Israeli police arrest gang of neo-Nazi immigrants

The Baltimore Sun

JERUSALEM -- With eight young immigrants from the former Soviet Union under arrest, Israeli authorities said yesterday that they had broken up a violent neo-Nazi gang that desecrated synagogues and staged at least 15 attacks on religious Jews, Asian workers, drug addicts and homosexuals.

The news shocked Israelis, whose state was founded in part as a refuge for Jews in the aftermath of the Nazi Holocaust. Video said to have been taken by the skinhead gang to document its beatings was shown at yesterday's Cabinet meeting, triggering urgent debate over what to do about immigrants who came as Jewish offspring but grew up to commit hate crimes and shout, "Heil Hitler!"

Voicing outrage on radio talk shows, Israelis faulted a lax standard that allowed many families with Jewish roots but weak ties to Judaism to immigrate from the Soviet Union nearly a generation ago and take Israeli citizenship.

Israeli leaders said they were appalled. "We as a society have failed to educate these youths and keep them away from dangerous and crazy ideologies," Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said, calling for harsh punishment of the detainees.

The Interior Ministry said it was studying the possibility of stripping the gang members of their citizenship and deporting them. All are young men in their late teens and early 20s who have "parents or grandparents who were Jewish in one way or another," said police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld.

A court decided yesterday to keep seven of the eight in custody, pending expected indictments this week. The suspects covered their faces with their shirts during the hearing.

"We didn't beat anyone," protested Arik Benyatov, 20, the gang's alleged leader, claiming his innocence.

Israeli newspapers said six of the eight suspects had confessed to police that they carried out assaults in and around Tel Aviv over a period of months before their arrests in August.

The arrests were made public Saturday, capping an investigation begun after the desecration of two synagogues sprayed with swastikas in the city of Petah Tikva more than a year ago.

Rosenfeld said the young men would be charged with "causing bodily harm to individuals and sabotaging synagogues."

Legal experts said the young men could be deported if judged to have committed acts that constitute a breach of loyalty toward the state and the foundation of its existence.

Israeli television stations showed footage seized by police showing several young men surrounding a Russian-born heroin addict and ordering him to kneel and beg forgiveness for being a Jew and a junkie. Then they pounded him with their fists.

A photograph of six of the suspects raising their arms in a Nazi salute ran across the front page of Israel's most widely read newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, under a one-word headline: "Unbelievable!"

Police said they found knives, spiked balls, explosives and at least one M-16 rifle in the suspects' possession.

The gang maintained computer contact with neo-Nazi groups in Germany and other countries abroad, police said.

Israelis have been scandalized before by neo-Nazi activity. In 2003, a combat soldier from an immigrant family was arrested after launching a Nazi Web site. A court sentenced him to community service and a tour of former Nazi death camps in Europe.

But police said this was the largest group of neo-Nazis ever arrested in Israel.

Israel doesn't specifically have a hate crimes law, and the case has also drawn calls for new legislation. Amos Hermon, an official in the semiofficial Jewish Agency, which helps organize immigration to Israel, said neo-Nazism is a "minor phenomenon" in the Jewish state.

But Zalman Gilchinsky, an Israeli who has been documenting neo-Nazi groups for several years, said they are more common than Israeli leaders are willing to admit.

"There are such groups in nearly every city in Israel," he said on Israel radio. "This group was perhaps a little careless and a little too violent, and this is why they got caught."

Richard Boudreaux writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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