My Word: Learning from the Meron disaster

There was something biblical about both the scope and nature of the disaster that took the lives of 45 people in the early hours of Friday morning, April 30.

Rabbi Avigdor HAYUT and his son Shmuel meet the Bedouin police officer, Rami Alwan, who helped save them at Mount Meron. The family was sitting shiva for Yedidyia, 13, who died in the disaster. (photo credit: FLASH90)
Rabbi Avigdor HAYUT and his son Shmuel meet the Bedouin police officer, Rami Alwan, who helped save them at Mount Meron. The family was sitting shiva for Yedidyia, 13, who died in the disaster.
(photo credit: FLASH90)
 The tragedy that took place during the Lag Ba’omer celebrations at Mount Meron in the Galilee last week was so immense that the first phrase that came to mind was the biblical “Vayidom Aharon,” “And Aharon was silenced.” This is how Aharon’s response to the deaths of his sons is recorded in Leviticus 10:3.
There was something biblical about both the scope and nature of the disaster that took the lives of 45 people in the early hours of Friday morning, April 30. It was Israel’s deadliest civilian disaster and it was appalling in so many ways – the numbers of dead and wounded; the horrific nature of their deaths, many of asphyxiation in the crush at the site; and the sudden juxtaposition of a joyous celebration with a scene of death and suffering. 
The contrast between the almost ecstatic nature of the annual celebrations around bonfires near the shrine of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai (Rashbi) and the way it ended with row after row of body bags; children orphaned of their fathers; and fathers burying their children could not be greater. But it shouldn’t have come as such as shock. The writing was on the mount, as one commentator put it. 
Every year, thousands flock to the site for the “Hillula,” as the celebration is known. This year an estimated 100,000 made the ascent. They have been described as “pilgrims” but they range from traditional to ultra-Orthodox Jews and include many who come for a gathering they hope will be a near mystic experience. Many families traditionally cut the hair of three-year-old boys for the first time on Lag Ba’omer and Mount Meron is a favorite site for the ceremony. 
With especially large numbers ascending Mount Meron this time, the warning signs were more than apparent. Not least, Health Ministry officials had voiced concerns over the possibility of a resurgence of the coronavirus. The official celebrations were banned in 2020 during the pandemic, and this year celebrants thought it particularly appropriate to go to the Rashbi’s burial site. According to tradition, Lag Ba’omer marks the anniversary of the Rashbi’s death but also the day on which the plague that killed Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 disciples came to an end. 
Police and rescue services were concerned about the mass event – not only the numbers at the gatherings but the high risk of a bonfire getting out of control in a heatwave with strong winds.
State Comptroller Reports in 2008 and 2010 both pointed out the safety deficiencies and lack of regulation at the site, which falls under the jurisdiction of several different ministries.
Not for the first time I wondered why Israel does not treat safety with the same sense of importance it devotes to security. For the families of the victims, a death is a death – a never-ending loss and void that cannot be filled. 
It did not take long for “Aharon’s silence” to be broached. Given the political situation following four elections in two years – and the possibility of a fifth on its way – the accusations of this or that person having “blood on their hands” were thrown around with little thought.
One reporter complained that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had only gone to the scene of the disaster in the afternoon: “What took him so long?” he asked. Had the prime minister traveled there any earlier in the day, no doubt he would have been charged with hindering the ongoing evacuation efforts, dancing on the blood of the dead and exploiting the tragedy for narrow political purposes.
The claim that Netanyahu and his government had pressured for the event to go ahead to pander to the ultra-Orthodox was bandied around with a certain amount of justification. Few noted, however, that Toldos Aharon, the community that controls the specific spot where the disaster occurred, are not Zionists and do not take part in the elections. In addition, some officials might have been reluctant to be put in a situation where they would have to place similar restrictions on Eid al-Fitr gatherings, marking the end of Ramadan, next week.
Lag Ba’omer was meant to serve as a sign that the country was returning to post-pandemic normalcy. Perhaps the reliance on miracles is what sadly passes for normal in Israel.
On Saturday night, Public Security Minister Amir Ohana released a jarring statement saying: “I am responsible... but responsibility does not mean to blame.” 
Many praised Northern Police Commander Shimon Lavi, who oversaw the security arrangements, when, clearly shaken, he told reporters: “I bear overall responsibility, for better or worse, and am ready for any investigation.” Lavi, nonetheless, did not take the extra step that goes with such responsibility and announce his resignation.
The calls for a state commission of inquiry started even before all the dead had been buried. There is certainly much to be investigated. But if the recommendations are not implemented and enforced, they will be of only limited use.
An inquiry need not focus on finding who is to blame – especially if there will be no repercussions – but must answer the questions of what happened and why, to learn how to prevent a similar catastrophe on Meron and elsewhere. The investigation into the Arad Music Festival tragedy where three teens were crushed to death in 1995, for example, helped organizers draw up new safety guidelines.
AS ALWAYS happens in the face of a tragedy, the Meron disaster brought out the best in many. There was a sense of unity – a unity that should be fostered and preserved in the good times and not just the bad. Most striking was the response of Arab communities in Galilee where local residents – many of them Muslims fasting for Ramadan – set up places with (kosher) food and drink where those fleeing the site of the disaster could rest and take respite on their journey home. Muslims, Christians, and Druze reached out to the ultra-Orthodox Jews, touched by the horror of such a tragedy taking place during a religious celebration. And let’s not forget the emergency teams, police, soldiers and hospital workers who are now dealing with the trauma of what they witnessed when doing their jobs and selflessly helping others. They too come from different religions and backgrounds.
Among the international condolences that flooded in were poignant messages from Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, newly partnered in peace with Israel following the Abraham Accords. (Such expressions of sympathy helped mitigate the hatred spread on social media by supporters of Hezbollah, Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist organizations that gloated about the deaths of “the Zionists.”)
It was also touching to see how many people – of all shades of religious persuasion – answered the call to donate blood. Media coverage focused on Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, which was swiftly filled with clearly secular Jews lining up in the heat to give blood to their ultra-Orthodox brethren.
Hundreds of youths – including from stridently secular youth movements – lit candles in makeshift memorials throughout the country.
When the Diaspora Affairs Ministry called on people to attend the funerals of victims from abroad with no or few relatives in the country, the response was so overwhelming that I feared another crush. Lists of where mourners were sitting shiva were forwarded from one social media feed to another.
Some people paid condolence calls on families they had never met – and would never have met in normal circumstances. It was a means of recognizing the scope of the tragedy – and also that the lack of safety precautions endangers everyone.
If there can be an element of consolation in the tragedy that took place on Mount Meron last week it should be in uniting to prevent future loss of life in all spheres and sectors, speaking out when we see dangers. We owe it to the dead – and to the living – not to remain silent.