State comptroller finds chaos, danger at Bar-Yohai grave

Four religious trusts claim rights over the grave and each acts as it sees fit. The regional council has not tried to assert its own authority over the site.

Lag BaOmer 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Lag BaOmer 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
One-and-a-half million people visit the grave of Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yohai on Mount Meron, near Safed, each year, but the holy site is improperly administered and in disrepair, the state comptroller reported on Sunday. The state comptroller also found that the celebrations on Lag Ba'Omer draw 250,000 to 400,00 people each year but are illegal because the Merom Hagalil Regional Council does not issue a permit. They are also dangerous, because there is no supervision of the accommodations and the activities. "In view of the status and importance of the site to the Israeli public, and the grave findings of this report, there must be an urgent and comprehensive examination of the possibility of handing over the administration and maintenance of the site and the surrounding area to one central body - either from the government itself or under the government's supervision." More people visit Bar-Yohai's grave than any other holy site in Israel other than the Western Wall. Nevertheless, there is no effective management of the site. Four religious trusts claim rights over the grave and each acts as it sees fit. The regional council has not tried to assert its own authority over the site. As a result of the administrative chaos, there has been a great deal of illegal construction at or near the grave. For example, "In 1980, an awning was added to the visitors' center supported by iron beams connected to the northern wall of the original building, which conceal part of the upper windows and ruin the unique and ancient look of the northern façade." All the additional construction was executed without building permits. The grave itself was built in the 18th century. The Antiquities Authority Law states that any structure built by man from the 18th century that has historical value may be declared an antiquity. The law imposes severe restrictions on what can be done at an antiquities site. However, the Antiquities Authority has not declared Bar-Yohai's grave an antiquity and therefore it is unprotected by the law. On the other hand, the grave is considered a holy site according to the Law for the Preservation of Holy Sites. This law also applies certain restrictions to the site, but in the case of Bar-Yohai's grave, these restrictions, including prohibitions against establishing kiosks or stalls, begging or soliciting contributions, are ignored. The state comptroller found that the regional council refuses to grant a permit for the Lag Ba'Omer celebrations, because the site is unsafe for the large number of people who attend them. It does this even though it is fully aware that hundreds of thousands of people will come anyway. In other words, the council chooses to "solve" the lack of security, safety, sanitation and efficient transportation by shutting its eyes to the problems and refusing to grant a permit. The state comptroller found that last year there were severe problems in transporting the pilgrims to the grave site. For example, there were not enough parking lots, too many vehicles were allowed to reach the site itself, causing severe traffic jams, and the police lost control of the traffic. Individuals set up mobile homes and awnings for those wishing to spend the night at the site. The mobile homes are inflammable and the pilgrims make bonfires nearby. The homes siphon water from taps paid for by the government and divert sewage to the fields nearby. The site is overcrowded so that rescue workers cannot easily reach it in case of an accident or terrorist attack. Lag Ba'Omer next falls on May 11/12.