Hitler salute 248.88.
(photo credit: Israel Police)
Under a hail of sensational headlines and calls for their immediate deportation, the eight alleged neo-Nazi youth are relying on a handful of private attorneys and public defenders to argue their case before the Tel Aviv District Court - as well as before a nation concerned by the possibility of a burgeoning neo-Nazi movement within its borders.
But Attorney Eli Masterman, a fluent Russian speaker who is representing one of the eight defendants in the current case and has defended other immigrant youth in the past, said that in order to begin to understand the circumstances leading up to Tuesday's indictments, Israelis must first look at themselves.
"Every mistake that has ever been made in every wave of immigration has been made over and over again, including in the absorption of the immigrants from the former Soviet Union," said the Rishon Lezion-based attorney.
Masterman is representing Ukranian-born Ilya Bondenko, a 20-year-old Petah Tikva resident who police described as one of the two ringleaders in the group. Bondenko, who identifies as a Christian, immigrated to Israel with his family in 1998 at the age of 11.
"Many youths are looking for somewhere to fit in, something to hang on to, and so they find themselves groups of similar youths. Many of them have a lot of hatred for the Israeli establishment and are bitter and angry that they were brought here as children," the attorney said.
But Masterman warned that jumping to the conclusion that neo-Nazism was the motivating factor in the group's behavior could be misleading. "Their pattern of behavior doesn't fit that of neo-Nazis," he said, pointing out that many neo-Nazis overseas take pains not to deny their affiliation and beliefs, even - or at times especially - in court. In contrast, Masterman's client and another youth are both claiming to have had no such neo-Nazi tendencies, and the other defendants are also taking giant steps back from their previous alleged statements endorsing Hitler and white power.
Masterman also pointed out that all of the defendants had hired Jewish attorneys - something, he says, a real neo-Nazi would never dream of doing.
Masterman said he has not yet been granted access to the evidence gathered against his client, but that within the next two weeks he expected to have a more complete picture of what his client's defense would look like.
"At first glance, one sees claims of a lot of ugly behavior," he said, referring to the incidents that have been discussed thus far in the media. "But I don't think that most of them came into the group with specifically racist baggage, with the possible exception of one or two of the ringleaders."
The attorney said the youths are under a tremendous amount of pressure and many are choosing silence. He said that, in all cases, the youths have the complete support of their families and friends and that, in some cases, some of their younger siblings have complained of being harassed at school.
Some of the youths - although not his own client, he said - have allegedly been attacked in their detention cells. Masterman cited as reinforcement for this claim the fact that the court Tuesday saw fit to tell the Israel Prisons Service to take special steps to safeguard the physical security of the eight prisoners.