Comptroller: Safety still an issue at Meron

Lindenstrauss also says that conditions have improved some; tomb of Rabbi Yochai is ill suited for 1.5 annual visitors.

haredi praying on Mount Meron (photo credit: Reuters/Baz Ratner)
haredi praying on Mount Meron
(photo credit: Reuters/Baz Ratner)
The State Comptroller’s Report released on Monday pointed to ongoing safety concerns at the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai on Mount Meron, but also noted that some improvements had been made.
The Tourism Ministry stated that it acknowledges that problems at the site need to be addressed but that improvements had been made in the last three years. It further added that the recent decision to transfer the site to the ministry’s jurisdiction would enable the renovations to be completed quicker and more efficiently.
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The tomb complex surrounding the grave of Bar Yochai – a Talmudic sage of the second century CE – on Mount Meron in the Galilee, is the second-most-visited Jewish holy place in Israel after the Western Wall, with 1.5 million visitors every year.
It is, however, ill suited for this large number of visitors, in terms of infrastructure, access and general amenities. The Lag Ba’omer holiday, which is also the anniversary of Bar Yochai’s death, typically sees hundreds of thousands of religious Jews flocking to the site. In 2010, more than 400,000 worshipers arrived for the festival.
Because of the huge numbers of worshipers who come to the site and its poor state of repair, government action was taken following the 2008 State Comptroller’s Report, which highlighted a number of deficiencies in the site’s infrastructure.
This year’s report points out that some of the unauthorized building developments at the site, highlighted in the 2008 report, are structurally unstable but have still not been torn down.
The 2008 report also drew attention to the narrow access roads and footpaths at the complex, which are a cause for concern when thousands of worshipers crowd along them during Lag Ba’omer. Monday’s report noted that although an underground causeway has been built to ease pedestrian traffic, vehicular access is still restricted which is of particular concern for emergency vehicles.
Noaz Ben-Nir, director-general of the Ministry of Tourism, told The Jerusalem Post that the site requires a lot more work and stated that the ministry estimates that the level of investment required to bring it up to acceptable standards is at least NIS 100 million.
“The document itself shows that there was a drastic improvement in the preparations for the Lag Ba’omer celebrations at at Meron and in general there has been great improvement,” he said.
Referring to the government decision passed two weeks ago to place the site under the management of a special government body, supervised by the tourism minister, Ben-Nir said it will be easier to implement the necessary renovations.
“Only two weeks ago the government passed its decision to invest NIS 27 million in the public transport infrastructure at Meron, and now that the site is in the jurisdiction of the Tourism Ministry it will be easier to affect the changes we need.”
The new government agency will now be responsible for the upkeep of the site and the implementation of safety recommendations.
The decision to expropriate the site from the management of the various charitable trusts who have administered it until now sparked significant opposition from ultra- Orthodox groups who see the move as a desecration of the holiness of the site.
Ben-Nir said he didn’t expect to encounter any more problems, but admitted that the trusts which invested money and donations to the complex continue to be troubled by the decision.
“It’s important that there will be one agency which will be responsible, and that the responsibility is not spread out between different agencies,” he said.
“We are better organized to deal with those visiting the site, we know these issues from other tourist sites and we will apply these practices also at Meron, while preserving the unique character of the place and the feelings of those praying there.
“I believe that in general there will be a significant improvement for those visiting and praying at the site under the new management of the Tourism Ministry.”