Tzvi Arieli: “The system needs to be changed from top to bottom, and people should be removed who are not prepared to risk their careers for the good of the army and saving people's lives.”
Tzvi Arieli is currently in Mariupol, and is creating a similar Jewish self-defense group. On the page of his Kiev group, he appealed for support:
“Mariupol is a key front line city of this war, and it changes hands from Ukraine to the separatists and back. It is a city of a half a million people that either side sees as integral to have under their control. Our presence in the city is of utmost importance as the situation is volatile and can erupt at any moment. Some Jews have already fled the city, but most remain and need protection!
We NEED your HELP!!!
We are adding new members in Mariupol, and we need to equip them. We don't have enough money for protective equipment, etc. We need it yesterday!
YOU (yes, YOU) need to be a part of our common effort to defend the Jewish community!
--> Please, donate via at PayPal to: firstname.lastname@example.org <--
(100% of the money goes for protective equipment purchases)
Any little bit helps! If you cannot not donate now, please share this status with others”
We talked to Tzvi while he was still in Kiev and was only protecting Jewish sites in the capital.
- Tzvi, how did you, a citizen of Israel who was born in Latvia, start protecting Jews in Kiev?
- I first came to Ukraine as an emissary of “Bnei Akivy” in 2003-2005. I made friends here, and thanks to them I returned to Ukraine again in 2011. At the time I was studying in Iceland, I had to write a dissertation and work somewhere. And my Kiev friend invited me to join his law firm. At the same time I was the head of a private Jewish school in Podol. It was divided into two sections: secular and religious studies. I was in charge of the secular section.
That was the way it was until the revolutionary events began in the capital.
I didn't take part in Maidan, or any other political events, because of my ideological convictions. In my opinion, as I'm not a Ukrainian, wasn't born in Ukraine and had never lived here before, I simply didn't have the right to interfere or become part of this political process. Although I fully supported Maidan itself, I never took any active part in it.
But at Maidan, of course, there were Jews who took part in the revolutionary events. They mainly stood together with the Ukrainians, they did not stand out. But there was also the infamous “Jewish hundred”, which in fact never existed and was just a PR project.
But In January last year, attacks on Jews began. First the teacher Gilel Verkhtaimer was beaten up, a 26-year-old Israeli citizen who teaches Hebrew and Jewish traditions at a yeshiva at the synagogue in Podol. He was beaten up in the stairway of a building. A week later there was an attack on the pupil of a yeshiva in the same synagogue, the Russian citizen Dov-Ber Glikman. In mid-March, the rabbi Gillel Koen, the head of the Ukrainian branch of the Israeli organization for emergency aid to victims of extreme situations, was attacked with a knife. After these events, there were cases of arson in Zaporozhe and Nikolaev, and swastikas were once more painted on the synagogue in Podol.
The chief rabbi of Kiev and Ukraine Yakov Bleich came to me with the request to create a Jewish self-defense group. I suppose that I had experience with this: I served in the Israeli army, and later at the Mivtsar local anti-terrorist fast response division. I immediately responded to his request, although it was somewhat later – around two months had gone since the moment of the first attack.
Our plan was to create a small division – 10-15 fighters, to prevent attacks by criminal groups. The threat could be of two kinds: when a group of people gathers to attack Jews or Jewish sites, and when a terrorist attack is carried out using firearms or bottles with flammable liquid.
Unfortunately, in a situation when one person gets beaten up in an alleyway, for example, our group cannot help, because this happens very quickly, and the most we can do is to provide assistance to the victim.
Rabbi Blaikh allocated money, it was enough for uniforms and some equipment. Money was also donated from America. I was recently in Israel and brought several flak jackets and helmets from there – a gift from the Kiryat Arba municipality; I worked for a long time in their security department, and they also decided to help us.
At the Interior Ministry, we received official permission to organize our divisions, so that if something happened, we could count on cooperation with representatives of the interior bodies, and permission to carry weapons.
- Do people simply call you on your mobile phone?
- That's right. Of course, we don't react to calls from people we don't know, to avoid any foolishness. But in every community, there is a person who is authorized to contact us if any incident takes place. Of course he knows where to turn and what numbers to call, although we also have two duty telephone numbers. Yes, Rabbi Blaikh gave us certain assistance, but we do not belong, say, to the community in Podol. We are prepared to help everyone who requires our help.
- How many calls have you had since the group was formed, and what kind of calls?
- All the main attacks took place before we formed the group. There were several attacks, about once a week, or every two weeks. Recently there has been an increase in attacks here, in Kiev. For example, on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, there was an attempt to set fire to a synagogue in Podol: two Molotov cocktails were thrown over the fence. One of our men, who was not far away, came and put out the fire, and the others also gathered almost immediately. But the attackers were not caught, they managed to escape.
I can't provide any proof, but I, like many other people, believe that these acts of provocation came from Russia. Who else would benefit from attacking Jewish sites?! When Gilel Koen was beaten up, the ambulance took him to the hospital, and RTR correspondents were already waiting there, although no one knew about the attack at that time.
At the same time, after the attacks began, we received several calls from Maidan, from the “Right sector”, asking us to guard synagogues.
- When the group was formed, did things get quieter?
- Yes, attacks take place rarely, but I don't think that this happened because we frightened anyone by the very fact of our existence. Perhaps they simply did not gain the resonance that was expected, and so the motivation to carry them out went away.
- How long will the Jewish self-defense group continue to exist?
- There's a war on at the moment. Until it ends and everything returns to normal, and this may not happen very soon, there is no question of disbanding the group. It is completely uncertain what may happen tomorrow, and what people may think up.
- Are you aware of the situation in the communities of other cities where there are large Jewish communities? Kharkov, Dnepropetrovsk, Odessa, Lvov?
- Unfortunately, we don't have any contact with communities located outside Kiev. And I don't know anything about the existence of groups similar to ours. In fact, I'm almost certain that there are no others. But if they do actually exist, we are prepared to help them, if only with training. I can personally provide people with training.
- Tell me, as a person who first came to Ukraine over 10 years ago, do you feel any anti-Semitism among the people today, and has the attitude to Jews changed during the time that you have been here?
- During the Soviet period, people from Ukraine came to us in Latvia to study, as they couldn't enroll here because of their nationality. But during the time of independence, a great deal has changed.
In 2003 there were still skinheads here, and you could feel that there was anti-Semitism. Now things are much better. Everyday anti-Semitism has become much less common, and political anti-Semitism is completely non-existent. Practically all parties, even “Freedom”, which has always had an anti-Semitic bent, are now trying to distance themselves from their former views, as now anti-Semitic statements do not draw support and sympathy in the Ukrainian people. Even Biletsky, the commander of the Azov battalion, who won the election in Obolon, and who has showed himself to be an ardent supporter of fascist and Nazi movements, has not raised this topic recently in his public speeches, which shows that there is a lack of support for such statements among the people. Of course, it is terrible that a person with openly fascist views won the election in an entire district of Kiev. But these people, in any case, are an exception, as neither fascist nor anti-Semitic ideologies are popular among the Ukrainians.
Supporters of Bandera, who is very popular at the moment in Ukraine, and who to put it mildly is not the most positive figure in Jewish history, are now trying to prove that there were Jews in the ranks of the UPA [Ukrainian Insurgent Army], thus rehabilitating the national hero's name.
- The journalist Vitaly Portnikov conducted a study of UPA documents. He writes that Jews really were persecuted, but that they were mainly persecuted not as Jews, but as Communists, members of the Red Army and Bolsheviks. So it was rather for their political convictions than for their ethnicity.
- As Portnikov is a Jew himself. I think that this is a kind of psychological step of reconciliation by the Jewish community, which contains a certain degree of “forgiving” the Ukrainians in response to their positive attitude to our community. Ukrainians Jews simply try not to focus attention on this. As I am not a Ukrainian Jew and do not have much of a connection with Ukraine, I will say openly that I do not support the rehabilitation of Bandera’s name. For example, I have nothing against the Latvian “Forest brothers”, as they were in principle never connected with the Jews – this is an objective fact. But I simply have no evidence that Bandera liked the Jews, so it would be stupid on my part to believe that he was righteous man.
- What military experience could Ukraine take from Israel?
- It needs to take a combination of several things at once. Ukraine's problem is that here everything exists separately. There's a fighting spirit. There's also weaponry somewhere... But this doesn't function without effective tactics, assistance and mobility – everything that is the guarantee of success for the Israeli army.
For example, I served in intelligence in the reserve: our platoon went into the line of fire very rarely. In Israel during military operations, when terrorists need to be disarmed, a division of intelligence officers is sent on ahead, which direct the fire support to their target, planes for example, which then destroy the target.
This is not the way that things are done in Ukraine: you can't call in any support, you have to do everything yourself, including the most simple things. Any requests for support get swamped in paperwork: millions of rules, laws and regulations that no one needs, which not only complicate the existence of the army and civil society, but practically make them impossible. Because of all this paperwork, there is no coordination in the army, no connection between military divisions, no correct logistics for using equipment at 100%.
The precision of intelligence is also a big problem. Instead of shooting in any direction but at the enemy's position, the work of intelligence needs to be established, creating a sufficient amount of well prepared intelligence groups, which could go far beyond the frontline and correctly direct the artillery and aviation at targets. In each division, there should be properly trained medics who are capable of providing aid to victims in any circumstances.
Ukraine is much bigger than Israel in all senses. But because of the lack of coordination and competence in the army's work, it cannot compete with Israel in the effectiveness of carrying out military operations.
The Israeli army is small but very battle-ready. Around 170,000 people are on military service, and within 24 hours Israel can call in up to 1 million reservists.
At the same time, by using equipment sensibly, a small army shows high efficiency. In Israel, there are several crews attached to each plane, which can be exchanged after one crew completes a military task, or when its shift ends. Thus, the Israeli air force can be compared with the air force of such a rich and powerful country as America, which does not use its planes with the same effectiveness.
Ultimately, Ukraine must organize and train its army according to the Israeli principle, not the American one. The American system is designed for an army of many millions with a huge amount of super-modern equipment, hundreds of Apache helicopters and tanks, which can obliterate anything in their path.
Ukraine is a poor country, where such an amount and diversity of weaponry will not be seen for several decades. There is no point in taking the structures of the mighty armies of NATO as a basis. Ukraine must work with the resources that it has, and train the existing personnel more thoroughly, while at the same time doing away with the ubiquitous bureaucracy. As soon as possible, it must get rid of the obstacles that were developed by idiots during peacetime, and work on creating a battle-ready and effective army.
It must look to Israel, and hire Russian-speaking people from there on a private basis, who are prepared to teach the Israeli experience to Ukrainian soldiers. It must change the system from the top to the bottom, and remove people who are not prepared to risk their careers for the good of the army and saving people's lives.
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