Israel Mourns After Stampede at Religious Festival Kills 45

JERUSALEM — As Israelis mourned on Friday the 45 people trampled to death during a pilgrimage that drew tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews, questions were already arising about poor planning and possible negligence.

For more than a decade there have been concerns and warnings that the religious site on Mount Meron in northern Israel was not equipped to handle so many pilgrims. In 2008 and 2011, reports by the state comptroller warned of the potential for calamity.

“We will conduct a thorough, serious and deep investigation to ensure such a disaster does not happen again,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged on a visit to the site on Friday. He called for a national day of mourning on Sunday.

Even for a country accustomed to the trauma of wars and terrorist attacks, this counted as one of the worst disasters in Israeli history.

Israel has been wracked by religious-secular tensions, particularly over the last year of the pandemic, amid widespread anger over what many here viewed as a disregard for regulations and displays of autonomy within parts of the ultra-Orthodox community. The disaster early Friday largely united the country in shock and grief, but it also underlined some of the dysfunction dividing this society.

But in a show of national unity on Friday, Israelis across the nation lined up to donate blood for the injured and canceled parties and cultural events out of respect, while Arab residents of the Galilee came to aid the survivors of the Mount Meron tragedy.

Up to 100,000 people were crammed onto the mountain late Thursday, most having arrived on organized buses to celebrate the holiday. The festivities turned to horror about an hour after midnight, when scores of adults and children were crushed and suffocated in an overcrowded, narrow passageway that turned into a death trap, according to witnesses.

The crush occurred after celebrants poured out of one section of the mountainside compound, down some steps and into the passageway, which had a sloping metal floor. Some people at the front fainted or slipped, causing a bottleneck, witnesses said, and setting off what witnesses described as a “human avalanche.”

One of the injured, Chaim Vertheimer, said that the passageway was slippery from spilled water and grape juice.

“For some reason, there was sudden pressure at this point and people stopped. But more people kept coming down,” Mr. Vertheimer told the Hebrew news site Ynet, speaking from his hospital bed. “People were not breathing. I remember hundreds of people screaming ‘I can’t breathe.’”

Another of the injured, Dvir Cohen, said a large number of people were trying to leave at once.

“There was a staircase where the first people tripped and everyone just trampled them. I was in the second row of people,” he said. “People trampled on me, hundreds of them.”

Minutes earlier, thousands of men had been bobbing and swaying on the bleachers in time to music. The Israeli authorities had placed no restrictions on the number of attendees, despite warnings by some health officials about the risk of Covid-19 transmission.

Though the sight of so many people gathered together and unmasked may be jarring to most of the world, life in Israel has returned almost to normal in recent weeks after a successful national vaccination drive.

The majority of the adult population is fully vaccinated. But many in the crowds were under the age of 16 and not yet eligible for vaccination.

It was the largest single gathering in Israel since the start of the pandemic.

By Friday afternoon, families were rushing to bury their dead before the start of the Sabbath at sundown.

Israel’s Consulate General office in New York said it had confirmed that four of the dead were Americans. Israeli news media reported that at least one victim was Canadian. The Israeli victims included two pairs of brothers, the youngest of whom was 9.

Condolences poured in from leaders around the world, including President Biden and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, King Abdullah II of Jordan and President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority.

The compound on Mount Meron includes several large gathering grounds with bleachers and stages, connected by a series of alleyways and paths.

The 2008 comptroller report said that all building additions and changes made to the pilgrimage site had been done without the approval of the local and district planning and building committees.

“There are no grounds for permitting the current situation to continue,” one comptroller report said.

The comptroller’s office said that special danger was posed by the access roads and paths, which “are narrow and not appropriate to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of people who visit the site.” It was along one of those paths where witnesses said the crush of people began.

Mount Meron is near the Sea of Galilee and the mystical city of Safed. The annual gathering there comes on a holiday, Lag b’Omer, that is linked in Jewish tradition to the Bar Kokhba revolt against the Romans in the second century A.D., and for many ultra-Orthodox Jews, it is a highlight of the Hebrew calendar.

The celebrations were strictly curtailed last year because of the pandemic, with few people allowed to attend.

But in ordinary years, large numbers of ultra-Orthodox and traditional Jews make the pilgrimage to the mountain for days of festivities. They light bonfires around the grave site of a second-century sage, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, in the hope that they will receive his blessings on the anniversary of his death.

Despite the warnings that the infrastructure could not safely bear large crowds, one former official, Shlomo Levy, who had chaired the Upper Galilee Regional Council, said he had come under political pressure to cancel a warrant he had issued in 2008 to close the tomb compound because of safety concerns.

Mr. Levy told Kan, Israel’s public radio, that the public security minister at the time told him he was afraid to touch the site and that it was a “hot potato.”

That wariness likely stemmed from the disproportionate political power long held by ultra-Orthodox parties in Israel’s coalition system. The ultra-Orthodox, known as Haredim, in Hebrew, have been crucial members of successive Netanyahu-led governing coalitions.

Secular Israelis decried what they saw as government and police laxness in enforcing lockdown regulations in ultra-Orthodox population centers at the height of the pandemic, accusing them of caving in to pressure.

Some ultra-Orthodox commentators suggested on Friday that it was time for their community leaders to tone down their muscle-flexing.

Yossi Elituv, the editor of the ultra-Orthodox Mishpacha magazine, said on Twitter that the ultra-Orthodox community needed “to learn some lessons.” The compound should be taken out of the hands of private religious trusts and associations, he said, and should be run by official state authorities.

Ishay Coen, a political analyst for Kikar HaShabbat, a Haredi news site, wrote on Twitter, “It’s about time that we Haredim internalized that when they don’t permit us to hold an unsafe mass event, it’s not coming from a place of hatred of Haredim or of persecution, but out of concern!!!”

Still, many of those touched by the disaster come from the most insular, extreme sects of ultra-Orthodoxy, which eschew cooperation with the state. And many secular Israelis viewed the rabbis’ intransigence over the problems at the pilgrimage site as evidence of an abiding rebellion.

“I don’t see a healing process here,” said Yedidia Stern, the president of the Jewish People Policy Institute in Jerusalem. “I’m afraid neither side will take advantage of this event to draw closer to the other.”

Honestly, people, what is going on?

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