The controversial raised pathway at the Rashbi grave site on Mount Meron.
The controversial raised pathway at the Rashbi grave site on Mount Meron. Photo by Yaron Kaminsky
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Two controversial and costly pathways built on Mount Meron for the celebration of the Lag Ba'omer holiday in May will be dismantled immediately, it was decided this week.

The Tourism Ministry's director general, Noaz Bar Nir, announced the decision following a meeting on Monday, during which officials leveled criticism against construction of the pathways in the first place. The Merom Hagalil regional council's committee for planning and construction then issued destruction orders for the two structures, and has already begun to destroy them.

A male-only metal footpath and an elevated passageway for kohanim (members of the Jewish priestly caste ) were constructed at the entrance to the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, or the Rashbi, just days before hundreds of thousands of people visited the site on Lag Ba'omer, which fell on May 10 this year.

How much the state forked over to build the paths: NIS 1.5 million.

Haaretz has now learned that when the state paid for and built the two structures, officials at the Tourism Ministry's National Center for the Development of Holy Sites understood perfectly well that permits for their use applied only to this year's Lag Ba'omer events.

When the Lag Ba'omer events ended, the officials tried to vest the structures with permanent authorization, rather than have them dismantled. But the local planning and construction committee rejected the efforts.

The kohanim path is 300 meters long and leads to a site 50 meters from the Rashbi's grave. While people have been visiting that grave for hundreds of years, a demand for the special pathway was first raised only three years ago, by a few Haredi figures who argued that the traditional walkway to the grave is prohibitted to priests, because halakha (Jewish law) forbids them from coming near dead bodies.

Meron's chief rabbi and other rabbis objected to the construction and called it unnecessary. In fact, compounding the absurdity of the situation, on the eve of this year's celebrations, Rabbi Moshe Shternbuch, the head of the Haredi rabbinical court, issued a decree ruling that kohanim were forbidden to use the newly-built pathway.

Some critics of the pathway also pointed out that its construction was requested by the Toldot Avraham Yitzhak Hassidic group, one of the most zealous factions of the Haredi community, which does not recognize Israel's legitimacy as a Jewish state. Many accused the state of surrendering to that faction.

The Haredi press described the male-only pathway as "mehadrin" (strictly kosher ), and ultra-Orthodox proponents insisted it was important because it would enshrine gender segregation at the site. Separation between men and women at the Rashbi grave, however, is also considered a recent phenomenon, and critics said it was discriminatory.

Tourism ministry officials insist that the pathway was not built for segregation purposes. They say it was "an access facility to the Rashbi grave built for the safety of pedestrians. The bridge was built according to regulations, under the supervision of the police, and in accordance with police demands." Police officials from the Northern District deny that they ever demanded that such a special access walkway be built. Moshav Meron residents now complain that elements of the path stretch onto sidewalks, and pose a nuisance and a danger to pedestrians who walk near the locale's main road.