JERUSALEM — Israelis mourned on Friday the loss of life when a joyous pilgrimage that drew tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews abruptly turned into a tragedy. And although the country was largely united in grief and shock, questions immediately arose about poor planning and possible negligence.
Even for a country accustomed to the trauma of wars and terrorist attacks, the deadly crush that killed 45 people during a mass religious celebration on Mount Meron in the northern Galilee region counted as one of the worst disasters in Israeli history.
There had been warnings for years that the site’s patchy infrastructure could not safely handle large crowds.
“We will conduct a thorough, serious and deep investigation to ensure such a disaster does not happen again,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged on a visit to the site on Friday. He called for a national day of mourning on Sunday.
Up to 100,000 people were crammed onto the mountain late Thursday, most having arrived on organized buses to celebrate the holiday. The festivities turned to horror about an hour after midnight, when scores of adults and children were crushed and suffocated in an overcrowded, narrow passageway that turned into a death trap, according to witnesses.
The crush occurred after celebrants poured out of one section of the mountainside compound down some steps and into the passageway with a sloping metal floor. Some people at the front fainted or slipped, causing a bottleneck, witnesses said, and setting off what the Hebrew news site Ynet described as a “human avalanche.”
One of the injured, Chaim Vertheimer, said that the slope was slippery from spilled water and grape juice.
“For some reason, there was sudden pressure at this point and people stopped. But more people kept coming down,” Mr. Vertheimer told Ynet, speaking from his hospital bed in the holy city of Safed. “People were not breathing. I remember hundreds of people screaming ‘I can’t breathe’.”
Another of the injured, Dvir Cohen, said that a large number of people were trying to leave at once.
“There was a staircase where the first people tripped and everyone just trampled them. I was in the second row of people,” he said. “People trampled on me, hundreds of them.”
Minutes earlier, thousands of men had been bobbing and swaying on the bleachers in time to music. The Israeli authorities had placed no restrictions on the numbers of attendees, despite warnings about the risk of Covid-19 transmission.
Though the sight of so many people gathered together may be jarring to most of the world, life in Israel has returned almost to normal in recent weeks after a successful national vaccination drive. The majority of the adult population is fully vaccinated.
The annual gathering on Mount Meron, which is near the Sea of Galilee, takes place near the mystical city of Safed. The holiday, Lag b’Omer, is linked in Jewish tradition to the Bar Kokhba revolt against the Romans in the first century A.D. and for many ultra-Orthodox Jews, it is a highlight of the Hebrew calendar.
But the celebrations were very curtailed last year because of the pandemic with few people allowed to attend.
Large numbers of ultra-Orthodox and traditional Jews make the pilgrimage to the mountain for days of festivities. They light bonfires around the grave site of a second-century sage, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, in the hope that they will receive his blessings on the anniversary of his death.
There were warnings that the infrastructure could not safely bear large crowds. However, critics say some officials may have been deterred from restricting access to the site in part because of the political power the ultra-Orthodox parties have held in successive Netanyahu-led governing coalitions.
Relations between the ultra-Orthodox community and the Israeli mainstream have come under particular strain during the pandemic as parts of the religious public flouted lockdown regulations and the government and police were often lax in enforcing them.
But in a show of national unity on Friday, Israelis across the nation lined up to donate blood for the injured in response to a call by the emergency services.