Zelensky to 'Post': Israel requested restrictions on Uman pilgrims

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that Ukraine is “very proud of this gathering” and does “everything to welcome our guests.”

VOLODYMYR ZELENSKY   (photo credit: TNS)
VOLODYMYR ZELENSKY
(photo credit: TNS)
Israel requested that Ukraine impose restrictions on Jewish pilgrims to the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov this Rosh Hashanah because of the novel coronavirus, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in an interview with The Jerusalem Post.
Asked for his opinion on the long simmering dispute in Israel over the issue, Zelensky said that Ukraine is “very proud of this gathering” and does “everything to welcome our guests.”
Unfortunately, he added, “this year, as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, we had to implement very strict policies at the request of Israel to ensure the safety of both the citizens of Ukraine and our visitors coming from all around the world.”
Zelensky, who said he would like to see greater security cooperation between his country and the Jewish state as Israel's technology could “play an important role in protecting Ukrainian citizens,”  told the Post that Ukraine was exploring the “possibility” of opening “a trade office in Jerusalem,” though moving the embassy to the capital is “currently not on our agenda.”
Zelensky’s comment about exploring the possibility of a trade office in Jerusalem is at odds with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s statement during a visit to Ukraine in August 2019 that Ukraine had agreed to open a high-tech and investment office in the city.
The written interview with Zelensky was done in the framework of the Kyiv Jewish Forum 2020, organized by the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine in partnership with the Post. What follows is an edited transcript of the interview
How would you characterize the ties between Israel and Ukraine today?
Ukraine and Israel enjoy extremely strong political, military, diplomatic and also people-to-people ties. A lot of Israeli citizens originally come from Ukraine, and this certainly plays an important role in the good relationship between our two countries.
Our two countries also face a common challenge: how to thrive and be successful in conditions of military conflict. We know how difficult it is to move towards peace and how important it is for prosperity. We have also faced common challenges, as has the whole world: misinformation and a difficult epidemiological situation. And I believe Ukraine has something to learn from Israel in terms of cyber challenges, as today you are among the leaders who have succeeded on this path.
What is your opinion on the controversy surrounding Israelis traveling to Uman to celebrate Rosh Hashanah. Do you want Israelis to come to the country?
Of course we want Israelis to visit Ukraine!
Each year, the city of Uman welcomes tens of thousands of visitors from all around the world, in particular from Israel and the United States. We are very proud of this gathering and do everything to welcome our guests in the best possible conditions.
Unfortunately, this year, as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, we had to implement very strict policies at the request of Israel to ensure the safety of both the citizens of Ukraine and our visitors coming from all around the world.
I am really sorry that it led to unpleasant consequences for the pilgrims. We all need to have both patience and tolerance in these strange times. We are all adjusting to new ways of doing things that have never had to be done before.
But let me reiterate that aside from the exceptional and temporary measures put in place to combat COVID-19, visitors from Israel and from all around the world will always be welcomed in Uman and in Ukraine.
Did Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ask you to ban tourists from entering Ukraine in order to hinder Israelis from traveling to Uman?
There have been a lot of discussions, within Ukraine and between Ukraine and Israel, at many levels, to solve this problem in the best possible way. Both Israel and we have agreed that this year's temporary restrictions should be implemented.
Protecting the health of our foreign visitors and of the citizens of Ukraine has been and remains our top priority in these extraordinary times.
There have been reports of anti-Semitic attacks against Hassidic Jews in Uman. Are you concerned that the heightened media attention surrounding Uman will lead to a further rise in antisemitism across Ukraine?
We strongly condemn anti-Semitic attacks of any kind. Antisemitism is a poison that has no place in Ukraine.
We are working very closely with the local authorities and the representatives of the Jewish community in Ukraine and in Uman to protect the pilgrims.
We respond to every antisemitic aggression. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center in 2018, Ukraine is the country in Eastern Europe with the lowest rate of antisemitism. This is encouraging, but obviously we always need to do more, and we must and will remain extremely vigilant.
Israel has good relations with Russia and good relations with Ukraine. Can Israel play a role in helping iron out ties between the countries?
Israel certainly has a role to play and has been very supportive as we work towards a resolution to the military conflict. We are grateful for the support of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity and look forward to working closely on this issue.
Are you worried that the situation in Belarus will lead to an expansion of Russian dominance throughout Eastern Europe?
Russia has always been very influential in Belarus. Today, Belarusian people want justice and free and fair elections. This struggle is unstoppable, but I do not think it is compatible with an increased influence of Russia in Belarus. Belarusian people want true democracy, not Russian “democracy.” In any case, we do not support the intervention of any state in the domestic political situation in Belarus, and we believe that the Belarusian people must decide for themselves how to move into the future and what they want.
Given your Jewish roots, was there anything that surprised you in the way you have been perceived by ordinary Ukrainians?

I have never been targeted by anti-Semitic remarks, either during the campaign or since I have been elected president. Ukrainian people do not care whether their President is Jewish, Christian or Muslim, as long as he defends the interests of the Ukrainian people.
What would you like to see from Israel in order to move Israeli-Ukrainian ties to the next level? What would you like Israel to do?
I have three priorities for Ukraine-Israel relations:
First, I would like to re-establish normal flights and travels between our two countries as soon as the COVID-19 situation allows us to do so. I know that many pilgrims look forward to visiting Uman later on in the year, and we look forward to welcoming them.
Second, we need to further reinforce our military, intelligence and defense cooperation. Israel’s technology and know-how can play an important role in protecting Ukrainian citizens.
Third, Israel and Ukraine are both leaders in innovation and hi-tech. We should increase exchanges and cooperation between companies and research centers of our two countries.
Are you considering moving the Ukrainian embassy to Jerusalem or is it possible that you will open a trade office in Israel's capital city?
Moving the embassy is currently not on our agenda, but the possibility of a trade office in Jerusalem could be explored.