An Israeli minister tasked with negotiating the entrance of thousands of Jewish pilgrims into Ukraine for the Jewish New Year said talks with Kyiv had not produced any results Thursday, and he urged the thousands of Jewish travelers sitting on borders in Belarus and Moldova to return home before the holiday.
Ze’ev Elkin said Ukraine was refusing to budge on its decision to ban entry of foreigners, likely spelling the end of Israeli efforts to find a way for thousands of Hasidic worshipers to spend Rosh Hashanah at the grave site of a revered 18th century rabbi in the city of Uman.
“Despite numerous efforts to help Israelis who tried to enter Ukraine via Belarus and Moldova, we received a final negative answer today from the Ukrainian authorities,” tweeted Elkin, who was born in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. “The Ukrainians have announced they won’t allow entry through the borders, not even for a limited group.”
“I urge our citizens to return to Israel and heed the quarantine instructions upon their return,” he added.
Ukrainian authorities said about 2,000 Hasidic Jewish pilgrims converged on the border in Belarus in hopes of crossing over and reaching the Ukrainian city of Uman. While Belarus has allowed them to cross the border, Ukraine has refused to let them in, in line with a decision last month to close its borders amid rising coronavirus infection numbers.
The grave of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, who died in 1810 and was the founder of the Bratslav Hasidic sect, is located in Uman, some 160 kilometers (100 miles) south of Kyiv.
Some 30,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews visit the city each September for Rosh Hashanah, while others maintain a year-round Jewish presence in the city.
Israeli officials expressed worries that crowds at the pilgrimage would form fertile ground for the virus to spread and many worshipers would bring the virus with them when they return from Ukraine.
In August, Israel’s coronavirus czar, Ronni Gamzu, appealed to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to prevent the pilgrimage in order to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.
The decision drew an outcry in Israel’s politically powerful ultra-Orthodox community against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, prompting him to appoint Elkin to try and find a solution.
Belarus, which shares a long border with Ukraine, hasn’t barred foreign visitors from entering and allows Israelis visa-free entry.
As the Jewish pilgrims have gathered on the border, camping on the side of the road and receiving food from Red Cross volunteers, Ukraine has deployed additional forces to protect the frontier and sent aircraft and drones to patrol it.
On Thursday, Hebrew media reported that 30 Hasidim seeking to travel to Uman were refused entry into Moldova after traveling there via Turkey.
The Ynet news site said the pilgrims are set to be expelled back to Turkey under police escort, after scuffles broke out at the airport when the group was informed they would not be allowed into the country. The Hasidim told Ynet they had been held at the airport for 12 hours, with their passports and luggage confiscated.
Ukrainian authorities on Wednesday said they would not bend on letting in the pilgrims and accused their Belarusian counterparts of giving the pilgrims false hope of entering despite strict coronavirus travel restrictions.
The head of Ukraine’s border guard Sergiy Deyneko addressed the pilgrims in a video released by his service on Wednesday saying no one would be allowed to enter the country.
“I respect your traditions and customs, but this year you will not be able to get to Uman. I am ready to repeat this, if necessary, a thousand times,” he said.
The video shows hundreds of Hasidic Jews in traditional garb at the Novi Yarylovychi border crossing praying, singing and trying to persuade Ukrainian border guards to make an exception.
“We are ready for any conditions and instructions on the coronavirus. Just let us in!” read a handwritten sign carried by one of the believers in the video.
Ukrainian border guards carrying riot shields looked on, forming a cordon.
“At the moment, the situation does not allow us to let an additional number of Hasidic Jews to enter Ukraine,” Ukrainian Deputy Foreign Minister Yevgeniy Yenin told Ukraina 24 TV channel.
Ukraine and Belarus traded angry accusations Wednesday over the standoff.
Ukraine’s presidential office urged Belarusian authorities to stop issuing misleading signals to the ultra-Orthodox Jewish pilgrims that they could eventually cross the border.
“We are asking Belarusian authorities to stop fueling the tensions on the border and refrain from spreading false encouraging statements that could leave the pilgrims with a feeling that the Ukrainian border might be opened,” it said. “Belarusian authorities have deliberately or unintentionally helped spread those rumors.”
Belarusian Foreign Ministry spokesman Anatoly Glaz shot back at Ukraine, accusing it of “inhumane” treatment of the Jewish pilgrims.
Thousands of Israelis are already in Uman after some rushed to get to the city early, fearing a border closure.
Local Ukrainian authorities have also said they will limit gatherings in Uman for the two-day holiday, which begins Friday night.