'We don't want visitors this year,' Uman mayor quoted saying

Locals clash with Hassidic Jews trying to reach pilgrimage site in Uman, Ukraine

Conflict comes ahead of ban on allowing foreign nationals into country from Friday midnight, amid fears mass gatherings at rabbi’s gravesite for New Year could spread COVID-19

Police intervene as local residents try and stop Hassidic pilgrims entering into the town of Uman, Ukraine (Screencapture/Kan)
Police intervene as local residents try and stop Hassidic pilgrims entering into the town of Uman, Ukraine (Screencapture/Kan)

Dozens of locals clashed Friday with Hassidic Jews trying to enter Uman, Ukraine for an annual pilgrimage before a ban on foreign nationals entering the country goes into effect.

Videos posted to social media showed angry crowds confronting the pilgrims before dawn Friday, pushing and shoving them as they try to prevent them from entering apartments they had rented.

The confrontation, in which residents yell in Ukrainian at the Jews to get out and tell them they are acting dangerously.

Israel’s Kan national broadcaster also reported that the demonstrators prevented the pilgrims from setting up “an illegal camp” in the city where they planned to sleep before police intervened to separate the two sides.

The confrontation occurred at the site of a half-completed residential building whose construction has been stalled due to a dispute between the owners and the construction workers. Police at the scene told the Jews they could stay in Uman, but not in the building itself. In the video, a man can be seen pleading with police, in English, to let the pilgrims enter the building, saying repeatedly, “It’s my house.”

The city usually sees tens of thousands of Hasidic Jews visit the gravesite of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav for the Rosh Hashanah holiday, which this year begins on the evening of September 18.

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

Also Friday, some 400 pilgrims were being detained at the Odessa airport, the Ynet news site reported.

This comes after dozens of worshipers were held for up to 17 hours there Thursday 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.

The group of Israelis who arrived at the Odessa airport in the early morning hours of Thursday included Arabs and Jews, according to one passenger.

“The Arabs were let through at once, but when they saw someone with a beard and side curls they told him to wait,” Moshe Grisin said, according to Channel 12. “They started taking us for individual conversations. They wanted to hear us say ‘Uman’ and then they wouldn’t let us in.”

He said some 30 people had been held at the airport for more than 12 hours, without kosher food, leading one man to faint. He said they suffered some violence, and that their phones were taken away when they attempted to film it. Other eyewitnesses said some were held behind barbed wire.

Grisin added that the airport officials filled out forms on their behalf saying they were willing to return to Israel.

The Foreign Ministry said Israel’s embassy was working with authorities to ensure the worshipers were treated fairly and provided with kosher food.

Later Thursday, all the travelers were eventually allowed into Ukraine, reportedly after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu got involved.

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.

Footage published by Channel 13 on August 27, 2020, said to show Hasidic worshipers in the Ukrainian city of Uman, who are not wearing face masks or observing social distancing, despite significant fears about the spread of the virus during the annual pilgrimage. (Screenshot/Channel 13)

Ukraine on Wednesday 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 during the Jewish new year.

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 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 allies.

But many in Bratslav Hasidic sect held Netanyahu responsible, vowing they would never again support him politically.

Israel’s Bratslav secretariat issued a statement saying the government “has shown that religious citizens are second-class citizens and can be assailed [by] every means, so that they [won’t be unable to] fulfill their beliefs.”

While “protesting, flying everywhere and congregating in hotels and restaurants is alright,” in the case of those who wish to travel for religious purposes, “they’ll do everything to thwart and denigrate, instead of working together on a plan that will allow Hasidim to travel,” the statement continued.

“We’ll never support Benjamin Netanyahu or any party that backs him,” it said. “Anyone who respects Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav should do everything they can to ensure the loss of those who fought believers’ rights.”

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.

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

JTA contributed to this report.

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