The Mount Meron passageway where 45 people were crushed to death last week was illegally built some 20 years ago by the ultra-Orthodox Toldos Aharon sect so that men would be able to enter the compound without coming into contact with women. No government entity acted to stop it.
The Meron disaster occurred as people left the Lag Ba’omer bonfire lighting ceremony conducted by the insular anti-Zionist sect. Toldos Aharon has known for years that the passageway was too narrow and crowded to accommodate crowds of the magnitude that have been coming to Mount Meron on Lag Ba’omer. In the past, they closed it off during the lighting ceremony itself to avoid problems, but on the night of the disaster, access was permitted without limitation.
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In 2019, Toldos Aharon undertook extensive work to expand the area where the bonfire ceremony is conducted and to construct bleachers to accommodate a larger number of people, but it did nothing to widen the access routes. Sources with the sect said that a man by the name of Zvi Heller has been responsible for the work at the site over the past 20 years, including the widening of the passageway, which still became a death trap last week when revelers leaving the bonfire site via the passageway apparently lost their footing. The route includes stairways and a downward-sloping metal ramp that apparently became slippery. In the crush of people, members of the crowd fell on top of one another, killing 45 and injuring some 150 others.
The powerful and prosperous Toldos Aharon Hasidic sect was founded by Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kohn. After his death in 1996, the sect split into two factions, one of which was led by his son David Kohn, who inherited the Toldos Aharon name, and Shmuel Yaakov Kohn, who joined forces with other Hasidim to form Toldos Avraham Yitzhak. Mount Meron is revered as the site of the tomb of the 2nd century rabbi Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.
Until the middle of the 1990s, there was only one ceremonial bonfire lit at Meron on Lag Ba’omer, conducted by the rabbi heading the Boyan Hasidic dynasty. The privilege had been sold more than a century ago to his ancestors.
Back then, the custom was that after the lighting, Toldos Aharon Hasidim would gather at the cave tomb at the site. But after the sect’s split, a dispute arose regarding the conduct of the ceremony and the Toldos Aharon group began conducting its own lighting ceremony with the rabbinical head of Boyan Hasidism.
Jealous of the development, the Toldos Avraham Yitzhak sect began sponsoring a competing ceremony, but the Toldos Aharon event is considered the main ceremony and remains a source of pride for the sect. To create a space for the event, the sect prepared a large area beneath the tomb compound that until then had been a campsite for celebrants staying overnight on Lag Ba’omer. Those staying overnight were left with no alternate site.
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The lighting arrangements are coordinated by the Simchat Rashbi Association and by Heller. When the sect began work on the site, it added a passage – an access route that was built without a permit and that was intended exclusively for men. Sources with the sect said the passage, which was dubbed “mehadrin,” a reference to a term indicating strict compliance with Jewish religious ritual, was initially even narrower than it is now. It was expanded over the years to accommodate more visitors.
Since its construction, men attending the bonfire ceremonies have been dropped off every year by bus at the entrance to the Meron compound. They have then been able to take the passageway up to the lighting area without coming into any contact with women, in accordance with the sect’s gender separation practices.
Heller declined to comment for this article. The Merom Hagalil Regional Council, which serves as the local government at the site, did nothing to stop the construction work there.
The fight over gender separation on Mount Meron began more than two decades ago when Haredim – ultra-Orthodox Jews – began coming to the site in large numbers. Prior to that, it was visited mainly by members of the extremist anti-Zionist Edah Haredit community, as well as traditional but non-Haredi Sephardi Jews who would observe the holiday with a celebration lasting several days that included the slaughter of sheep.
Shlomo Shlush, the head of the Hekdesh Sephardi organization that owns the tomb, spoke about the issue of gender separation at a 2015 conference at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem, saying that his organization opposed the segregation but in the end had relented.
“Separate entrances for men and women weren’t the case in the past,” he said. “At first, the Hekdesh Sephardi was opposed, but they pressured us a lot and we gave in, so today there’s separation inside the tomb.”
Shlush told Haaretz that didn’t know when the passageway was opened but refused to answer other questions.
The Israeli government has been aware of the extent of the illegal construction at the site. In 2008, the Merom Hagalil Regional Council admitted to the State Comptroller that it was not enforcing planning and construction laws there due to budgetary and manpower constraints. The regional council asked for assistance from the Interior Ministry.
The Committee of Five, the entity responsible for managing the site, which consists of representatives of a number of “hekdeshim” – religious trusts – has taken legal action in recent years to remove what it called “intruders” at the compound. But it has acted only against members of the non-Haredi Sephardi public and not against construction by Haredi groups.
It sought the removal, for example, of a structure belonging to the Buskila family, which has hosted celebrations at Meron for decades. The structure is inside the area used by Toldos Aharon.
Two months ago, the Nazareth District Court granted the family’s appeal of an eviction order and ruled that the committee had no authority to seek it. The court noted that the committee had only acted against the Buskila family and not against others breaking the law at the site.