'We will not be able to guarantee security for pilgrims'

Envoy: No final decision from Kyiv on Uman pilgrimage, but Jews urged to stay away

Ambassador Michael Brodsky says Israel will not be able to provide those who get into trouble with consular services; says plans in works to bring wounded soldiers to Israel

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Ultra-Orthodox men seen lighting the 'Havdallah' candle marking the end of the Jewish Sabbath, inside a synagogue in the town of Uman, Ukraine, during the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah. September 7, 2013. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)
Ultra-Orthodox men seen lighting the 'Havdallah' candle marking the end of the Jewish Sabbath, inside a synagogue in the town of Uman, Ukraine, during the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah. September 7, 2013. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

KYIV — Ukraine has yet to determine its policy on the annual Jewish pilgrimage to the Ukrainian city of Uman during Rosh Hashanah, Israel’s envoy to Ukraine told The Times of Israel.

“Nothing has been decided yet,” said Michael Brodsky, speaking Thursday at his hotel in Kyiv before heading back to Warsaw with the embassy staff.

“Whatever they decide we will comply with,” the ambassador continued. “And we understand their concerns, that’s for sure.”

Earlier this month, Ukraine’s embassy in Israel issued a statement saying that, due to the ongoing war, all tourists are banned from the country and that celebrations over the Jewish New Year, which falls this year at the end of September, were “uncertain.”

Ukrainian Ambassador to Israel Yevgen Korniychuk told ultra-Orthodox media outlets that the country “cannot guarantee the security of pilgrims” due to the Russian offensive, and asked the ultra-Orthodox community instead to “pray for the victory of Ukraine.”

Ukraine’s embassy in Israel told The Times of Israel on Friday that Kyiv’s position has not changed. “We will not be able to guarantee and provide security to pilgrims,” said an embassy spokeswoman.

Israel Ambassador to Ukraine Michael Brodsky, left, speaks to The Times of Israel’s Lazar Berman in Kyiv, July 20, 2022 (Israel Embassy in Ukraine)

Brodsky was in Kyiv to open the embassy temporarily for a two-week period. He met with senior Ukrainian officials to discuss, among other issues, their plans for the Uman pilgrimage.

“They wanted to ask us, and I wanted to find out what the policy would be,” Brodsky explained. “They haven’t finalized anything yet, they want to prevent pilgrims from arriving this year, for their own safety.”

Israel is letting Kyiv make its own decision on the matter and is not applying pressure. “I haven’t asked them for anything and I’m not going to,” Brodsky insisted.

At the same time, Brodsky made it clear what Israel’s preference is: “Under normal circumstances, we are committed to the safety of Israelis. But under the current circumstances, the embassy won’t be able to provide consular or other services.”

“We would strongly advise them not to come this year, for their own safety. “

Jewish pilgrims in Belarus, at the closed Ukraine border, are trying to make their way to Uman, Sept, 15, 2020. (Courtesy of Shahar Eliyahu)

Rabbi Nachman was an 18th-century luminary and founder of the Bratslav Hasidic movement. The city of Uman, the site of the rabbi’s grave, normally sees some 30,000 visitors, most of them from Israel, over the Rosh Hashanah holiday. More pilgrims also arrive from other Jewish communities around the world.

Jewish community leaders in Uman have insisted that Uman is far from the front lines and that a safe arrangement can be found for the pilgrimage.

In addition to security concerns, travel to Ukraine is logistically difficult as airlines are not operating commercial flights into the country. The only way to enter the country is through a land border, by train or bus. The Moldovan border presents the fastest route to Uman.

Even at the height of COVID-19 travel restrictions in 2020, ultra-Orthodox pilgrims were not deterred and tried to enter the country, despite Health Ministry warnings. Thousands of Israelis flocked to Ukraine before Kyiv closed its borders in September to avoid an outbreak.

Thousands of others then traveled to neighboring Belarus in an attempt to cross the border to Ukraine, but were blocked by local authorities.

More aid on the way

In light of its security assessments, Israel is still not fully reopening its embassy in Kyiv. Brodsky and his small team of diplomats have been driving in from Warsaw for two-week periods to offer consular services, speak to the press and meet with Ukrainian officials.

Many of the talks revolved around new forms of aid Israel can offer Ukraine. The sides are hammering out the details of Israel accepting dozens of wounded Ukrainian soldiers for extended rehabilitation in the country. A final decision on that initiative has yet to be made, said Brodsky.

Wounded servicemen of Ukrainian Military Forces look on after the battle with Russian troops and Russia-backed separatists in the Luhansk region on March 8, 2022 (Anatolii Stepanov / AFP)

Israel is also discussing how to help create a rehabilitation network in Ukraine to help soldiers and civilians deal with physical and psychological trauma.

Israel is in the midst of sending an aid package that includes 1,500 helmets, 1,500 protective vests, hundreds of mine protection suits, 1,000 gas masks and dozens of hazmat filtration systems for Ukraine’s emergency services.

Over 100 people, mostly Ukrainians with Israeli citizenship, came to the embassy over the last two weeks to register newborn babies, update passports and handle consular issues around surrogacy.

The embassy is slated to next reopen in early August.

“It is still dangerous, there are still alarms and rocket fire,” said Brodsky. “It’s all unstable, that’s the feeling.”

On Monday, Brodsky joined a group of European ambassadors to Ukraine to visit the site of the deadly Russian missile strike in Vinnytsia last week.

“I think it was important for Israel to be part of this group of European ambassadors because we really are on the same page as the European countries and the US regarding this war,” Brodsky argued.

Though Israel has maintained an open channel of communication with Moscow, and has not joined in on Western sanctions, Brodsky said Israeli “condemnation of Russian aggression and votes at the UN are in line with Western positions. “We call it an aggression and we call it a war, morally Israel is clearly aligned with the Western world.”

“It’s not a secret that there is criticism from the Ukrainian people and the Ukrainian leadership in terms of the volume of assistance that Israel is providing and the lack of military assistance – despite the fact Israel provided unprecedented humanitarian assistance,” Brodsky conceded.

One of the diplomatic team’s goals on this trip was to make the case for Israel’s position among the Ukrainian public. An hour-and-a-half conversation between Brodsky and presidential communications advisor Oleksit Arestovych garnered over half a million views.

Archpriest Valerii Shvets stands outside his church moments after a deadly missile strike in Vinnytsia, July 14, 2022 (screenshot/Instagram)

“The same day rockets hit Vinnytsia, rockets hit Ashkelon,” Brodsky explained. “This underlines the similarity between us. This is something I’m trying to convey. We understand and we do assist Ukraine in the ways we can, providing unique humanitarian and psychological support. I hope that the majority of Ukrainians understand better.”

Senior Ukrainian officials, including President Volodymyr Zelensky, have leveled harsh public criticism at Israel over the level of material and diplomatic support Jerusalem has provided.

“Unfortunately, for most items of assistance we would want to get from Israel, we can’t say we’ve gotten any of that assistance,” Zelensky told Hebrew University students in June.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks to Hebrew University students by video, June 23, 2022. (Screenshot)

Korniychuk has been even more strident in his critique. “While Russia slaughters our citizens, the Israeli government remains in its comfort zone and refrains from providing Ukraine with minimal defensive assistance,” he said last month.

Such statements do not faze Brodsky.

“Criticism is natural in this situation,” he said. “I wouldn’t expect full understanding from people who are under constant threat. This is not a normal situation. They are in stress, they are in a post-trauma situation.”

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