JERUSALEM – Israelis mourned the loss of life on Friday when a joyous pilgrimage that drew tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews abruptly turned into a tragedy. And although the country was largely united in grief and shock, questions immediately arose about poor planning and possible neglect.
Even for a country accustomed to the trauma of wars and terrorist attacks, the fatal crash that killed 45 people during a mass religious celebration on Mount Meron in the northern Galilee region counted as one of the worst disasters in Israeli history.
There had been warnings for years that the site’s patchy infrastructure could not safely handle large crowds.
“We will conduct a thorough, serious and thorough investigation to ensure that such a disaster does not happen again,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised during a visit to the site on Friday. He called for a national day of mourning on Sunday.
As many as 100,000 people were crammed onto the mountain Thursday evening, most of them arriving in buses organized to celebrate the holidays. The festivities turned to horror about an hour after midnight, when dozens of adults and children were crushed and suffocated in a narrow, overcrowded passage that turned into a death trap, witnesses said.
The crush happened after the celebrants spilled out of a section of the mountainside enclosure down a few steps and into the passage with sloping metal floor. Some people at the front fainted or slipped, causing a bottleneck, witnesses said, and triggered what the Hebrew news site Ynet described as a “human avalanche.”
One of the injured, Chaim Vertheimer, said the slope was slippery from the spilled water and grape juice.
“For some reason there was sudden pressure at this point and people stopped. But more and more people kept coming down, ”Vertheimer told Ynet, speaking from his hospital bed in the holy city of Safed. “People weren’t breathing. I remember hundreds of people shouting “I can’t breathe”. “
Another injured, Dvir Cohen, said large numbers of people were trying to leave immediately.
“There was a staircase where the first people tripped and everyone stepped on them. I was in the second row of people, ”he said. “People stepped on me, hundreds of them.
A few minutes earlier, thousands of men were swaying and swaying on the stands to the beat of the music. Israeli authorities have not placed any restrictions on the number of participants, despite warnings about the risk of transmission of Covid-19.
While the sight of so many gathered may be shocking to most countries around the world, life in Israel has returned to almost normal in recent weeks after a successful nationwide vaccination campaign. The majority of the adult population is fully vaccinated.
The annual gathering on Mount Meron, near the Sea of Galilee, takes place near the mystical city of Safed. The holiday, Lag b’Omer, is linked in Jewish tradition to Bar Kokhba’s revolt against the Romans in the first century CE and for many ultra-Orthodox Jews it is a highlight of the Hebrew calendar.
But the celebrations were severely interrupted last year due to the pandemic with few people allowed to attend.
Large numbers of ultra-Orthodox and traditional Jews make the pilgrimage to the mountains for days of festivities. They light bonfires around the tomb of a second-century sage, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, in hopes of receiving his blessings on the anniversary of his death.
There were warnings that the infrastructure could not safely support large crowds. However, critics say some officials may have been dissuaded from restricting access to the site in part because of the political power that ultra-Orthodox parties held in successive government coalitions led by Netanyahu.
Relations between the ultra-Orthodox community and mainstream Israel have been under particular strain during the pandemic, as parts of the religious public have flouted lockdown regulations and the government and police have often been lax in their enforcement.
But during a demonstration of national unity on Friday, Israelis across the country lined up to donate blood to the injured in response to an emergency call.