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Aliyah from Former Soviet Union Brings a Surprise — Anti-semitism

July 23, 2003
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Synagogues defaced by swastikas in B’nai Brak? Graves vandalized in Beit Shemesh? A teenager harassed for being a Jew on her way to school in Netivot?

Such cases may seem far-fetched, but they all occurred in the Jewish state. According to the Information Center for Victims of Anti-Semitism in Israel, a nongovernmental organization, there have been some 500 such incidents in Israel during the past three years.

“The Russian-language newspapers in Israel print a story on an anti-Semitic incident every week, and at every police station in the country at least one anti-Semitic case is registered,” says Zalman Gilichinsky, director of the information center.

It’s ironic, he adds, that some victims who are immigrants from the former Soviet Union have come all the way to Israel to experience anti-Semitic aggression for the first time.

Until last month, the Israeli government virtually ignored such incidents. However, recent articles in Yediot Achronot and Ha’aretz have helped place the issue on the national agenda.

In a June 22 Cabinet meeting, Justice Minister Yosef “Tommy” Lapid told Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that “neo-Nazis have arrived in the country.” The following day, Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein ordered an investigation into the matter.

The main focus of the investigation is a Russian-language Web site called the White Israeli Union. According to their manifesto, the site’s organizers are “people who have pride in themselves and are sick of living among the dirty bastards.”

Photographs on the site, which were printed in Israeli newspapers, include a destroyed Israeli flag and youngsters in Israel Defense Forces’ uniforms offering Nazi-style salutes. The site identifies Jews, Arabs, immigrants from Muslim republics of the former Soviet Union and foreign workers as “enemies.”

The site urges racist sympathizers to enlist in Israeli army combat units so they can murder as many Arabs as possible.

Anti-Semitism also is surfacing in other Israeli venues: Arbat, a bookstore with branches across Israel, sells books imported from Moscow with titles such as “The Holocaust Myth” and “Jewish Fascism in Russia.”

When Gilichinsky, 38, decided to make aliyah from the Soviet Union 15 years ago, he never imagined he would be dealing with this phenomenon in the Jewish state. Today he divides his time between teaching Judaism to new immigrants and coordinating a team of 10 other volunteers.

“This phenomenon is very sad, but someone has to do the work”, he says.

Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Israel, describes anti-Semitic acts in Israel as an “aberration.”

But his organization doesn’t monitor such cases, Zuroff says.

“Anyway, this is not like anti-Semitism in other parts of the world,” he says. “Here there is not a danger that they will reach power.”

Gilichinsky not only monitors the incidents, but helps victims take their cases to police and follow them up.

He says the perpetrators of anti-Semitism in Israel almost always are Russian-speaking youth who are not Jewish, though some are the descendants of Jews.

“They have a strong connection with Russian culture,” Gilichinsky says. “Since skinheads are a trend today in Moscow, some of them have already started to be seen in Israel.”

In a great majority of cases, the victims are elderly Russian Jewish immigrants.

“They are more unprotected and easily recognized by the anti-Semites,” Gilichinsky says. “Israelis, on the other hand, can defend themselves and know how to go to the police, hence they are hardly attacked.”

Dvora Biton, 38, turned to Gilichinsky for help after an unpleasant situation developed about two years ago. She told JTA that her adversary was a neighbor in Yeroham, a city in the Negev Desert.

In the beginning, the relationship with the neighboring family was pleasant, and the Bitons, who are Orthodox Jews, invited them for a Shabbat dinner. When they discovered that the neighbors were not Jewish, however, the Bitons decided to cut down on their social contact.

The neighbor reacted badly and started to call Biton “zhidovka,” a pejorative Russian term for a Jew. Every time they met, the neighbor made the cross sign on her chest, shouted, spat on the floor and cursed Biton, she says.

“Life became unbearable,” Biton says. “It sounds absurd, but we finally decided to move and today we live in Eilat.”

The investigation that Rubinstein ordered last month is a victory for Gilichinsky, who until not long ago was avoided by the authorities.

“They prefer to brush this issue under the carpet,” he says. “They think my work could denigrate the Russian aliyah.”

The most prominent institutions in Israel that monitor anti-Semitism take a cautious approach to Gilichinsky’s organization. Roni Stauber, coordinator of an annual Tel Aviv University report on worldwide anti-Semitism, says he doesn’t plan to include Israel among the 30 countries monitored.

“We don’t have enough information on incidents of this nature in the country,” he says. “And I don’t see this subject as a big problem.”

Laura Kam, a local spokeswoman for the Anti-Defamation League, says the organization doesn’t look at anti- Semitism in Israel.

It’s a “marginal phenomenon,” she says, the “product of discontented youth who face problems linked to their condition as non-Jews in the country.”

According to Kam, the ADL might review its position if Israeli authorities confirmed the existence of a major problem.

“Meanwhile, we think that the people who give publicity to these incidents are using them for a political agenda — they want to change the Law of Return,” which guarantees Israeli citizenship not just to Jews but to their children and grandchildren, she says.

Gilichinsky admits that’s true: He says he favors an immediate change to the Law of Return to prevent immigrants who are not Jewish from entering the country.

“This law was created to increase the Jewish population in Israel, but today it has the opposite effect and it is increasing the numbers of non-Jews,” Gilichinsky says.

But he rejects the idea that neo-Nazism in Israel is a product of bad treatment that young non-Jewish immigrants allegedly suffer.

“If we followed that logic, the anti-Semites should be attacking Israelis and not other immigrants,” he says. “Throughout history, Jews were always blamed for anti-Semitism. Now we cannot point to the Jewish state as the cause of this evil.”

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