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How a Hasidic Pilgrimage to Ukraine Could Bring Down Israel's Acclaimed COVID Czar

While the Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage to the grave of Rabbi Nachman is now seemingly out of reach, ultra-Orthodox politicians will fight any coronavirus program that singles their community out

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The announcement by the Ukrainian government Wednesday that it’s closing its borders to foreign citizens due to rising levels of coronavirus infection did not mention Israel or Hasidic Jews. But here in Israel – and certainly among the thousands of believers in Rabbi Nachman of Breslav who are yearning to spend Rosh Hashanah in the narrow, squalid alleyways around his grave in the town of Uman – the connection was clear. And they’re probably right.

Ukraine is indeed experiencing a surge in new COVID-19 cases, but they’re largely being caused by domestic infections, not foreigners. The country had already announced localized lockdowns until the end of October. The closure of its borders is scheduled to end about a month earlier, on September 28 – which coincidentally of course is Yom Kippur. Rosh Hashanah, meanwhile, is on September 18-20.

Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has publicly said that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked him to prevent the pilgrimage to Uman. Netanyahu has tried denying that. Choose who you want to believe.

Whatever the truth behind the decision, it’s good news. Good for Ukraine, which has prevented the influx of tens of thousands of foreign citizens from a country (Israel) where infection is rife at a time when they’re trying to stabilize the situation in their own country. Good for Israel that those tens of thousands will not be spending Rosh Hashanah together in close quarters. And it’s good for Netanyahu.

Israel’s secretly atheist prime minister understands perfectly well how the Uman pilgrimage could exacerbate an already dire pandemic. But there are factors that threaten him more immediately than the disease.

Netanyahu’s most loyal governing coalition partners are the ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) parties, and he’ll do nothing against their positions. After he took a stand against the Uman pilgrimage, his Haredi ministers made it clear that this was a cause dear to their hearts – and he fell silent. But the coronavirus czar Netanyahu finally appointed just over a month ago, Prof. Ronni Gamzu, wouldn’t stay silent and publicly continued demanding that the planes to Uman be grounded.

Gamzu poses a unique dilemma for Netanyahu. The CEO of Tel Aviv’s Sourasky Medical Center doesn’t need the thankless coronavirus job. He has already made clear that if he feels he isn’t getting the necessary backing from the government, he’ll quit. Part of Netanyahu’s long-delayed decision to appoint a professional task force chief was his realization, borne out by polling, that the public blames him for the national failure to anticipate and deal with the second wave of infections and the economic crisis. The coronavirus czar is supposed to be the fall guy, deflecting blame from the premier.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Coronavirus Czar Ronni Gamzu, August 16, 2020. Credit: Tal Shahar

The increasing tempo of attacks on Gamzu from Netanyahu’s proxies is a transparent ploy to portray him as the culprit. It may work, but four weeks since his appointment it has yet to stick.

The public still sees Gamzu as a selfless professional, and Netanyahu’s Likud party continues to plummet in the polls. If Gamzu were to resign today, it would be a public relations disaster for Netanyahu. But the czar’s causing him political damage by staying in his post as well, and the Uman pilgrimage is just a test case.

Gamzu is an accomplished media performer and has not hid his recommendations to the government to clamp down on areas with high levels of infection. These are largely ultra-Orthodox towns and neighborhoods. Together with his professional advisory committee, he has devised the so-called traffic light program, whereby each local government area in Israel will be color-coded (from green to red) based on its infection rate, with local restrictions placed on movement and public activities accordingly.

File picture: Hasidic Jewish pilgrims pray near the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov during Rosh Hashanah in Uman, UkraineCredit: MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP / GETTY IL

The government has yet to vote on implementing the plan due to the opposition of the Haredi ministers, who realize that under the plan their constituents will be the ones suffering lockdown while residents of green-ranked secular cities will remain free.

Uman is just a skirmish before the much wider battle over Gamzu’s plan. And this time Netanyahu won’t have the friendly President Zelensky to pull the chestnuts out of the fire for him. He will have to choose between Gamzu and his Haredi partners – and right now that looks like a lose-lose proposition.

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