Israel Sends Police to Ukraine Pilgrimage Site Despite Unresolved Coronavirus Concerns

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Ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jewish pilgrims pray on a bank of a lake near the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov during the celebration of the Rosh Hashanah holiday, in Uman, Ukraine, September 21, 2017.
Ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jewish pilgrims pray on a bank of a lake near the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov during the celebration of the Rosh Hashanah holiday, in Uman, Ukraine, September 21, 2017.Credit: Valentyn Ogirenko/ REUTERS

Dozens of policemen are expected to leave for Uman, Ukraine, next Sunday, even though the Health Ministry coronavirus czar Prof. Roni Gamzu opposes this move.

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According to police sources, the contingent is being sent by Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, despite police opposition.

The delegation will be part of the preparations made for the pilgrimage of Bratslav Hasidim to the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav on the Jewish New Year. There are still no plans for the travel of these Hasidim to Uman. The police say that this was an agreement made by the Public Security Ministry and its counterpart in Ukraine, so that any questions should be addressed to the ministry.

Police sources say they don’t understand why this trip is necessary when there is still no approved plan for traveling to Uman, and no information on how many people will participate in the event. “We still don’t know if there is such a plan,” said a police source familiar with the details of this issue. He said that there is no reason to dispatch dozens of police officers to Uman if only a limited number of Israelis go there, in opposition to the position of professionals in Israel. “It’s wrong, any way you look at it, with a wrong message to the public, with the involved costs, and with the unnecessary exposure of these policemen to the risk of infection,” said this source.

In recent years, the police have sent dozens of officers to Uman during the High Holy Days in order to assist the local police in maintaining public order in the prayer areas where Israelis go. The contingent includes rank-and-file policemen and officers as well as special forces and patrol and detective forces. It also includes investigators and someone from the spokesperson’s office.

Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, in the Knesset, Jerusalem, May 24, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Senior police officers said in closed meetings that the decision was made by politicians, and was not taken out of operational needs or after coordination with the police in Uman. Professional sources at the Public Security Ministry were also unfamiliar with the details, and noted that questions should be addressed to the minister’s bureau.

Professionals at the Health Ministry are vehemently opposed to such a trip. One source said that these policemen would be required to go into a 14-day quarantine on their return. “There is no approved plan for this trip,” said this source. Ministry sources said that Bratslav Hasidim and politicians were disseminating false information about a plan that would allow thousands of Israelis to travel to Uman.

Ohana’s bureau responded to these reports: “Recently, as is the case every year, we received a request by the Ukrainian authorities to send a contingent of policemen who would help local policemen maintain order. The departure, composition and manner of arrival of such a contingent have not been approved yet, but when approved, it will be smaller in relation to previous years due to the lower number of Israelis expected to take part in the event.”

Jewish pilgrims pray near the tomb of Rabbi Nachman while celebrating Rosh Hashanah in Uman, Ukraine, 4 October 2016.Credit: Maxym Marusenko/NurPhoto/AFP

The travel of Hasidim to Uman quickly became political leverage to be used against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud ministers. According to sources, representatives of these Hasidim exerted pressure on Ukrainian government agencies, on Israel’s Health Ministry and on cabinet members in an attempt to allow the pilgrimage to take place. They turned to Likud ministers, arguing that 20,000 of them are Likud members, and insisted that these ministers back their demands. These Hasidim later joined demonstrators outside the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem.

Last month, Ukraine’s government decided to temporarily halt the entry of foreign nationals, with the ban ending on September 28, which is Yom Kippur. This stemmed from concerns that overcrowding during the pilgrimage to Rabbi Nachman’s grave would lead to a spread of infections among visitors and the local population. Earlier that month, Gamzu sent a letter to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, expressing his concerns that the masses of pilgrims would infect local people with the virus. “Israel is still contending with high daily infection rates,” he wrote.

Since then, rates have only increased, including in Haredi cities. After the letter was made public, coalition whip Miki Zohar (Likud) accused Gamzu of increasing antisemitism in Ukraine.

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