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In bid to up safety, religious affairs minister taps supervisor for Meron festival

Tzviki Tessler named to oversee arrangements for annual spring event at pilgrimage site, as authorities strive to prevent repeat of last year’s deadly crush

Undated photo of Tzviki Tessler. (Israel Police)
Undated photo of Tzviki Tessler. (Israel Police)

Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana on Monday announced his appointment of IDF (res.) Brigadier-General Tzviki Tessler to supervise arrangements at the Mount Meron pilgrimage site ahead of the next annual celebration there.

The appointment was made in line with the interim recommendations of a state inquiry commission into the tragedy at the previous event, in April, when 45 people were crushed to death, the Religious Affairs Ministry said in a statement.

The disaster happened at the yearly Lag B’Omer festival, which drew some 100,000 worshipers, mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews, despite longstanding warnings about the safety of the site and the dangers of overcrowding.

Tessler will have overall responsibility for arrangements at the festival and will work with all other relevant bodies, while reporting to Kahana, the statement said.

Two weeks ago the government decided to assign responsibility for the annual Meron event to the religious affairs minister. It was also decided that the minister should appoint, by the end of the year, a figure to oversee the event.

The kippa-wearing Tessler, 57, is a former squadron commander in the Israeli Air Force and ex-head of the IDF’s Home Front Command headquarters. After leaving the IDF, Tessler was head of the Israel Police planning and organization branch in 2016-2019, holding the rank of deputy commissioner.

Minister of Religious Services Matan Kahana (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

This year’s celebrations at Meron “will be completely different from the events that took place at the site until now,” Kahana said.

“The safety of celebrants will be top priority, this time,” he vowed.

Administration of the Meron celebrations requires “rich knowledge and experience in understanding complex events,” Kahana said. “Tzviki Tessler has all the skills and knowledge to manage an event like this.”

Tessler said that last April’s “terrible catastrophe demands that we act with reverence and a sense of immense responsibility.” He said he would go to any length to ensure the events are held according to their long tradition while ensuring strict safety measures.

Tessler added that he looked forward to cooperating with relevant bodies involved in organizing the celebrations, which typically see several compounds under the auspices of different religious sects holding events at the same time.

Lag B’Omer in 2022 starts on the night of May 18.

The state commission of inquiry into the disaster submitted its interim report in November.

The panel, chaired by retired Supreme Court president Miriam Naor, laid out a list of recommendations, including appointing a minister to oversee preparations, capping the crowd at 20,000, improving infrastructure at the site, expanding the site to reduce crowding, and redistributing the crowds to different areas.

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)

At the April 2021 celebrations, 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.

In October, a retired police commander pointed to alleged major missteps by Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai that led to the deadly stampede. Amnon Alkalai, head of the police’s operations division at the time, said he had sought to impose crowd caps at Mount Meron due to the COVID-19 outbreak and had warned of an impending disaster. But, he said, Shabtai had opposed the restrictions.

A month earlier, Health Ministry director-general Nachman Ash told the commission that no government body had been willing to accept responsibility for ensuring COVID-19 policies were upheld during the annual event.

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