Israeli ultra-Orthodox cry persecution over Ukraine's ban on pilgrimage

The ultra-Orthodox community has united behind a small, unpopular sect after Ukraine forbade this year's traditional pilgrimage.

al-monitor A Jewish man prays at a grave at a derelict Jewish cemetery during the annual Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage on Sept. 11, 2018, in Uman, Ukraine. Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images.
Afif Abu Much

Afif Abu Much

@AfifAbuMuch

Topics covered

coronavirus, travel ban, jews, ukraine, israeli politics, pilgrimage, hajj, ultra-orthodox parties, ultra-orthodox

Aug 26, 2020

The office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denied Aug. 25 he had requested that Ukraine limit the number of pilgrims traveling to Uman. The formal statement read, "As made clear in a joint statement of Israel and Ukraine published last week, the prime minister and president advised against going to Uman because of the virus situation, but noted and emphasized that it is [the responsibility of] those who decide to go to Uman to keep to health guidelines." In other words, there was no official ban, just a strong warning.

Netanyahu’s quick denial came in response to a statement made by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky earlier in the day that he would accede to Netanyahu’s alleged request and restrict the number of Jews allowed to visit the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov on the Jewish New Year on Sept. 18-20. Today, the Ukrainian president issued a total ban on citizens of “red zone” states from entering the country for 30 days to avoid a rise in coronavirus infections. Israel is considered a “red zone” state.

Pilgrimage to Uman has increased over the years, with as many as 30,000 people gathering there last year for the Jewish New Year for a celebration around the rabbi’s tomb. Most of them are Israelis, but not only. More so, many traditional and even secular Israelis have taken up this custom. Still, the Ukrainian travel ban infuriated mostly the ultra-Orthodox leadership. In fact, for several weeks now, ultra-Orthodox society has been seething over coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu’s insistence against flying to Ukraine.

On Aug. 22, Gamzu repeated his warnings that a large gathering in the town of Uman could lead to a major outbreak of the virus. Gamzu told Israel’s N12 News, “[Pilgrimage to] Uman is not one of the Tishrei holidays and it is not a sacred thing. It is a celebration or a party and should not be done. It can bring us closer to a lockdown. … This is a risk to lives in Israel." Responses were fast in coming. “It is a slap in the face to tens of thousands of Breslov followers,” declared ultra-Orthodox Minister of Housing Yaakov Litzman.

In an effort to ward off a fight, Netanyahu called a large meeting for the next day to discuss flights to Uman. On one side was Gamzu, and on the other were Litzman and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri of ultra-Orthodox Shas. The meeting lasted hours. At one point, Litzman demanded that Netanyahu fire Gamzu for contacting the Ukrainian president personally to ask him to ban Breslov Hasidim and other worshippers from entering the country. Litzman argued that Gamzu went behind the backs of the prime minister’s office, the foreign minister and the Israeli ambassador to Ukraine to make his request.

It's a bit of a mystery how a celebration in Ukraine became the focus of such intense discussion in ultra-Orthodox society. The late Ovadia Yosef, a former chief rabbi and spiritual leader of Shas, once said that people should not make the pilgrimage to Uman. He said that any Jew with an ounce of common sense would rather spend the night of Rosh Hashanah with his family.

Itzik Sudri, a media consultant and former spokesman for Shas, explained to Al-Monitor, “There is a disparity between the reaction to flights to Uman and other events in Israel including the demonstrations, which could lead to mass infection.” When asked whether he thought that the move was intentionally antagonistic toward the ultra-Orthodox, he said, “There can be no debate that it is part of a process and an effort to convince the public that the ultra-Orthodox are spreading the disease. … Shas is opposed to traveling to Uman, regardless of the coronavirus, and yet, antagonism toward the ultra-Orthodox community has caused them to join the fight for a solution.”

In comparison, Saudi Arabia responded to the pandemic with a series of severe restrictions on the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca during Eid al-Adha this July. It banned Muslims from outside the country from entering the holy sites. Ahmad Ganayem, a construction engineer from the Arab-Israeli town of Baqa al-Gharbiyye, had planned to go to Mecca this year. He told Al-Monitor, "By the end of June, the Saudi minister of religious affairs announced that because of the spread of the coronavirus, the hajj would be limited to Saudi residents. Entry to foreigners would be prohibited. Of course, we were very disappointed, but we accepted this decision fully, as we realized that it was motivated by concern for people’s health. Islam as a religion makes a point of first of all protecting the health of people."

The discrepancy begs the question: If millions of Muslims around the world, particularly in Israel, were willing to accept the decision by the Ministry of Religious Affairs in Saudi Arabia, why can’t a group of Breslov Hasidim in Israel come to terms with the idea that a mass gathering in Uman could lead to a spike in infections?

Breslov is not considered a mainstream Hasidic sect, even among the ultra-Orthodox. Nevertheless, their fight over the pilgrimage to Uman has won the support of ultra-Orthodox politicians, who have embarked on a public relations campaign around it. The answer, it seems, is political.

Ultra-Orthodox journalist Israel Frey told Al-Monitor, “Breslov Hasidim are considered floating voters who don’t identify with a specific party. As a result, we see politicians doing everything to win their support. That is why they are helping them with their fight.” Frey went on, “In normal times, the ultra-Orthodox community ridicules the Breslov community and its pilgrimage to Uman for Rosh Hashanah. What is happening now is the part of the standard reaction in ultra-Orthodox society whenever secular Jews make decisions for them. In this case, they feel like they are being persecuted. The secular community does not understand the needs of religious Jews. Why, for instance, is going to synagogue forbidden, while cultural events are allowed?”

Maybe what unites ultra-Orthodox society around the issue is the rejection of decisions made on their behalf by a secular outsider like Gamzu. The ultra-Orthodox see it as coercion. As much as they may try to distance themselves from the Breslov community, restrictions on its pilgrimage to Uman has forced the ultra-Orthodox parties to take a united stand.

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