Hundreds of Jewish pilgrims rioted with police in the Ukrainian city of Uman Friday during a pilgrimage to the grave of a Jewish sage. Local police used dogs, violence, and pepper spray to disperse a crowd of about 500 Jewish pilgrims which had surrounded two Ukrainian men in a parked car they allegedly caught stealing from a residential building rented out by Jewish visitors.
Two Israeli policemen in uniform helped calm the situation. No one was reported hurt.
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The riot began when the two men, both Ukrainian locals from Uman, fled to a waiting parked car. Within moments it was encircled by hundreds of irate pilgrims who banged on the roof and doors, screaming "Ganaf" and "Ganav". Ukrainian police and security services arrived on the scene and formed a barrier around the men and their car. As the crowd surged the police began pushing and using German Shepherds to herd the mob. At one point, an officer sprayed mace into the crowd, leaving dozens scattering and wiping at their eyes.
The scene remained tense until two Israel police officers stationed in Uman for the pilgrimage showed up and began to speak to the Ukrainian police and calm the crowd at the same time. After a short deliberation, the two suspects were bundled into a Ukrainian police SUV and taken to town for an investigation.
The Israeli police officers, one from Tel Aviv and one from the Negev
District, then told the crowd that the situation was under control and
that everyone should go back to prayer. As they and the Ukrainian police
walked off, the mob began booing and jeering the Israel police.
After the crowd subsided, one of the Israel police officers stood next to
a Ukrainian police post smoking a cigarette and smiling with his local
The officer said it was his first time in Uman, but that every year the police
send two officers to help patrol the event and that they deal with “no
shortage of nonsense”
When asked to elaborate, the officer said “people get drunk and act crazy in
the streets, go out to pubs and hit on women and harass them. They do
all types of things that they would never do in Israel, but they come
out here and feel like they can do it.”
The officer, who along with his colleague from Tel Aviv is unarmed, said they
are beholden to Ukrainian law and “work as a go-between for the Jews and
the local police. We are between the hammer and the nail.”
Though the pilgrims almost universally view the local Ukranians and
their police as hostile and rabidly anti-Semitic, the officer said he gets
along with them well, and that “it’s not them that are tough or harsh,
it’s the law that’s tough. They have no concept of "proper use of
force", if they want to use force, or arrest someone, they just do it. I
speak to them about these sorts of concepts and they just give me a
Friday’s disturbances followed a similar event on Thursday evening, when
Jewish pilgrims swarmed the car of a local man who was driving at high
speed through a crowd returning from the Rosh Hashana “Taslich” ceremony
at a local river.
Hundreds encircled the man outside a residential tower a block away and
began shouting to “tear him apart” and that “he almost killed a kid,
we’ll show him.” Pilgrims staying in the residential tower above began
tossing rocks and bottles down onto the car and when at one point a
local policeman’s hat was knocked off, police began to push back the
crowd, as police German Shepherds scattered the stragglers.
This year’s Uman pilgrimage, which takes place on the 200th anniversary
of the Rabbi Nachman’s death, has brought a record 25,000 foreign Jewish
pilgrims to this sleepy Ukrainian town three hours from Kiev. Pilgrims
and locals have a mixed relationship, with locals complaining about
noise, rowdy behavior, widespread drinking, and general aggressiveness
from a number of the visitors. For their part, a large percentage of the
pilgrims complain of unprovoked hostility and violence from a populace
they view as altogether rude and unwelcoming.