Ukrainian Jews with combat skills formed a rapid intervention force to stop anti-Semitic attacks.
The force, which was set up in recent weeks, currently is made up of eight men who served in the Ukrainian or Israeli armies or have martial arts skills, the team’s founder, Tzvi Arieli, told JTA Thursday.
The defenders are armed with baseball bats that an American donor whose family hails from Kiev sent the team, he added. “We are trying to raise funds for bullet-proof vests which would greatly increase safety if the situation escalates,” said Arieli, a Latvia-born former soldier of a special forces unit in the Israel Defense Forces who lives in Ukraine.
Arieli said he set up the task force — which now has its own Facebook page – at the request of Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, a chief rabbi of Ukraine, following a series of anti-Semitic attacks that occurred in Kiev and beyond in the wake of a bloody revolution that erupted in November over former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s alleged corruption and perceived allegiance to Russia.
Yanukovych was ousted from power in February. The following month, Russian-backed troops seized control of the Crimean Peninsula – an area which used to belong to Ukraine and which Russia promptly annexed, claiming residents had sought Russian protection for fear of Ukrainian nationalism in the post-revolution period. Hundreds have died in clashes between different interest groups and militias.
“In talks with officials, it became clear the authorities could offer limited protection to the Jewish community so we needed to take security into our own hands,” said Arieli, who in March helped organize the medical evacuation of Ukrainians who had been wounded in fighting to Israel. He said the self-defense team was acting with Ukrainian authorities’ knowledge and consent.
Arieli also noted that Ukraine, where anti-Semitic assaults used to be rare occurrences, has seen four serious physical assaults against Orthodox Jews and two attempts to torch synagogues.
“These attacks were well-planned,” said Arieli, who blamed pro-Russian militants whom he said were trying to justify Russian aggression.
The Kremlin and some pro-Russian Ukrainians have blamed far-right Ukrainians for the attacks.
“The current reality means that even tomorrow we could find 20 people with firebombs outside the synagogue. We need to be prepared,” said Arieli.
The team is scheduled to deploy on Friday in Kiev to fend off any violence against Jewish targets during events that commemorate the May 9 surrender 69 years ago of Nazi Germany to the Russian army.
The unit is a neighborhood watch organization akin to the ultra-orthodox Shomrim [guards] group that protects Jews in Brooklyn, Ukrainian Chief Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich told The Jerusalem Post.
"It is a community group that works along with police and the local authorities to strengthen the protection of communal buildings and the local community," he said. "It's not at all a vigilante" organization.
The self described Volunteer self-defense group was set up to supplement the police who are "overloaded," Bleich continued, explaining that such a move was "a no-brainer in the Ukraine."
The group is "working closely with the authorities," he added.
Samuel Sokol contributed to this report