Netanyahu's Right-hand Man Blames COVID Czar for Rising Ukraine Antisemitism

Coalition whip blasts Prof. Gamzu over letter to Ukraine president calling on him to prevent the annual pilgrimage to Uman

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Coalition whip Miki Zohar at the Knesset, July 2020
Coalition whip Miki Zohar at the Knesset, July 2020Credit: Adina Valman/Knesset

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition whip Miki Zohar accused Israel's coronavirus czar Wednesday of contributing to the rise of antisemitism in Ukraine amid an ongoing spat over the annual Hasidic pilgrimage to the city of Uman.

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According to Likud's Zohar, without providing any evidence, antisemitic incidents in the Ukraine have been increasing ever since Prof. Roni Gamzu sent a letter to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, calling on him to prevent the pilgrimage this year due to the pandemic.

In a tweet that included footage of an attack on an Orthodox Jew in Uman, Zohar added that Gamzu "in essence said that coronavirus-stricken Israelis are endangering the Ukrainians." Zohar warned that any delay in forming a plan that would allow the pilgrimage "continues to put many Jews at risk."

Tens of thousands of Hasidic Jews descend on Uman every Jewish New Year to visit the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, who revived the Hasidic movement in the late-18th and early-19th centuries and died in 1810.

Prof. Gamzu has repeatedly warned that the annual pilgrimage would trigger a spike in coronavirus cases once the worshipers return to Israel.

In late August, Zohar claimed that Gamzu's letter to the Ukrainian president is a breach of his authority. Gamzu should focus on professional matters, Zohar argued, “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.”

Coalition whip Miki Zohar's tweet, with video showing attack on Orthodox Jew in Uman

Ultra-Orthodox party United Torah Judaism, which is part of Netanyahu's ruling coalition, has strongly opposed calls to limit the annual pilgrimage.

But the political significance of the row has overshadowed any health concerns; as Haaretz's Anshel Pfeffer wrote last week, Netanyahu will do everything for the ultra-Orthodox parties – his most loyal coalition partners: "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."

The video Zohar shared is of a Monday evening attack targeting an Orthodox Jewish at a supermarket in Uman. According to local media, the man, who has not been named, left the store with a friend. Two men approached the shoppers and one hit the victim in the nose, causing some bleeding.

The alleged attacker and his friend fled, the head of the United Jewish Community of Ukraine, Michael Tkatch, wrote on Facebook. Tkatch posted a blurred version of the video, while Zohar shared a video that clearly shows the faces of those involved. Police are investigating whether the incident was an antisemitic assault.

'Gamzu should be listened to'

Meanwhile, the chairs of five labor unions representing Israeli physicians released a joint statement backing Gamzu and calling on politicians to “let him do his job.” In a letter Netanyahu, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, the union leaders decried “attempts by the political system to foil his plan” to curb the spread of the coronavirus in Israel."

“Prof. Gamzu represents science and medicine, and should be listened to,” they added, criticizing policy-makers for “ignoring professional recommendations.”

Last month, Zohar said Gamzu should focus on professional matters “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.”

JTA contributed to this report.

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