Israelis fear anti-Semitism imported from Russia
Ari Ackerman, a student from Switzerland, was walking home along the Tel Aviv beach after a late-night swim when he and a friend were jumped by a gang singing Nazi songs and displaying swastika tattoos.
The perpetrators, a group of Russian-speaking teenagers, eventually ran off. Ackerman and his friend, their faces bruised and bloodied, set off to the closest police station only to have their case shrugged off.
“Israel is a country that faces the same problems any other country faces,” Ackerman said, trying to make sense of what he experienced. “There is a phenomenon of neo-Nazism, even if it is fringe, but to acknowledge it is to go against the country’s own narrative.”
In recent years, sporadic acts of anti-Semitism have hit Israel, most of them carried out by disaffected immigrant youths from the former Soviet Union (FSU). Although the youths came to Israel under the Law of Return, they are among those who identify not as Jews but as ethnic Russians. Under Israel’s Law of Return, a cornerstone of Israel’s identity as a haven for all Jews, anyone with a Jewish parent or grandparent is permitted to immigrate and be granted citizenship.
Experts say the perpetrators of such acts feel rebuffed and marginalized by Israeli society, so they turn their furor into the same anti-Semitism with which they may have been tormented in their countries of birth.
Recent incidents occurred at a school in the Tel Aviv suburb of Bat Yam, where its mezuzahs were torn down and burned. About three months ago, a club for Russian-speaking immigrant veterans of World War II was desecrated with swastikas.
Zalman Gilichinsky, who immigrated to Israel from Moldova, started a center for victims of anti-Semitic attacks or harassment.
“Neo-Nazism is the same development they see in Russia and they transplant it here,” he said, referring to the youth.
Gilichinsky said he has been frustrated by what he sees as the relative lack of seriousness with which Israel has taken the issue.
Knesset hearings, however, have been held, and the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption says it is working to reach the type of disconnected young immigrants who might be drawn to committing such acts. Officials also stress that the numbers involved in such activities are very few and not at all representative of most young immigrants from the FSU.
Gilichinsky claims Israel is embarrassed by the issue, which he said stems from too many non-Jews being allowed into Israel under the Law of Return.
“Israel wants to maintain its image as a refuge from anti-Semitism and neo-Nazism, so they don’t want to publicize anything that would go against that image,” he said.
Gilichinsky said that according to the calls his center receives, there are almost daily incidents. They are exacerbated, he said, by connections forged online between young immigrants here and their counterparts in the FSU through neo-Nazi Web sites and chat rooms.
Arieh Turkiments, an immigrant from Vilna, is among those who contacted the organization after he was slapped in the face by another immigrant and cursed for being a Jew. He was standing outside a Jerusalem yeshiva, where he had been attending classes on Judaism.
“It is a terrible feeling here in the Land of Israel that we have to hear such insults,” Turkiments’ wife, Maria, said. “The reality is that it is sometimes worse being here than in the Diaspora.”
Maria Turkiments herself took issue with the Law of Return.
“It lets all sorts of people in who should not be here,” she said.
Avinoam Bar-Yosef, director-general of the Jewish People Policy Institute think tank, downplayed notions that Israel might be facing anything close to a phenomenon when it comes to imported anti-Semitism.
“It’s not really significant. This is a fringe issue,” Bar-Yosef said. “When you have major waves of aliyah, you are going to have members of families of Jews who are not Jewish.”
Part of the problem, he said, “comes from suffering the trauma of moving from one place to another.”
“It should be monitored and anti-Semitic acts should be dealt with everywhere, but it is not a real problem in Israel,” Bar-Yosef said, arguing that most immigrants from the FSU integrate well into Israeli society.
Sara Cohen, director of social services at the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, said those youth at risk either do not see themselves as Jews or are not considered Jewish.
“These are youth with a confused identity,” Cohen said. “In Russia they are called Jews and in Israel they are called goyim. Part of the confusion over identity can lead them to feel disconnected.”
The ministry sponsors several programs to help immigrant youth at risk feel more integrated into Israeli society.
Roughly one-quarter of immigrants who have come to Israel since the major wave of immigration began from the FSU in the early 1990s are not considered Jewish according to halacha, or Jewish law. In Israel, only Orthodox conversions are considered valid.
Alex Selsky, a Jewish Agency for Israel spokesman for the Russian language media who emigrated from Russia in 1993, said if Israel accepted Reform and Conservative conversions, many more immigrants from the FSU would try to convert. He said Jewish education courses such as Nativ, sponsored jointly by the Jewish Agency and the army, are one way young immigrant soldiers from the FSU are forging a stronger connection to both Israel and their Jewish heritage.
David Zelventsky runs a museum at an immigrant club in Hadera about Jews who fought for the Red Army during World War II. He said much still needs to be done to tackle anti-Semitism around the world, including in Israel. It was hard for him to see the swastikas and slurs against Jews spray-painted on the center’s walls, but he was not necessarily surprised.
“I’ve seen many things in my lifetime,” said Zelventsky, whose father was a World War II veteran. “What I know is that it is too early to lay down arms in the battle against anti-Semitism.”