Two Israeli pilgrims were arrested in Ukraine last week after triggering a mass brawl by shooting passers-by with a ball-bearing gun, stoking renewed confrontation with locals and right-wing groups.
The incident jeopardises the huge annual Chasidic pilgrimage to the city of Uman, where tens of thousands of religious Jews visit the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, as tensions reached boiling point.
The two men, who were inebriated, started firing at locals from their hotel window, hitting one man in the face. Within minutes, an angry mob appeared outside the building, cajoled by nationalist party Svoboda.
Local Jewish leader Shimon Buskila, who heads a community of several hundred, told JTA: “They were drunk and they thought it was a good idea to shoot from the window of their hotel room with a BB gun at passers-by.”
He added that, in the ensuing confrontation, one Israeli visitor struck a policeman, which only served to make matters worse.
“I condemn this violence in the harshest terms,” said Buskila. “Not only is it repulsive, it is also a major problem for the permanent Jewish community of Uman. Jewish visitors need to show the locals the utmost respect. They are guests here and need to show gratitude to their Ukrainian hosts, as we do.”
Locals have increasingly been at-odds with the Chasidic pilgrims. Weeks earlier, one hotel took the unprecedented step of banning Jewish visitors on cost grounds, saying previous pilgrim guests had caused hotel thousands of pounds’ worth of damage to the property.
Pilgrims meet in Uman at various times throughout the year, but particularly during Rosh Hashanah, because the 18th-century sage called on his followers to be with him on the Jewish New Year.
Israeli police are posted to Uman during the pilgrimages, and Ukrainian police often ban non-Jews from the Pushkina area of the city, cordoning it off for fear of violence.
Locals have, however, become increasingly resentful of the Chasids, citing instances of criminality among the visitors, and arguing that the tourists do little for the economy, because they typically stay with Jewish residents and eat only kosher food.
Last year, a group of Ukrainian nationalists destroyed elements of a tent city set up by the thousands of visitors, damaging fencing, security cameras and lights.