Avraham Levin, a thickly bearded man in a black kippa, was walking home through a park in Petah Tikva one night in January when he saw two boys about 15 or 16 years old with shaved heads standing nearby. He'd just finished a lesson at kollel, married men's yeshiva, when "they started laughing at me and making remarks about the 'zhids,'" he recalls. Then the boys started throwing rocks at him. He threw rocks back, until one of the boys hit a car, the driver got out, and the boys scattered. "That was just the beginning," says Levin, 38, a geriatric nurse who immigrated from Russia 12 years ago.
A few minutes after the rock fight, Levin, limping because of a rock that hit him in the leg, had reached a main street near the Petah Tikva Central Bus Station when he heard something behind him, and saw the boys were running toward him with wooden clubs. Levin couldn't run, and the boys jumped him and began clubbing him and shouting slogans about "saving Russia from the zhids." His hand broken, he hollered for the police. People put their heads out their windows, two or three people came down into the street, and the attackers ran off again.
This was about 11 p.m. Levin called the police on his cell phone. "They came and talked to me for a few minutes, told me I should go to the hospital, and that they would deal with the matter. They left me standing on the sidewalk, so I called a cab and went to the hospital."
A few months later he got a call from Petah Tikva police to contact a policewoman about coming in to identify some photos of suspects. "I called the policewoman a few times, she was never there. I left messages and she never answered."
He says he couldn't see if the skinheads were wearing Nazi tattoos, so they might have been Russian ultranationalist anti-Semites without being Nazis. But even if so, this is a distinction without a difference: Levin met up with the sort of chaps who were arrested early this month as part of the "Petah Tikva gang" of neo-Nazi Russian immigrant youth. Eight were charged with being members of a neo-Nazi cell that brutally attacked foreign workers, homeless people and haredim, as well as vandalizing synagogues around Petah Tikva.
But while the ringleader, Eli Bunyatov, 19, (nicknamed "The Nazi") and four other defendants live in Petah Tikva, another lives in the West Bank settlement of Karnei Shomron, another in Holon, and another in Bat Yam. A ninth suspect, Dima Bugativ, 21, is an IDF soldier who fled overseas a couple of months ago.
"There are several hundred neo-Nazis in Israel, maybe more. Perhaps 100 perpetrate violent attacks," says Zalman Gilichinski, a Torah instructor in Jerusalem who is not only the leading authority, but probably the only authority on the extent of neo-Nazism in Israel.
"It's hard to think of a city with a substantial population of [halachically] non-Jewish Russian immigrants where there isn't neo-Nazi activity," he says, adding that the leading venues for Nazi graffiti and street attacks are the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station, Haifa and its Krayot suburbs, and the Jerusalem neighborhoods of Armon Hatziv, Neveh Ya'acov and Pisgat Ze'ev.
"We're now getting about 250 calls a year about neo-Nazi activity, and a third or more of these complaints have to do with violence," he adds.
Gilichinsky, 42, who immigrated from Moldova in 1989, is speaking from his cubbyhole of an office in an apartment complex in the Greater Sanhedria haredi neighborhood of Jerusalem. This is the headquarters of Damir - The Israeli Information and Assistance Center for Victims of Anti-Semitism, which he founded seven years ago, and which has 10 or so Russian immigrant volunteers trying to turn back what is now, following the arrests of the "Petah Tikva gang," finally being accepted as a dangerous, growing social problem in Israel, and not just a random collection of "aberrant" incidents.
A THIN, QUIETLY driven man, it was Gilichinski who told police about the Petah Tikva gang, which Damir had been following for four years. After telling police that this was the most violent neo-Nazi cell in Israel, a detail of police officers came to his Jerusalem home in July, and Gilichinski gave them Internet videos, photos and messages that the gang had posted on Russian neo-Nazi Web sites, the virtual "homeland" of local neo-Nazi groups. He also provided testimony from Russian immigrants here who recognized some of the faces in the videos and knew of their nicknames.
"I could have given the police this information six months earlier," he says, noting that he first came upon the infamous video of Petah Tikva neo-Nazis viciously beating up a foreign worker in the tunnel leading to Tel Aviv's Carmel Market - a video that was played on TV stations worldwide - late last year.
It was Gilichinski who in 2005 told MK Colette Avital, then chairwoman of the Knesset Immigration and Absorption Committee, about neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic violence by Russian immigrants who weren't raised Jewish but who became Israeli citizens under the Law of Return. As far as Gilichinski is concerned, Avital is the only Israeli public figure who has treated the problem with the seriousness and urgency it demands.
After Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2005, when a Russian immigrant youth was arrested for spraying Nazi graffiti in Beersheba, and an IDF soldier from Ariel was discovered to be wearing swastika tattoos, Gilichinski spoke about the problem on the radio, and Avital's office contacted him. He showed the MK the material Damir had amassed on neo-Nazi activities here, and Avital convened the first of three Knesset committee hearings on the issue, all of which were attended by police representatives.
"I wanted the police to start dealing with the issue, but they came up with nothing at the meetings, they said there's nothing to the issue, they know nothing, they've heard nothing," says Avital. She instructed police to put together a report on the extent of neo-Nazi activities, but this was never done, despite Gilichinski having provided them with "written evidence, names of Web sites, all the material imaginable," she continues. As late as last month, Avi Dichter, minister of internal security, sent a letter to Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik, with a copy to Avital, in which he insisted that neo-Nazism in Israel "was not important, that the police did a little research and nothing was happening, it wasn't a trend, it wasn't serious," Avital adds.
In Gilichinski's files is correspondence with various local police stations over complaints of neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic attacks. The police response often refers to the case being closed, with no explanation given; in most of these cases, the likelihood is that the perpetrators weren't caught. At times, though, the police response is that no investigation was even opened. "Many times I made complaints to the police and got no response from them at all," he notes.
In reply to a 2000 complaint about boys wearing Nazi tattoos and spraying Nazi graffiti in Haifa, then-local police commander Reuven Ariav replied: "Haifa police did not open an investigation into the incidents you cited and it is not my intention to order an investigation." Gilichinski tells of a Colombian immigrant who was beaten up one night in Tel Aviv by youths with Nazi tattoos. "He told me he went into a Tel Aviv police station to file a complaint, and the police were sitting there watching TV and they told him they don't take complaints until 10 p.m." The only police station Gilichinski could cite for taking a diligent approach to anti-Semitic incidents was the Beit Shemesh station.
THE IDF HAS been no better. In 2005 a Russian immigrant recruit, Givati Brigade Sgt. Ilya Zolotov of Haifa, was found to have started a neo-Nazi Web site titled "White Israeli Unity," which included denials of the Holocaust and calls for violence against Jews. He was prosecuted but, after expressing regret, was sentenced by a Haifa court only to 200 hours community service and ordered to visit Yad Vashem and take part in the March of the Living in Poland. Meantime, Zolotov was allowed to remain in the Givati Brigade and retain his rank of sergeant until completing his army service two years later, Gilichinski says.
Also in that year, a group of Russian immigrant soldiers at Michveh Alon, a basic training camp where nearly all recruits are Russian speakers, complained about Nazi graffiti, songs and slogans taken up by a group of soldiers at the base. The IDF promised to "uproot" the problem, and "harshly censured" the soldiers involved, but none was sent to military prison or ousted from the army, Gilichinski adds.
In November of that same year, he wrote a letter to the IDF seeking a more serious, comprehensive approach to the problem. The written response he received from the Defense Ministry read simply: "The phenomenon is being handled on a case-by-case basis."
The problem of anti-Semitic harassment also exists in some Israeli schools where Jewish Russian immigrants have been victimized by non-Jewish immigrants. Gilichinski mentions a boy who was "the only Jew in his class in Kiryat Gat," and who got beaten up all the time until he told his parents "he didn't want to be a Jew," after which they moved him to a different school.
He mentions a Russian immigrant girl who was likewise "the only Jew in her class" at a Kfar Saba after-school enrichment program for immigrants. One day, he says, the teacher showed a film about the Holocaust and the girl started crying. "From then on the other kids tormented her, showing her pictures of terrible scenes from the Holocaust that they would caption with curses against Jews." They would also beat her up. When some of the pupils were caught surfing the Internet on the school's computers, looking for neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic Web sites, they blamed her for squealing. Finally, she, too, was taken out of school by her parents.
A 2001 letter from Ashkelon police, responding to a complaint by the principal of the local Netzah Israel school about Nazi graffiti on the school's walls, explained that an investigation had been opened, then closed. No further explanation was offered.
WHO ARE THESE local, modern-day Hitler Youth?
Surprisingly, they are more likely to be middle-class than poor, Gilichinski says. As a rule, they grew up in the former Soviet Union and immigrated to Israel in their early adolescence, then joined the neo-Nazi groups at age 15-17. Those who immigrated as young kids and grew up in Israel are unlikely to drift into these sorts of activities, he adds. Most are in their late teens to early 20s.
The gangs in different cities here are not united, but they are all connected with neo-Nazi groups in Russia through the Russian Web sites. Together, they are the Israeli branch of the Russian ultranationalist and neo-Nazi movements. The most virulent of these Russian movements is Format 18, whose Web site is very popular with Israeli neo-Nazis.
The locals originate not only in Russia, but in various republics of the former Soviet Union. However, they are all ethnic Russians, and look down on the darker-skinned immigrants from the southern republics such as Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, just as they look down on Jews, blacks, Arabs and Asians.
It wasn't by accident that Gilichinski began tracking these people. Growing up in Kishinev, Moldova, scene of the infamous 1903 pogrom that set off a massive wave of aliya, he says, "I was raised in an anti-Semitic environment. I was beaten, I suffered humiliations. I remember as a kid always hearing, 'Don't play with him, he's a Jew.'" In the latter part of the 1980s he became an aliya activist with the Jewish Agency.
A few months after arriving in Israel, he read in a Russian newspaper about anti-Semitic assaults by non-Jewish Russian immigrants against Jews at a Herzliya absorption center. Ever since, he's been trailing Israeli anti-Semites and neo-Nazis, trying to convince the authorities that they really exist.
He takes a conservative view of the phenomenon, laying the blame on the culprits themselves, young as they are, rather than on Israeli society's often alienating treatment of non-Jewish immigrants. He sees the local neo-Nazis as part of an ancient anti-Semitic Russian tradition, noting that Russia's Interior Ministry estimates that there are 70,000 neo-Nazis in that country now. Like many MKs who said they were shocked over the Petah Tikva gang arrests, Gilichinski also favors tightening Israel's immigration laws.
Avital's approach is to treat both the cause and the symptom. She sees the phenomenon of Israeli neo-Nazism as an educational challenge. "Why do young people who come as immigrants to Israel feel like total strangers, and feel the need to belong to these organizations?" she asks. But all the same, she has introduced Knesset bills that, if passed, would allow judges to strip the Israeli citizenship from convicted members of neo-Nazi or anti-Semitic organizations.
One thing the two agree on, though, is that with the arrests of the Petah Tikva gang causing such alarm among the Israeli public - and attracting international media attention - it is no longer possible for government authorities, especially the police, to dismiss such incidents as aberrations. And while such incidents haven't stopped - since the Petah Tikva arrests, Nazi graffiti have appeared in Eilat and Holon synagogues and on the street in Dimona - the reporting of present and past neo-Nazi sightings has increased sharply.
"I came to Israel because they told me that there was no anti-Semitism here," Gilichinski says with a wry tone. By "they" he means veteran Israelis. For 17 years he's been trying to tell them something urgent, and it's only now that they're listening to him.