Having kept silent on the issue for several days, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came to the defense of the government’s coronavirus czar on Wednesday, amid calls for the latter’s axing over his push to prevent Israelis from taking part in a mass pilgrimage to Ukraine for the Rosh Hashanah holiday.
“Prime Minister Netanyahu, who appointed Prof. Ronni Gamzo to the position of coronavirus czar and appreciates his dedicated work, works in cooperation with him on a daily basis and calls on everyone to do the same,” the premier’s office said.
Netanyahu has appeared keen to avoid taking an aggressive stance against the prospect of thousands of Israelis visiting the Uman gravesite of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav for fear of angering his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners.
But earlier Wednesday, Ukraine announced that it would seal its borders to foreigners through September to curb rising coronavirus infections, effectively preventing this year’s pilgrimage from taking place, given that Rosh Hashanah begins on September 18.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal also signaled the government would impose a ban on large gatherings in Uman during the Jewish new year.
“Unfortunately, we will have to make a decision to ban such mass events in the city of Uman. This is our responsibility, and we should not create additional huge risks for Ukrainians, and not only for them, but also for citizens of other countries,” he was quoted as saying during a cabinet meeting by national news agency Ukrinform.
Netanyahu issued his statement backing Gamzu shortly after the announcement from Kyiv.
On Tuesday, before Ukraine banned visits next month, the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, announced that it would “significantly limit” the entry of Jewish visitors for Rosh Hashanah at Netanyahu’s request. Netanyahu’s office swiftly denied that the premier had made such a request, in what was seen as an effort to assuage his ultra-Orthodox allies.
Gamzu commended the Ukrainian government for the move. “This is a responsible and correct decision that will protect the health of thousands of people in Israel and Ukraine,” he said, according to Army Radio.
The coronavirus czar had penned a letter to Zelensky earlier this month, calling on him to prevent the pilgrimage, fearing returning pilgrims could drive up infection rates in the Jewish state.
The letter deeply angered ultra-Orthodox and other right-wing lawmakers, who claimed Gamzu had strayed beyond his purview and called for his firing.
Coalition whip Miki Zohar, a Likud party ally of Netanyahu’s, earlier Wednesday called out Gamzu for trying to keep Israelis from traveling to Uman but not seeking to halt mass protests against the prime minister.
Gamzu rejected Zohar’s criticism, as did Health Minister Yuli Edelstein. Several lawmakers also came to Gamzu’s defense.
Zohar’s criticism of Gamzu came a day after the latter vowed to “do everything” to prevent large numbers of Hasidic Jews from flying to Uman and threatened he could resign over the matter.
Ukraine is one of the few countries that are currently allowing in Israeli nationals, despite the high coronavirus infection rate in the Jewish state.