Russian youth’s embrace of Nazism doesn’t just happen in Russia. It’s also happens where one might not initially expect: Israel. Haaretz reports that Israel’s Interior Ministry arrested eight members, all aged 16 to 21, of a Nazi gang in Petah Tikva, a suburb outside of Tel Aviv. The arrests are the result of a year long investigation into street attacks and vandalism of the suburb’s Great Synagogue. The group, who is responsible for attacks on religious Jews, immigrants, homosexuals, homeless, and drug addicts, which they filmed, was found in possession of Nazi literature and posters, five kilos of explosives, a pistol, and an M-16. The M-16 was acquired when one of the youths was drafted into the IDF. He has since fled Israel back to Russia, leaving the rifle with his comrades. The Israelis plan to seek his extradition. Six of the eight have confessed their crimes to police. One of the two holding out is the gang’s leader, Eli Boanitov, who told police, “I won’t ever give up, I was a Nazi and I will stay a Nazi, until we kill them all I will not rest.”
Reports on the story are quick to deny the perpetrators’ “Jewishness.” Haaretz states that all eight youths “have distant ties to Judaism and nonetheless immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union under the Law of Return.” Y-Net states that all but one are “are non-Jewish immigrants” from Russia. The Jerusalem Post also emphasized that the youths were “immigrants” and not bona fide Jews. Such assertions have led Israeli politicans to call for a tightening of the definition of the Law of Return. Some are considering to revoke the youths of their Israeli citizenship. Parliamentarian Effi Eitam, a member of the right wing National Religious Party, said that the Law of Return has allowed Israel to become “a haven for people who hate Israel, hate Jews, and exploit the Law of Return to act on this hatred.” Another deputy, Eli Yishai, the ultra-Orthodox Minister of Trade and Industry told reporters, “We have to rid ourselves of this Satan who lives in the heart of Israel.” This is despite statements from Prime Minister Olmert that the incident shouldn’t be used to “criminalize an entire population nor make generalizations.” Instead, he said, “Israel, as a society, failed in educating the youths discovered to be neo-Nazis.” Other commentators were quick to stress that the incidents were isolated and not indicative of a wider trend.
While this may be true, the uproar such an isolated incident has caused signifies the youths’ apostasy. And the fact that the gang’s leader, Eli Buanitov is in fact a Jew makes his sin all the more significant. Eli Buanitov told police “I won’t have kids. My grandfather is half yid, so that this piece of trash doesn’t have ancestors with even the smallest percent of Jewish blood.” In interview with Israel’s Channel 10, Buanitov’s mother denied that her son was a Nazi and that “he is simply a boy and maybe he didn’t fully understand what [Nazism] is and maybe for him it was like a game.” She also emphasized that her son was indeed Jewish. “He was born in a Jewish family and was raised in a Jewish family. And he knows a lot about the war.” In response to a question about whether her mother was a Holocaust survivor, she replied, “Yes. When he was young he heard a lot of stories about it. And he knows very well how terrible it was. And how many Jews were killed.” As far as his Nazi tattoos, Mrs. Buatinova explained that they read in Yiddish, “God is with us.” In addition to his mother’s statements, Buatinov’s lawyer attempted to boost his client’s patriotic credentials. He stressed that the Buatinov family immigrated eight years ago, his client even has a brother serving in IDF combat units, that Eli attended a yeshiva high school for a twelfth grade, and has been working in a “security office in a very sensitive position” for the last year.
What is interesting about this case is not whether the youths indeed committed the crimes or if they sincerly embraced neo-Nazism as an ideology. What is at issue is whether the perpetrators are Jewish or not. The fact almost all of the youths are Russian immigrants with dubious Jewish connections allows many Israelis to rest easy. They can reason: Neo-Nazism is not some homegrown phenomenon but a disease injected into the body politic by the infiltration of some outside Other. But Buatinov’s existence threatens to rock the conceptual foundation of Jewishness itself. The idea of a neo-Nazi Jew is such an anathama that Israel has no law against it. If a Jew can also be a neo-Nazi, and worse become one in Israel, then what does that say about the conceptual coherency of Jewishness itself? The fact that Israeli society could breed its very negation seems to call into question the stability of its justification for existence. Put simply, the gang’s existence posits the question: in a post-Holocaust world, can a Jew be a Nazi?
The question, it seems, is too horrifying to ask, let alone answer. And this is why the gang’s non-Jewishness and antisemitism is being emphasized and not the fact that non-Jewish immigrants were also their victims. After all, Israeli racism against immigrants, especially Asians, Africans, and Russians, is common. The idea that Nazism could be embraced as an expression of that racism toward reveals the fact that two absolute contradictions–Jew and Nazi–are perhaps not so absolutely contradictory after all.
But these questions are likely to be ignored. If reader responses are any indication, targeting Israel’s Russian immigrant population as the breeding ground for wayward youth seems to be the comfortable route. Somehow, however, I doubt explaining racism with racism will do much to alleviate the problem. It will only shroud it further with nationalist fetishisms that will only inflame calls to exact the Russian cancer from Israeli’s otherwise healthy body politic.
Maya Haber provided all Hebrew translations.