The head of the National Center for the Development of Holy Places in Israel, which oversees the Mount Meron tomb site where 45 people were crushed to death and over 150 injured last week, said over a decade ago that the site could not accommodate mass gatherings.
Tens of thousands of Hasidic Jews participated Thursday in the annual Lag Ba’omer festivities at the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, making it the largest event held in Israel since the coronavirus pandemic began last year. A stampede broke out after some revelers slipped on steps, causing dozens more people to fall over.
Speaking in a closed-door meeting in 2009, Yosef Schwinger said that “It’s truly a miracle that people manage to leave the celebrations safely.”
But at a meeting two weeks ago, in which this year’s Lag Ba’omer celebrations were approved, Schwinger opposed demands by police officials to limit the number of people coming to Mount Meron. Haaretz has learned that since last week’s disaster, the center has considered contacting criminal lawyers.
The 2009 discussion took place not long after the State Comptroller’s Office issued a report warning that there were serious safety issues at Mount Meron. The Israel Land Authority called a meeting of its advisory committee on expropriations regarding taking control of the site from the various religious nonprofits that manage it and turning it over to state control. The committee discussions dealt with how the site was managed throughout the year, but Schwinger mentioned the specific dangers posed by the annual Lag Ba’omer celebrations.
“The site cannot host the hundreds of thousands of people coming,” Schwinger warned during the deliberations. “Every year that the celebrations go smoothly – it is simply a miracle. The only way to explain it is that we sit down and plan everything. But no one can understand how so many people succeed in moving through such narrow passages and with such inferior infrastructure, and be steered into such a small building,” he said.
“The Gemara says, ‘We should trust Rabbi Shimon in times of distress.’ It’s really classic, there’s such a pushing and crowding... it’s really a miracle that people manage to get out of there safely,” he told the committee.
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Since the committee held its deliberations, several of the access roads at the site have been upgraded and emergency evacuation routes were established, but most of the dilapidated and temporary infrastructure at Mount Meron was never renovated or replaced. At the same time, additional illegal structures were built at the site.
After Schwinger made his comments, the committee started to discuss the annual Lag Ba’omer festivities themselves. “Who is responsible for the celebrations?” asked the Justice Ministry representative, attorney Erez Kaminitz. Schwinger answered that they have nothing to do with the four leaders of the Jewish religious trusts and the Western Wall rabbi.
The representative of the Tourism Ministry, which was at the time responsible for the Center for the Development of Holy Places, responded: “The State of Israel.”
Kaminitz then asked whether there is a long-term solution for the Lag Ba’Omer celebrations. The Tourism Ministry representative responded, “Concerning Lag Ba’Omer itself, we believe that most of the problems regarding the once-a-year celebrations will be solved by comprehensive planning of the area.” He then proposed that management of the entire site be transferred to the ministry.
On Monday, the Finance Ministry’s accountant general released a document detailing the communications between the Religious Services Ministry and the National Center for the Development of Holy Places concerning the celebrations on Mount Meron this year. Issued amid disputes over who was responsible for the annual event, the document explained why the center had been exempt from competitive bidding, and that it was paid 13.2 million shekels ($4 million) to manage the celebrations.
At the same time, officials at the Center for Holy Places have considered contacting criminal lawyers. Schwinger and Yisrael Dery, who is responsible for Jewish holy sites in northern Israel, are expected to be represented by Ofer Bartal. Once a candidate for the post of state prosecutor, Bartal is regarded as an experienced and highly rated criminal attorney; Bartal declined to comment. The center is also seeking to retain a media adviser who specializes in crisis management due to accusations about its role in the disaster.
After years of debate over the management of Rabbi Shimon Ben Yochai’s tomb, the High Court of Justice ruled in 2008 that a body called the Committee of Five would be responsible. The panel is composed of two representatives of the Sephardi community trusts, two from the Ashkenazi community and one from the government, who would chair it. In 2013, then-Finance Minister Yair Lapid announced plans to expropriate the land around the site and transfer it to government control. A year later, however, the religious nonprofits that manage the site appealed to the High Court, asking it to authorize their continued control.
In 2016, Avinoam Segal-Elad of the State Prosecutor’s Office said that for the long term, the tomb “should be in the ownership of the state and administered by government authorities. The government has not changed its position on this.” However, he added, in light of comments made during the court hearings and in order to reach an agreement that will lead to the site being managed more effectively, “the state is prepared to talk with the other parties.”
Last year, after a long meditation process, the parties agreed to an arrangement with the Justice Ministry under which the Committee of Five would be responsible for managing the site for the next three years. They also agreed that the Committee of Five would appoint a director and legal adviser who would be responsible for filing lawsuits to remove the illegal structures established at the site.