In Kiev, an Israeli army vet led a street-fighting unit
KIEV — He calls his troops “the Blue Helmets of Maidan,” but brown is the colour of the headgear worn by Delta — the nom de guerre of the commander of a Jewish-led militia force that participated in the Ukrainian revolution.
Under his helmet, he also wears a kippah.
Delta, a Ukraine-born former soldier in the Israel Defence Forces, spoke to JTA last week on condition of anonymity. He explained how he came to use combat skills he acquired in the Shu’alei Shimshon reconnaissance battalion of the Givati infantry brigade to rise through the ranks of Kiev’s street fighters.
He has headed a force of 40 men and women — including several fellow IDF veterans — in violent clashes with government forces.
Several Ukrainian Jews, including Rabbi Moshe Azman, one of the country’s claimants to the title of chief rabbi, confirmed Delta’s identity and role in the still unfinished revolution.
The Blue Helmets nickname, a reference to the U.N. peacekeeping force, stuck after Delta’s unit last month prevented a mob from torching a building occupied by Ukrainian police, he said.
“There were dozens of officers inside, surrounded by 1,200 demonstrators who wanted to burn them alive,” he recalled. “We intervened and negotiated their safe passage.”
The problem, he said, was that the officers would not leave without their guns, citing orders. Delta told JTA his unit reasoned with the mob to allow the officers to leave with their guns.
“It would have been a massacre, and that was not an option,” he said.
The Blue Helmets comprise 35 men and women who are not Jewish, and who are led by five ex-IDF soldiers, says Delta, an Orthodox Jew in his late 30s who regularly prays at Azman’s Brodsky Synagogue. He declined to speak about his private life.
Delta, who immigrated to Israel in the 1990s, moved back to Ukraine several years ago and has worked as a businessman. He says he joined the protest movement as a volunteer on Nov. 30, after witnessing violence by government forces against student protesters.
“I saw unarmed civilians with no military background being ground by a well-oiled military machine, and it made my blood boil,” Delta told JTA in Hebrew laced with military jargon. “I joined them then and there, and I started fighting back the way I learned how, through urban warfare manoeuvres. People followed, and I found myself heading a platoon of young men. Kids, really.”
The other ex-IDF infantrymen joined the Blue Helmets later after hearing it was led by a fellow vet, Delta said.
As platoon leader, Delta says he takes orders from activists connected to Svoboda, an ultra-nationalist party that has been frequently accused of anti-Semitism, and whose members have been said to have had key positions in organizing the opposition protests.
“I don’t belong [to Svoboda], but I take orders from their team. They know I’m Israeli, Jewish and an ex-IDF soldier. They call me ‘brother,’” he said. “What they’re saying about Svoboda is exaggerated, I know this for a fact. I don’t like them because they’re inconsistent, not because of [any] anti-Semitism issue.”
The commanding position of Svoboda in the revolution is no secret, according to Ariel Cohen, a senior research fellow at the Washington D.C.-based Heritage Foundation think tank.
“The driving force among the so-called white sector in the Maidan are the nationalists, who went against the SWAT teams and snipers who were shooting at them,” Cohen told JTA.
Still, many Jews supported the revolution and actively participated in it.
Earlier this week, an interim government was announced ahead of the election scheduled for May, including ministers from several minority groups.
Volodymyr Groysman, a former mayor of the city of Vinnytsia and the newly appointed deputy prime minister for regional policy, is a Jew, Rabbi Azman said.
“There are no signs for concern yet,” said Cohen, “but the West needs to make it clear to Ukraine that how it is seen depends on how minorities are treated.”
Last week, Russian State Duma Chairman Sergey Naryshkin said Moscow was concerned about anti-Semitic declarations by radical groups in Ukraine.
But Delta says the Kremlin is using the anti-Semitism card falsely to delegitimize the Ukrainian revolution, which is distancing Ukraine from Russia’s sphere of influence.
“It’s b--sh--. I never saw any expression of anti-Semitism during the protests, and the claims to the contrary were part of the reason I joined the movement. We’re trying to show that Jews care,” he said.
Still, Delta’s reasons for not revealing his name betray his sense of feeling like an outsider. “If I were Ukrainian, I would have been a hero. But for me it’s better to not reveal my name if I want to keep living here in peace and quiet,” he said.
Fellow Jews have criticized him for working with Svoboda.
“Some asked me if instead of ‘Shalom’ they should now greet me with a ‘Sieg heil.’ I simply find it laughable,” he said.
But he does have frustrations related to being an outsider: “Sometimes I tell myself, ‘What are you doing? This is not your army. This isn’t even your country.’”
He recalls feeling this way during one of the fiercest battles he experienced, which took place last week at Institutskaya Street and left 12 protesters dead.
“The snipers began firing rubber bullets at us. I fired back from my rubber-bullet rifle,” Delta said. “Then they opened live rounds, and my friend caught a bullet in his leg. They shot at us like at a firing range. I wasn’t ready for a last stand. I carried my friend and ordered my troops to fall back. They’re scared kids. I gave them some cash for phone calls and told them to take off their uniform and run away until further instructions. I didn’t want to see anyone else die that day.”
Currently, the Blue Helmets are carrying out police work that include patrols and preventing looting and vandalism in a city of three million struggling to climb out of the chaos that engulfed it for the past three months.
But Delta has another, more ambitious, project: He and Azman are organizing the airborne evacuation of seriously wounded protesters — none of them Jewish — for critical operations in Israel. Azman says he hopes the plane of 17 patients will take off next week, with funding from private donors and with help from Ukraine’s ambassador to Israel.
One of the patients, a 19-year-old woman, was wounded at Institutskaya by a bullet that penetrated her eye and is lodged inside her brain, according to Delta.
“The doctor told me that another millimetre to either direction and she would be dead,” Delta said. “And I told him it was the work of Hakadosh Baruch Hu.”