Behind Israel's Neo-Nazi Violence

Time/September 11, 2007

Jerusalem -- The neo-Nazi gang seemed typical of such miscreants in many parts of the world — bored, rebellious teenagers who fantasized about Hitler in the privacy of their bedrooms. They spewed hatred against foreigners and Jews, and went so far as to spray a swastika inside a synagogue. Even more chillingly, they stalked ultra-orthodox Jewish youths and viciously beat them up.

But while such ugly outbreaks of anti-Semitic violence are not unknown in Europe or the United States, this one happened in Israel. Not only that, all eight of the gang members arrested (aged between 16 and 21) were themselves Jewish — at least under Israeli law. One of the suspects is a straight A student in Jewish religious studies, whose grandmother had survived the Holocaust.

Israeli authorities say there is nothing to suggest that the presence of Nazism within the borders of the Jewish state goes beyond these oddball, teenaged bullies. But the fact that this gang exists at all has caused outrage in the Israeli press and in government circles, reopening debate over Israel's "Law of Return" that grants automatic citizenship to anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent.

Throughout the 1990s, Israel absorbed over 1 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union, keen to swell the Jewish population out of fears that at some point in the future, the country's Arabs might outnumber its Jewish population. Israeli officials now concede that more than one in four of those Soviet immigrants were not practicing Jews, and that they included thousands of non-Jews who felt no sympathy for Zionism but saw their claim on Israeli citizenship as a means of escaping the economic ravages of a collapsing Soviet empire.

The eight accused neo-Nazi gang members were all immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and their case has reminded Israelis that some of those who arrived in the 1990s were not, in fact, descended from the victims of anti-Jewish pogroms and roundups of Jews by locals during the Nazi invasion, but could just as easily be descendants of the perpetrators.

Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit on Monday ordered his staff to examine the citizenship papers of the families of the neo-Nazi gang members. "I will not hesitate to revoke their citizenship," Sheetrit said. "It is certain that this phenomenon is the embodiment of anti-Semitism at its nadir."

But the reasons why a teenager might turn against his own tribe may be more complex than a dubious bloodline or a forged ID. Israel in many ways can be a shuttered, exclusive society in which outsiders find it difficult to fit in. Some of the Soviet immigrants adapted well to Israeli life, and are now among the country's best doctors, classical musicians, star athletes, and army commandos. But for many, the transition to Israel was jarring and disruptive. Despite their professional credentials, they were only offered low-paying jobs as hospital cleaners and restaurant security guards, the first line of defense against a suicide bomber. Youngsters fell into gangs and crime; police say that in 2003, Russians immigrants accounted for 14% of the country's juvenile crime wave. As one educator told the daily Yedioth Ahronoth, the neo-Nazi teenagers were probably acting out "feelings of frustration and deprivation."

Led by Eli Boynatov, 19, nicknamed "Eli the Nazi", the gang vandalized synagogues near Tel Aviv, beat up Ethiopian Jews, gays, drug addicts and ultra-orthodox youth. The fact that they video-taped their savage acts proved to be their undoing. Police raided the suspects' homes and seized one tape in which "Eli the Nazi" says: "My grand-father was a half-Jewboy. I will not have children so that this trash will not be born with even a tiny percent of Jewboy blood." Such remarks chilled Israelis, who wondered how such hatred could have spread un-detected in their midst.

The relatives of these neo-Nazi teenagers are asking themselves the same question. One 17-year old gang member, known as "A," came from a deeply Zionist family. His Ukranian grandmother described to the press how she was only six when the Nazis herded her and other Jewish families into open pits. "The Nazis stood all the Jews they had rounded up and began to shoot them. I was saved by a miracle because someone fell on me and hid me. I know who the Nazis are, I went through it, and my grandson knows that very well." She claimed that her grandson was "terrified" of the neo-Nazis and "didn't know how to get out." Nevertheless, Israelis are stunned to find an outbreak of virulent anti-Semitism in their own country.

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