A small group of Ukrainian Jews has formed a self-defense force armed with their personal handguns, five bullet-proof vests and baseball bats with the aim of deterring attacks on members of their community.
Kiev Shomrim – the Hebrew name of the group meaning “Kiev Guards” – appealed for help to purchase equipment, writing on Facebook, “There have been four recent ATTACKS on members of the local #Jewish community in #Kiev, #Ukraine. Although very friendly to the local #Jews, local law enforcement is NOT able to provide adequate security in light of the current situation in the country.”
In their plea, they said that their initiative has the approval of the overstretched Ukrainian police force and Kiev’s chief rabbi.
The volunteer self-defense group is modeled on an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood patrol in Brooklyn, also called “Shomrim,” which works in coordination with the New York City Police Department as its members live in areas of the New York borough with a high concentration of ultra-Orthodox Jews and thus can arrive at many crime scenes before police.
“Effective logistics are being worked out to secure Jewish sites in Kiev that are potential targets for anti-Semitic attacks, protect the members of the community, and have an effective quick response team that will act swiftly and decisively should the need arise,” the group wrote on Facebook, asking others to pitch in to help purchase equipment for their effort.
Since the Ukrainian unrest began, there have been reports of Jewish institutions and individuals being attacked, including the fire-bombing of a synagogue, the defacement of a Holocaust memorial and the distribution of leaflets ordering Jews to register their religion, their property and to pay a fine, a document that was later characterized as a provocation.
The the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) news service noted that two rabbis were stabbed in two separate attacks near Kiev’s Great Choral Synagogue since the beginning of the year.
Tzvi Arieli who is spearheading the community defense group previously served in the Israel Defense Forces.
A correspondent for JTA visited with the group in Kiev and reported that the men are licensed to carry handguns for self-defense and that the five bulletproof vests were donated from Israel.
JTA reported that their baseball bats are meant to be used as clubs; however, the volunteers have no helmets or “proper” first-aid kits.
“We have a direct line to police top brass in case any of our members are detained by police,” Arieli told JTA.
Last week they held a training session to practice urban combat at an empty Jewish school in Kiev.
JTA wrote that all of the trainees have had some training in the Israeli or Ukrainian armies as well as some martial arts training, “but they are clearly rusty.”
“We were naive, I guess. We had thought this conflict would not affect the Jewish community, but now we know we are a target,” Arieli told JTA. “Honestly, we should have formed this force months ago.”
Another volunteer voiced the fear other Ukrainian Jews have been expressing, that the tensions between Ukrainian nationalists and pro-Russian separatists will end up spilling over and targeting the Jewish community.
The group’s Facebook page pointed to a recent article in an Israeli Russian-language website which noted that some in Ukraine were accusing Jews of being behind the deaths of more than 30 pro-Russian protesters who either burned to death or died of asphyxiation in a fire at the Trade Union building in Odessa.
“#Jews are accused in the #Odessa tragedy by the #Russian activists ‘Jews have burned and murdered us,’” the Ukraine Shomrim posted on Facebook last week.
“The message we got from meetings with high-level officials is that however much they’d like to protect potential Jewish targets, they are overstretched, understaffed and simply not up to the task,” a volunteer named Gedaliah told JTA, asking his last name not be printed. “They basically told us to take steps to defend ourselves.”
At the school playground, JTA wrote that the eight trainees practiced running for cover and pulling the triggers of their guns with empty chambers.
“They go over the moves again and again, taking care to hug walls as they turn corners with their firearms extended until they secure the entire space,” wrote JTA.