Pilgrimage as Landscapes of Death: Infrastructures, Stampede and Ethnocracy. Ruminations in the aftermath of the Meron catastrophe in Israel

On April 30, 2021 the annual festival (Hebrew: Hillula) for the Qabbala sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai (acronym: Rashbi) took place in its traditional location on top of Mt. Meron. Over 100,000 people, most of them male Orthodox Jews, gathered around the traditional location of the sage’s burial plot to celebrate this festivity, which is the largest public gathering and pilgrimage in Israel. Due to overcrowding and the lack of adequate infrastructure the festival day turned into a grave catastrophe. No less than 45 people were crushed to death and hundreds were injured during a stampede, which took place in a narrow passage leading to the tomb itself. The staggering number of people harmed has seen this day being described as Israel’s biggest multi-casualty event and surely one of the worst civilian disasters in Israel.

We talked about this event with Nimrod Luz, a cultural-political geographer at Kinneret College on the Sea of Galilee (Israel) where he also serves as Head of Research Authority. He is currently fellow of the KFG “Religion and Urbanity” (in Erfurt) pursuing a project on “The Infrastructures of Religiocity in Acre. Materialities of Faiths and their Politics in a Mixed Israeli City”.

For the KFG, Susanne Rau asked him questions to better understand the event.

KFG: Professor Luz, we actually have enough disasters in the world at the moment, but above all we are supposed to hold back on mass events of any kind (be they political, religious or cultural) in view of the coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2), which we still do not have under control. How can it be explained that such a celebration was even possible in Israel?

Nimrod Luz: Let us start with the upside, which is to say that Israel has indeed overcome (is it ephemeral? Time will tell) Covid and life as we knew it prior to this pandemic is resuming. So, schools and higher education institutions are up and running and students are back in classes and ‘enjoy’ frontal lectures again. Shops, malls, markets are open and public gathering as music concerts plays, movies and sports events are all back on track. When this important festivity came along it was a given that it will take place this year in the traditional format after it dwindled in 2020 due to Covid restrictions only allowing 150 participants in three separate locations at the site. However, this event, like the pandemic itself, has highlighted some of the grave problems Israel is facing as a state and surely as a society.

Israel defines itself as a democracy and judging by general perimeters it may be understood as such. Put simply, all Israeli citizens are entitled to social security, education (K-12), the right to vote, the right to own property and other such fundamentals as to be found in democratic nations worldwide. At the same time, Israel also defines itself as the state of the Jewish people and hence privileges Jews both within and without the country. This type of political structure where the state apparatus is controlled by a dominant ethnic group to further its interests, power, and resources was defined by Yiftachel as an ethnocracy (2006). This political logic manifests itself for example in situations where non-Jews are banned from purchasing land or taking residence in specific locations designated for Jews, implicitly or explicitly. Jewish cultural and religious life is generally deemed by state authorities as more important than other, and it is the Jewish liturgical calendar that dictates the rhythm of public life. This should not be so surprising in a country where 80% of its population is Jewish and defines itself the homeland of the Jews. However, this opens the door time and again to situations where the Jewish component of civil life trumps the modernistic-cum- secular perceptions of democracy. Hence for example, in Acre, the city which I have been exploring in recent years, both state and municipal agencies are funding and supporting Jewish religious buildings and activities but are generally absent from similar actions when Christian or Muslim communities are concerned.

Along with the prolongation of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s period in office and in sync with his growing dependence on Ultra-Orthodox parties, some of if these inherent problems have been exacerbated. Due to the increasingly problematical political power geometry and political stalemate, state agencies have been incapacitated or are at least struggling to cope with the growing weakness and fragility of the political system (for example, the parliament has not approved a state budget since 2019). Thus far, Arab parties have not been considered legitimate partners in any would-be coalition because of the prevailing ethnocratic logic. This situation has contributed directly to the UltraOrthodox parties’ importance in any coalition under Netanyahu over the last ten years and more. Their growing political power and bargaining skills have served these parties and their respective constituencies well during Covid restriction periods. Repeated infringements on their part were met with meek responses from either Netanyahu as Prime Minister or Ministers from his party, Likud. Netanyahu who is fighting an uphill battle in courts against three major criminal charges against him simply cannot lose power by alienating the UltraOrthodox.[1]

Against this background one may understand why the advice of several authorities for restricting measures to prevent disaster, be it from Covid or overcrowding, fell on governmental deaf ears as the holy day in Meron approached. The UltraOrthodox political machine was hard at work to preempt and prevent any possible limitations. The Minister of Interior Affairs who is also the leader of Shas, a Sephardic UltraOrthodox party, went as far as to boast in several media channels that he had struck a deal with the Minister of Police to allow free access to pilgrims during the holyday. As he stated in a press release : “The minister presented his understanding to the Minister of Police for the upcoming Rashbi Hillula. Accordingly, there will be no restrictions on the numbers of pilgrims arriving during the festivities. Minister Ohana (police) responded favorably to Minister of Interior Affairs Deri’s demands” (Kurtz, 2021). The picture below was posted on an UltraOrthodox site in the days following the disaster. It depicts photos of the two said ministers set against the crowded site. The website boasts a scoop uncovering the ways in which Der’i cajoled Ohana to ignore an elaborate police ordinance, which was issued prior to the event and recommended to limit the number of pilgrims to 15,000.

So, even in the postCovid atmosphere which is currently very much present in Israel this incident cannot be explained simply in terms of the lifting of restrictions but rather goes to the nub of Israel’s current socio-political crisis and some of its lingering problems as a highly fractured and divided society and against its fundamentally ethnocratic regime.

The yellow rectangular marks the narrow passage where the stampede occurred – picture from Haaretz.

KFG: The annual festival on the mountain – called the Lag BaOmer holiday – must be a kind of pilgrimage. Can you tell us a little more about the meaning and history of this holiday and especially its (presumably ‘broken’) tradition in Israel?

Nimrod Luz: Lag BaOmer literally means the 33rd day of the Omer (sheaf) which is a counting of 49 days from Passover to Shavout, the Feast of Weeks. The latter is a holy day that among other things is a celebration of the new harvest and the end of the agriculture year in pre-modern times. Lag represents the numerical counting of two letters which stand for 33: L (Hebrew: ל) and G (Hebrew: ג). The origins of this festive day are unclear. There are a few traditions that in time fused to serve as the central foci of this holiday, which in modern times became very popular in Israeli culture. Its main manifestation in the public sphere is the lighting of bonfires throughout Israel. According to one of these traditions, on this day a plague that killed no less than 24,000 students of the famous sage Rabbi Akiva (d. 135 CE) ended. The bonfires are a symbolic enactment of the pre-modern method of relaying messages throughout the country by lighting bonfires on hilltops. This was used, for example, to alert Jewish communities about the arrival of the new month that calls for special conduct and performances. However, this is just a part of this complex and rather obscure mythology. Other traditions connect the students’ death to their participation in the Ben Kosba revolt against the Roman Empire in 132-135 CE.

These two traditions have merged over the years and became rather significant in the modern mythology of Israeli society. In the modern Zionist interpretation Lag BaOmer is more about a victory (albeit temporary) over the Romans during a local revolt and celebrating national pride rather than marking the later, complete annihilation of Jewish autonomy shortly after this victory in 135 by the Roman emperor, Hadrian, and his troops (Zerubavel, 1995). Surely, the bonfires were an easy sell to secular-Zionist children but also the presentation of Ben Kosba, a rather dubious extremist leader of a failed attempt to overthrow the Romans, as a fearless general and war hero rubbing shoulders and consulting with one of the most acclaimed Jewish scholars, Rabbi Akiva. So, during the modern period this day became not only a highly significant one in the Jewish liturgy and calendar but was also painted as a national (hence secular) day and became part of state cults (Azaryahu, 1995).

Going back to the religious roots of the day some traditions hold that because of the plague Rabbi Akiva was left with very few students (some say as few as five) among them the Rashbi, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai. He became one of the most renowned Halachic scholars and is considered the author of the Zohar, the most important manuscript of Jewish mysticism, generally known as Qabbala. [2] By the 13th century, following a highly convoluted and rather fascinating development, local Jewish traditions agreed that the grave of Rashbi was to be found on Mt. Meron (Reiner, 2012). By the 16th century a new layer of meaning was added as Chaim Vital, a Qabbala scholar, narrates Lag BaOmer as the day of Rashbi’s death and hence the day of his Hillula. This calls for further clarification that I will present herewith. Hillula is the term for the yahrzeit of renowned righteous scholars (Hebrew: Tzadiqq) and Qabbala sages which, against the common practice of marking death with mourning, in their case is a day of festivities and pilgrimage to their accepted burial ground. On these days, pilgrims believe requests and prayers will be met favorably due to the revered status of the sage in the eyes of God. This understanding can be found also in Islam and it is perhaps the case that Islam influenced common practice among Jews following the development of cults of saints in Islam (Goldziher, 1971; Meri, 2009). Indeed, one may say that during the 17th and 18th centuries as the Hillula became more formalized its rituals involved elements to be found in many of the annual Muslim pilgrimage in the region known as Ziyaras (Luz, 2020).  

By the 16th century, the accepted mythology of Rashbi was fused with Lag BaOmer and both were inscribed unto the Galilean landscape in the shape of a modest pilgrimage site on the eastern slopes of Mt. Meron. A major contribution to its growing fame and reverence among Jews, both in Israel and abroad, was the initiation of a procession from the nearby city of Safad to the grave on the day of the Hillula by Rabbi Shmuel Abu in 1870. He not only purchased the plot and surrounding 7,000 dunums (1,700 acres) but was also responsible for the construction of the tomb and several other surrounding buildings. This was an essential move towards the locative pole to borrow from J. Z. Smith (1987) and Marcus (1994). Put plainly, concretize a textual or oral tradition in a specific place.

The concretization of traditions and the construction of a sacred site, fashioned along the architectural traces of a local saint’s tomb, served as the perfect landscape for the myth to find its proper location. Consequently, the site transformed into a landscape of myth that is able to sustain traditional mythology while ignoring any would-be contradicting historical spatiality (della Dora, 2009). Therefore, it is hardly surprising that when modernity and the winds of nationalization arrived in the Holy Land in the shape of Zionism this site was a perfect fit that could successfully accommodate the goals of both religious and secular actors in modern Israel. Many of the new immigrants to the young Jewish state who came from Islamic countries brought with them a well-developed tradition of saint’s worship and visitation. Against the void they faced in the new homeland and the disconnection with their local saints back home this site was well equipped to answer their religious needs (Bilu, 1991). Anthropologists who were conducting ethnographic research during the pilgrimage noted that many of the traits they observed during the ceremonies of the pilgrimage resembled those encountered during Muslim Ziyaras. In the late 1970s the American anthropologist, Kenneth Brown visited the site during the Hillula and made the following observation:

The area around the shrine was filled with people who had camped there during the night. Most of them had set up tents and tables and chairs. They were eating, drinking, playing music, dancing, sleeping, or wandering around observing one another and the goods for sale that have been set up by hawkers. The crowd was decidedly Oriental [of Middle Eastern and North-African background] and so was the atmosphere—the sounds of music and voices (a mixture of Hebrew and Arabic as pronounced by Oriental Jews) and the smells of food. The scene bore a striking resemblance to the pilgrimage fairs celebrated in Morocco by Muslims and Jews alike. As we approached the building of the shrine that housed the tombs of Bar Yohai and his son, the composition of the crowd changed. Inside the courtyard most of the men were dressed in the typical clothing of Orthodox Eastern European Jews—long black coats and black or fur hats. And they were dancing to and singing Hasidic melodies, all the while carrying the small male children on their shoulders (Brown and Mohr, 1982: 8).

This is indeed an astute observation and a sound reading of the political, cultural, and surely religious raptures among the different Jewish groups forming Israeli society. While European Jewish Orthodox are clinging to more formalistic aspects of pilgrimage, for Eastern Jews this has become an opportunity to perform their own understanding which is inspired by traits of Muslim Ziyaras to holy graves. It is also vivid proof to the acceptance of the Rashbi tradition among new arrivals from eastern-cum-Muslim countries.

To date, the Hillula of Rashbi in Lag BaOmer is the biggest pilgrimage event in Israel, only surpassed in numbers by the visits to the Wailing Wall. It is estimated that over half a million people arrive every year and as much as 300,000 people on specific festive days!

KFG: Is the mountain supposed to be ‘sacred’? Or what exactly drives the faithful to go there? I read that there were already incidents last year: back then, in the first wave of the Covid pandemic, people were not supposed to go there. Nevertheless, many people did and threw stones at police officers who were standing at the barriers. How do you explain such forms of religious violence (is this the right term?) as a cultural geographer?

Nimrod Luz: The ridge, which Mt. Meron is a part of, is not considered sacred. However, the tomb and its surrounding are deemed sacred and surely the annual rituals therein. Invoking J. Z. Smith again it is ritual that separates the sacred from mundane activities and daily life and one may go as far as to say that it is ritual that makes the sacred:

The ordinary (which remains, to the observer’s eye, wholly ordinary) becomes significant, becomes sacred, simply by being there. It becomes sacred by having our attention directed to it in a special way… the sacra are sacred solely because they are used in a sacred place; there is no difference between a sacred vessel and an ordinary one. By being used as a sacred place, they are held to be open to the possibility of significance and agents of meaning as well as utility (Smith, 1980: 113-116).

The annual rituals that ‘take place’ over many a year form the bedrock for the sacralization of the tomb and its environs. However, contrary to common understanding, being sacred and especially the spatiality of the sacred –  i.e sacred places – do not indicate serenity, secession of socio-political conflicts or even being, as Eliade tried to portray it, an out-of-the-ordinary life location (1959). Coming from a re-theorized cultural geographic perception I hold the sacred as a contested category. Geographers dealing with religion have long pointed to the presence of conflict and contestation involved in sacred sites (Kong, 1993; Luz, 2008). Chidester and Linenthal (1995), present us with an understanding of the multivalence of sacred sites and their inherent contested nature. They claim that “a sacred place is not merely discovered, or founded, or constructed; it is claimed, owned, and operated by people advancing specific interests” (5). Ivakhiv argued that that conflicts, competitions, and contestations are inherent to sacred places simply because they are first and foremost, spatial (2006). Therefore, becoming a sacred place involves a process of production which involves cultural-political contestation regarding the multiplicity of meanings assigned to the place. The conflict is not just over the production, Chidester and Linenthal continue to argue, but also over the ”symbolic surpluses that are abundantly available for appropriation” (6). Place is fundamental in any exercise of power (Foucault, 1980: 63), and as such places are, by their very nature, political entities or at least politicized through various human agencies. They are a complex web of relations, of domination and subordination, of solidarities, and cooperation (Massey, 1993). Put simply, my general concerns and explorations of sacred sites such as Rashbi’s grave prioritize the socio-political processes that revolves in and around the place.  

So, coming from this perspective and an understanding of the sacred one need not be overly surprised when incidents of violence within and outside sacred places occur. Think of the age-old conflict over the holy basin in Jerusalem (Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount) or the Ayodhya shrine-Babri mosque conflict in India as cases in point for the ways in which socio-political struggles inform processes at sacred places (Luz, 2014; Van der Veer, 1994). Indeed, it is also the other way around since the conflict around a sacred place may spark (as most often happens) a plethora of socio-political struggles within the respective communities that strive to take control or influence the spatiality of the sacred. Cases of violence over religious and sacred sites are in a sense more of a common feature than we are willing to admit. It is precisely due to their unique spatiality and the web of signification woven around them that they are more susceptible to violence. There is too much at stake, too much to lose and as we find time and again these are places that motivate believers to compete over their surplus of meaning due to the holiness assigned to them. The entire concept of crusades which moved (some would say still moves) millions of people was based on the notion of taking back the holy sepulchre from the hands of the ‘infidels’.

Therefore, incidents of violence are intrinsic to sacred places and the Tomb of Rashbi is no exception. The events you were referring to need to be understood also against the contextualization I laid out earlier on when referring to the complex and volatile dynamics between UltraOrthodox groups in Israel that by and large do not accept the founding principles of the State of Israel. Like other ‘fundamentalist’ groups around the world, they play the political game to their advantage and yet fail to accept the modernist-liberal concepts found at the very base of the foundation of Israel as a modern democracy. Time and again – and not just at Rashbi – these groups challenge the state’s authority and law enforcing agencies when they stand between them and fulfilling their religious rites. As I noted above this situation was worsened recently during Covid restrictions and against the growing dependence of Netanyahu’s coalition on UltraOrthodox parties. It also goes back, however, to the ethnocratic aspects of the Israeli regime which differentiates levels of citizenship according to (religious) identity rather than unconditionally granting equal rights to all. This situation is perpetuated in non-transparent ways and allows for example the growth of illegal settlements or discrimination in access to public land. It also informs the growing silence of the state when infringements such as the one you mentioned take place.

KFG: In your framing of the events, you related to pilgrimage as ‘landscape of death’ and went on to make a connection between these tragic outcomes to infrastructures and stampedes in pilgrimage sites.  Would you like to expand on those issues and explain how this framing enables us to gain a better understanding of such events?

Nimrod Luz: Rather regrettably this is not the first time the festivities at the Rashbi Tomb during the annual pilgrimage have turned into a disaster and demanded their pound of flesh. On May 15, 1911 eleven people were trampled to death when the railing on the roof of the main building collapsed against the pressure of circa 500 people that gathered there during the main event of lighting the main bonfire (Aderet, 2021). A local newspaper reported that “rivers of blood and streams of tears washed the courtyard of the righteous person”.

Certainly and rather sadly, stampedes and disasters of greater caliber unfortunately take place regularly during major pilgrimage worldwide. The most prone to hazards and catastrophes is arguably the annual pilgrimage to the Ka’ba in Mecca. Over the years incidents have occurred where lives were lost and many others were injured during stampedes. In 1994, at least 270 pilgrims (hajjis) were killed at the Jamarat Bridge, and in 1998 118 were trampled to death at the same location. What remains thus far the worst event took place in 2015 when no less than 2000 pilgrims died and many more injured (Musa et al. 2019). During such mass gatherings crowd control becomes very challenging – again we face popular pilgrimages turning into landscapes of death. Surely, this is tied up with human density and the gatherings of large crowds in peak times in a space that ultimately cannot accommodate them. Yet people have gathered in masse crowds throughout history and more often than not this has not led to such disastrous results. The gathering of thousands in Roman amphitheaters and hippodromes is but one example that comes to mind. These calamities occur when infrastructures fail us.

A well-known quip among tour guides and touristic experts holds that the most important feature in any sacred site is surely the latrines. Infrastructures are particularly important, alas, in times of crisis. Hurricane Katrina was a disastrous event that still looms large in USA public sphere. Surely, it highlighted out many problems and yet within a few years New Orleans recovered and many parts were rejuvenated. Conversely, Haiti experienced a disastrous flood in 2016 but is still searching for a way to deal with the horrific outcomes. The difference in these countries’ resilience to catastrophe lies squarely in their infrastructures. Burchardt and Höhne recently suggested an expansive understanding of infrastructure which is highly pertinent to the Meron disaster. They focus on the urban sphere and yet I think we may push it further to include other environments as well. Infrastructures, they claim, are socio-technical apparatuses and material artifacts that structure, enable and govern the circulation of energy, information, goods, and capital, as well as people, practices and images (2015: 3). This definition contributes towards an understanding that links infrastructures (as part of the material aspects) with socio-political processes.

My overarching point throughout this short rejoinder is that the drama at Meron cannot be pinned down to materiality perse. That is, narrating it simply as a case of too many people gathered in a specific tight location in a specific timing and hence the tragic results. Over the years, warnings by different agencies were made to ward off the government that the site is ill equipped to entertain the growing numbers of pilgrims during the Hillula. In 2008, the State Comptroller of Israel published an opinion which emphatically noted, among other things, that the compound at Rashbi is not properly prepared for the absorption of the tens of thousands of pilgrims that arrive during mass events. In March 2009, the government decided to establish a central government agency that would assume control over the site and its environs. This agency was to assume responsibility over the site and coordinate the various relevant agencies working in such public gatherings. In a special report published in 2011, the State Comptroller warned again that none of the deficiencies previously reported were amended and that the site in its current state was hazardous to pilgrims (www.mevaker,gov.il, 138, 2011).

Joseph Schwinger, is the Director of the Center for the Development of Holy Places and he mediates between the various agencies that need to work in cooperation during events on the mountain. Over the last twenty years, he has been warning of the dangers that await pilgrims during the annual pilgrimage. Yet in the days that preceded the Hillula he spared no efforts to compliment the Minister of Interior Affairs publicly for supporting and allowing the event to take place in its usual form. This has to do with the fact that he was appointed to this position by the very same minister and indeed is considered one of his closest allies (Ilnay, 2021). Not surprisingly, he has been very silent since the disaster took place. Along the same line the Prime Minister, accompanied by a few Ministers, visited the site and conveyed their condolences to the families. A day of national mourning was declared during which the Minister of Police took responsibility for the events but added that ‘assuming responsibility need not be inferred as being guilty’. Such unimaginable remarks by state officials and platitudinous statements sadly support the analysis of infrastructures suggested earlier on.  

The disaster at Mt. Meron mirrors current socio-political processes taking place in Israeli society in recent years. Indeed, such tragic events may occur everywhere, but this catastrophe was long in waiting to happen as indeed various authorities warned beforehand. It is the volatile combination of ethnocracy which informs the political machination in Israel – the growing power of religious groups against the weakness of the governments that contributed collectively to the presence of so many people in the compound while warnings for deeper and sounder regulations were ignored due to that unique power geometry.

Places are always part of various processes in different scales and the Tomb of Rashbi is no exception. At the end of the day the tragedy of Meron is the spatial outcome of all that makes a place. Places, as argued by Pred, are always on the way of becoming (1984). They are processes and hence ever changing and they need not be understood as bound to their physical space – they bring together both external and internal components and developments. What is abundantly clear from this analysis is that the sacred is part and parcel of our mundane earthly lives and prone to the same misfortunes that are spatialized in ordinary (if such a category exists) places.  

KFG: Thank you, Professor Luz for these detailed and enlightening explanations.

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[1] The current situation is facing a dramatic change as following last elections (the fourth within 2 years!!) a government that will not be headed by Netanyahu looks at the moment as the most plausible outcome.

[2] This is accepted wisdom although among scholar of Qabala this tradition has long been refuted and it is agreed that the text cannot have been written prior to the 13th century.


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