As Israel buries the dead, questions grow over responsibility for deadly stampede

By , Miriam Berger and Shira Rubin,

Kobi Wolf for The Washington Post

Mourners for Yedidya Fogel, who was among those killed during the stampede at a religious festival in Mount Meron, attend his funeral in Jerusalem on Saturday.

JERUSALEM — One day after a deadly stampede killed dozens of religious pilgrims, Israelis came out by the thousands to bury the dead, keep vigil in their honor and protest the lack of government oversight that may have cost them their lives.

At funerals, candlelight vigils and raucous demonstrations immediately after the end of the Jewish Sabbath, citizens of all political stripes mourned and demanded to know how government and religious leaders let Thursday night’s overcrowded ultra-Orthodox Lag B’Omer festival at Mount Meron take place with little oversight after years of safety warnings.

More than a dozen funerals began just after sundown, at least nine in Jerusalem, where many of the ultra-Orthodox victims lived. Grieving families managed to conduct 22 funerals before sunset Friday, in keeping with religious rules to bury the dead within 48 hours.

But authorities were still identifying victims, leaving some families in agonizing limbo. By Saturday night, at least 42 bodies had been identified, according to media reports. At least four of the dead were U.S. citizens. Officials said 16 of the more than 150 injured remained hospitalized Saturday.

Kobi Wolf for The Washington Post

The body of U.S. citizen Menachem Knoblowitz at the Shamgar funeral home in Jerusalem before his burial Saturday.

Some of the funerals drew hundreds of mourners. Pini Rozovsky, a 23-year-old yeshiva student, was among the crowd of men in traditional black hats and coats outside Jerusalem’s Shamgar funeral home, where as many as six of the victims were being readied for burial.

Rozovksy’s own bus to the ill-fated festival was turned back after the stampede occurred. His friend Moshe Ben Shalom had arrived earlier and was among those killed.

“This tragedy must be remembered for generations to come,” Rozovsky said. “There was never any like it.”

[Images from the Mount Meron tragedy and aftermath]

As families across Israel and in other countries began to sit Shiva, the seven-day Jewish mourning period, Neora Yaari, 36, led a candle-lighting vigil in Zion Square, a popular gathering place in the center of West Jerusalem.

As pedestrians stopped to light votives bearing the Hebrew words “Mourning Together,” Yaari said she wanted to gather in “a neutral place, not connected to politics to say that we are all together and to put the disagreements aside.”

Not far away, a larger and angrier crowd swelled near the entrance to the residence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been the target of anger and blame since the tragedy, which he characterized as one of the worst in Israel’s history.

The Balfour Street protests have been a weekly occurrence on Saturdays for more than a year as Netanyahu’s opponents have called for the resignation of a prime minister who is being tried on corruption charges.

Kobi Wolf for The Washington Post

Mourners at the funeral of Menachem Knoblowitz.

Demonstrators here — who say that Netanyahu allows the ultra-Orthodox to flout the law because they are a key part of his governing right-wing coalition — see the Mount Meron disaster as another reason for the prime minister to go.

“They dealt with Meron from a political point of view, not a safety point of view,” said Avital Livny, a Tel Aviv actor. She held a sign in Hebrew: “The heart is broken. Criminals of the Meron Tragedy to court!”

[For Indian Americans, a time to help and a time to feel helpless]

It named Netanyahu and two of his close allies, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri and Public Security Minister Amir Ohana.

Ohana wrote in a lengthy Facebook post Saturday that he takes responsibility, “but responsibility does not mean blame.”

“I am ready to face any probe and answer any question,” he added. “This disaster happened this year, but it could have happened any other year.”

Demonstrator Giora Ehrlich, 64, a librarian from Herzliya, near Tel Aviv, was heartened by the anger he heard from some of the ultra-Orthodox community.

“The religious are looking for who is responsible, and they are coming to the same conclusion we are,” Ehrlich said, pointing his finger toward the prime minister’s residence.

[A visual timeline of the Mount Meron tragedy]

Ehrlich cited a familiar complaint from Netanyahu’s critics: The prime minister relies on ultra-Orthodox communities as a core of his political base, and in return, he allows the highly insular and conservative religious communities to often operate outside the state’s control.

He has been criticized by opponents throughout the pandemic for not enforcing public health restrictions in ultra-Orthodox enclaves, which often resisted the measures and saw some of the largest coronavirus outbreaks.

Earlier in April, Netanyahu told representatives from United Torah Judaism, an ultra-Orthodox political party that pushed for free worship at the Mount Meron site in northern Israel, that there would be no limit on the number of participants at this year’s gathering, according to accounts widely reported in Israeli media at the time.

The stampede at the packed event occurred after some 100,000 mainly ultra-Orthodox Jewish men and children had gathered at the annual commemoration at the tomb of a revered 2nd-century rabbi on Mount Meron. The night of singing and dancing and bonfires turned suddenly to tragedy as the huge crowd surged toward the exits. Some reportedly fell on slippery steps, causing crushing pileups and panic in the confined setting.

The annual event, typically Israel’s largest pilgrimage, was canceled last year because of the coronavirus. This year, it was permitted as the country reopened following a widespread vaccination program.

[The Lag B’Omer religious festival, explained]

But various Israeli authorities had reportedly been at odds for weeks ahead of the event over whether to severely limit attendance, according to Israeli media.

Kobi Wolf for The Washington Post

Mourners of Yedidya Fogel embrace at his funeral Saturday.

Israeli authorities have recently imposed limits on other religious gatherings. On Saturday, just 2,500 people were permitted at the annual Orthodox Christian Holy Fire celebration at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which is believed to contain the tomb of Jesus. Normally, tens of thousands of people attend the pre-Easter event.

Israeli security forces in recent weeks have also prevented Palestinians from gathering in the evening outside Damascus Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City, a popular pastime during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Police said the restrictions were to prevent crowds from blocking access to the al-Aqsa Mosque compound, a claim Palestinians rejected.

Source: WP