Frustrated pilgrims blame Israel government for Ukraine border ordeal

Tel Aviv (AFP) –


Ultra-Orthodox Jews who were blocked for days trying to reach Ukraine for an annual pilgrimage flew home to Israel this week, many accusing their government of abandoning them.

The would-be pilgrims complained they had received no assistance from the Israeli government while enduring "inhumane" conditions in no-man's land on the Belarus-Ukraine border, forcing them to rely on the Belarusian authorities and the Red Cross.

Tens of thousands of pilgrims usually travel to the tomb of Rabbi Nahman, founder of the Breslov Hasidic movement, in Uman in central Ukraine to mark the Jewish new year, which this year fell on September 18-20.

Hundreds of Hasidic Jews ignored warnings from the Ukrainian government that pilgrims would be denied entry because of coronavirus concerns and attempted to cross by land from neighbouring Belarus.

"Five days without eating or drinking, without toilets... That's inhumane," one of the frustrated pilgrims, Israel Maizlik, told AFP.

Along with other pilgrims, he touched down Monday on a flight from the Belarusian capital Minsk.

While stuck at the border, pilgrim Haim Weitshandler called on Israeli officials to come to the rescue of "sick and hungry people" left out "in the rain and in the cold".

After landing at Tel Aviv airport, the 40-year-old said he had "spent two weeks in conditions amounting to a serious humanitarian crisis".

"We received nothing from Israel," he said, praising Belarus for "coming to help us."

- 'Forgotten' -

Along with the Red Cross, the Belarusian authorities provided tents, medicine and other supplies to hundreds of men, women and children waiting at the border.

The Israeli government vowed in August to find an "arrangement" with Kiev to allow some pilgrims to travel to Uman, before backtracking and telling citizens not to travel.

Weitshandler accused the Israeli prime minister of "applying pressure so that Ukraine denied us entry".

Maizlik showed an extra hole in his belt which he said was due to the lack of food at the border.

"We went to pray for all the people (of Israel) but the state of Israel did nothing for us," he said.

"Netanyahu has forgotten that we are part of the (Israeli) people," he added.

Parties representing the ultra-Orthodox community have been a key part of successive coalition governments led by the right-wing premier.

While many of the blocked pilgrims expressed frustration, Dor David said he felt positive about the experience.

"If God and our rabbi (Nahman) did not want us to reach Uman, why should I be angry?"

Netanyahu is merely "a puppet in the hands of God," he added, pledging to make it to Uman once the border opens.

"The positive energies on the ground made us forget the hunger and the cold, it was a spiritual experience."