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A national day of mourning is being held in Israel after a crush at a Jewish festival early on Friday that killed 45 men and boys.  Some 150 people were injured at the Lag B'Omer festival, near Mount Meron in northern Israel, when they became trapped in an overcrowded passageway.

Up to 100,000 mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews were present at the gathering. All of the victims have now been identified. There are 12 teenagers and children among them. Flags on all public buildings have been lowered to half-mast, and concerts and sports events postponed. The families of those already buried are beginning their week-long wakes, known in Jewish tradition as sitting shiva.

The work of identifying the dead was paused for 24 hours late on Friday to mark the Sabbath, the Jewish day of rest. From sunset on Saturday, funerals resumed.
The body of Menahem Kanovlowitz is seen in a shroud during his funeral in Jerusalem on May 1, 2021, with black-clad orthodox mourners gathered aroundimage copyrightReuters
image captionMourners gathered for the funeral of Menahem Kanovlowitz in Jerusalem on Saturday

Avigdor Hayut, 36, had brought two sons to Mount Meron. He described how "a river" of people piled up behind his family during the crush. All three fell down. His 10-year-old son lay beside him and said, "Dad, I'm dying" - but survived, in what his father called "a visible miracle".

Mr Hayut suffered broken ribs and a broken ankle. But his 13-year-old son, Yedidya, was killed. Laying the boy to rest in the town of Bnei Brak, near Tel Aviv, Mr Hayut said of his son: "I only wish that we achieve even a small fraction of your stature in studies and holy devotion."

At least 20 people were still in hospital on Saturday, Israeli media reported, many of them in a serious or critical condition.The Magen David Adom rescue agency said more than 2,200 people had donated blood to help the injured, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Among the dead, two sets of brothers. The 45 people killed in the crush include young fathers, rabbis and two sets of brothers, the Times of Israel reported. Two of the youngest victims were Moshe Natan Englander, 14, and Yehoshua Englander, 9, from Jerusalem. At least 10 foreign citizens were said to be among the dead.

Four are American, according to the Israeli foreign ministry. The US has not yet named them, but local reports identified an 18-year-old gap-year student, Donny Morris, from New Jersey.

"We are all shocked and devastated. There are no words," said Rabbi Yechiel Morris, the victim's uncle. Mr Netanyahu has called the incident one of Israel's worst peacetime disasters, and pledged to hold an inquiry to ensure such a tragedy cannot happen again. Questions are being raised over who is accountable.

"Once we have finished identifying and burying our dead, I will stand before the cameras and take responsibility" for the events, Public Security Minister Amir Ohana said on Saturday.

Fractures between the ultra-Orthodox community and secular Israel are coming to the surface, the BBC's Middle East correspondent Tom Bateman reports. Evidence is mounting that the pilgrimage site was a known safety risk, labelled hazardous years before by state investigators.

There are suggestions the government and police may not have acted to reduce the scale of the gathering out of deference to high-profile rabbis and politicians. More than half of Israel's population are now fully vaccinated against Covid-19, but public gatherings are subject to a numbers cap. Officials had authorised 10,000 people to attend the Lag B'Omer festival, but Israeli media reports suggest 10 times that number were present.

"A thorough inquiry is required," Culture Minister Hili Tropper told Kan public radio, according to Reuters. "This terrible disaster will help everyone understand... that there should be no place where the state does not set the rules."

The Justice Ministry is examining whether there was any police misconduct. Police sources told Israeli newspaper Haaretz that some people had slipped on steps, causing dozens more to fall over. But some witnesses have said a police barricade prevented people from leaving the crowded area. --BBCi


The sister of an Orthodox Jewish woman murdered in France in 2017 is to file a legal claim in Israel in the hope of getting a trial against the killer. Kobili Traoré cannot stand trial in France after a court deemed he was not criminally responsible due to his mental state.  He killed Sarah Halimi, 65, in what French courts have now accepted was an anti-Semitic attack.  He chanted verses from the Quran as he attacked her inside her Paris [flat and threw] her over the balcony of the third-floor flat in the city's eastern Belleville area.

Mr Traoré, who was 27 at the time of the attack, is currently in a psychiatric hospital.
Israel's criminal law may apply to anti-Semitic crimes committed abroad that have been denounced by an Israeli citizen, in this case Ms Halimi's sister Esther Lekover. However, France does not extradite its nationals.

Ms Lekover's two lawyers "deplore being forced to expedite this procedure, but they cannot accept a denial of justice which offends reason and fairness far beyond the Jewish community of France", they said in a statement.

Earlier this month, one of France's highest courts, the Cour de Cassation, confirmed that Mr Traoré would not stand trial. It said he was going through a "delirious episode" when he carried out the attack and was therefore not criminally responsible.

The court said that it did not matter that his mental state was affected by years of drug-taking. Lawyers for the Halimi family, however, argued that he had consumed drugs of his own volition and the same rules should apply as if he had committed the murder while drunk.

The decision prompted French President Emmanuel Macron to call for a change in the law. "Deciding to take narcotics and then 'going mad' should, not in my view, remove your criminal responsibility," he told Le Figaro newspaper earlier this week.

"I would like Justice Minister [Eric Dupond-Moretti] to present a change in the law as soon as possible," he said. Jewish groups reacted angrily to the decision. The head of the main French Jewish organization, the CRIF, said the judgement meant Jews could now be killed "with complete impunity" in France.

Lawyers for the Halimi family have said they also intend to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights. Mr Traoré's lawyer has said that while he could "obviously understand the victims' frustration that there will not be a trial [the law] does not allow perpetrators to be tried in such circumstances"
. --BBCi


Israel has recorded no new daily Covid-19 deaths for the first time in 10 months, as the country pushes ahead with its speedy vaccination drive. The country's Coronavirus death toll remained unchanged at 6,346 on Thursday, health ministry data showed. The last time Israel reported zero Covid-19 deaths was at the end of June last year, after lockdown measures curbed a first wave of infections.

Israel's outbreak has eased after hitting its peak in January this year. The Israeli government started to relax lockdown restrictions a month later as vaccinations against Covid-19 were rolled out more widely.

Israel has the highest vaccination rate in the world. On Thursday, the country reached the milestone of five million Covid-19 vaccinations.

The health ministry said more than 53% of the country's population of about nine million people had received two doses of vaccine.

"This is a tremendous achievement for the health system and Israeli citizens. Together we are eradicating the Coronavirus," Health Minister Yuli Edelstein tweeted on Friday.

Last week Eyal Leshem, a director at Israel's largest hospital, the Sheba Medical Center, said the country may be close to reaching "herd immunity".

Herd immunity happens when enough of a population has protection against an infection, thus stopping it from spreading.

World Health Organization (WHO) experts have estimated that at least 65%-70% of a population need vaccination coverage before herd immunity is reached.

Mr Leshem said herd immunity was the "only explanation" for Israel's continued fall in cases as more restrictions were lifted.

"There is a continuous decline despite returning to near normalcy," he said. "This tells us that even if a person is infected, most people they meet walking around won't be infected by them."

Israel began its vaccination campaign last December and since then, it has been the leading nation globally for the number of doses per head of population.  The country has so far relied on only the two-shot vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech. In February, Israel's health ministry said studies revealed the risk of illness from the virus had dropped 95.8% among people who have had both doses of the Pfizer vaccine.

The country is preparing to start vaccinating children aged 12-15 as soon as the US Food and Drugs Administration, a regulator, approves vaccine use for people in that age bracket. But while Israel has surged ahead with its vaccination programme, the Palestinian territories have lagged behind.

In March, the Palestinians received the first shipment of about 60,000 vaccines doses under the international Covax vaccine-sharing scheme. –BBCi


Scores of people have been injured in clashes in East Jerusalem between far-right Jewish activists, Palestinians and Israeli police. The violence erupted as police tried to keep Palestinians and ultra-nationalist Jewish protesters apart.

It follows nights of confrontations in the Israeli-occupied sector amid rising nationalist and religious tensions. East Jerusalem has long been a flashpoint, with an uneasy coexistence there between Jews and Arabs.

Israel has occupied East Jerusalem since the 1967 Middle East war and considers the entire city its capital, though this is not recognised by the vast majority of the international community. Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as the future capital of a hoped-for independent state.  The worst fighting in days broke out on Thursday night after hundreds of Jewish extremists from the ultra-nationalist Lehava group marched towards the Damascus Gate entrance of Jerusalem's Old City - where large numbers of Palestinians had gathered - chanting "Death to Arabs".

Stones and bottles were thrown between the two sides, and police used stun grenades, tear gas and water cannon to try to disperse the crowds.  The Palestinian Red Crescent said at least 100 Palestinians were injured, while police said 20 officers were hurt. More than 50 people were arrested.

Tensions in East Jerusalem have escalated since the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on 13 April. Palestinians have clashed with police, accusing them of erecting barriers to stop them from congregating on steps outside Damascus Gate to break the daytime fast. Police say the measures are intended to help pedestrian flow into the Old City.

Jews have also been angered by a spate of TikTok videos showing Palestinians assaulting members of the ultra-Orthodox community, including an attack on two ultra-Orthodox boys on Jerusalem's light rail. The videos were given as a reason by Lehava for its march to Damascus Gate, in what it said would be a show of "national honor".

There have also been a number of attacks by Jews on Arabs in Jerusalem this week, including an incident where Jewish youth chanting anti-Arab slogans assaulted an Arab driver who stopped to remonstrate with them. --BBCi


The leadership of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (OU), the nation’s largest Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization, recently issued the following statement in the wake of five violent attacks on synagogues in the Bronx in the past few days, including a new attack on the Riverdale Jewish Center on Monday. The group calls for dramatically increasing federal security grants and law enforcement protection.

The Nonprofit Security Grant Program, which the OU Advocacy Center helped create in 2005, is administered by the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security and provides grants of up to $100,000 apiece to synagogues and other houses of worship as well as parochial day schools and other nonprofits at risk of terror attacks.

The funds may be used for security improvements to buildings and to hire security guards. The NSGP is currently funded at $180 million, and OU Advocacy has been working with Congress to double that amount for fiscal year 2022.


      21-27 Iyar, 5781                                              May 3-9, 2021 -- THE JEWISH OBSERVER, LOS ANGELES--649th Web Ed.


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