Hasidic pilgrims at Ukraine border refuse to return despite Israel plea

Hasidic Jewish pilgrims at a Belarus/Ukraine border crossing, September 16, 2020. (AFP)
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Updated 17 September 2020

Hasidic pilgrims at Ukraine border refuse to return despite Israel plea

  • The mainly American, French and Israeli believers departed for Uman this year even though both the Ukrainian and Israeli governments last month urged them not to travel
  • A video released by Ukraine’s border guards on Thursday showed tents and sleeping bags on the roadside along with piles of garbage

KIEV: Around 1,000 Hasidic Jews were massed on Ukraine’s border Thursday, with some vowing to stay, even though Kiev refused their entry citing coronavirus restrictions and Israel urged them to return.
Tens of thousands of Hasidic Jews travel to the central Ukrainian city of Uman every Jewish New Year — which falls on September 18-20 this year — to visit the tomb of Rabbi Nahman, the founder of the Breslov Hasidic movement.
The mainly American, French and Israeli believers departed for Uman this year even though both the Ukrainian and Israeli governments last month urged them not to travel because of the pandemic.
Kiev has closed its borders for most of the month of September but the pilgrims attempted to bypass the restrictions by traveling through Belarus.
Speaking to AFP from the Ukrainian-Belarusian border, one of ultra-Orthodox pilgrims, Itsik Cohen, said the believers were hoping for divine intervention.
“I’m waiting and praying that they open the borders, so we can have the privilege of being with our Rabbi, God willing,” said Cohen, an Israeli Breslov Hassid from Jerusalem.
“We believe in God, and if God wants it this way, we need to do anything we can to show our determination, to the very last minute.”
Ukrainian authorities said the situation had not changed since Monday when crowds of believers began building up on the closed Ukraine border and pilgrims were still refusing to leave.
A video released by Ukraine’s border guards on Thursday showed tents and sleeping bags on the roadside along with piles of garbage.
“They are dancing, they are singing, they are praying,” the spokesman for the Ukrainian border guard service, Andriy Demchenko, told AFP.
He said that some 1,000 pilgrims had reached the no-man’s land at several border crossings, while the total number of believers in Belarus hoping to cross was closer to 2,000.
Ultra-Orthodox members of the Israeli coalition had pressed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to enable the tradition, despite the objection of health officials who feared the crowded mass event would increase contagion.
But an Israeli minister indicated Thursday that efforts to enable ultra-Orthodox believers’ access to Uman had failed.
“Ukraine announced it wouldn’t allow entry via border crossings or any form of small delegation,” Higher Education and Water Minister Zeev Elkin, who is Ukrainian-born, said on Twitter.
“I call on our citizens to return to Israel and uphold the quarantine instructions upon their arrival.”
Moshe Garcin, a 44-year-old pilgrim who arrived in Uman days before Ukraine closed its borders, told AFP that “it’s not for them (Israel government) to say this.”
And pilgrim Cohen dismissed the Israeli minister’s call.
“Elkin doesn’t determine the reality, there’s a God in the world,” he said.
Both Ukraine and Israel are keen to avoid a spike in coronavirus infections, with Kiev closing the borders to foreigners until late September.
Israel is set to be the first developed country to enforce a second nationwide shutdown, to begin on Friday afternoon.
The Belarus border guard service said 1,216 people had attempted to cross since Monday, including 337 children.
The pilgrims’ standoff on the border has led to diplomatic tensions between Ukraine and Belarus.
Ukrainian authorities on Wednesday accused Belarus of giving them false hope of entering despite the restrictions by spreading “rumors” that the Ukrainian border may still be open to foreigners.
Minsk has called on Kiev to open dialogue with the pilgrims and show respect for their rights.
“The Red Cross came and gave us water, hot water and cold water and tea, and provided medical care to whoever needed it,” pilgrim Cohen said.
Meanwhile, up to 3,000 Hasidic Jews have arrived in Uman for the celebrations, local police said. Law enforcement has tightened security near Rabbi Nachman’s tomb where pilgrims have congregated.
Ukraine has reported more than 166,000 cases of coronavirus and 3,400 fatalities.
On Thursday, Ukraine reported a new daily record of 3,584 coronavirus infections.

French youth of Arab origin mistrust secularism, national symbols, finds poll

Updated 12 min 9 sec ago

French youth of Arab origin mistrust secularism, national symbols, finds poll

  • Arab News en Francais/YouGov survey of French citizens of Arab origin found a wide generational gap in attitudes to secular values
  • Older respondents identified more closely with French national symbols, but tended to feel stigmatized for their faith

LONDON: Young people of Arab origin in France are less likely to hold secular values and are more distrustful of national symbols than their elders, an Arab News en Francais survey conducted in partnership with British polling agency YouGov has found.

Attitudes to secularism appear to differ substantially among those aged between 18 and 24, which constituted 15 percent of the 958 people surveyed, compared with other age groups.

More than half (54 percent) of all those polled said they believe religion plays a negative role in politics, while a smaller 46 percent of 18-24-year-olds said this was the case.

Likewise, on the subject of laws restricting the wearing of religious clothing, 38 percent of all respondents said they favor such rules, while 29 percent of 18-24-year-olds approve.

Asked whether they would be prepared to defend the French model of secularism in their country of origin, 65 percent of respondents said they would compared with just 56 percent of 18-24-year-olds.

Even among the 25-34 age group, adherence to the values of secularism is noticeably stronger than among the younger cohort, with 55 percent saying religion plays a negative role in politics.

The trend generally continues with age. Among those over 45, about 50 percent said they are in favor of laws limiting the wearing of religious symbols.

Observers have asked whether such negative perceptions of secularism among young French citizens of Arab origin can be equated with growing radicalism.

Some scholars of Islam have established a link between countries which have adopted a more “incisive” secularism and the number of citizens who traveled to Syria to join Daesh.

William McCants and Christopher Meserole of the Brookings Institution believe the political culture of France and Belgium, where religious symbols are restricted, combined with massive unemployment and urbanization, contributed to radicalization.


46% 18-24-year-olds say religion plays negative role in politics.

58% 18-24-year-olds would support home football side against France.

Other researchers say those who traveled to Syria came overwhelmingly from poor urban areas, where they faced discrimination in the job market, housing and police checks.

“Some young people feel they are viewed as sub-citizens, while media rhetoric gives credence to the idea that Muslims are ‘banding apart’,” said Elyamine Settoul, a lecturer at the National Conservatory of Arts and Crafts in Paris.

“This otherness between ‘them’ and ‘us’ represents a breeding ground for radicalization. Radical groups will not only sell them full citizenship but also compensate for all their deficiencies, whether they are identity based, affective or narcissistic.”

It is perhaps surprising, then, that just 47 percent of the 18-24 cohort surveyed by Arab News en Francais and YouGov believe their religion is perceived negatively in France — significantly lower than the overall average of 59 percent among all age groups.

Few topics better reflect a community’s sense of national pride than an international football tournament. Dual identities often lead to the question: Should I support the national side from my place of origin or cheer for my adopted nation?

Once again, a generational split emerges. The survey found 58 percent of men aged 18-24 would support their country of origin against the French side compared with an average of 47 percent among all respondents.

If the French World Cup victory in 1998 is considered the peak of the country’s “black-blanc-beur” multiculturalism, then the 2001 friendly between France and Algeria must be considered its nadir, when Algerian fans invaded the pitch.

The Arab News en Francais/YouGov study found that support for the French national team tended to increase with age. About 58 percent of 35-44-year-olds and 50 percent of over-55s said they would support the French national side over their country of origin.

“Young people under 25 are still building their identity and tend to get closer to their country of origin at this age. They fully claim their belonging to the country of origin, but this remains like folklore, as they often do not know much about it,” Settoul said.

“Over time, the identity asserts itself: We integrate professionally, get married, buy property and no longer take the same positions.”