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How Many Jews Fought at Mariupol's Azovstal Plant? Depends Who's Counting

An aide to Ukrainian President Zelenskyy said there were about ‘40 Jewish heroes’ fighting in one of the Ukraine war's most epic battles, but others wonder if there was even one Jew at the site prior to Monday’s evacuation of the Mariupol plant



Sam Sokol May 17, 2022


The Azovstal steel plant in the strategic port city of Mariupol quickly became a symbol for Ukraine’s ability to withstand Russia’s invasion over the past month. But as Ukraine evacuated its hundreds of troops from the site on Monday, one question lingered: How many Jews were taking part in the standoff with the Russian military.


Many of those fighting at the plant were members of the Azov Regiment – a far-right volunteer unit with neo-Nazi ties that was incorporated into the Ukrainian armed forces in 2014. But the overall force was a patchwork, including marines, national guardsmen and Territorial Defense Force volunteers. And, depending on who you ask, it may also have included contingents of Jews or Israelis.


“It’s clear – and not surprising, frankly – that Ukraine seems to have embarked on a global public relations effort. I think it’s part of their broader approach,” Colborne said. “I mean, at the core it’s about something like ‘How can we be Nazis/the far right if we have Jewish members?’”

In an interview with The Times of Israel website on Sunday, David Arakhamia, a senior aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, asserted that “there are about 40 Jewish heroes protecting Azovstal now,” a claim for which he provided no proof.


His comment came days after a video of a man who claimed to be a Jewish Coast Guard serviceman stationed at the steel plant appeared on social media. In the clip, the man – who had a prominent Star of David tattoo – appealed to Israeli lawmakers to help evacuate Ukrainian forces from Mariupol.


Neither the man in the video nor Azov deputy commander Svyatoslav Palamar, who spoke with Haaretz last week, mentioned any other Jewish servicemen at the beleaguered site.


Asked about Jewish fighters, a source within the Azovstal plant referred Haaretz back to Arakhamia, while a spokesperson for the Ukrainian General Staff said that confirming the numbers proferred by Zelenskyy aide’s was “beyond our competence.”


“I doubt the number, if there are any, is that high,” said Michael Colborne, author of the recently published “From the Fires of War: Ukraine’s Azov Movement and the Global Far Right.” He suggested that such claims were likely intended as an appeal for Israeli assistance, as well as a way of pushing back against Russian propaganda.


“It’s clear – and not surprising, frankly – that Ukraine seems to have embarked on a global public relations effort. I think it’s part of their broader approach,” Colborne said. “I mean, at the core it’s about something like ‘How can we be Nazis/the far right if we have Jewish members?’”


Russian leaders have repeatedly justified their invasion by claiming they are on a mission to “denazify” their western neighbor, going so far as to claim that Zelenskyy, who is Jewish, is a Nazi and that “the most ardent antisemites are usually Jews” – sparking a diplomatic crisis with Israel in the process.


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