Just over a month after 45 people were crushed to death in a stampede at this year’s annual Lag Ba’omer observances on Mount Meron in Israel’s north, the family of two brothers killed in the accident are calling for the wrath of God on those responsible.
On Sunday, gravestones bearing the Hebrew acronym for the phrase “may the Almighty avenge his blood” were placed on the graves of Yosef David Elhadad, 18, and his 12-year-old brother, Moshe. The use of the phrase is usually reserved for cases of violent death in cases such as terrorist attacks, and it is unclear whom the Elhadads believe is deserving of divine retribution.
Shimon Yisrael Elhadad, the victims’ brother and a spokesman for the family, declined to comment on the choice of wording on the gravestones, but he has been a vocal critic of the government’s handling of the aftermath of the tragedy at the tomb of the 2nd century Mishnaic sage Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yochai.
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Together with the families of the other victims, Elhadad has repeatedly pressed for the convening of a state commission of inquiry into the disaster. Speaking to Haaretz in early May, he alleged there was no “discussion about a serious investigation of the event, so that things aren’t covered up.” In addition to calling for action to “hold those responsible accountable,” he alleged that “the things we’re hearing, how everyone is avoiding responsibility and blame for the event, are delusional.”
More recently, Rabbi Nachman Meir Elhadad, the father of the two victims, complained that although a full month had passed since the deaths of 45 people in an overcrowded passageway at the pilgrimage site, no action had been taken. Speaking on Thursday, Rabbi Elhadad said that he was “appalled to find out that instead of investigating the matter to prevent any future such disaster, a system is being created whose main function is to cover up the biggest civil disaster in the history of the country,” the Israel Hayom daily reported.
The pilgrimage site is usually overcrowded on Lag Ba’omer, when responsibility for events there is shared among a number of Hasidic groups, with none of them having overall oversight. The overcrowded passageway where the tragedy occurred was illegally constructed by the Toldos Aharon Hasidic sect to enforce gender separation at the site. Speaking with the Ynet news site after the tragedy, Shlomo Levy, the former head of the Merom Hagalil regional council, the local government in the area, claimed that prior efforts to address safety issues at the site had been rebuffed.
“It’s impossible to move a stone there without running into this or that Hasdic group, and if you do move something there, half an hour later, you get a phone call from Jerusalem,” he quipped. Prior to this year’s pilgrimage, Interior Minister Arye Dery pressed officials to rescind proposed limits on the size of the crowd there for Lag Ba’omer.
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Following the stampede on the pathway, which included a metal ramp that had apparently became slippery, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit announced that the Israel Police and the Justice Ministry’s police misconduct unit would cooperate in conducting separate investigations, but so far only 11 people have been questioned as suspects. One of them is the safety engineer who approved the event despite having previously warned that the site’s emergency exit was too small to accommodate the anticipated crowd.
Last week, the Knesset’s Arrangements Committee gave its approval to fast-track a bill that would establish of a state commission of inquiry. The move was opposed by ultra-Orthodox lawmakers, despite the fact that most of the victims were ultra-Orthodox. Their opposition was based on the fact that a state commission of inquiry would be headed by a retired Supreme Court justice, which the ultra-Orthodox lawmakers said would inject bias in the inquiry.
Instead, they pushed for an alternate plan to have the disaster investigated by a panel composed of representatives of the interior, public security and religious services ministries, in addition to the chief rabbinate. That plan was opposed by the families of some of the victims, who claimed that such a probe would be hamstrung by inherent conflicts of interest since the members of the panel would be investigating matters pertaining to their own ministries.
According to the ultra-Orthodox Behadrei Haredim news website, Deputy Transportation Minister Uri Maklev told colleagues at a United Torah Judaism Knesset faction meeting that, if a state commission is established, “there will be people whom we know who are liable to be harmed, people at the Religious Affairs Ministry, people who are responsible for the festivities; there are people who are responsible for Meron.”
In another accident roughly two weeks after the Meron disaster, two people were killed and dozens injured at a Shavuot service after bleachers collapsed at a crowded synagogue construction site in the settlement of Givat Ze’ev near Jerusalem. The event went ahead despite warnings that the site was unsafe.