The last thing you would expect to find in the Jewish state would be homegrown neo-Nazis, but an Israeli court on Sunday jailed eight teenagers for beating up ultra-Orthodox Jews, gays and the elderly, while shouting, "Heil Hitler!"
The same gang of skinheads had painted swastikas and naked women on the doors of a Haifa synagogue. They had also attacked a drug addict in Tel Aviv and forced him to grovel and beg for forgiveness for being a Jew. They videotaped the spectacle and posted it on their website, spliced with clips of Adolf Hitler. And they weren't particularly secretive about their identities, having strutted around the beaches of Tel Aviv showing off their Nazi tattoos.
And yet all of these neo-Nazis are Israelis one of them is a Jewish teenager whose grandparents survived the Holocaust.
Tel Aviv District Judge Zvi Gurfinkel called their crimes "shocking and horrifying" and sentenced the youths, ages 16 to 19, to between one and seven years in prison. The judge conceded that the sentences were severe, but his objective, he said, was to discourage other young Israelis from joining neo-Nazi gangs.
Most Israelis reacted to the presence of neo-Nazis in their midst with a combination of surprise and revulsion, imagining that a country that rose from the ashes of Nazi death camps would be immune to the sort of anti-Semitic thuggery occasionally still seen in Europe and Russia. Israel, after all, has always offered itself as a sanctuary from anti-Semitism. (See pictures of 60 years of Israel.)
Israel's neo-Nazis seem to be rebellious misfits. They are the sons of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who came to Israel under its Law of Return, which grants citizenship to anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent. (The Nazis used the same yardstick to decide who was Jewish enough to be dispatched to the concentration camps.) (See pictures of Kristallnacht.)
More than 1 million former Soviet citizens flooded into Israel in the 1990s, taking advantage of the Law of Return to escape the calamitous economic collapse that accompanied the demise of the Soviet Union. According to sociologists, nearly one-third of those immigrants have no deep sense of Jewish culture or identity. "The young Russian immigrants feel lost here," says Sergei Makarov, historian of Israel's Russian community. "They come from poor families who expected to be appreciated as loyal Jews when they arrived here," he says, adding, "Instead, they found themselves with no jobs and no recognition from the Israelis. They became bitter and frustrated. The neo-Nazi agenda fits them very well."
The alienated young men channeled their anger by linking up with neo-Nazi groups back in Russia. A ringleader, Eli "the Nazi" Buatinov, told his gang from the working-class neighborhoods of Petah Tikvah, a bustling town near Tel Aviv, that he would never have children because he didn't want to sire a "piece of trash with even the smallest percentage of Jewish blood." Buatinov was given seven years in jail, the harshest sentence.
Buatinov's lawyer, Shimshom Weiss, blamed the harsh sentences on the media's obsession with the case. He claimed that the gang had outgrown its anti-Semitic violence more than a year ago. The police, he said, were only alerted to the gang's past deeds when they arrested, on suspicion of murder, a Russian psychopath who went around hanging cats, and it was that person who fingered Buatinov and the neo-Nazis.
In the Tel Aviv courtroom on Sunday, the defendants looked scared and repentant. As one of them remarked at the end of the proceedings, "I'm going to live with this my whole life. My grandmother is a Holocaust survivor. She just doesn't believe it." She is not alone in her disbelief.
With reporting by Yonit Farago / Jerusalem and Aaron J. Klein / Petah Tikvah