Looking to create a Jewish defense force in eastern Ukraine

Latvian-Israeli activist Tzvi Arieli seeks to protect Jews of Mariupol.

December 28, 2014 19:18
3 minute read.
Tzvi Arieli (R) hopes to establish a quick response Jewish defense force in Mariupol, Ukraine.

Tzvi Arieli (R) hopes to establish a quick response Jewish defense force in Mariupol, Ukraine. . (photo credit: Courtesy)

The Latvian-Israeli activist who helped found a Jewish self-defense force in Kiev following last year’s revolution is looking to create a similar organization in the port city of Mariupol, just kilometers behind the front lines of Ukraine’s civil war, The Jerusalem Post has learned.

Tzvi Arieli, who established the Kiev Shomrim organization in the wake of a series of violent anti-semitic incidents across Ukraine during the period of the Euromaidan protests earlier this year, is coordinating with the local police in Mariupol to establish the rules by which such a community-patrol organization would operate.

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In a recent video uploaded to You- Tube, Arieli can be seen practicing with Kalashnikovs on a firing range with other Jews, together with, what he says, are members of a local Ukrainian unit.

“We got a positive response from [the] Mariupol police head” but a final approval could still be several weeks away, he told the Post.

In a plea for funds on Facebook, the IDF veteran said Mariupol is “a key front-line city of this war, and it changes hands from Ukraine to the separatists and back,” and explained that his group’s “presence in the city is of utmost importance as the situation is volatile and can erupt at any moment. Some Jews have already fled the city, but most remain and need protection.”

Amid the pop and whine of bullets, Arieli and his compatriots can be seen practicing combat moves that look less like a community patrol and more like a military maneuver.

The Kiev branch of Shomrim is a “community group that works along with police and the local authorities to strengthen the protection of communal buildings and the local community,” Chief Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich told the Post in May.

The self described volunteer self-defense group was set up to supplement the police who are “overloaded,” Bleich said, explaining that such a move was “a no-brainer in the Ukraine.”

According to a community source in Kiev, however, Arieli has since been removed from leadership of Kiev’s patrol.

Although he continues to retain a working relationship with the community, their security is now handled by two coordinators who work with private security guards.

Arieli said he had the backing of the local community in Mariupol although the Post was unable to reach Mariupol’s Rabbi Mendel Cohen for confirmation.

Despite Russian media reports to the contrary, anti-Semitism is not a large concern for Ukrainian Jews, Arieli admitted, confirming his adherence to a belief common in some Ukrainian circles that at least some of the recorded incidents of the past year could be chalked up to “provocations by Russians against Jews.”

“In Kiev, during the Maidan there were a lot of acts. In those few months there were much more than in maybe 10 or 15 months here,” he said.

Asked if he was worried about further anti-Semitic actions, he replied that “when you are in Mariupol you can hear the grad rockets and artillery,” adding that war increases the chances of anti-Semitic activity, especially when there is a breakdown of law and order.

And, while Shomrim Mariupol just has three members at the moment, Arieli hopes to enlist enough to create a ready response team of 15 or so – around the size of Kiev’s force at its peak.

Eighty-one Jews made aliya from Mariupol from January to October, a 200 percent increase over the same period the previous year, but, for the most part, local Jews are staying put.

During a visit to the city in September, one senior member of the Jewish community told the Post that, while she had bags packed in case things take a turn for the worse, she was “not going to leave this city and I am going to be here till the last moment.”

Around that time, several hundred Jews from Donetsk who took refuge in Mariupol fled, fearing rebels would take the city.

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