Photo by David Cohen/Flash90)

The 2021 tragedy at Meron — which a committee of inquiry in March said was the responsibility of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, several cabinet ministers, senior police officers, and holy site custodians — led to major changes in how the event is held. The decision to cancel it this year, however, was due to frequent rocket and missile fire by Hezbollah into the Galilee, including into Meron.

Moshe Levy, a father of 10 from the West Bank settlement of Shiloh, said he has been coming to Meron since before he was born. “My mother went there when I was in her womb,” he said.

Yet Levy, 54,  intends to stay in Shiloh this year and celebrate Lag B’Omer locally, he told The Times of Israel.

“No one should get hurt to fulfill this custom, no matter how significant or spiritually powerful it is,” he said.

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