JERUSALEM — On Thursday, April 29, a festive evening of prayer, dancing, and communion took a drastic turn for the worse. Around 1 AM, chaos arose, and the once calm and composed celebration resulted in 45 casualties, 150 injured individuals, and a ravaged Mount Meron. It was one of the deadliest civilian disasters in Israel’s history and an event that called for, according to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an annual day of mourning.
Estimates report that 100,000 people, mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews, had congregated around the tomb of a revered 2nd-century sage, Rabbi Shimon Bair Yochai, on Mount Meron in northern Israel. The rabbi was one of the first to publicly teach the kabbalah, a mystical sect of Jewish tradition and the Torah that deals primarily with the essence of God. The holiday during which this rabbi is commemorated is called Lag B’Omer, and it features the joyous lighting of bonfires to symbolize the spiritual light that can be found within the magical kabbalistic teachings. The holiday is observed by Jews across the globe, but many pilgrims travel to Israel to visit Rabbi Yochai’s tomb on the anniversary of his death in hope of receiving his blessings.
The gathering is typically quite extensive, but nobody was expecting it to be as large-scale as it was: the largest congregation in Israel since the start of the pandemic. Witnesses have described the scene as desperate and hellish; an entourage of pilgrims surged through the mountain’s cramped corridors with many adults and children ensnared in the mix unable to breathe. The precise source of the strikingly high death toll is still under investigation, but authorities believe that just after midnight, a stampede, consisting of about 20,000, tore through a narrow alleyway with a steep, slippery staircase. Allegedly, that is when people began to fall and violently trample one another. As one witness report to Haaretz put it, “It happened in a split second… It was a disaster.”
The celebration turned ugly very quickly. Stampeders were asphyxiated and crushed underneath the wave of thousands all packed into a single corridor. Soon, a pile of bodies appeared in the metal passageway, which was lubricated with spilled grape juice. One victim, currently hospitalized due to the incident, reflected, “I remember hundreds of people screaming ‘I can’t breathe.’”
Viral videos depict rescue workers struggling to tear down barriers that prevented people from exiting and led to severe overcrowding. The Justice Ministry later said that an investigation has been opened regarding the possible misconduct of officers in the area.
As for the COVID side of the story, Israel’s swift vaccination campaign and plunging infection and fatality rates have allowed it to become one of the first nations to return to near normalcy. Israel has lifted its outdoor mask mandate, fully reopened its schools, and as of now, has fully vaccinated approximately 56% of its population.
Further, due to the pressure inflicted by Haredim and ultra-Orthodox politicians, the government caved and agreed for there to be no regulations on the number of visitors permitted to ascend the mountain. This decision was also made in lieu of last year’s unfoldings: when people gathered to celebrate on the mountain in 2020, Israeli officers arrested some 300 who had ignored checkpoints. In response, the crowd had thrown stones and other nearby objects at the police. It was not a pretty situation, and thus the Israeli government decided not to meddle with the religious groups who oversaw the celebration and who have been gaining more and more influence in Israel’s political landscape. The government resolved last-minute to restrict the three bonfire compounds to 3,000 visitors at a time, but this restriction was not upheld in the slightest since not a single department took on the responsibility. In the end, the barricades that had been set up sporadically between the different alleyways and corridors only culminated in more casualties. On Friday, Netanyahu tweeted, “What happened here is heartbreaking. There were people crushed to death, including children.”
News of the accident should not necessarily be shocking, however. In 2008 and 2011, reports were published prophetically warning Israel of the potential for serious danger at the mountain site. It was known that the mountain and its makeshift passageways were not equipped to support tens of thousands of rushed pilgrims, and yet this glaring fact was ignored. Why? Though technically speaking, the Ministry for Religious Services is in charge of maintaining the compounds and their visitors, in reality, private religious trusts and charities hold all the power. Consequently, the management of the compounds has, by some, been dubbed a “mafia” concerned with only monetary gain and ego inflation.
Therefore, by no means is this the first time government officials, ombudsmen, politicians, and civilians, including many rabbis, have cautioned the nation about the safety issues at the site of the country’s most massive annual religious festival. The hesitancy of the state to intervene with the religious groups that control the compounds, as well as their political counterparts, is what has caused havoc to reign free time and time again. “A place without laws” is how Mordechai Halperin, the former mayor of a neighboring village, described it.
The incident was not only the fault of all those who carelessly, barbarically flooded into the corridors and looked the other way when children were being swallowed alive. It was also the fault of a government that was too afraid to enforce any sort of limitations in the first place.
One of the 45 murdered on Thursday night was a recent graduate of Marsha Stern Talmudic Academy (MTA) and a resident of Bergenfield, New Jersey. Donny Morris was a friend of a friend, and, even though I had never met him, I know several people who went to school with him and who characterized him as a ceaselessly smiling, constantly overjoyed friend of all. Donny was studying in Israel for his gap year and decided to travel with his friends to Rabbi Yochai’s tomb and experience the special Lag B’Omer celebration for himself. It was there, at the horrific stampede, that his life was taken.
These sorts of accidents, in many ways, are not so accidental if they occur under a government that prefers to turn a blind eye when approached with a difficult decision or task. Israeli authorities need to do better. The religious Jewish community needs to do better. We all need to do better to make certain that safety, above all else, is guaranteed and agonizing catastrophes like this never happen again.