Jewish man said attacked in Uman during tensions over Hasidic pilgrimage

Police investigate as 4 attackers flee scene; blaze at local Jewish cemetery causes some damage to gravestones, with Ukrainian authorities not ruling out arson

Grass smolders after a fire at a Jewish cemetery in Uman, Ukraine, August 31, 2020 (Screen grab)
Grass smolders after a fire at a Jewish cemetery in Uman, Ukraine, August 31, 2020 (Screen grab)

A Hasidic Jew was attacked and lightly wounded by locals in the Ukrainian city of Uman, and a number of gravestones were lightly damaged in a fire at a Jewish cemetery in the city, according to reports Tuesday.

Israeli media cited Ukrainian news outlets saying an Israeli citizen visiting a grocery store on Tuesday was assaulted by four people, causing him to bleed.

The reports said the man who was attacked had entered Ukraine legally. They said the attackers managed to flee the scene and that the police were investigating the incident.

Meanwhile, the Israel Hayom newspaper, citing Ukrainian media, said a fire broke out at a Jewish cemetery Monday and that firefighters managed to control the blaze, which had been exacerbated by the large amount of dry grass in the area.

Authorities reportedly believed the fire was sparked by a combination of the intense heat and dry foliage, but would not rule out the possibility of arson.

The fire came days after clashes between locals and Hasidic Jews trying to enter the city for an annual pilgrimage.

Videos posted to social media showed angry crowds confronting the pilgrims before dawn Friday, just before a ban on foreigners entering the country due to coronavirus went into effect, pushing and shoving them as they tried to prevent them from entering apartments they had rented.

Residents yelled at the pilgrims to get out and told them they were behaving dangerously.

Each year, tens of thousands of pilgrims, mostly from Israel, have gathered for the Jewish New Year in Uman, home to the burial place of Rabbi Nachman, an 18th-century luminary and founder of the Bratslav Hasidic movement. During his lifetime the rabbi had called on his followers to be with him on Rosh Hashanah.

Illustrative. Ultra-Orthodox men seen praying in the streets of Uman, Ukraine during the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah, September 4, 2013. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

Ukraine last week announced it would seal its borders to foreigners through September to curb rising coronavirus infections, blocking Israeli and Jewish pilgrims from traveling to Uman for Rosh Hashanah.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal also signaled the government would impose a ban on large gatherings in Uman itself during the Jewish new year.

“People are afraid for their lives, we don’t want visitors here this year,” Channel 12 quoted Uman Mayor Oleksandr Tsebriy as saying.

The announcement of the entry ban came after the official leading Israel’s response to the pandemic asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to prevent the pilgrimage, fearing returning pilgrims could drive up infection rates in the Jewish state.

Zelensky had announced 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.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) shakes hands with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during a joint press conference in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, August 19, 2019. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP)

Netanyahu’s office swiftly denied that the premier had made such a request. But many in Bratslav Hasidic sect held Netanyahu responsible, vowing they would never again support him politically.

According to Channel 12, after the Hasidim withdrew their support, Netanyahu told leading rabbis he was working to find a solution to allow them to enter Ukraine and visit Uman.

The government has since formed a panel to review a possible proposal to allow some to go on the trip, though it is not clear that Kyiv will be open to it.

JTA contributed to this report.

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