Lag Ba'omer: How will Israel prevent the next Mount Meron tragedy?

It has been one year since the tragic events on Mount Meron. How have we been dealing with the fallout, and what meaningful changes have been made to prevent a future catastrophe?

 FUNERAL FOR brothers Yosef David Elhadar and Moshe Mordechai Elhadar (opposite, far right), killed in the Meron tragedy; flames of remembrance for 45 victims; both May 2, 2021.  (photo credit: FLASH90)
FUNERAL FOR brothers Yosef David Elhadar and Moshe Mordechai Elhadar (opposite, far right), killed in the Meron tragedy; flames of remembrance for 45 victims; both May 2, 2021.
(photo credit: FLASH90)

At 12:45 a.m., April 30, 2021, some 20,000 ultra-Orthodox men began to exit a large Lag Ba’omer bonfire held by the Toldos Aharon Hassidic group at a compound just southwest of the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai on Mount Meron. They headed down a narrow passageway known as “Dov Bridge,” which ended in a 90-degree turn to the right and then 11 stairs down to ground level. The stairs were narrower than the passageway, creating a bottleneck.

Then, a few people slipped and a human crush began.

Twenty minutes later, 38 men lay dead, seven died later in hospitals, and nearly 150 were injured, some of them seriously, in the largest civilian disaster in Israeli history.

A year later, the Magazine examined what has changed since then – and what has not.

 SIMCHA BUNIM DISKIND (far left), killed in the Meron disaster on April 30, 2021, with brother Yisrael.  (credit: Courtesy Diskind family) SIMCHA BUNIM DISKIND (far left), killed in the Meron disaster on April 30, 2021, with brother Yisrael. (credit: Courtesy Diskind family)

The families

As rumors began to swirl that something had happened during the hillula (death anniversary), 23-year-old Simcha Bunim Diskind’s brother Yisrael couldn’t reach him because cellphone reception had collapsed. Then, in a video, Yisrael recognized his brother in the bottleneck, being swept along by the crowd. Simcha Bunim died minutes later.

Simcha Bunim left behind 13 siblings, a widow and two orphans. His three older brothers did not take the yeshiva route and had served in the IDF, but he was different – he was intended for greatness, had a heart of gold and was a big loss to the family, Yisrael Diskind said.

Diskind described the last year as being “crazy” and expressed his frustration with the authorities, which he thought would help his family.

“After the shiva I realized that it was over,” Diskind said. “During the shiva, all of Am Yisrael came to comfort us, but I realized that the government was not going to do anything and was not going to set up a commission of inquiry.”

Diskind went from family to family and convinced them to set up a joint forum to demand a commission of inquiry and eventually receive compensation. Since then, he has represented the forum in its dealings with the authorities.

Diskind especially took issue with the compensation the government offered the families. In January, the government approved a proposal brought forward by the Finance and Justice ministries to compensate each family with NIS 500,000. But there was a catch: The sum would count as income, and since it was a large sum, families who received it would no longer be eligible for National Insurance Institute stipends, such as monthly payments to widows.

This was absurd, Diskind said.

“I’ll give you an example. There was a public discussion on social media about the terrorist from the Beersheba attack. When it became clear that his widow and orphans would receive payments, MKs came and said that there is nothing that can be done, the payments can’t be touched. And this, just moments after saying that they will take away the insurance from the families of the Meron disaster. This is hypocrisy and cruelty – is the NIS 500,000 a prize that they are giving so that we give up the insurance? The families should be given as much as possible. Currently, after losing a father, they are receiving laughable amounts.”

The compensation was approved by the Finance Committee on May 10, and NIS 22.5 million were allocated for the families.

“I call it assistance, not compensation, because nothing can compensate a child who will no longer hear his father recite the kiddush on the Sabbath eve,” he added.

“At the end of the day, this isn’t a traffic accident. This is a disaster that was waiting to happen for years. When we sat with [UTJ MK] Moshe Gafni in the Finance Committee, he came over and said that [for] years the MKs knew that a disaster would happen at Mount Meron, they just didn’t know when. He said this clearly, on record.

“So, if all the politicians knew that a disaster was going to happen, why didn’t they do anything about it? The ordinary citizen trusts them to ensure that everything is run safely, and only now that it blew up the politicians are worried,” he said.

On a different matter, however, Diskind said the families do feel that they are being treated respectfully – politicians have made sincere efforts to ensure the safety of this year’s hillula, which Diskind said is very important to the families. But only some, not all, Diskind said, mentioning the fact that not one haredi MK joined the May 2 tour of Meron and called it “delusional.”

Diskind also commended a ceremony planned for the night after the hillula, to which the families are planning to come together. A specific area near the compound was cleared specifically for this purpose.

The Finance Ministry said in response:

“Tort claims are considered income with regard to the National Insurance Institute stipend income assessments. Death payments for widows do not require an income assessment and therefore are not expected to be affected at all by the tort claims. In addition, we emphasize that in order to implement the government’s decision and in accordance with its content, the interministerial team determined that the payments to the families will be made in a way that minimizes as much as possible the damage, as long as they exist, to state benefits and pensions.

“It should also be noted that in light of the differing levels of stipends and income levels between each person, the information of an National Insurance Institute contact was provided in a letter sent to the families in order to enable them to address and verify the issue regarding each stipend individually.”

 ISRAEL POLICE  Northern District head Asst.-Ch. Shimon Lavi meets with members of the Knesset Public Security Committee and National Infrastructure Projects and Jewish Religious Services Committee following the pre-2022 ‘hillula’ tour, May 2.  (credit: MOSHE MIZRAHI) ISRAEL POLICE Northern District head Asst.-Ch. Shimon Lavi meets with members of the Knesset Public Security Committee and National Infrastructure Projects and Jewish Religious Services Committee following the pre-2022 ‘hillula’ tour, May 2. (credit: MOSHE MIZRAHI)
Evading responsibility

In late June 2021, two weeks after Prime Minister Naftali Bennett took office, the Mount Meron state commission of inquiry was appointed.

The inquiry had been stalled for an extended period by the former government of Benjamin Netanyahu, who wanted to avoid any blame for the tragedy.

Initially, the committee was led by former chief Justice Miriam Naor.

Though she died suddenly in January, she managed to run several months of hearings as well as issue an interim report in November 2021, which specified recommendations for how the May 2022 Lag Ba’omer celebration should be handled.

The final conclusions of the inquiry are expected to only be issued much later in 2022, at the earliest.

Former 2009-2016 Tel Aviv District Court president Dvora Berliner was appointed on February 1 instead of Naor.

To date, much of the blame has fallen on some extreme hassidic sects that were operating parts of the mountain in a very informal manner.

The Religious Affairs Ministry, which allowed itself to be pushed around by these sects, was blamed as well.

Engineers, who gave the paths, bridges and structures on the mountain a “clean bill of health” even though they were unsafe, have also been criticized.

But there also has been significant infighting and pointing of fingers among the top echelon of the police.

On April 11, Israel Police chief Insp.-Gen. Kobi Shabtai attempted to shift responsibility for the tragedy onto the head of the police’s Northern District, Asst.-Ch. Shimon Lavi, as well as on former police operations commander Amnon Alkalay, who is a fierce critic of Shabtai.

Alkalay said that despite senior police officers’ recommendation to restrict the crowd at each bonfire, Shabtai had outright rejected it.

“[Shabtai] said: ‘Either the mountain is completely open or closed,’” Alkalay said. “I warned them to prepare for a multi-casualty incident.” He added that during the preparatory meeting for the incident, “the chief said: ‘If there is a commission of inquiry, you can put it on me.’”

Shabtai rejected Alkalay’s testimony.

According to Shabtai, the decision on the format of the restrictions was transferred to the political echelon, since “it is not the police who are authorized to decide whether there will be restrictions.”

Former public security minister Amir Ohana and Shas chief Arye Deri were the most involved at the time, with Ohana famously taking responsibility but saying that “responsibility does not mean guilt.”

Lavi on the other hand said that he took general responsibility since he was the commander on the ground and of the district where the tragedy took place.

Lavi, Shabtai and many other officials have blamed the political echelon for pressuring them into allowing far too many visitors onto the mountain than what was safe.

All the officials complained that politicians had been afraid to confront the hassidic sects that controlled parts of the mountain, as well as the United Torah Judaism and Shas parties, which have pushed heavily to have no restrictions on the number of participants.

Regarding the commission’s November recommendations, the first was to limit the number of pilgrims present on the site at any one time.

Though that number could vary based on various safety criteria, the commission seemed to view 20,000 as a reasonable number.

Next, it said their arrival should be staggered throughout the night and the following day.

Naor, Rabbi Mordechai Karelitz and Maj.-Gen (Res.) Shlomo Yannai noted in their interim recommendations in November that although some work had been conducted at Meron to remove safety hazards and improve the infrastructure, it has not been completed and the site was still unsafe.

The commission said the area available to pilgrims on the mountain needs to be expanded, and that they must be “channeled” to ensure that crowd congestion does not occur.

The commission did not determine a static maximum number of visitors because the removal of unsafe structures and other work needed to be completed before the total available area could be known.

It also recommended selling tickets in advance and to coordinate the arrival of buses and other modes of transportation to Meron.

The commission also recommended allowing only one mass bonfire-lighting ceremony, as opposed to several such ceremonies that have taken place in recent decades by different hassidic groups.

It was also recommended that a government minister be appointed to oversee the entire Lag Ba’omer celebration, who should in turn appoint an experienced official to carry out the minister’s instructions.

 MERON 2022 project manager Brig.-Gen. (res.) and Israel Police Asst.-Ch. (ret.) Tzviki Tessler (center) gestures to (from left) MK Yomtob Kalfon, Jewish Religious Services Committee head MK Yulia Malinovsky, MK Moshe Tur-Paz and Public Security Committee head MK Merav Ben Ari, during a tour of the  (credit: MOSHE MIZRAHI) MERON 2022 project manager Brig.-Gen. (res.) and Israel Police Asst.-Ch. (ret.) Tzviki Tessler (center) gestures to (from left) MK Yomtob Kalfon, Jewish Religious Services Committee head MK Yulia Malinovsky, MK Moshe Tur-Paz and Public Security Committee head MK Merav Ben Ari, during a tour of the (credit: MOSHE MIZRAHI)
This year’s hillula

One thing is clear, the 2022 hillula will be radically different from last year.

First, the site itself does not look the same. All illegally built structures, including the Dov Bridge, were demolished, save for two that are under legal review, and existing passageways were widened.

The event is being coordinated under the responsibility of Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana, who hired Brig.-Gen. (res.) and Israel Police Asst.-Ch. (ret.) Tzviki Tessler to manage the preparations; tickets need to be pre-ordered and will serve as both transportation and entry passes; the entry will be staggered, as 4,000 people will be allowed onto the mountain per hour and will be given passes for a four-hour stay, meaning that no more than 16,000 pilgrims will be on the mountain at any given time; no private vehicles will be allowed to approach the site, and all public and private transportation will be diverted to 11 bus terminals, from which shuttles will ferry people to the complex; only one bonfire-lighting ceremony will be held; food will not be sold on the site; Rashbi’s grave itself will be run as a moving line, with separate entry and exit lines and a short duration in the tomb itself, and a tent set up outside for those who wish to remain and pray.

The plan was approved by Kahana on April 27 and awarded a NIS 50m. budget. That number will probably rise to NIS 60m., Tessler said in a joint session of the Knesset Public Security Committee and the National Infrastructure Projects and Jewish Religious Services Committee following a tour of the compound on May 2.

Tessler took further steps beyond the report’s recommendations and hired veteran campaigner Avi Blumental to lead an outreach division and explain the plan to the public. Blumental served as the Transportation Ministry’s outreach expert during the preparations for last year’s celebration and was also previously employed by the Health Ministry to do outreach for its COVID programs.

The large majority of the hillula’s participants are haredi, and outreach to haredim has its unique challenges, Blumental said.

Some haredi factions are separatist, and even have anarchist leanings, and do not accept government intervention in their affairs, Blumental said. He experienced similar challenges when dealing with COVID protocols.

“They do not use traditional media and do not even read haredi newspapers,” Blumental explained. To cope with the problem, the division set up an information hotline, and the number of calls is rising daily.

“The hotline acts as a sort of radio. It provides updates, but also includes messaging on the proper behavior on the mountain, the solidarity and the importance of cooperating with the plan.

“In parallel, we are doing a very large amount of work on the radio, Internet, newspapers, billboards and distribution in large WhatsApp groups that add up to a quarter-million devices.”

Meron is more than just an event, it is a cultural phenomenon, Blumental said.

“In the haredi and, especially, hassidic public, Meron works up a very strong passion. So, we even set up new specified [WhatsApp] groups that explain where exactly there is hot cholent, which hassidic rebbe just left and which rabbi just arrived. They include every detail about Meron, and people are thirsty for this,” he said.

“It is very important for us to bind together these reciprocal obligations, so that people understand that this isn’t an issue versus the police, the state or the project manager, but rather an issue that involves our friends and fellow people. We believe this will work, especially considering the tragedy that occurred last year,” he concluded.

With less than a week left until the event, a number of problems remain.

On two occasions, during a meeting on April 27 and during the joint Knesset committee meeting on May 2, Northern District police chief Lavi warned that squatters may arrive at the site early to evade regulations, and that as many as 50,000 people may appear at the event when it begins. Blumental didn’t seem too worried about this. While he acknowledged that this is a possibility, he said that since no food will be allowed on the mountain and there will only be one lighting, even squatters will realize that there is no reason for them to stay.

Lavi also raised eyebrows during the May 2 meeting when he said that the legislation that will allow police to enforce the new regulations isn’t moving ahead, and that he was experiencing “a feeling of déjà vu from last year,” with “everything becoming complicated by legal wrangling.”

Indeed, there will be no “Meron law” due to short timetables and political complexity, admitted Religious Affairs Ministry spokesperson Avi Rozen.

Instead, the ministry’s legal team and the Attorney-General’s Office came up with the solution to embed the new regulations into the existing Public Area Safety Law (1962), which gives the government the prerogative to limit attendance and set security standards when needed. Violations of the regulations will not be considered criminal but are enforceable with the threat of a fine and possible prison sentence of up to three months. The regulations were approved by the Knesset Public Security Committee on May 10.

But this is a one-time solution, Rozen said.

“This year looks nothing like past years and everyone changed their mindset, since they understood that it is not the same type of event,” Rozen explained about the legal backflips.

“The regulations passed were approved by the A-G, her Deputy Carmit Yulis, our legal department, the Transportation and Public Security ministries, and others,” he stressed. 

Rozen refused to comment on long-term solutions, such as the sensitive issue of the government taking over the compound, which it will legally be allowed to do in January 2023 when the current ownership agreement ends.

“Let’s get through the hillula first,” he said. “Afterwards, come meet me for coffee and a cigarette and we can talk.”■

Jeremy Sharon contributed to this report.