Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Israelis Sunday that traveling to Uman in Ukraine over Rosh Hashanah was dangerous, even as the government approved financial aid for such pilgrims.
“Israeli citizens who are traveling to Ukraine must take personal responsibility for their travel at this time,” Netanyahu said at the weekly cabinet meeting.
Tens of thousands of Israeli and other Jewish worshipers make an annual journey to Uman for the Rosh Hashanah holiday to pray at the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, a revered Hasidic leader who died in 1810. In recent years worshipers have been undeterred by the coronavirus pandemic or the war in the country.
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.
“God has not always protected us, not on European soil and not on Ukrainian soil,” he said.
That comment elicited outrage in Haredi circles, later leading to several statements of condemnation and rebuttal, including from the Shas party which said, “God has always protected the people of Israel.”
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).
The government noted in its decision that last year, heavy traffic at the borders led many to wait for long hours in the cold and without basic humanitarian conditions. It said the funds were intended to prevent a recurrence of such an event, which could also end up costing the state far more in bills for medical and other assistance.
Settlements Minister Orit Strock was the sole cabinet member to vote against the funds, saying the government mustn’t be seen as supporting the trips.
“Dear Jews, don’t go there!” she said in a statement. “Don’t risk your lives! There are enough places of worship.”
Jerusalem and Heritage Minister Meir Porush of United Torah Judaism acknowledged the danger and the travel warning but said “we cannot ignore the fact that people are going. Burying our heads in the sand won’t help. We need to see how we can help those who go anyway.”
Reacting to Netanyahu’s comments on god failing to protect Jews in Europe, the ultra-Orthodox Shas party said: “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.”
Arye Erlich, 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.
Another Haredi journalist, Yossi Elituv, tweeted: “Benjamin Netanyahu, there is no shame in apologizing. By the way, a Jew who lays tefillin from time to time would not have fallen to such grave words of heresy. You can still repent.”
Despite travel warnings last year, over 20,000 Israelis traveled to celebrate Rosh Hashanah in Uman. Those warnings are still in effect but are unlikely to deter worshipers.
Netanyahu and Zelensky spoke by phone late Thursday amid tensions over the upcoming pilgrimage and Israeli ties with Russia.
According to the Prime Minister’s Office, they discussed Israeli aid to Ukraine, and the civil alert system Israel is building for the country. The delivery of the system, promised by Foreign Minister Eli Cohen in February, has progressed slower than Kyiv would have liked. It is tentatively slated for initial deployment in October.
Netanyahu also brought up the importance of ensuring that Jewish worshipers could reach Uman.
No final decision on Ukraine’s policy toward Israeli pilgrims has been made.
Hours before the call, Ukraine blasted Israel for a film deal it signed with Russia the day before, accusing Jerusalem of “collaboration” and aiding Moscow in spreading its propaganda.
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.