Ukraine's embassy in Tel Aviv announced Thursday that it was cancelling the annual Jewish pilgrimage to the Ukrainian city of Uman, the site of the tomb of the revered Hasidic leader Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, citing security reasons.
Every Rosh Hashanah, thousands of Israelis take part in the annual pilgrimage, transforming the sleepy town 200 kilometers south of Kyiv into a major tourist attraction.
"Due to concerns for the lives and well-being of the visitors to Ukraine and in light of the blatant Russian war in our country, despite all efforts, we can not guarantee the security of pilgrims and do not currently allow tourists and visitors to enter Ukraine," Ambassador Yevgen Korniychuk said in a statement posted to the embassy’s Facebook page.
"On this occasion, we address to you, because your prayers are important to us. Please pray that before Rosh Hashanah, the war in Ukraine, which broke out due to blatant and cruel Russian aggression, will come to an end and pray for the victory of Ukraine," he continued.
Korniychuk’s announcement came a week-and-a-half after he had announced that Ukraine was considering blocking Israeli citizens from crossing its borders in retaliation for restrictions that Israel imposed in the wake of February’s invasion by Russia.
The new restrictions, which will see a “general crackdown on tourism during Rosh Hashanah,” are not connected to the recent diplomatic spat over visas, but were put in place “to avoid big crowds that can be easily targeted,” Ambassador Korniychuk told Haaretz, adding that not only pilgrims from Israel would be banned during the holiday period.
“Imagine a crowd of 50,000 or even more praying in Uman and [the Russians] decide to shoot missiles. Can you guarantee that won't happen after they were shelling shopping malls and kindergartens and schools?"
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Speaking with Haaretz last week, the ambassador said that Ukrainian officials were holding discussions with the Israeli foreign and interior ministries regarding the issue and that while they had not lodged an ultimatum, if talks were unsuccessful Kyiv would "consider reciprocity” prior to the High Holy Days.
The Ukrainian Embassy in Israel has repeatedly protested the treatment of Ukrainians in Israel, speaking out against entry quotas for non-Jews, the short-lived requirement for Israelis to post bond for relatives seeking shelter, and other restrictions.
Initially, Ukrainian refugees were deemed tourists, based on the visa they obtained. But because the government argued in front of the High Court of Justice that the Ukrainians were not really tourists (in order to show that Israel wasn’t violating a treaty with Ukraine), they were given a new status with the effectively meaningless label of “war escapees.”
However, the High Court of Justice seemed to have put the issue to bed when it ruled on Sunday that the visa exemption agreement between Israel and Ukraine also applies to Ukrainians fleeing the war in their country, with Ukrainians allowed to stay in Israel for up to three months.
In its ruling, which was commended by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and welcomed by the Ukrainian Embassy, the High Court granted the petition despite the Interior Ministry’s opposition.
Since the war began on February 24, of the more than 21,000 refugees not covered by the Law of Return who entered Israel, only 14,500 were still in the country at the beginning of June.
Asked for comment, Israeli Ambassador to Kyiv Michael Brodsky told Haaretz that he would check the matter when he returns to Kyiv next week.
Most of the Jewish community of Uman has evacuated, although those who remain have turned one of the city’s synagogues into a makeshift bomb shelter and refugee center.
This March, Jewish community leaders pushed back after the Russian Defense Ministry claimed that Ukrainian forces were storing weapons in a local synagogue.
Liza Rozovsky and Bar Peleg contributed to this report.