Mount Meron is a confusing tragedy - opinion

The event is a national tragedy, and should be treated as such, irrespective of whom the victims are, and how loyal or disloyal they were to the state.

THE MASS fatality scene during the celebration of Lag Ba’omer on Mount Meron last week. (photo credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)
THE MASS fatality scene during the celebration of Lag Ba’omer on Mount Meron last week.
(photo credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)
I listened to the first news broadcast of Friday morning at 1 a.m., which ended minutes before information started reaching the media about the tragedy that was unfolding on Mount Meron.
It was only hours later that I heard about the 45 persons – many of them children and youths – who had been crushed to death in a stampede that took place shortly after the lighting of the Lag Ba’omer bonfire by the Toldos Aharon Hassidic community. Another 150 persons were injured.
It is apparently largely a coincidence that the tragedy occurred in this particular area of the compound around the tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai. The compound, which is formally owned by four religious endowments – both Sephardi and Ashkenazi – is made up of structures of various sorts, haphazardly constructed, that are mostly in a poor state of upkeep. For years it has been believed that it was only a question of time before a second disaster would befall the compound, due to overcrowding. The first disaster, in which 11 persons were killed, occurred in 1911. On the night between Thursday and Friday, the second occurred.
The compound, which is visited every Lag Ba’omer by hundreds of thousands of persons, and by many more throughout the year, from all the various Orthodox communities, is run largely on the basis of hassidic traditions and restrictions, which explains why all the victims of last week’s tragedy were male: for the simple reason that even though women are not barred from the compound altogether, they are not allowed to participate in the central events during the Lag Ba’omer celebrations. In other words, the exclusion of women certainly saved the lives of women, though there is no earthly reason why anyone should be subject to the danger of death through accident because of criminal neglect.
The criminal neglect is the result of the fact that no one body is responsible for the overall planning and execution of the events in the compound (including the limitation of the number of participants), no one is responsible for the compound’s upkeep and overall development, and none of the efforts to change the existing status quo have succeeded, not because it cannot be done, but because the determination and the motivation have been missing.
Will the current tragedy finally bring about change? Well, that all depends on whether the government – current or future – will decide to act, and exercise the state’s sovereignty over all parts of the population, the ultra-Orthodox included.
I suspect that if Netanyahu will remain prime minister, very little will change, because Netanyahu is disinclined to clash with the ultra-Orthodox community, including its strongly anti-Zionist components, and is especially disinclined to act effectively to uproot manifestations of excessive autonomous conduct on its part, which reached new heights of audacity at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
If an alternative government will emerge from the current political crisis, a more far-reaching change might occur, but this will happen only if 45 superfluous ultra-Orthodox deaths will bring about some sort of change in the attitude of the various sections of the ultra-Orthodox community – but especially of the more extreme ones – toward the state, and they will start accepting it as an authority that can help resolve problems rather than seeing it as their cause.
In real time on Mount Meron, one of the members of Toldos Aharon yelled at a Channel 12 reporter, who tried to ask him some questions, that the disaster had been deliberately caused by the “Zionists.”
NO, I am not complaining or protesting. The event is a national tragedy, and should be treated as such, irrespective of whom the victims are, and how loyal or disloyal they were to the state, or of the fact that the government did very little to prevent it from occurring in the first place, and did not stand up to pressure from the ultra-Orthodox parties that insisted on the celebration taking place without any restrictions and limitations.
In fact, it was impossible not to sympathize and even weep with those who had lost children, husbands and fathers, and to shudder at the sight, on TV, of a four-year-old orphan – who cannot yet read – say kaddish for his father.
It was also impossible not to support the prime minister’s decision to declare Sunday a national day of mourning, even though many of those killed may not have seen themselves as part of the Zionist Jewish state, or avoided standing in silence during the sound of the sirens on remembrance days for Israel’s fallen soldiers, while few, if any, of the boys among the fatalities would have ended up serving in the IDF, had they survived.
Nevertheless, I cannot help wondering whether Netanyahu would have reacted in the same way if those killed in the tragic accident had been Muslim citizens of Israel, and the location of the event had been a Muslim religious site.
I am proud of the sensitivity and efficiency with which all the various bodies involved after the tragedy occurred, acted – from the emergency medical services to the L. Greenberg Institute of Forensic Medicine at Abu Kabir, who were called upon to identify the dead before burial, and of over 2,000 citizens who volunteered to donate blood.
My only hope is that Netanyahu will not try to use the tragic event to delay returning his mandate to form a new government to the president, as has been reported by certain media sources.
There is no reason to believe that the event will affect Netanyahu’s chances of forming a government, or that he will miraculously manage to rapidly take the necessary steps to prevent similar disasters from occurring again, before someone else is given a chance to try and form a government.
There is no doubt that a national commission of inquiry will be established to investigate all the events and failings that led up to the disaster, before anything can actually be done.
And one last comment. While for large sections of the Jewish population Mount Meron is a holy site and the location of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai’s tomb, it should be noted that, as the highest mountain in the Upper Galilee, there is also an important IDF base at its peak, while for many of us it is the location of a peaceful nature reserve: a favorite hiking ground, which contains magnificent woods and flora (including some rare species of orchids), in stark contrast to the other Mount Merons.

The writer was a researcher in the Knesset Research and Information Center until her retirement, and recently published a book in Hebrew, The Job of the Knesset Member – An Undefined Job, soon to appear in English.