Rivka Zagaron, a 75-year-old Holocaust survivor, left her home in the Israeli port city of Haifa one September morning for her daily stroll along the beach. As she walked, two young men accosted her and shouted: "Heil Hitler!" One of them kicked her, the other cursed her. When she managed to get away, she saw them beating a street sweeper. "I never thought," she said afterwards, "that in our country I would hear the words 'Heil Hitler'."
The attack took place a week after the arrest of eight neo-Nazis in the Tel Aviv satellite town of Petah Tikva, an incident that stunned Israel. Like the old lady, the people of this country had thought that the Jewish state, founded on the ashes of Auschwitz, was immune to the neo-Nazi virus. But the epidemic seems to be spreading, raising serious questions about Israel's failure to adjust to the multicultural society of Jews and non-Jews it has become.
Last week, police arrested two 13-year-old boys on suspicion of daubing swastikas and naked women on the door of a Haifa synagogue. A 19-year-old was charged with setting fire to a booth where Haifa's religious Jews celebrated the Sukkot festival. In Bnei Brak, a predominantly Orthodox town near Tel Aviv, someone painted "Heil Hitler" on a synagogue wall.
According to the police, the Petah Tikva gang met every few days with their leader, Eli Buatinov, the self-styled "Eli the Nazi", to decide who and where to strike next. Buatinov is quoted as saying he would never have children because his grandfather was half Jewish, and he didn't want to father a "piece of trash with even the smallest percentage of Jewish blood".
The gang members' arms are tattooed with Nazi and white power symbols. Though they protest their innocence, they are expected to come to trial later this month on charges of assault, illegally possessing weapons and denying the Holocaust.
Members of the cell, aged 16 to 21, are Russian immigrants. One is Jewish, the rest were admitted to Israel under the Law of Return, which grants automatic citizenship to anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent – the same criterion adopted by the Third Reich for sending Jews to the gas chambers. In the former Soviet Union, their families were defined on their identity cards as "ethnic Russians". In Israel, they are outsiders, frustrated and angry. Neo-Nazism is a way to hit back where they know it hurts.
One of the gang's alleged victims was Anatoly Levin, a 38-year-old Orthodox Jew with a bushy black beard and black hat who emigrated from St Petersburg 12 years ago. He was walking home through a park late one night after a Talmud study session when two teenage skinheads mocked him and made anti-Semitic jokes in Russian.
When they started throwing stones, he threw them back. One of theirs hit his leg, and another struck a passing car. As the driver jumped out, the boys ran off. Levin, a geriatric nurse, continued on his way, but the two skinheads attacked him again, this time with wooden clubs, and broke his right hand. He says he couldn't escape because of his injured leg. The boys fled when he yelled "Police!" and people rushed out to see what was going on.
Zalman Gilichenski, a Russian immigrant teacher who runs a help and information line for victims of anti-Semitism, says neo-Nazism is widespread in the Jewish state. "There are groups in many towns. They distribute cassettes and written material. They began with graffiti, and then graduated to beatings."
The police say there are more individuals than groups. They spray-paint swastikas, vandalise synagogues, taunt recognisably religious Jews and terrorise people who look vulnerable – the homeless, homosexuals, drunks, old people. There is no evidence of a coordinated nationwide movement, no Führer, no Oswald Mosley figure. But the Petah Tikva gang was unusually well-organised.
The Petah Tikva youths were caught after they made videos of their rampages and posted them on a viciously anti-Semitic Russian website. One showed them savagely beating a Thai worker in the Tel Aviv bus station. The site, Format 18, said the images had been sent by "our comrades in Israel".
The use of a website was no accident. Russian racism is going global. The Israeli neo-Nazis draw their inspiration from the thriving radical right in Mother Russia, where Vladimir Putin's Interior Ministry estimates there are 70,000 white-supremacist skinheads. A poll this summer found that 35 per cent of Russians dislike Jews.
Sergei Makarov, a researcher who monitors Russian racism from Jerusalem, says: "You can't understand neo-Nazis in Israel if you don't understand the upsurge in neo-Nazism in Russia. It's nourished by what's going on back home. These people came from there, and they are in touch through the internet."
Despite the Russians' bitter memories of their "Great Patriotic War" against Germany, groups there flaunt the Nazi connection. One, the National Socialist Forum, boasts that 80,000 messages have been posted on its website. It claims 1,500 regular participants and 343 visits a day. One of its contributors calls himself "Dr Goebbels".
Some groups are reported to hold military training camps. They have headquarters, weapons caches and firing ranges. Neo-Nazism is banned in Russia, but tolerated. When violators are prosecuted, the sentences tend to be light.
The Russian ultra-nationalists, nostalgic for the glory of the Czars, target immigrant workers from the former Soviet Asian republics, as well as Jews. The National Socialist Party of Russia posted a gruesome video clip of its members stabbing and decapitating two Muslim "aliens" from Dagestan and Tajikistan. "Our party is a fighting avant-garde of the National Socialist struggle," it bragged.
Another nationalist website, Russkoe Delo ("Russian Cause"), accused the "Zhids" (Yids) of seeking to dominate the world and of encouraging white women to have sex with black men, who infect them with Aids. "The Jews, through their knavish propaganda, infect the minds of white women and inspire them to look at the Niggers with friendliness and benevolence," it wrote. "We must protect our women. We must liberate their minds from the Zhid obsession."
Up to 300,000 of the one million emigrants who flocked to Israel after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 do not identify themselves as Jewish. The families came because the gates were suddenly thrown open and the economic prospects looked brighter in Israel than Russia. Some are the gentile spouses of people with a half-forgotten Jewish grandparent. Others are the children of previous all-gentile marriages, who have no connection to Jewish history or the Jewish religion. Their divorced parent married a Jew. To complicate things further, in Russia ethnicity is defined by the father's origins, in Israel by the mother's. So a child could be a Jew in Russia and a Russian in Israel.
It is estimated that 20 to 25 per cent of this post-Soviet wave have failed to integrate into Israeli society. Children came to Israel because their parents brought them. Immigrants account for 42 per cent of all school drop-outs, although they are only 11.5 per cent of the total school population. Even those who have been successfully absorbed remember being tormented as "stinking Russians" and told to "get back to Russia", mostly by working-class North African children of a previous mass immigration.
A recent Hebrew University study found that only one third of Russian immigrant teenagers identifies themselves as Israeli. In a society with no binge-booze culture, about 90 per cent of them reported drinking alcohol in the past year. One third said they got drunk at least four times, while 36 per cent admitted using drugs. Almost a third of those who took drugs said they had committed violent acts under the influence.
Marina Solodkin, a Russian member of the Israeli parliament and former deputy minister of immigrant absorption, says: "Neo-Nazi activity is the way a young generation that has not found itself in Israel protests. They've lost their identity. They are not Jews, they are not Israelis. They are Russians who are not accepted, not in schools, not in the families of other children."
Eli Zarkhin, an educational counsellor who runs the Israel Association for Immigrant Children, says: "We're talking about 40,000 children who are not Jewish and identify themselves as not Jewish. It adds one more difficulty. They already have problems in Israel because it's a foreign country, because it has a foreign language, because there are foreign cultural codes, because their parents are busy with their own integration and can't help the children, and because there are no programmes in schools to bring these children closer to Israel.
"There is no Nazi ideology, but there is a lot of anger. We used to see graffiti against the Moroccans. Now we see it against the Jews, who represent for them the Israel that doesn't want to accept them. These teenagers are looking for provocative symbols. They use the swastika because they know it makes Jews angry. It also makes the educational authorities take notice of them. They get attention."
Zarkhin cites the case of Sasha, whose family settled in the Mediterranean town of Ashqelon when he was eight. "He feels he is a Russian, he grew up as a Russian. He had a Russian father and a Russian mother. One day his mother came home and said his father's grandfather was Jewish, so they were allowed to go to Israel. Life there was easier. They could earn more money."
In Ashqelon, Sasha went to a school where half the children were Russian-speaking and half native Israelis. "Nobody accepted him," Zarkhin reports. "Even the Russian-speaking children didn't want to deal with him because he was a goy. They hit him, they called him names. He has problems with Hebrew. His parents are working. So, more and more he started fighting in school. On one occasion he said, "It's a pity Hitler didn't kill you." When we talked to him, he knew nothing about Hitler, except that Hitler killed Jews."
Israel takes pride in fulfilling its Zionist mission and has absorbed more than three million Jews from 100 countries in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas over the past 60 years. But critics protest that a country whose raison d'etre is to be the state of the Jews has yet to come to terms with multiculturalism – the presence of nearly one and a half million Arab citizens, 20 per cent of the total population, and tens of thousands of Russian non-Jews, as well as long-term immigrant workers who care for the aged, till the fields and build the cities.
"Being Jewish doesn't mean to be against other nations," says Eli Zarkhin. "We have a reality. Israel is not the state of the Jews only. We should take it into account, we should deal with it. The government should do more to make others feel they belong. Maybe a state with a Jewish majority, a state with Jewish values of all people being equal, all people having rights, can work too." More bluntly, the Arabs demand "a state of all its citizens".
Anatoly Gerasimov, another advocate of multiculturalism, is trying to give the ethnic Russians a voice through a new lobby, the Russian Centre of Culture and Information. Gerasimov, a dapper 49-year-old Christian who worked as a nurse, denounces successive Israeli governments for failing to adopt a clear and policy on minorities.
"In Israel," he complains, "all problems revolve around Jews and their conflict with the Arabs. National minorities have long been cast to the margins of cultural, public and political life. The state refuses to perceive hundreds of thousands of citizens, working in industry, studying in schools and universities, serving in the army as full members of society.
"Every fourth citizen of Israel is non-Jewish, but open any newspaper and you will not see
anything about our non-Jewish holidays, about the history of our presence in the Holy Land, or about our communal activities. Last year our Russian community participated in an international youth sports festival in Moscow. Our boys and girls brought gold and silver medals back to Israel. Not a line was written about it in Israeli newspapers. Even Russian-speaking MPs gave them no encouragement.
"Israel has problems with non-Jews? Israel has one greater problem – the absence of a desire to cooperate with us in solving the vital issues of Jews and non-Jews living together in the Holy Land."
Marina Solodkin, the immigrant MP, says that many of the mixed Russian families came to Israel because they wanted to be one thing or the other. "If they had Jewish blood, they wanted to be Jewish." Israel, she protests, has not made it easy for them. The Orthodox rabbis still run the conversion process. They try to impose a pious way of life that is alien to most veteran Israelis, who manage to be both Jewish and secular. Converts are expected to keep the Sabbath and observe kosher dietary laws. Inspectors reserve the right to make random checks that they are not back-sliding.
Women are ordered to stop wearing trousers, which are regarded as masculine and thus immodest. Girls are forbidden to join the army, though it is widely accepted that military service offers their best route to integration. The rabbis don't want them hanging out with the opposite sex. "Not everyone," Solodkin insists, "wants to live the strict Orthodox way of life."
Coalition constraints keep the more liberal Reform rabbis at arm's length. Ehud Olmert, like previous prime ministers, needs the support of at least one Orthodox religious party to stay in office. These groups fight every effort to recognise Reform Judaism.
So far, anti-Semitic hate crimes are restricted to the young. But some older non-Jewish immigrants quietly share their smouldering resentment at the discrimination and ostracism they have experienced. They seek comfort in old prejudices.
A Russian-language bookshop near Jerusalem's Mahaneh Yehuda market stocks anti-Semitic books and Holocaust denial material among its shelves of novels, thrillers, science fiction and DVDs. They are on open display. One, What We don't Like about Them, an anti-Jewish tract by Vasily Shulgin, first published in 1929 and reprinted in 2005, has the exiled Jewish oligarch Boris Berezovsky on its cover. Another, by Alexei Mukhin, is dedicated to "Jewish Elites". It features the familiar smiling face of Chelsea's Roman Abramovich.
Vladimir, the bookshop owner, a mild-mannered intellectual who asks us not to publish his second name, reports a steady demand from older customers. He draws the line at Hitler's Mein Kampf and the notorious century-old forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which purports to map a Jewish takeover of the world. "As for the rest," he shrugs, "I'm in the business of selling books."
For the 75 to 80 per cent of Russians who made it, the post-Soviet immigration has been a success story. Most of them were educated people with modern skills. Once they got over the initial difficulties, they found jobs. Israel's orchestras are full of Russian musicians. Russian doctors and nurses man its hospitals. Engineers and mathematicians work in the country's high-tech industries.
Lisa Rubchinsky, a 29-year-old hairdresser who came here alone when she was 18, says: "At first I felt hatred of Russians in the street, in the market. But I'm a strong person. I know how to defend myself. If you've chosen to come here, you have to try to be part of this country. Don't blame other people."
She admits that it's been easier for her than for some of her friends. Unlike them, she doesn't look Slavic.
The Law of Return: immigration and Israel
The Law of Return was first passed by Israel's parliament, the Knesset, on 5 July, 1950. It established a system for allowing foreign nationals to "make aliyah" (emigrate to the country) and claim citizenship.
Originally, the right to become an Israeli was restricted to practising Jews. But an amendment in 1970 broadened the definition to anyone who had just one Jewish grandparent. The move aimed to help all those who had been defined as Jews (and hence persecuted) under the Nuremberg Laws during the Nazi Holocaust, and to bolster Israel's Jewish population against the perceived demographic "threat" of a rising Arab population.
Following the collapse of Communism, there was an explosion in the number of emigrants from the former Soviet Union, where authorities had previously placed heavy restrictions on the numbers of Jews who could leave the country. Since 1990, more than a million Russian migrants have made the move, forming a significant minority in a country of only seven million.
Many of these newcomers have claimed that they face discrimination in the job market and in wider Israeli society, fuelling a sense of alienation. Opponents, for their part, argue that many of the new arrivals have only a tenuous connection to Judaism and affinity with the Jewish community.
Other major ethnic groups in Israel include Ashkenazim (European Jews), Mizrahim (descendents of Jewish communities elsewhere in the Middle East), Sephardim (those from the Iberian peninsula), and Ethiopian and Indian Jews, not to mention the one million-plus Israeli Arab community. There are also a large number of non-Jewish immigrant workers, who also claim to have faced discrimination.
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies