Litzman: UTJ could quit the coalition if there is a lockdown over High Holidays

United Torah Judaism source says housing minister’s threat isn’t backed by the rest of the ultra-Orthodox party, was made to get Netanyahu’s attention

Newly appointed housing minister and former health minister Yaakov Litzman, at his installation ceremony at the Housing Ministry in Jerusalem on May 18, 2020. (Olivier FitoussiFlash90)
Newly appointed housing minister and former health minister Yaakov Litzman, at his installation ceremony at the Housing Ministry in Jerusalem on May 18, 2020. (Olivier FitoussiFlash90)

Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman continued his public battle against the government’s coronavirus policy, saying in an interview published Friday that his United Torah Judaism party would consider leaving the coalition if a nationwide lockdown is imposed over the upcoming High Holidays.

“The approval for mass demonstrations [outside the Prime Minister’s Residence] alongside the opening of cultural centers, but with continued restrictions on synagogues and the prevention of travel to Uman, have destroyed public confidence in the system,” Litzman told the Hamodia daily.

The newspaper is controlled by the Gur Hasidic sect, of which Litzman is a member.

Litzman said Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, also opposed a national closure during the High Holidays, which this year begin on the evening of September 18 and last until mid-October.

A UTJ source dismissed Litzman’s threat, saying it didn’t have the backing of the rest of the party.

“Who is Litzman? He barely represents himself. In the past when he threatened it was worth something,” the source told the Haaretz daily. “He didn’t consult with anyone in United Torah Judaism on the matter.”

The source also said Litzman, who until May served as health minister, was only making the threat to get Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s attention.

“He knows that when you want something from Netanyahu you need to show him strength,” the source said.

Shas leader Aryeh Deri (left), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center) and UTJ leader Yaakov Litzman at the weekly cabinet meeting in the Prime Minister’s Office, Jerusalem, December 20, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The threat comes after Litzman called earlier this week for coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu to resign for seeking to halt a Hasidic pilgrimage to the Ukrainian city of Uman for Rosh Hashanah.

During a cornerstone-laying event Thursday, Litzman claimed that Gamzu had warned Ukraine’s president that “Jews will dirty his city and bring diseases.”

Ukraine announced Wednesday it would seal its borders to foreigners through September to curb rising coronavirus infections, blocking Israeli and Jewish pilgrims from traveling to Uman for the Jewish new year.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal also signaled the government would impose a ban on large gatherings in Uman during Rosh Hashanah

The announcement of the entry ban came after Gamzu asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky 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 partners.

Coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu at a meeting in Jerusalem City Hall on August 12, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

In addition to UTJ lawmakers, coalition whip Miki Zohar, a Likud party ally of Netanyahu’s, lashed out at Gamzu on Wednesday 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 Yuli Edelstein. Several lawmakers also came to Gamzu’s defense.

Zohar’s criticism of Gamzu came a day after the latter vowed to “do everything” to prevent large numbers of Hasidic Jews from flying to Uman, and threatened he could resign over the matter.

Ukraine is one of the few countries that are currently allowing in Israeli nationals, despite the high coronavirus infection rate in the Jewish state.

On Thursday, the Bratslav Hasidic sect said it would never again support Netanyahu due to the government’s efforts to prevent the pilgrimage to Uman.

The development came as dozens of worshipers were held for up to 17 hours at a Ukrainian airport before being allowed in, even though a decision by Kyiv Wednesday to not allow foreign nationals in the country only takes effect Friday at midnight.

Uman usually sees tens of thousands of Hasidic Jews visit the gravesite of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav for the Rosh Hashanah holiday.

File: Pilgrims to Uman celebrating at the grave of Rebbe Nachman, September 7, 2013. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

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.

Dozens of Bratslav Hasidim protested Netanyahu’s policy on the matter in the northern Israel city of Safed on Thursday, while the premier was staying at a hotel in the city.

Some ten more flights from Israel were due to arrive in Ukraine Thursday and Friday, before the sweeping entry ban takes effect. Channel 12 reported that two more flights later Thursday would be allowed in and possibly more on Friday, but that at least two flights have been canceled.

Channel 13 said the pilgrimage site was already packed with worshipers, who weren’t wearing face masks, staying outdoors, or observing social distancing.

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