Netanyahu’s Coalition Whip Blasts Coronavirus Czar Over Ukraine Pilgrimage

Prof. Gamzu says Hasidic pilgrimage should be barred amid the pandemic, while Miki Zohar of Likud says he is violating religious freedom

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

Israel's coalition whip harshly criticized the coronavirus czar in a radio interview Wednesday for seeking to bar Bratslav Hasidic pilgrims from flying to Ukraine to visit the tomb of the Jewish movement's founder ahead of the Rosh Hashanah holiday, an annual event, amid the pandemic.

Prof. Ronni Gamzu has repeatedly warned that the annual pilgrimage to Uman, which draws tens of thousands of Hasidic Jews from around the world, would trigger a spike in coronavirus cases once the worshipers return to Israel.

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“Instead of adamantly opposing it and violating the right of people to [their beliefs], he should start preparing for the trip,” coalition whip Miki Zohar of Likud told Kan public radio. “The trip to Uman will happen whether he likes it or not,” Zohar added.

Zohar said that he himself is working to limit the number of flights to Uman to 25 rather than halting them altogether, thereby restricting the numbers of visitors to about 6,000. “That way, we can permit people to fulfill their desire to believe, just as we are allowing people to demonstrate,” he said.

When asked whether the 6,000 pilgrims would be placed in quarantine upon their return to Israel, Zohar said that was a matter for each individual to address, and they “need to show responsibility.”

Zohar also took Gamzu to task for writing a letter to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy calling on the government to prevent the pilgrimage this year due to the pandemic. Gamzu should focus on professional matters, Zohar said, “Instead of being afraid of the media and sending a letter to the president of Ukraine and doing all kinds of things that are wildly circulated by every news outlet after.”

Zohar said Gamzu had expressed confidence that he could have the regular mass demonstrations calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem barred due to the risk of the spread of the coronavirus. However, the coalition whip added that “it’s clear that he wasn’t active on the issue because he’s afraid of the media and is afraid that the media will criticize him …, but in the meantime, he hasn’t stopped the protests despite the fact that he doesn’t think it’s reasonable [for them to continue].”

On Tuesday, Gamzu reiterated his position that the pilgrimage flights to Uman for Rosh Hashana should not be allowed. The coronavirus czar went as far as threatening to resign if he is not given the necessary means to bring down Israel’s high COVID-19 infection rate. He was appointed to the position late last month.

“When I see that I am not being given all of the tools to reduce the incidence of infection, then of course I have nothing to do here,” Gamzu quipped. “With all the complexity of the infection and what doctors and nurses are going through, does this make sense? Is it reasonable? Having 80 flights departing from here? I adamantly believe it is not,” Gamzu said.

“There’s a professional legal opinion [that] the government can stop this. We won’t be able to maintain quarantine afterwards for 15,000 to 20,000 people. I will do everything to prevent it,” he added.

On Tuesday, Zelenskiy said that at Netanyahu’s request, Ukraine would substantially limit the number of pilgrims to Uman this year, but his office did not specify how many visitors would be allowed in and did not respond to a Reuters query about whether the pilgrimage would be barred entirely. However, the Prime Minister’s Office denied that Netanyahu had asked Ukraine to limit the number of visitors.