Ukraine bans foreigners through September, foiling Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage

Ukrainian PM also signals Kyiv will ban mass gatherings in Uman during Jewish new year, after Israeli officials warned festivities could result in a COVID-19 outbreak

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

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 the city of Uman for the Rosh Hashanah holiday.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal also signaled the government would impose a ban on large gatherings in Uman during the Jewish new year.

“Unfortunately, we will have to make a decision to ban such mass events in the city of Uman. This is our responsibility, and we should not create additional huge risks for Ukrainians, and not only for them, but also for citizens of other countries,” he was quoted saying during a cabinet meeting by national news agency Ukrinform.

Shmyhal said exceptions would be made for non-nationals with residency permits, as well as employees of international and humanitarian organizations.

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.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky talks with journalists in Kyiv, Ukraine, October 10, 2019. (AP/Efrem Lukatsky, File)

Zelensky had announced Tuesday that Ukraine would “significantly limit” the entry of Jewish visitors for Rosh Hashanah next month at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s request, but didn’t specify the degree to which the pilgrimage would be limited. The city usually sees tens of thousands of Hasidic Jews visit the grave site of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav for the Rosh Hashanah holiday, which this year begins the evening of September 18.

Netanyahu’s office swiftly denied that the premier had made such a request, in what may have been an effort to assuage his ultra-Orthodox allies.

Zelensky also met Tuesday with Jewish leaders, asking them to help prevent mass gatherings in Uman during Rosh Hashanah, according to a statement from his office.

Coronavirus czar Professor Roni Gamzu during a meeting with Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion at the Jerusalem city hall on August 12, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu’s opposition to the pilgrimage, which mostly draws ultra-Orthodox Jews, has raised hackles among Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox partners, some of whom have reportedly sought to oust him from his post.

Coalition whip Miki Zohar, a Likud party ally of Netanyahu’s, earlier Wednesday hit out at Gamzu for trying to keep Israelis from traveling to Uman for Rosh Hashanah but not seeking to halt mass protests against the prime minister because of alleged fear of the media.

Gamzu later 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.

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