Relatives of the dozens of Israelis crushed to death during a religious festival in northern Israel earlier this year welcomed Sunday’s cabinet vote authorizing an official state commission of inquiry into the tragedy, calling it “an important decision” that should have been taken months earlier.
While the establishment of an investigation will not bring the dead back to life, “at least we will be able to ensure the prevention of another disaster,” the families said in a statement, which excoriated the previous government for not taking such action immediately after the tragedy.
“We all hope that the lessons will be learned and that in the near future they will begin correcting the shortcomings in preparation for the Lag Ba’omer celebrations,” the families said, adding that they hoped that the “committee will be headed by a person who will be attentive to the needs of the ultra-Orthodox public and will ensure that another disaster is prevented while acting with sensitivity and determination.”
Forty-five people were crushed to death during April’s annual pilgrimage to the grave of the 2nd century Mishnaic sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai at the foothills of Mount Meron after visitors began slipping on a metal ramp passing through a narrow, overcrowded passageway. The passageway had been illegally constructed by the Toldos Aharon Hasidic sect to enforce gender separation.
The pilgrimage site is usually packed beyond capacity on the Lag Ba’omer holiday. Responsibility for managing events is shared among a number of Hasidic groups, with none of them having complete oversight. Prior to this year’s pilgrimage, then Interior Minister Arye Dery pressed officials to rescind proposed limits on the permitted size for Lag Ba’omer.
“As part of the decision, the committee will investigate the chain of events and determine findings and conclusions regarding all aspects of the event,” the government said in a statement following Sunday morning’s vote, which authorized NIS 6 million for the investigation.
Shimon Elhadad, whose brothers Yosef and Moshe died in Meron, told Haaretz that he hoped that the new commission would lead to the government investing the necessary money and and planning to ensure that the annual pilgrimage can continue safely.
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“The main this is that next year we can hold the event as we’re used to doing it and not have to close it down but do it better than ever,” he said.
While many ultra-Orthodox Israelis are very happy about the commission, there is also significant ambivalence, noted prominent ultra-Orthodox political commentator Yisrael Cohen.
Many in the community are concerned that the interests of the government will be opposed to those of the ultra-orthodox community, he explained, noting that the commission was backed by both Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman, both proponents of cutting government spending on the ultra-Orthodox.
Ultra-Orthodox lawmakers have been adamantly opposed to the establishment of a state commission, arguing that such an investigatory body would be headed by a retired Supreme Court justice, which they believe would inject bias in the inquiry. This position elicited outspoken opposition from the victims’ families.
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.”
Three ultra-Orthodox lawmakers from the Shas and United Torah Judaism parties contacted by Haaretz either ignored requests for comment or declined to comment on the commission of inquiry.
In a joint statement issued after Sunday’s cabinet decision, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Finance Minister Lieberman said that the commission will both investigate the decision-making process which led to April’s event at Meron being green-lit as well as the broader issue of the safety of mass religious events in Israel.
“The establishment of the committee is a moral debt to the Israeli public, and also to the families,” Gantz said. “We must ensure that such an event never occurs again. This is a committee whose job is first and foremost to save lives.”
“It is time to draw conclusions, take responsibility and prevent the next disaster,” Lieberman said. “To the families of those killed in the disaster. We are here for you."
Addressing his cabinet during Sunday's meeting, the first of his administration, Prime Minister Naftali Bennet said that he believed it was important to reassure "worshippers and all of the people who go to Mt. Meron that we will do everything so that the tradition of festivities on Lag b'Omer, and throughout the year, will continue. People from all sectors go to Mt. Meron – ultra-orthodox, religious Zionism, traditional, Sephardi, Ashkenazi and secular. Our responsibility is to ensure their safety. This is the government's job and we will do it."
"Forty-five people lost their lives in that awful disaster and the responsibility for learning the lessons and preventing the next disaster is on our shoulders. A commission cannot bring back those who have perished but the government can do everything to prevent unnecessary loss of life in the future."