Netanyahu’s claim that ‘God has not always protected the Jews’ sets off storm of criticism

Netanyahu’s claim that ‘God has not always protected the Jews’ sets off storm of criticism

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed his cabinet on Sunday concerning the security of Jews making a religious pilgrimage to Ukraine for Rosh Hashanah. His comments strayed into a theological statement concerning the divine providence protecting Israel, setting off a firestorm of criticism that even threatened the solidity of his coalition.

Netanyahu warned Israelis on Sunday that traveling to Uman in Ukraine on Rosh Hashanah was dangerous.

“Israeli citizens who are traveling to Ukraine must take personal responsibility for their travel at this time,” Netanyahu said at the weekly cabinet meeting, noting that in his last conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky, he was told that there are not enough shelters in case of a Russian attack. 

“God has not always protected us, not on European soil and not on Ukrainian  soil,” Netanyahu said, adding that Israel has shelters for its civilians to protect them against missile attacks, “but [in Ukraine] — there are no shelters, and there is no protection.”

Despite his warnings against travel to Ukraine, the government approved NIS 4 million ($1 million) in aid to those who are nonetheless making the trip.

Settlements Minister Orit Strock was the sole cabinet member to vote against the funds, saying the government mustn’t be seen as supporting the trips.

“Dear Jews, don’t go there!” she said in a statement on Sunday. “Don’t risk your lives! There are enough places of worship [in Isael].”

Reacting to Netanyahu’s comments, the ultra-Orthodox Shas party said: “God has always protected the people of Israel during all its exiles and persecutions. That is the reason the people of Israel are the only ones who have miraculously survived for thousands of years while many other powerful peoples have disappeared. Of course, the condition for divine protection is faithfulness and keeping the Torah and commandments.”

United Torah Judaism MK Yisrael Eichler, said that Netanyahu was “ignorant” and said that Jews suffered in the Holocaust because of the “Zionists”.

“The Zionists and the partisans did not prevent a Holocaust in Europe. The Germans were stopped on the way to occupying the Land of Israel by miracles and not because of the Zionists.” Eichler added. 

“Even after the Holocaust, all the Jewish migrants in the Diaspora have since lived in relative peace and quiet,” claimed Eichler. “Only in the Land of Israel has Jewish blood been shed like water, from then until now. The danger of nuclear annihilation threatens only the State of Israel.

“Recently, the incompetence and vileness of the false idols of power and the failures of the government were revealed in the Yom Kippur War 1973,” Eichler said. “The ‘generals’ who are the ‘rebels’ today are inciting a bloody war inside the Jewish ghetto in the Land of Israel. When you see who the generals were, you realize that only by the miracles of Hashem, the God of Israel, did we survive.”

Eichler’s comments garnered criticism from many sources. Likud MK Dan Illouz responded harshly to Eichler, saying: “MK Eichler, I am shocked by your words. Several days before the Day of Judgment (Rosh Hashanah), I would suggest engaging more in love of Israel than in baseless conspiracies that incite against entire communities.

“The Torah itself taught us to form an army,” Illouz added. “I haven’t met a single person willing to give up the protection of IDF soldiers when they go to pray in Hebron, even though God is also protecting him through those soldiers.”

“Demanding care in acts that pose mortal danger, as the prime minister did, is not ignorance — it’s a healthy Jewish viewpoint,” he continued. “The very existence” of the Israeli military also protects Diaspora Jews.”

Rabbi Tuly Weisz, head of Israel 365, defended Netanyahu’s statements.

“I agree with the prime minister’s warning to Jews not to travel to Ukraine, even for religious reasons,” Rabbi Weisz said, adding that his grandmother lived in Ukraine 80 years ago. “Her family was rounded up and taken to Auschwitz. So my family understands Prime Minister Netanyahu’s warning that Hashem does not always protect his people.”

Rabbi Weisz suggested that Netanyahu’s comments be understood in context. 

“I don’t think that he was making a theological statement about God abandoning the Jewish people,” Rabbi Weisz said. “Prime Minister Netanyahu has said on numerous occasions that the God of Israel watches over the Land of Israel and the people of Israel. However, we have personal agency, and we must make good decisions for ourselves and our loved ones and not put ourselves intentionally in harm’s way. Of course, there’s no better place to pray for a Jew to pray on. Rosh Hashanah than in the land of Israel.”

Rabbi Elie Mischel, the Educational Director of Israel365, also understood Netanyahu’s words in context.

“The people criticizing the Prime Minister are confusing principles of faith,” Rabbi Mischel explained. “It’s true, as Netanyahu’s critics have said, that God always watches over the people of Israel. We, as a nation, are eternal. But at the same time, the Torah and the rabbinic sages teach us that there is no guarantee of safety for individual Jews in every situation. A Jew who refuses to eat healthy food or exercise is more likely to have health problems. In the same way, a Jew who travels to a dangerous place is more likely to be harmed. We cannot rely on Divine providence to protect us from our own decisions.”

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki explained the theological basis for the dispute.

“There is both right and wrong in what Netanyahu said,” Rabbi Wolicki explained. “There is a concept of hester panim (hiding his face) when Hashem appears inactive. This is especially connected to the exile. There are times in history when it appeared that Hashem withheld His protection, which is legitimate theologically according to Judaism.”

“At the same time, it is unwise for the Prime Minister of Israel to make statements about what God will and won’t do. It is a legitimate Jewish perspective to say that you shouldn’t rely on divine intervention for protection. It is unwise to intentionally go into a war zone, even if you believe that God will protect you. That is antithetical to the way we view our relationship with God in Judaism.”

Arye Erlich, editor of the popular Haredi magazine Mishpacha, suggested that Nettanyahu’s statement should be the basis for a change of government, tweeting: “When the ‘head of the religious camp’ opens his mouth to utter such egregious heresies, and all in an official statement from the Prime Minister’s Office, the entire theory of sweet Israel collapses like a house of cards.

“We should not respect Bibi when such sacrilege and such base and rude comments are made against God,” he added.

Netanyahu’s statements were seen as blasphemous and endangered the coalition. In a follow-up post, Ehrlich added: “It’s time for [Benny] Gantz,” suggesting that the Haredi parties should switch their allegiance from Netanyahu to the head of the opposition National Unity party. In a third tweet, he said the ultra-Orthodox message had been clear: “Loyalty to God is stronger than the adoration of Bibi. Netanyahu? His actions and words will drive him closer or nearer. He’s not an idol.”

“The leaders of the High Court’s dictatorship war have become whistleblowers against Israel all over the world and accuse it of apartheid and war crimes, like the worst enemies of Islam. Shame on you when you blame the God of Israel for your failures and crimes.” 

“At a time when terrorism is rampant and the streets are burning, we should pray to the Guardian of Israel. If not for the right of Torah followers, the State of Israel would have been erased from the map of the Middle East a long time ago.”

Uman, located some 130 miles south of the capital Kyiv, is the burial site of Rebbe Nachman (1772-1810), the founder of the Breslov branch of Hassidus. A great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of hassidic Judaism, Rebbe Nachman revived the movement, attracting thousands of followers during his lifetime. 

The tradition of the Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage to his grave began after Rabbi Nachman’s death in 1810 at the age of 38. His influence continues today, and, after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the New Year’s gathering grew quickly, soon attracting tens of thousands of men. While the sudden influx of foreigners brings massive tourist dollars into the economically depressed country, Jewish tourists have been targeted by violence and anti-Jewish vandalism.  As the Russia-Ukraine War raged last year, over 20,000 Jewish men made the pilgrimage.

Last week, the US Embassy in Jerusalem shared a State Department message warning American citizens against traveling to Uman, which it said “has been the site of multiple Russian missile attacks as recent as June.”

The US State Department’s travel advisory for all of Ukraine is Level 4: Do Not Travel.

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