Outraged by the Israeli government’s efforts to prevent the annual pilgrimage to Uman, Ukraine, the Breslov Hasidic sect said Thursday that it would never again support Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The development came as dozens of worshipers were held for up to 17 hours at a Ukrainian airport before being allowed in, even though a decision by Kyiv Wednesday to not allow foreign nationals in the country only takes effect Friday at midnight.
The city usually sees tens of thousands of Hasidic Jews visit the gravesite of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov for the Rosh Hashanah holiday, which this year begins the evening of September 18.
Israel’s Breslov secretariat issued a statement saying the government “has shown that religious citizens are second-class citizens and can be assailed [by] every means, so that they [won’t be unable to] fulfill their beliefs.”
While “protesting, flying everywhere and congregating in hotels and restaurants is alright,” in the case of those who wish to travel for religious purposes, “they’ll do everything to thwart and denigrate, instead of working together on a plan that will allow Hasidim to travel,” the statement continued.
“We’ll never support Benjamin Netanyahu or any party that backs him,” it said. “Anyone who respects Rabbi Nachman of Breslov should do everything they can to ensure the loss of those who fought believers’ rights.”
According to Channel 12, after the Hasidim withdrew their support, Netanyahu told leading rabbis he was working to find a solution to allow them to enter Ukraine and visit Uman.
Dozens of Breslov Hasidim protested Netanyahu’s policy on the matter in the northern Israel city of Safed on Thursday, while the premier was staying at a hotel in the city.
שדה התעופה ז’פרוז’ה באוקראינה. חסיד ברסלב התעלף לאחר תשאול ארוך ללא אוכל ומים. עוד עשרות מגורשים חזרה לישראל למרות שאיסור כניסת הזרים עוד לא נכנס לתוקף. תמונות עצובות, לא משנה מי צודק פה pic.twitter.com/Q6eFfzW4Zd
— יקי אדמקר (@YakiAdamker) August 27, 2020
The group of Israelis who arrived at the Odessa airport in the early morning hours of Thursday included Arabs and Jews, according to one passenger.
“The Arabs were let through at once, but when they saw someone with a beard and sidecurls they told him to wait,” Moshe Grisin said, according to Channel 12. “They started taking us for individual conversations; they wanted to hear us say ‘Uman’ and then they wouldn’t let us in.”
He said some 30 people had been held at the airport for more than 12 hours, without kosher food, leading one man to faint. He said they suffered some violence, and that their phones were taken away when they attempted to film it. Other eyewitnesses said some were held behind barbed wire.
Grisin added that the airport officials filled out forms on their behalf saying they were willing to return to Israel.
Another worshiper, identified by Channel 12 only as Dan, said the situation “is reminiscent of the Holocaust. We ask them why this anti-Semitism and they laugh in our faces. We are like monkeys and the government doesn’t care.”
The Foreign Ministry said Israel’s embassy was working with authorities to ensure the worshipers were treated fairly and provided with kosher food.
Later Thursday, all the travelers were eventually allowed into Ukraine, reportedly after Netanyahu got involved.
Some ten more flights from Israel are due to arrive in Ukraine Thursday and Friday, before the sweeping entry ban takes effect. Channel 12 reported that two more flights later Thursday would be allowed in and possibly more on Friday, but that at least two flights have been canceled.
Channel 13 also said the pilgrimage site was already packed with worshipers, who weren’t wearing face masks.
Ukraine on Wednesday announced it would seal its borders to foreigners through September to curb rising coronavirus infections, blocking Israeli and Jewish pilgrims from traveling to Uman for Rosh Hashanah.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal also signaled the government would impose a ban on large gatherings in Uman during the Jewish new year.
The announcement of the entry ban came after the official leading Israel’s response to the pandemic asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to prevent the pilgrimage, fearing returning pilgrims could drive up infection rates in the Jewish state.
Zelensky had announced Tuesday that Ukraine would “significantly limit” the entry of Jewish visitors for Rosh Hashanah at Netanyahu’s request, but didn’t specify the degree to which the pilgrimage would be limited.
Netanyahu’s office swiftly denied that the premier had made such a request, in what seemed like an effort to assuage his ultra-Orthodox allies.
Coronavirus czar Prof. Ronni Gamzu’s opposition to the pilgrimage, which mostly draws ultra-Orthodox Jews, has raised hackles among Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox partners, some of whom have sought to oust him from his post.
On Thursday, Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman, the leader of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, called for Gamzu’s ouster.
During a cornerstone-laying event, Litzman claimed that Gamzu had warned Ukraine’s president that “Jews will dirty his city and bring diseases.”
Coalition whip Miki Zohar, a Likud party ally of Netanyahu’s, on Wednesday attacked Gamzu for trying to keep Israelis from traveling to Uman for Rosh Hashanah but not seeking to halt mass protests against the prime minister, claiming Gamzu was motivated by an alleged fear of the media.
Gamzu rejected Zohar’s criticism, as did Health Minister Yuli Edelstein. Several lawmakers also came to Gamzu’s defense.
Zohar’s criticism of Gamzu came a day after the latter vowed to “do everything” to prevent large numbers of Hasidic Jews from flying to Uman, and threatened he could resign over the matter.
Ukraine is one of the few countries that are currently allowing in Israeli nationals, despite the high coronavirus infection rate in the Jewish state.