Israel’s largest religious festival turned into its largest peacetime tragedy late Thursday night, as 45 celebrants were crushed to death, and dozens more were injured, under the feet of fellow worshippers in a horrific stampede at Mount Meron.
The annual Lag B’Omer pilgrimage commemorating the teachings of one of Judaism’s greatest mystics, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, has been marked for centuries by festive music and bonfires. The bonfires symbolize the great spiritual light that his teachings have brought to the world, as well as the souls’ yearning to connect to their Creator. This year, however, awe-inspiring light turned to unthinkable darkness.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for a national day of mourning on Sunday, as the last of those killed were laid to rest. Thousands participated on Friday in blood drives for those receiving emergency medical treatment.
And while a majority of pilgrims were members of Israel’s various Orthodox sects, Israelis from all sectors are attempting to expose the causes of a preventable tragedy.
Yet the simple truth is that no single factor caused the Meron disaster. Rather, a perfect storm of elements simultaneously came together, exposing a system filled with flaws—many of them cultural in nature. The event should open up a period of national reckoning. Whether an honest reckoning will take place—one marked by constructive and unifying measures—will require Israelis to look deep down into their own behavior.
A holy gathering?
A trip to Meron on Lag B’Omer simultaneously reveals some of the best and some of the worst of Israeli society. Commemorating the life and teachings of a great sage, hundreds of thousands converge on the tomb of Bar Yochai, known also by the anacronym “Rashbi.” Pilgrims enjoy Chassidic music. Thousands can be seen reciting psalms, followed by early sunrise prayers.
Just moments before the disaster, tens of thousands of worshippers united in prayer and song—chanting one of Maimonides’s 13 “Principles of Faith,” expressing fervent belief in the coming of a redeemer and a Messianic era.
Despite their staunch religious observance, Orthodox sects have largely angered other sectors of Israel’s public for years. Men refuse compulsory army service. Many opt to study in state-funded learning institutions, rather than work and take on their share of the tax burden. Meanwhile, Orthodox groups hold monopolies on key religious services and operate them in ways that are often viewed as corrupt.
While many of Israel’s Orthodox truly represent a beautiful blend of advanced religious observance within a modern state, that beauty is often marred by those who express a lack of appreciation for individuals and communities with lesser religious observance. As this tragedy has struck at the heart of their own community, it may be time for greater humility on their part.
Not all pilgrims to Meron are strictly Orthodox. For many, the event is simply the largest party of the year and the place to be on Lag B’Omer. Among both worshippers and party-goers, some of the less-pleasant elements of Israeli culture are exposed, including a tendency to crowd and push.
Entry into the tomb of Rashbi is reserved only for the bravest few, who must literally fight their way through throngs to reach the gravestone. The experience is highlighted by sweat, anxiety, intense heat and shortness of breath.
The only struggle greater than the one to reach the tomb is the struggle to leave. With thousands pushing to reach the same space, those who offered their momentary prayers at the gravestone must then fight against the immense tide to find the exit.
Most pilgrims are satisfied to remain outside the small tomb. Yet the same culture of pushiness can be found throughout the festival.
While Israelis locked down throughout much of a tragic year—and donned masks—they refuse, as a rule, to social distance; doing so is simply not part of the Israeli DNA.
Israelis have little awareness of, let alone respect for, other people’s personal space, pandemic or not. This cultural phenomenon is evident in nearly every aspect of Israeli society.
Giving one another a little breathing room not only could relieve much of Israel’s collective anxiety. In the case of the Meron tragedy, honoring personal space would likely have saved lives.
‘Derech eretz kadma l’Torah’
There is a famous Hebrew expression that “the ways of one’s behavior comes before Torah.” Such respect is simply not practiced by many Israeli sectors. Roadsides and parks are sadly littered with garbage. Cities literally employ hundreds of sanitation workers to clean up the trash left all over by Israelis. Israel’s water sources and skies are similarly polluted.
During Lag B’Omer, plastic bottles and garbage are strewn everywhere. Makeshift bathrooms overflow. The sight is completely inconsistent with that of a holy gathering. Cleanup after the festival is a massive undertaking. During the festival, streets become dirty, sticky and wet. In this case, wet and slippery grounds reportedly contributed to the tragic loss of footing that led to people in an incontrollable crowd toppling onto one another.
The lack of respect for the land is a major cultural phenomenon that simply must be corrected and can only be done as part of a well-organized and consistent educational campaign over the course of many years.
Bringing hundreds of thousands of men, women and children to Meron is a major logistical undertaking. Nearly every bus in the country is called into action. Thousands of police officers close off roads to private vehicles from miles away to allow for the buses to safely and smoothly enter and exit the site. Thousands of more first-responders are dispatched and onhand.
Still, the site itself is a logistical nightmare. The small town is completely unequipped to handle the throngs of foot traffic. Makeshift bleachers and passageways stand little chance of properly accommodating the crowds. For the Lag B’Omer festival to continue moving forward, serious efforts must be taken to completely renovate the town, build permanent concert facilities and establish safe passageways for pilgrims, as well as for law enforcement and emergency responders.
Mistrust of police
The Israel Police is not generally respected, as such departments are in other countries. And most citizens do not necessarily believe that the police are working to keep them safe.
While police officers go out of their way year after year to facilitate the mega-Lag B’Omer event, eyewitnesses allege that at the moment of the disaster, police had blocked off a main pedestrian artery following a break in the all-night concerts and forcibly directed people towards a narrow, slanted and slippery aluminum-floored artery that led down to a metal staircase.
The Lag B’Omer tragedy should make the entire country look inward. The disaster is a reflection of many of the elements of our society that have been exposed in recent years. All sectors need to reflect on what has happened, not just in Meron, but among the entire Jewish nation, and collectively bear the brunt of responsibility.
Reprinted with author’s permission from Jewish News Syndicate