Ukraine could close the border to pilgrims on the way to the city of Uman for Rosh Hashanah next month to retaliate for Israel deporting Ukrainian tourists, the country’s ambassador to Israel told The Times of Israel on Wednesday.
Speaking by phone from Kyiv, where he is meeting Ukrainian officials to prepare for the mass annual pilgrimage, Yevhen Korniychuk said that Israel has been deporting around 10 percent of Ukrainian tourists who visit the country.
“We have let our feelings on this be known,” he said.
As part of a bilateral deal, Ukrainians without a visa can enter Israel and visit for up to three months. Due to the ongoing war, Israel has extended the visas of non-Jewish refugees after a cap limiting their entry was struck down by the High Court of Justice. Those with Jewish roots have automatic rights to become citizens under Israel’s Law of Return.
Ukrainian officials have repeated criticism of Israel throughout the war over their treatment of Ukrainian visitors.
Korniychuk has earlier raised the possibility of Jewish pilgrims being turned away at the border because of security concerns.
A Russian missile attack on Uman in April killed 23, including 6 children.
Israeli officials said they did not believe that borders would be closed to Israelis.
Korniychuk said that if the pilgrimage does go ahead, he hopes that Israeli police officers will be present, as they are in most years.
In 2022, however, police set up a command center in Kyiv, saying there were no locations in Uman that met their security requirements.
Despite travel warnings last year, over 20,000 Israelis traveled to celebrate Rosh Hashanah at the burial site of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, a revered Hasidic rabbi who died in 1810.
Those travel warnings are still in effect, but are unlikely to deter worshipers.
The city, 200 kilometers (125 miles) south of the capital, Kyiv, typically attracts thousands of pilgrims for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year.
In 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kyiv closed its borders in September to avoid an outbreak ahead of Rosh Hashanah. Thousands of pilgrims then traveled to neighboring Belarus in an attempt to cross the border to Ukraine, but were blocked by local authorities.
“We do hope that the Israeli government will help us secure their own people,” said Korniychuk, adding that Israel should do what it can to reduce the number of pilgrims coming this year.
Israel’s Ambassador to Ukraine, Michael Brodsky, will be in Uman on Thursday to meet the mayor and local officials as they prepare for the holiday.
On Tuesday, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and Jewish Tradition Minister Meir Porush were in Moldova to discuss the country’s readiness to handle the thousands of Jewish worshipers expected to fly to Chisinau on the way to Uman. Ukraine’s airspace has been closed since the outbreak of war in February 2022, and Moldova is the closest neighboring country to Uman.
“The anticipated arrival of tens of thousands of worshipers to Uman is a great challenge,” said Cohen. “In my conversations with the president and foreign minister, I thanked them for their readiness to find the safest and most effective mechanism for those Israelis that choose to travel through Moldova this year on the way to Uman.”