Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu elicited outrage in Haredi circles Sunday after saying, in comments intended to dissuade religious Israelis from traveling to Ukraine this weekend, that “God has not always protected us, not on European soil and not on Ukrainian soil.”
The remarks appeared to spark a coalition crisis, featuring some of the most strongly worded infighting since the current coalition was formed in December.
The premier made the statement as a warning to the public against participating in the annual pilgrimage to Uman in Ukraine over Rosh Hashanah, amid the ongoing war there.
Despite travel warnings last year about the dangers of war and other obstacles, over 20,000 pilgrims traveled to celebrate Rosh Hashanah in Uman, the burial site of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, a revered Hasidic rabbi who died in 1810. In recent years worshipers have been undeterred by the coronavirus pandemic or the war in the country, and many are gearing up to visit this year as well.
But Netanyahu’s statement — an obvious reference to the Holocaust and possibly centuries of antisemitism and pogroms — was swiftly met with intense condemnation and repudiation from ultra-Orthodox politicians and other public figures, with some accusing the prime minister of “heresy” and one MK launching a diatribe against “the idolatry of power, vulgarity and assimilation of the secular regime.”
The Shas party issued the tamest response, saying: “God has always protected the people of Israel during all its exiles and persecutions. That is the reason the people of Israel are the only ones who have miraculously survived for thousands of years while many other powerful peoples have disappeared. Of course, the condition for divine protection is faithfulness and keeping the Torah and commandments.”
Aryeh Ehrlich, editor of the popular Haredi magazine Mishpacha, tweeted: “When the ‘head of the religious camp’ opens his mouth to utter such egregious heresies, and all in an official statement from the Prime Minister’s Office, the entire theory of sweet Israel collapses like a house of cards.
“We should not respect Bibi when such sacrilege and such base and rude comments are made against God,” he added, using the premier’s nickname.
In a follow-up post, Ehrlich added: “It’s time for [Benny] Gantz,” suggesting that the Haredi parties should switch their allegiance from Netanyahu to the head of the opposition National Unity party. In a third tweet, he said the ultra-Orthodox message had been clear: “Loyalty to God is stronger than the adoration of Bibi. Netanyahu? His actions and words will drive him closer or nearer. He’s not an idol.”
Another Haredi journalist, Yossi Elituv, tweeted: “Benjamin Netanyahu, there is no shame in apologizing. By the way, a Jew who lays tefillin (Jewish prayer phylacteries) from time to time would not have fallen to such grave words of heresy. You can still repent.”
Likud MK Tally Gotliv, who has fallen out with the premier and voices regular criticism of her party leader, rebuked the premier, saying: “We must not calculate God’s considerations. You don’t know where God was and why this happened.” She claimed that the advisers who issued the offending statement “wouldn’t have worked under me for a minute.”
But the most hostile reaction came from United Torah Judaism MK Yisrael Eichler, who blasted Netanyahu’s “ignorance” and indicated his belief that it was the “Zionists,” rather than God, who were to blame for the suffering of Jews in the Holocaust.
Eichler wrote that “for over a century, the God of Israel has saved the Land of Israel from the idolatry of power, vulgarity and assimilation of the secular regime.”
The Germans were halted on the way to conquer Israel by extraordinary miracles, not because of the Zionists, Eichler argued.
He went on to claim that the Zionists had in fact turned their backs on the Jews of Europe, thwarted rescue attempts and disdained “the Jews of the ghettos,” while adding that some had collaborated as Judenrat. Eichler said that the once-revered military had been revealed in its “incompetence and contemptibleness” in the Yom Kippur War in 1973, and that former top generals who oppose the current government’s judicial overhaul had recently shown themselves to be “rebels” who are “inciting a bloody [civil] war” in the country and giving it a bad name abroad “like the worst of our Islamic enemies.”
“When you see who the generals were, you realize that only thanks to the miracles of God Almighty do we survive,” Eichler fired.
He added that “some Zionists even called the Jews in the ghettos ‘Human dust, they should meet their fate.'”
“Be silent when you blame the God of Israel for your failures and crimes,” he declared. “If it weren’t for those who keep the Torah, Israel would have long ago been erased from the map of the Middle East.”
Eichler’s harangue was decried, in turn, by Likud and opposition MKs, as well as by the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum.
“We would be happy to host MK Eichler at Yad Vashem to learn about the rabbinic, Zionist and secular leaderships during and after the Holocaust,” the Jerusalem museum said in a statement. “Then he would maybe avoid disseminating baseless words of contempt.”
Education Minister Yoav Kisch, from Netanyahu’s ruling party, called on Eichler to “take back the anti-Zionist defamatory words he wrote,” adding that he was “ashamed” of the UTJ lawmaker’s remarks as the grandson of a Zionist soldier who fought the Nazis.
Fellow Likud MK Dan Illouz said: “MK Eichler, I am shocked by your words. Several days before the Day of Judgment (Rosh Hashanah), I would suggest engaging more in love of Israel than in baseless conspiracies that incite against entire communities.”
Illouz argued that “the Torah itself taught us to form an army” and that “I haven’t met a single person willing to give up the protection of IDF soldiers when they go to pray in Hebron, even though God is also protecting him through those soldiers.”
“Demanding care in acts that pose mortal danger, as the prime minister did, is not ignorance — it’s a healthy Jewish viewpoint,” he continued. The Canada-born Illouz argued that antisemitism and other threats were still prevalent abroad, and that “the very existence” of the Israel military also protects Diaspora Jews.
MK Naama Lazimi of the opposition Labor party said: “This is the most antisemitic and anti-Zionist text I’ve read at this time, and it is coming from a member of this government… Even without the [judicial] coup and the destruction they’re bringing upon us, a coalition and government that includes these people has no right to exist. There is no explanation that can enable such a racist and sick text.”
Avigdor Liberman, head of the right-wing secularist Yisrael Beytenu opposition party, hailed the secular Zionist leadership of Israel’s first few decades, lamenting that today, “instead of a secular leadership we’ve received a perverted leadership,” similarly calling for the government’s collapse.
In his comments at the weekly cabinet meeting earlier Sunday, Netanyahu said: “Israeli citizens who are traveling to Ukraine must take personal responsibility for their travel at this time,” adding: “God has not always protected us, not on European soil and not on Ukrainian soil.”
The prime minister noted that during his recent conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky, the Ukrainian leader stressed that the city does not have enough shelters for its own population in case of a Russian attack, let alone tourists.
Netanyahu said that when Israel comes under missile attacks, people head for shelter and have protection, “but [in Ukraine] — there are no shelters and there is no protection.”
Despite his warnings and the ongoing general warning against travel to Ukraine, the government approved NIS 4 million ($1 million) in aid to those who are making the trip.
The money is intended to fund assistance for Israelis at the land borders to Ukraine (the country’s airspace has been closed down since the start of Russia’s invasion last February).
No final decision on Ukraine’s policy toward Israeli pilgrims has been made.
In August, Jerusalem officials reportedly dismissed as baseless a threat by Ukraine’s ambassador to Israel that Kyiv would close its borders to Israeli pilgrims making their way to Uman in retaliation for Israel deporting Ukrainians.
The deportations relate to Ukrainians coming into the country ostensibly as tourists, not as refugees, in cases where Israel suspects they are planning to remain or seek employment illegally.
Last week the US Embassy in Jerusalem shared a State Department message warning American citizens against traveling to Uman, which it said “has been the site of multiple Russian missile attacks as recent as June.”
The State Department’s travel advisory for all of Ukraine is Level 4: Do Not Travel.
Lazar Berman contributed to this report.