Deadly stampede at Israeli religious festival followed years of warnings

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MOUNT MERON, ISRAEL (NYTIMES) – The man underneath Mr 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 Friday evening (April 30). “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 the number of pilgrims who flock there each year to commemorate the death of a revered second-century rabbi.

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 authorised 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