Dozens of Israelis fighting in Ukraine, rebel leader claims

Senior separatist Alexander Kofman claims he used to work in a Jewish Agency youth program.

Pro-Russian separatists sit on a tank at a position near Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, September 2 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Pro-Russian separatists sit on a tank at a position near Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, September 2
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A senior leader of the Moscow- backed insurgency in eastern Ukraine revealed that he is Jewish and a former counselor in a Jewish Agency youth program, in an interview with a Russian Jewish media outlet earlier this month.
Speaking with, Alexander Kofman, the foreign minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, said that he comes from a “largely secular” family, although his maternal grandmother tried to observe religious festivals.
Kofman described himself as agnostic and added that he is probably not Jewish according to strict Orthodox law.
The Jewish Agency was unable to confirm any prior connection to Kofman.
Pinchas Vishedksi, the rabbi of Donetsk and an internally displaced person, told The Jerusalem Post that Kofman is fully “Jewish according to Halacha.”
Asked by the Jewish website if he had any connection to the organized community of the city, which boasted a prewar Jewish population of between 10,000 and 11,000, the separatist leader admitted to having visited the synagogue on Shabbat, explaining that he has “many friends among religious Jews,” who had invited him.
Asked for details about Kofman, Vishedski said that he had “no connection with him” and that he “almost never visited the synagogue.”
Kofman also recollected having visited Israel on several occasions and stated that his late father had passed away in the Jewish state, where he had come in order to seek medical treatment.
“Now, having undergone genocide, after some 70 years, the Jews did not notice that Nazism again raises its head,” Kofman said, explaining that although he understood the diplomatic realities that constrain its policies regarding the Ukraine conflict, he wished the Jewish state would “officially condemn Nazism in Ukraine.”
“I truly fear” for the Jews, he added.
Moscow has been vocal in condemning the government that took power in Kiev following last winter’s Euromaidan revolution as fascistic and anti-Semitic, citing the presence of the neo-Nazi Svoboda party in both parliament and the post-revolution interim cabinet as evidence of danger to the country’s minorities.
The Svoboda party has since lost most of its support, while several Jewish figures have risen to high levels within the new administration, including the speaker of the parliament and the governor of the Dnipropetrovsk region. Jewish leaders have downplayed anti-Semitism, with some even blaming incidents on Moscow, calling them provocations.
Anti-Semitic attitudes are not necessarily a barrier in all cases, however, with a former member of a neo-Nazi organization recently appointed to head the Kiev Oblast police, although senior officials have worked to build ties with Jewish leaders and have pledged to combat racism.
There are dozens of former IDF service-members fighting in Donetsk, he added.
Thousands of Jews have fled Donetsk due to the fighting, with some taking refuge in Israel, some in Russia and the rest scattered throughout Ukraine.