Photo Credit: David Cohen/Flash90
Hundreds of thousands of Haredim celebrate the lighting of bonfires on Lag B'Omer on Mt. Meron, April 29, 2021.

Two hours before the Friday morning disaster in Meron, Director-General of Israel’s Holy Places Administration, Rabbi Yossi Schwinger spoke live to Kan 11 News, saying, “People think that if there was a dense crowd, it was because the Holy Places Administration was not organized properly.” He added: “We were also pushed, and the policeman knew who we were and it didn’t make such a difference to him. A respectable MK stood next to us, and he, too, was pushed and then some. Children were almost crushed. An unpleasant spectacle.”

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Remember, Rabbi Schwinger was speaking two hours before the tragedy. He blamed the police for the disorder: “Everybody keeps saying there should be a responsible producer,” he said. “The real responsible producer in this area is the Israel Police, and it must not be allowed to shun responsibility in this matter. We organize and budget everything, but in practice – the landlord here in the field, when it comes to safety, is the Israel Police.”

And also two hours before the disaster, Rabbi Schwinger said: “We are constantly under stress that all systems will work properly, that everything will work out. God forbid some mother’s child should not be in danger of suffocating, not be pushed and squeezed from all around. We have invested a lot of energy in it, which is why I wish it would be the day after already.”

Needless to say, his wish did not come true, and 45 people lost their lives on Mt. Meron in precisely the manner Rabbi Schwinger feared.

But even if the Northern District Police Chief had commissioned a professional assessment of structural engineers and safety experts regarding the number of people that the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai on Mt. Meron can accommodate, and the obvious conclusion were that the place was too narrow for the hundreds of thousands who made a pilgrimage to join the celebration and that there was a danger of trampling and crushing, had the district commander ordered a limit on the number of visitors, as is the case in every ballroom and sports arena, he would have been blocked by the police commissioner. And if not the commissioner, then he would have been clocked by the Minister of Internal Security.

Because Mt. Meron is extra-territorial, it is an autonomy over which the state has no control.

Minister of Internal Security Amir Ohana on Mt. Meron, April 29, 2021. / David Cohen/Flash90

Meanwhile, the Northern District Police Chief, Superintendent Shimon Lavi, has announced that he is responsible for what happened, for better or worse.

And Minister of Internal Security Amir Ohana announced: “I am responsible, but responsibility does not mean guilt.”

That’s convenient.

The Minister of Internal Security also backed all the police officers who worked in the field: “The whole chain of command has done its job. District Commander Superintendent Shimon Lavi is one of the best and the highest quality officers in the Israel Police. The Commissioner, Chief of Staff Kobi Shabtai, from the moment he has taken office, devotes nights and days to implementing plans that will march the police to fulfill their tasks in the fight against crime and terrorism. And the policewomen and the policemen who functioned in the face of the horrible and difficult scenes in the most exemplary, fast and efficient manner, saved, rescued, and certainly prevented an even greater loss of life.”

In an interview with Kikar Ha’Shabbat last Tuesday, Rabbi Schwinger explained what led to the decision that the mountain would be completely open to anyone who wants to ascend, with no limits whatsoever. He explained that there were commitments from the Gabbais (functionaries) of the Chassidic communities that only those with a green passport of vaccination, or those who recovered from Covid-19, would be allowed to come. And that the lighting of the bonfires would be done in enclosures of up to ten thousand men at any one moment, and the tomb site of R. Shimon Bar Yochai would be completely open with an increased presence of ushers.

According to Rabbi Schwinger in that interview, the Israel Police called the event on Mt. Meron the most complex in Israel.

“I call on the public to come on Friday morning,” said Rabbi Schwinger, “Do not crowd, do not linger. The district commander also asked to avoid bringing children. This year, all the entities in charge of the event are under pressure because it’s taking place on Thursday night, and a lot needs to be done in a very short time.”

Needless to say, not one of the recommendations of the Director-General of Israel’s Holy Places Administration was obeyed. People crowded, people lingered, people rushed in huge hordes through the narrowest of access routes, and—most tragically—people brought their children.

In the last two decades, there have been many public storms over the management of the site in Meron. A lengthy battle was conducted in the courts between the state, which sought to expropriate the territory and the religious dedication committees that share control of the place. The state lost.

The dilapidated condition of the tomb complex and the fact that it is not suitable for mass events have already been mentioned twice in the State Comptroller’s reports.

Shlomo Levy, former head of the Merom Hagalil Regional Council, tried to issue closure orders for the place at least three times, more than a decade ago.

The entire complex is under the responsibility of the Holy Places Administration, which has been headed by Rabbi Yossi Schwinger for the past twenty years. Schwinger was Interior Minister Aryeh Deri’s closest adviser back during his first term, in the 1990s.

Here’s a fact that may shed new light on the affair:

On April 12, Rabbi Schwinger demanded that Kol Barama radio journalist Yissachar Zalmanovich apologize for a tweet he posted about the Lag B’Omer celebration in Meron. Zalmanovich tweeted that Schwinger had demanded that the entrance to Meron be restricted on the day of the celebration. “Well, if the Chassidic public asks who took care to restrict the number of participants in lighting the bonfires in Meron,” he wrote, “According to the information in my possession, Yossi Schwinger, the director-general of the holy places, demanded today that the entrance to each bonfire lighting complex be limited to only 700-1000 people, while the police were saying that this outline was not applicable.”

Schwinger’s lawyer sent a hurried letter to Zalmanovich demanding an apology and compensation of NIS 200,000 following the tweet. “What is said in the statement is devoid of any truth and constitutes a clear defamation of my client,” he wrote. “Moreover, the publication causes real harm to my client and may expose my client to verbal and even physical harm from various parties who might believe the evil words you have disseminated and to whom this content appears contrary, to say the least.”

And now it is a little more understandable who controls the Mt. Meron site and who decides how many pilgrims are allowed to go up and celebrate.

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David writes news at JewishPress.com.