Forty-five people were trampled to death in Israel. Hundreds were injured.
The event took place on Lag B’Omer, in Meron located in the Galilee near Safed in the northern part of Israel. Meron is not far from the Sea of the Galilee, also known as the Kineret.
I know one of the victims. He was a 19-year-old studying in Israel for his gap year. He was a classmate of my son.
Forty-five people, who came together in celebration, trampled to death. The bare facts are horrific. You are trampled to your death as you are caught up in a rush of people. You stumble, you fall, you are pushed down. You fall on top of others. And then others fall on top of you. And others on top of them. If you are lucky – you are injured. Most die of asphyxiation, they suffocate. Unable to move or to breathe because people, just like you, are rushing to get out.
The scary and unimaginable truth is that in many cases – in this case, you are trampled by family or friends, the people you came to the event with and the people you are leaving with when the crowd loses control. And when the crowd loses control, no single person can stop the onslaught. Crowds form a current more powerful than a riptide. If you fall, there is no getting up.
This Lag B’Omer celebration in Meron was the first massive gathering in Israel in 14 months – the first since COVID ruptured the country and the world. Israelis have begun living a new normal life. They have been permitted to go maskless when outdoors for some time.
Schools are open business are up and running. Tourism has not yet snapped back, borders are still semi-sealed, but that, too, will slowly open up. And so, when the first opportunity arose, they flooded the roads and headed to Meron.
Lag B’Omer is the 33rd day of the Omer. The Omer is the 49-day period that is counted from Passover to the Pentecost holiday, also known as Shavuot.
The 33rd day is a minor holiday. Annually, on this day, Jews from Israel (and when permitted from around the world) visit the grave site of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the luminary who wrote the Zohar, the foundation work of Jewish mysticism. The 33rd day of the Omer is the anniversary of his death. The Hebrew letters “lamed’ and “gimel”, when combined form the acronym LAG. And lag, in Hebrew, is the numerical equivalent of 33.
Last year the celebration at Meron, which traditionally consists of prayers and the lighting of bonfires, was cancelled. In 2019, 500,000 people attended the bonfires and the celebrations. This year, the same number was expected.
The tomb sits on the top of a small mountain and there is only one way up and the same way down. On top of the mountain there is plenty of space. People set up makeshift tents, enclaves, days in advance to make certain they have good access to the grave and the festivities.
The stampede at Meron is horrible, horrific and tragic. Just as horrible and tragic is the knowledge that this was not an isolated incident. Stampedes happen all too often at religious events, at cultural events, at concerts, often caused by the bottleneck of people pushing to get into a tiny portal. There is a long history of stampedes.
On December 3, 1979 in Cincinnati, 11 people were trampled to death at a concert of The Who. The concert was general admission, which means that there were no assigned seats.
In Saudi Arabia, in Mecca, around the Muslim religious celebration of the Haj, there were five stampedes. The worst tragedy in Mecca was in 2015 when 2,262 people were trampled to death and 934 were injured. These are the official numbers. The real numbers were probably much higher.
A fire broke out at the Coconut Grove Hotel, in Boston, in 1942. There was a single exit. The revolving door got stuck because so many people were inside. 492 people died, 130 were injured.
Stampedes have happened all over the world. In the United States, in the Middle East, in India, Africa, South America. They happen wherever large crowds gather.
In Lima, Peru in 1964, Peru was playing Argentina in a very competitive soccer match. The referee made an unpopular call and fans stormed the field. In response, police fired tear gas. The crowd ran to escape. 328 people died – most of them from suffocation after being trampled.
It is a horrible way to die.
It speaks to the power of the group.
It speaks to the power of momentum.
Good people, decent people, people who would never knowingly be party to an act that claims innocent lives are now part of a group that unintentionally took lives.
May the souls of the dead be blessed and may the survivors be granted physical and emotional healing.
Micah Halpern is a political and foreign affairs commentator. He founded "The Micah Report" and hosts "Thinking Out Loud with Micah Halpern" a weekly TV program and "My Chopp" a daily radio spot. A dynamic speaker, he specializes in analyzing world events and evaluating their relevance and impact. Follow him on Twitter @MicahHalpern. Read Micah Halpern's Reports — More Here.
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