Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday night announced the formation of a ministerial team to formulate a plan to allow pilgrims to fly to Uman for the Rosh Hashanah holiday, amid anger among Bratslav Hasidim at the premier, who they believe acted to thwart their arrival in the eastern European country.
Ukraine on Friday night barred foreign nationals from entering the country throughout September to control the coronavirus pandemic, and it was unclear that Kyiv would be open to making an exception for Israeli pilgrims.
A statement from the Prime Minister’s Office said the team “will weigh the possibility of a draft [proposal] for traveling to Uman, under stringent restrictions of the authorities in Ukraine.”
The team will be headed by Likud minister Ze’ev Elkin and include Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri and Science Minister Izhar Shay.
Shay told Army Radio on Sunday the main purpose of the committee is to find ways for 2,000-3,000 pilgrims who are already in Uman to return safely to Israel.
“We will also check the possibility of travel [to Uman], if at all, of additional people,” Shay said, but denied that political pressure was influencing the government’s decisions about the issue.
“I don’t think anything will take precedence over health considerations. There is a real effort to find the right solution for a group of people that it is very important to them, a group of tens of thousands,” Shay said. He noted government is also looking at ways to enable sporting and cultural events to go ahead despite the coronavirus outbreak.
The PMO statement said the decision to appoint Elkin as head of the committee was made in coordination with Edelstein and coronavirus czar Prof. Ronni Gamzu, who has come out strongly against the pilgrimage, warning that returning travelers could spread COVID-19.
Uman usually sees tens of thousands of Hasidic Jews visit the gravesite of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav for the Rosh Hashanah holiday, which this year begins the evening of September 18.
Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox allies have fumed at Gamzu over his opposition to the flights, with Health Minister Yaakov Litzman calling for him to resign. Officials in the Bratslav Hasidic sect have vowed to never back Netanyahu again.
According to Channel 12, after the Hasidim withdrew their support, Netanyahu told leading rabbis he was working to find a solution.
Dozens of of worshipers were held for up to 17 hours at Ukrainian airports Thursday before being allowed in, even though Kyiv’s decision to not allow foreign nationals into the country only took effect Friday night. They were eventually let into the country.
Also Thursday Channel 13 said the pilgrimage site was already packed with worshipers, who weren’t wearing face masks, staying outdoors, or observing social distancing.
Friday saw dozens of locals clash with Hasidic Jews trying to enter Uman. Videos posted to social media showed angry crowds confronting the pilgrims before dawn Friday, pushing and shoving them as they tried to prevent them from entering apartments they had rented. Residents yelled in Ukrainian at the Hasidim to get out and told them they were acting dangerously.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal has also signaled the government would impose a ban on large gatherings in Uman during the Jewish new year.
Gamzu had previously appealed to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky directly, without notifying Netanyahu, to ask him to prevent the pilgrimage, fearing returning pilgrims could drive up infection rates in the Jewish state.
Zelensky had announced Tuesday that Ukraine would “significantly limit” the entry of Jewish visitors for Rosh Hashanah at Netanyahu’s request, but didn’t specify the degree to which the pilgrimage would be limited. Netanyahu’s office swiftly denied that the premier had made such a request, in what seemed like an effort to assuage his ultra-Orthodox allies.
Coalition whip Miki Zohar, a Likud party ally of Netanyahu’s, on Wednesday attacked Gamzu for trying to keep Israelis from traveling to Uman for Rosh Hashanah but not seeking to halt mass protests against the prime minister, claiming Gamzu was motivated by an alleged fear of the media. Gamzu rejected Zohar’s criticism, as did Health Minister Edelstein. Several lawmakers also came to Gamzu’s defense.