Author(s): Steven A Adelman. Published on July 13, 2021.

In My Tribe
A crowd-crush incident in Israel highlights the perils of a false sense of collective invulnerability that can overtake participants at live events. For the author, it offers further impetus to update crowd management provisions in the Life Safety Code.


As the threat of COVID-19 has receded in some countries, it hasn’t taken long for the old hazards to return. In Israel, which managed the pandemic better and distributed vaccines earlier than most other places, the first mass gathering of 2021, held at the end of April, resulted in a crowd crush that killed 45 pilgrims who had gathered to celebrate the religious holiday of Lag B’Omer.

A survivor gave this account to the Jewish News Syndicate: “The area became so tight that my feet left the ground and it was difficult to breathe. Still, I was unafraid, and everywhere people had smiles [and were] dancing joyfully. However, the mass of people began to move, until we found ourselves near an exit stairwell. People grabbed the stairwell railing, which collapsed, pinning my leg. I was trapped while being pushed by the unstoppable torrent of people, just waiting for my leg to snap. By some miracle, I squeezed out from the rail and from that crowd. Looking back, I saw the horror: people falling on each other; police trying to block off the area while people inside were still straining to exit. The paramedics did everything they could … All those lives … May their memories be a blessing. Thank God I was freed.”

If this were an account of only one horrific crowd crush, that would be enough. However, I believe the recent tragedy in Israel yields important lessons regarding the way event organizers should think about life safety and the codes that guide our decisions, and how the law unreasonably penalizes victims for attitudes and perceptions that are woven into the fabric of many events.

To understand the significance of everyone having a “risk identity” and the consequences that flow from this, it helps to lay a basic foundation of facts regarding the night of April 30, 2021. Lag B’Omer takes place each year on the thirty-third day of Omer in Meron, a village in northern Israel. Tens of thousands of people, mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews, gather for a traditional celebration that includes bonfires, weddings, and group singing and dancing. Americans can analogize this to Independence Day celebrations—we know when they take place and what activities are likely to occur. Nonetheless, police classified the 2021 event as a “spontaneous religious event,” which The Times of Israel drily noted is a “preposterous” term for a gathering that involves months of planning and is the largest annual religious gathering in the entire country.

Just after midnight, thousands of pilgrims gathered on temporary spectator stands for the beginning of the Toldos Aharon Hasidic community’s bonfire-lighting ceremony. At 12:50 a.m., when dancing began after the lighting ceremony, a tightly packed crowd of hundreds of people headed towards the exit.

The Toldos Aharon section of the exit path is a narrow passageway with a smooth and sloped metal floor leading to stairs. There was nothing for participants to hold onto, so people in the increasingly dense crowd tried to hold onto each other to keep from falling. By about 1 a.m., departing pilgrims began to lose their footing and fell on top of each other, crushing the victims at the bottom.

The slippery-slope hazard of the exit path had existed for years. Warnings had been issued by no less than the former mayor of Meron and a journalist who called out the exact exit that became a deadly bottleneck in 2021.

We have seen this movie before, from the Hillsborough soccer stadium disaster in 1989 to the Love Parade music festival crowd crush in 2010 to the crowd crush that killed more than 700 people during the annual Hajj pilgrimage near Mecca, Saudi Arabia, in 2015. The only surprise is that people still claim that no one could have imagined it would happen to them.

The risk calculation widely used by people who think about such things is risk = vulnerability x consequences, where vulnerability to a hazard and the foreseeable consequences of harm from that hazard are each assigned a value from one to five. Risk managers use this rather blunt instrument, with its thin veneer of mathematical objectivity, to help assign scarce resources to mitigate some combination of the most likely and consequential risks. But the Lag B’Omer crowd crush presents a much more fundamental challenge to the way we think about risk. What if the participants at an event do not perceive their vulnerability in the same manner as the event organizers?

Tribal risk identity

On April 29, hours before the disaster, Israel’s interior minister, Aryeh Deri, bragged to a religious radio station that he had successfully prevented Health Ministry officials from limiting the number of attendees over coronavirus fears. Deri lamented that the ministry did not grasp that celebration attendees would be protected by the spiritual influence of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the second-century sage commemorated at the festival.

“The government clerks don’t understand,” he said. “This is a holy day, and the largest gathering of Jews [each year].” Bad things, he suggested, don’t happen to Jews on religious pilgrimage: “One should trust in Rabbi Shimon in times of distress.”

The metal ramp in Meron, Israel, that was the site of an April crowd crush that killed 45 people. To avoid such incidents, the author argues, event managers must account for “reasonably foreseeable tribal behavior” that can put participants at risk.  GETTY IMAGES

The participants’ sense of tribal invulnerability was coupled with a deep suspicion of outside authority. A rabbi who was there accused police of putting up barriers that prevented people from leaving through exits left open in previous years. He held the government responsible for the deaths of “beautiful holy Jews that were killed here for no reason whatsoever, just to prove a point that they're in charge of this place instead of the Orthodox Jews being in charge.”

With a collective belief in their own tribe and a deep distrust of outsiders, thousands of people, facing a walk en masse after midnight through a series of ramshackle structures down a slippery metal slope with no usable handrails, saw nothing and said nothing. In that situation, drawn to that spot by their chosen leaders and surrounded by their own tribe, who else would they trust?

The Lag B’Omer crowd crush stuck with me because it fit a pattern for which I had no name. As a lawyer dealing with risk and safety at all kinds of live events, I am used to the sense of invulnerability that leads fans to overconsume controlled substances, to lean too far over railings, to not pay attention to objects flying towards them, to neither see hazards nor say anything about them when they do. Later, during their lawsuits, they sometimes struggle to explain why they behaved as they did, other than to observe that everyone around them had acted in more or less the same way. In other words, there is a tribal heedlessness of risks, even though those risks might be obvious to a rational, sober observer.

The blinders seem to come off once individuals leave their collective environment. This is the paradox of “situational awareness”: a person’s level of awareness of their surroundings depends on the circumstances. The Lag B’Omer celebrants were aware of the bonfires and other rituals because that is what they came to see. Safety arrangements such as the footing on an exit ramp would have been mere noise to be filtered out. Our reticular activating system allows the human brain to handle only so much stimulus at once, so we make choices, whether consciously or unconsciously. The “See Something, Say Something” signs at the airport are a nice idea, but when running to catch a connection, even usually observant people will focus almost exclusively on reaching their next gate in time.

Takeaways: Life safety and the law

Our risk identity, in which we feel relatively invulnerable when surrounded by our tribe, is situational and temporary. Because it is also logical and reasonably foreseeable, I see lessons for both life safety and legal analysis.

Expectations play a significant role regarding life safety in crowded places. Before ANSI ES1.9-2020, Crowd Management, was developed, there was a crowd management model known as “DIM-ICE”—short for “design, information, and management during ingress, circulation, and egress.” My observation is that our values and perceptions determine a lot about the way we behave in crowded places. So in ANSI ES1.9-2020, which I helped formulate, I added the element of expectations to the DIM-ICE model, thus creating DIME-ICE.

In the context of events where participants are passionately engaged, a risk identity of situational invulnerability causes them to either downplay or not even perceive otherwise apparent hazards. Applied to Lag B’Omer, people in the crowd thought they were invulnerable from harm thanks to divine protection, and the organizers expected from past experience that they could proceed largely without secular oversight. This turned out to be a deadly combination.

To help life safety planners properly account for the expectations surrounding any event, I would support proposed changes to the 2024 edition of NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, that would update the old crowd-dynamics factors of time, space, information, and energy to the new DIME-ICE model. Since a risk identity of invulnerability is reasonably foreseeable at many gatherings covered by the Life Safety Code, it is incumbent on event organizers to critically examine their own assumptions about crowd behavior and to make life safety arrangements for the invitees they have rather than the ones they wish they had.

It's useful to consider the distressing incidents of fan misconduct during this season’s otherwise compelling National Basketball Association playoffs. Although arena security directors would doubtless like to think ticketholders would refrain from throwing bottles at players or running onto the court, recent evidence suggests otherwise. Under these circumstances, reasonable event organizers must build into their life safety plans sufficient means of mitigating the risk of foreseeable misbehavior.

Legally, this same observation suggests a reassessment of the “open and obvious hazard” defense in injury lawsuits. Event organizers who get sued by guests who are injured during an event can raise the defense that the victim should not recover because the hazard would have been visible to a reasonably observant person. Therefore, the victim’s failure to avoid the hazard must be their own fault, barring any recovery.

The Lag B’Omer tragedy in Israel, however, reminds us that a danger that is open and obvious to someone not in the throes of religious passion might be invisible to someone who is. Substitute that scenario for a music festival or a football game: Is the expected guest behavior at those events so different than the behavior of people at a religious event? In situations where everyone knows that the tribe for that event will be laser-focused on the action—which, after all, is precisely the organizers’ intention—it cannot make sense to blame members of that tribe for ignoring hazards outside their temporarily reduced field of vision.

Whether one uses pejorative terms such as “blind faith” or “lack of situational awareness” or a value-neutral term like “risk identity,” the point is that participants at many types of events exhibit reasonably foreseeable tribal behavior. Where risky or dangerous crowd actions are reasonably foreseeable, the law imposes on all parties a duty to try to mitigate the likelihood of harm. The Life Safety Code should be updated to acknowledge the existence of a risk identity particular to tribal settings such as music, sports, or religious events, and to require reasonable life-safety planners to adjust their risk mitigation measures accordingly. 

STEVEN A. ADELMAN is head of Adelman Law Group, PLLC, in Scottsdale, Arizona, and vice president of the Event Safety Alliance. He is principal author of the authoritative crowd management standard in the United States, ANSI ES1.9-2020, and is the author of the “Adelman on Venues” blog. He provides safety consulting for live events, serves as an event safety standard of care expert, and is a law professor. He can be reached at