In Israel, aiding both sides of the Ukrainian conflict

One Jewish refugee accused both sides of being ‘like Hamas’ in the ongoing fighting

Victor Vertsner speaks at a government  press conference in Ukraine.  (photo credit: COURTESY VICTOR VERTSNER AND ISRAEL SUPPORTS UKRAINE)
Victor Vertsner speaks at a government press conference in Ukraine.
small group of activists stood vigil outside the Ukrainian Embassy in Tel Aviv Sunday evening, lighting candles among pictures of people killed during fighting six months ago in Odessa. Those clashes, which took place between Ukrainian and Russian nationalist mobs during the turbulent days following the Maidan revolution that toppled Moscow-backed president Viktor Yanukovich, led to the deaths of more than 40 pro-Russians when a building they had occupied was burned down.
This small group – led by Ravid Gur, a native of the Ukrainian port city of Odessa, recently annexed by Russia – holds occasional demonstrations showcasing the casualties of the conflict in Ukraine, attempting to rally Israeli support for the Russian side.
Gur, a resident of Tel Aviv, accused the Israeli media of bias toward Ukraine, claiming that Israelis are not getting the full picture.
The only thing Gur and his opponents – such as Victor Vertsner, the leader of the group Israel Supports Ukraine – can agree on, is that most Russian speakers in Israel aren’t particularly involved in the crisis.
Those who are, however, are in whole hog.
More than 300,000 Ukrainians have immigrated since the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.
Vertsner, a graying professional photographer from Tel Aviv with a triangular face and jutting jaw, founded the Facebook group Israel Supports Ukraine fol - lowing the “bloody night” in February when more than 100 anti-government protesters were killed in clashes with security forces in Kiev’s Maidan Square.
While he has lived most of his life in Israel, Vertsner says that he has two mothers: the Jewish state and Ukraine.
“When somebody abuses my second mother, I have to do something,” he said.
Israel Supports Ukraine has more than 5,000 members, many of whom take part in demonstrations against the Russian-backed separatists controlling Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk Oblast, or province. The war between the rebels and Ukrainian forces has killed thousands so far, and created a massive refugee crisis.
Along with their gentile neighbors, Jewish refugees have fled to all corners of Ukraine, as well as to Russia and Israel, where more than 4,200 have arrived in the past year.
Russia has come under heavy Western sanctions for its role in stoking the conflict and supplying the rebels. While most of the world’s opprobrium has been directed toward Russia, one Jewish refugee who spoke with The Jerusalem Post at a refugee camp in Zhitomir several months ago accused both sides of firing blindly into civilian areas.
“Both sides are like Hamas,” she cried.
The rebels have been criticized for their alleged role in shooting down a Malaysian airliner overflying their territory while Hu - man Rights Watch and The New York Times have accused Ukrainian forces of firing cluster munitions into civilian areas.
“There are of course some people who really don’t care,” said Vertsner about Israeli expats from the region. “I even have some friends that don’t care, but most Ukrainians do care.”
HIS GROUP sends packages of clothes to Ukraine for both the soldiers fighting in the east and for children displaced by the conflict. The group’s latest clothing shipment, he said, weighed 600 kg.
“Sadly,” he said, “I guess [most Russian speakers in Israel are] on the Russian side,” a fact that he attributes to the “Russian propaganda” that can be easily viewed on the Russian television channels available in Israel.
“The broadcasting of Russian TV channels is disproportionate,” he said. “Open your TV set and you will see 10 Russian channels against one or two Ukrainian.
Propaganda is much more aggressive on the Russian channels.”
Gur asserted that those supporting Kiev are supporting fascists, stating that he preferred to support those who fought the Nazis during World War II.
Gur recalled seeing a woman at a pro- Ukraine gathering in Petah Tikva wearing a T-shirt bearing the visage of Stepan Bandera, a wartime Ukrainian figure who was responsible for the deaths of countless Jews.
“Most people don’t take sides. They work hard,” Gur stated.
Those who do take part in his activities, however, have been active in sending bandages, stretchers and surgical gear “to the worst places there,” presumably rebel held areas. “Maybe we can save people there,” he said. “We only send things that can save lives.”
A Ukrainian-born Israeli journalist echoed the claim that most Russian speakers in Israel don’t care about the conflict.
“You can see that the number of people who are involved in this stuff in Israel is very low,” he told the Post , speaking on condition of anonymity. “Do you know how many people voted for the elections for the Rada [Ukrainian parliament] in Israel? Fewer than 300 and there are all but 30,000 people in Israel who can vote.
“You cannot criticize anything at all about Ukraine, you cannot write a post on Facebook or [engage in] journalism about Ukraine without [being] attacked and [accused that] like all the Russian-speaking journalists you are receiving money from [Russian President Vladimir Putin and Kremlin,” he said, critiquing the level of discourse surrounding the conflict.
Another Ukrainian media figure in Israel, who also requested anonymity, said the Ukrainian issue is a matter of “fierce debate” and the Russian-speaking population of Israel is about evenly divided in their loyalties.
However not everyone who has become involved in the issue is a Russian or Ukrainian.
Sveta Orit Kavaliova, a 23-year-old dental technician originally from Belarus, has become active in the Israel Supports Ukraine group.
“All of my friends started becoming involved in this and I had a lot of connections so I helped with what I could," she said. “I feel like I’m doing something important for people there in Ukraine.
I have friends who are pro-Russian and those who are Ukrainians.”
Both sides in the conflict have protested outside of their opponents’ embassies in Tel Aviv, against both “Russian aggression” and “fascism” in Ukraine, a favored term in the Russian media for the current government in Kiev.
The Israeli government’s official involvement has been limited to providing medical care for a number of wounded protesters, the absorption of refugees and a NIS 2 million grant for internally displaced Jews.
Not every Israeli has been content with this approach.
In March, Tzvi Arieli, a Latvian immigrant from Hebron, founded a Jewish self defense group in Kiev due to a spat of anti-Semitic incidents throughout the country, including the stabbing of a kollel student. He is still there.
“It was dangerous situation for Jews and we had to make this group,” he explained. Another Israeli, calling himself Delta, led a group of fighters during the revolution in Kiev, which included several former IDF soldiers.