In Kiev, an Israeli militia commander fights in the streets and saves lives

He calls his troops “the Blue Helmets of Maidan,” but brown is the color 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 Defense Forces, spoke to JTA Thursday 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 maneuvers. 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 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.”

On Wednesday, 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 bullshit. 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 3 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. 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. 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.

“The doctor told me that another millimeter to either direction and she would be dead,” Delta said. “And I told him it was the work of Hakadosh Baruch Hu.”

Delta removes ‘Occupied’ from Palestinian Territories on destination list

Delta Airlines removed the phrase “Occupied Palestinian Territories” from its list of Middle East destinations.

The destination “Palestinian Territories” remained Wednesday after the airline reportedly received e-mailed and tweeted complaints.

Links to the site were quickly spread Tuesday via Jewish bloggers. The list of Middle East destinations also appeared on the partner sites for Delta, including car rental companies. As of Wednesday afternoon, all appeared to have been changed.

There are no operational airports in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip.

Last summer Delta was embroiled in another controversy involving the Middle East after a Delta spokesperson suggested that because Saudi Arabian Airlines was joining the SkyTeam Alliance, Delta might have to refuse boarding to passengers with Israel stamps on their passports. The Saudi government requires that travelers disclose their religion, and American Jews and others with Israeli stamps in their passports have been refused visas to the country.

At the time, the Delta spokesperson said that the airline “must comply with all applicable laws in every country it serves” because it would face fines if a passenger arrives at a destination without proper documents.

Pre-Honeymoon Blues

When my boyfriend popped the question five months after we met, I thought it was extremely fast. It turns out he was too late. By the time we started to book our honeymoon to Italy for the middle of summer, departing a year to the day after he proposed, it seemed like we were out of luck if we wanted to use frequent flier miles.

“You can book up to 331 days in advance,” one mournful Delta customer service agent told me over the phone, when I called at 1:03 a.m., hoping to snag one of those reservations that time out at midnight Central Time and get put back in the system.

“He hadn’t even proposed 331 days ago,” I said wearily, not just because of the hour, but because it was the third week of my middle-of-the-night calls.

With fares to prime destinations in Europe for the summer nearing $1,000 a ticket, the Euro at an all-time high against the dollar and frequent flier seats at a big low, we were going to end up driving to Niagara Falls if we had to pay cash for our airfare. So I got busy on the phone trying to find us flights during my fiancé’s two-week school vacation that started at the end of June.

To complicate matters, he had 50,000 miles on Delta, good for one basic ticket to Europe, but I had only 3,000. I did have 49,250 miles on Continental, and lucky for us, Delta and Continental are air-mile partners, so I could fly on Delta or we could fly together on any of the partners they share in common, like Northwest and KLM.

If we each had 100,000 miles we would have had more options for dates. If we both had Delta miles, we could have flown on Alitalia, which has more flights to Italy than most other carriers. But this was what we had: his Delta miles, my Continental miles, fixed dates at the height of the summer travel season, five months to plan and very little budget.

My first two calls yielded nothing. A Delta agent told me I was too late and should give up. Continental told me I was too early.

On my third try in five days, I struck out on Delta, and then dialed up Continental. Much to my surprise, the agent found something. She came up with a flight on Delta from Newark to Atlanta to Milan on one of the dates we wanted to leave.

“So we can get to Italy, we just can’t get back?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said.

My fiancé was thrilled, but my mother preferred that we return to this country eventually.

I called and called and called. A week went by. Then another. We got on a wait list for two flights direct from Milan to JFK. We found one flight on Alitalia for my fiancé that went from Milan to Washington, D.C., but I would have had to pay for a full ticket to join him.

“We can come back from anywhere,” I told all the agents.

I figured that we could fly from Rome to Frankfurt on a discount carrier to get a flight home if it came to that.

The agents checked every city in Italy, then all of Western Europe, and then some in Eastern Europe, too. Venice, Rome, Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels, Berlin, London, even Split in Croatia. Nothing at all.

One agent with a thick accent put me on hold and then came back on the line breathless.

“I think I found something,” she said, then flipped me on hold again. “Belize City,” she said, coming in for a second, then going out again.

She came back on the line.

“Do you mean the Belize City in Central America?” I asked. “I know I said anything, but I don’t think that’s actually going to work for us.”

About a month into the process, we found a flight home from London-Gatwick to Atlanta to Newark. It cut our trip short a few days, but we’d still have nine full days in Italy. We were able to book my fiancé on Alitalia from Rome to London-Heathrow for miles, but I had to buy my segment for $196. We’d have to sweat a two-hour transfer between London airports, but our reservations were going to run out if we didn’t book something.

With taxes, fees, my Alitalia ticket and the 1,000 additional miles I needed to buy from Continental, our grand total was $346. The same tickets would have cost us $2,965 in cash.

Some Hints on Snagging Hard-to-Get Tickets With Your Airline Miles

•Plan Ahead — You can book up to 331 days in advance, and you should. The earlier, the better.

•Call Often — People make reservations and then change their travel plans, especially with frequent flier miles, so seats open up sporadically. If you call enough and get lucky, you might be able to get the seats you want.

•Travel anywhere — Flights to prime locations fill up fast, but there are cheap ways to get from a secondary airport to a major one on either end of your journey.

•Get more miles — Higher reward levels have fewer restrictions and the set-aside seats tend to fill up less quickly.

•Give up and go another time — If you just can’t get a flight when you want, go a different time when seats are available.

Beth Pinsker writes about film for The New York Daily News and The Boston Globe, among other publications.