Israel arrests alleged neo-Nazis

Times Staff Writer

With eight young immigrants from the former Soviet Union under arrest, Israeli authorities said Sunday 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 as a refuge for Jews in the wake of the Nazi Holocaust. Video said to have been taken by the skinhead gang to document its beatings was shown at Sunday'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 arrested skinheads.

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," police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.

A court decided Sunday 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 alleged gangsters 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 following 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 group 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 aired footage seized by the 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, Yediot Aharonot, 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 website. 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.

Under a 1970 amendment to Israel's 1950 law of return, a person can claim citizenship if a parent or grandparent has Jewish roots. Authorities say the law allowed many citizens of the former Soviet Union who felt little or no Jewish identity to join the exodus of about 1 million people who fled to Israel in the late 1980s and early '90s as their country and its communist system were collapsing.

Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit and several lawmakers called Sunday for amending the law to stop granting automatic citizenship solely on the basis of a grandparent's roots.

Others, such as Avigdor Lieberman, a Moldovan immigrant serving in the Cabinet, cautioned against sweeping measures that would tarnish the image of all Russian-speaking immigrants and call their loyalty into question.

Taking the more conservative approach, Olmert said that such gangs could be dealt with by the police and the justice system. "There is no need to look for solutions that would affect an entire population," he said.

Amos Hermon, an official in the semiofficial Jewish Agency, which helps organize immigration to Israel, said neo-Nazism was a "minor phenomenon" in the country.

He called the gang a group of disaffected youths venting their frustrations by expressing "some of the most hurtful sentiments toward the Jewish people."

But Zalman Gilichinsky, an Israeli who has been documenting neo-Nazi groups for several years, said they were more common than Israeli leaders were 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."

Other commentators said it was a wonder Israel's school system didn't previously identify the young gang members, especially in light of the fact that one arrested suspect appeared as "Eli the Nazi" in his high school yearbook several years ago.

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boudreaux@latimes.com

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