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Last Updated: Monday, 10 September 2007, 18:20 GMT 19:20 UK
Israeli anger over 'Nazi' group
By Martin Asser
BBC News, Jerusalem

Three suspected members of the alleged neo-Nazi gang
The accused and their families have denied any neo-Nazi activity
Israelis have been shocked by the story of a group of young immigrants from the former Soviet Union who allegedly formed a neo-Nazi cell in the Jewish state - founded as a haven from the European anti-Semitism that led to the Nazi Holocaust in World War II.

The group, from the central town of Petah Tikva, are said to have filmed themselves carrying out hate crimes, wearing Nazi insignia and proclaiming their allegiance to Adolf Hitler.

Eight young men are being held over 15 assaults of Orthodox Jews, foreign workers and other minority groups. Police said a ninth youth had fled the country.

It is thought to be the first organised neo-Nazi cell to be uncovered in Israel, although alleged members and their families have denied any neo-Nazi activity.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert spoke of his outrage at the footage, viewed by ministers at a cabinet meeting, and said that Israeli society had failed to educate the youths.

About one million former Soviet Jews have immigrated to Israel since the 1990s, under the country's "law of return", which allows entry to anybody who is Jewish or has Jewish ancestry (defined as having at least one Jewish grandparent).

Some of the immigrants are thought to have only the most tenuous links to Judaism, and experts say a small minority have embraced Nazi beliefs.

'Widely ignored'

Marina Niznik, a lecturer at Tel Aviv University, says some young Russian-speaking Israelis are being influenced by a rise in fascism in their former homelands.

Alleged Nazi gang members
The suspects allegedly proclaimed allegiance to Adolf Hitler

"Some of this generation are completely lost in society. They don't feel an affiliation with Israeli society, they feel like strangers," she says.

They are conscripted into the Israeli army but many experience a feeling of alienation from society, fed by lives spent in low-income areas and in broken families.

"It is as a sort of protest, a form of self-identification. The problem is that no-one wants to speak about this, it has been widely ignored until now," Ms Niznik said.

Zalman Gilichenski, of the Information Centre for Victims of Anti-Semitism, an NGO, says neo-Nazi behaviour among some immigrants is encouraged by links they maintain with racist groups in Russia.

"Many times the police and government ministries were told about this, but they were not interested," Mr Gilichenski told the BBC.

"There are other groups like these in almost every city in Israel," Mr Gilichenski said.

"In Russia, a day doesn't pass without a racist murder, and these youths are very connected to their friends in Russia (through the internet) and they learn from them; they even videotape their attacks."

'Deportation'

Worshippers in prayer shawls look at a swastika sprayed inside a synagogue in Petah Tikva in May 2006 (file picture)
Some accuse the authorities of ignoring the problem

The discovery of a violent anti-Semitic cell among young people, whose immigration to Israel was based on their having Jewish roots, has caused particular outrage in the Israeli media and public, sparking calls for action.

"We obviously have to change immigration policies, not to take in everyone who wants to come," Mr Gilichenski said.

There have also been calls for the law to be changed to permit the revocation of Israeli citizenship and deportation for neo-Nazis.

At the moment, the Israeli statute outlaws denial of the Holocaust, but not neo-Nazi behaviour.

Michael Jankelowitz, of the Jewish Agency, which is responsible for immigration to Israel, warns against knee-jerk reactions, saying the Petah Tikva case arises from an internal Israeli problem with the education system.

"Immigrants from the former Soviet Union have changed the face of Israel," Mr Jankelowitz told the BBC.

"They have made an enormous contribution in the fields of medicine, hi-tech, science and the arts," he says.

Other experts say it would be against the state of Israel's strategic interests as Israel needs to encourage immigration because of the demographic challenge to the Jewish state from a growing Israeli Arab and Palestinian population.


SEE ALSO
Israeli 'neo-Nazi gang' arrested
09 Sep 07 |  Middle East



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