(JTA) — Ukrainian Jews with combat skills formed an intervention unit 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, founder Tzvi Arieli told JTA on Thursday.
The defenders are armed with baseball bats provided by an American whose family hails from Kiev, he said.
“We are trying to raise funds for bulletproof 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.
The unit is scheduled to deploy Friday in Kiev to fend off any violence against Jewish targets during events marking the May 9 surrender 69 years ago of Nazi Germany to the Russian army.
Arieli said he set up the task force, which now has a 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 elsewhere 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 that once belonged to Ukraine. Russia claimed residents had sought its protection for fear of Ukrainian nationalism in the post-revolution period.
Hundreds have died in clashes among 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 to Israel of Ukrainians who had been wounded in fighting. He said the self-defense unit was acting with the knowledge and consent of Ukrainian authorities.
Arieli also noted that Ukraine, where anti-Semitic assaults used to be rare, 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,” Arieli said.