Deadly Stampede at Israeli Religious Festival Followed Years of Warnings

Deadly Stampede at Israeli Religious Festival Followed Years of Warnings

Deadly Stampede at Israeli Religious Festival Followed Years of Warnings

MOUNT MERON, Israel — The man underneath Avraham Nivin was already limp and lifeless. The men above him were thrashing and flailing. The men to his sides were screaming for help and struggling to breathe.

And crushed in the middle of these limbs and torsos — his legs trapped, his shoes and glasses lost in the melee, his body perpendicular to the floor — was Mr. Nivin himself.

“It was an indescribable disaster,” Mr. Nivin, a 21-year-old electronics salesman, said on Friday evening. “I thought I was looking death in the face.”

He survived, but 45 others did not — turning a night that began as a pilgrimage for tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews, and a joyous return to something approaching post-pandemic normality, into one of the deadliest peacetime tragedies in Israeli history.

At least four of the dead were Americans, Israel’s Foreign Ministry said, and two were Canadian, according to Canada’s Foreign Ministry.

By Friday night, the stampede had prompted a surge of soul-searching about religious-secular tensions, the resistance to state authority displayed by some ultra-Orthodox Israelis and, above all, questions of blame, responsibility and negligence.

For more than a decade there have been concerns and warnings that the religious site on Mount Meron in northern Israel was not equipped to handle tens of thousands of pilgrims who flock there each year to commemorate the death of a revered second-century rabbi.

The Site of the Stampede

Deadly Stampede at Israeli Religious Festival Followed Years of Warnings

In 2008 and 2011, reports by the state comptroller, a government watchdog, warned of the potential for calamity there. The leader of the regional government said he tried to close it at least three times. In 2013, the regional police chief warned in an official investigation of the possibility of a lethal stampede. And in 2018, a prominent ultra-Orthodox journalist called it a death trap.

And yet the government still authorized this year’s event, raising questions about its culpability and whether its reliance on ultra-Orthodox political parties had trumped concerns for public safety.

On Friday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged to conduct “a thorough, serious and deep investigation to ensure such a disaster does not happen again.” On a visit to the site of the crush, he also called for a national day of mourning on Sunday.

“This is an enormous thing that will be remembered for many years to come,” said Gedalia Guttentag, an editor at Mishpacha, a leading Haredi magazine. “We are just seeing the beginning of what it means.”

Israel has been racked by tensions between the secular mainstream and ultra-Orthodox Israelis, also known as Haredim, particularly during the pandemic. Among secular Jews, there was widespread anger about a disregard for coronavirus regulations within parts of the ultra-Orthodox community.

The disaster early Friday largely united the country in shock and grief, but it also underlined some of the divisions in society.

It occurred as up to 100,000 people filled the slopes of Mount Meron late Thursday, in the largest public gathering since the start of the pandemic. Most arrived by buses, but some camped in tents on the mountainside.

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