Israel was shaken to the core at the end of April when an overcrowded exit ramp at a Lag b’Omer celebration on Mount Meron in the country’s north became a death trap, after people lost their footing, tumbling on top of one another, resulting in the deaths of 45 people, including Yossi Kohn, a yeshiva student from a Cleveland suburb. It was the worst civilian disaster in Israel’s history.
The day after the Mount Meron disaster, the country’s newspapers prominently featured the photos of the dead, as did Israeli television, which mentioned Kohn as being from Cleveland.
I had been in Tel Aviv that evening and took the train home with a group of ultra-Orthodox passengers, who in retrospect were probably on their way to Mount Meron. I woke up to the news of the disaster and couldn’t help wonder about the fate of those who were on the train with me. In a crowd of 100,000, the odds they were among the dead or injured is mathematically small, but the same could have been said about all of those who died. The Israeli media carried heartwrenching stories about the victims – including two families each of whom lost two sons that night.
Mount Meron is the site of the tomb of a second century rabbi, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, which has become a pilgrimage site every Lag b’Omer. The holiday is celebrated by secular Israelis as well as the observant with bonfires, but the pilgrimage to Mount Meron appears to overwhelmingly attract an ultra-Orthodox crowd.
Within hours of the disaster, the Israeli media began asking questions about who was responsible. What has become apparent is that this was a disaster foretold. The State Comptroller, an official government watchdog, issued reports in 2008 and 2011 warning about safety concerns in the jumble of buildings atop the mountain where construction had been carried out without permits.
The police did make an effort to exert some authority there, but it appears the major concern among government officials was limiting crowd size to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among the revelers – a legitimate concern even though the pandemic is largely under control here. According to media reports, ultra-Orthodox politicians had applied pressure to increase the number of people permitted on Mount Meron rather than limiting the numbers.
Mount Meron has been a kind of no-man’s land that was nearly devoid of government oversight on Lag b’Omer. That may have given the ultra-Orthodox groups organizing festivities there free rein, but 45 people, including one Ohioan, died there that night. Safety experts who inspected the disaster scene were astounded by the deficiencies that had been tolerated there.
Although probing questions have been asked by the mainstream media, many members of the ultra-Orthodox public expressed no anger, believing this was the will of the Almighty and should not be questioned. There is something admirable in the faith that such an approach demonstrates, but it’s not a standard by which a country can be run.
This is a variation on a theme from earlier this year, when some ultra-Orthodox institutions stayed open in disregard for COVID-19 health regulations, which I wrote about in October.
“Once the COVID-19 pandemic is over, Israeli society has to address its relationship with the ultra-Orthodox community head-on, through a tough commitment to the rule of law,” I wrote.
After the Mount Meron disaster, that’s more apparent than ever.
I say that not out of animosity for the ultra-Orthodox community. As is tragically apparent from the scenes at Mount Meron, they have been the victims of the absence of enforcement of the law.
Cliff Savren is a former Ohio resident who covers the Middle East for the Columbus Jewish News from Ra’anana, Israel.