JERUSALEM (AP) – Police said Sunday they have broken up a cell of young Israeli neo-Nazis accused of a string of brutal racist and anti-Semitic attacks, videos of which were played on television to a stunned national audience.
The eight suspects, all immigrants from the former Soviet Union in their late teens or early 20s, are seen in the videos kicking victims on the ground to a bloody pulp, hitting a man over the head with an empty beer bottle and proclaiming their allegiance to Adolf Hitler with a Nazi salute.
Sixty years after the Nazi Holocaust killed 6 million Jews, incidents of anti-Semitism continue to outrage Israelis and the discovery of such violence in their own country dominated morning radio shows and made the front pages of newspapers with headlines such as “Unbelievable.”
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who viewed the footage with his ministers at the weekly Cabinet meeting, called it “violence for the sake of violence.”
“I am sure that there is not a person in Israel who can remain indifferent to these scenes, which indicate that we too as a society have failed in the education of these youths,” he said.
While Israel has experienced isolated incidents of anti-Semitism in the past, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the arrests were the first time an organized cell has been discovered.
The eight youths, who immigrated to Israel as children, were arrested over the past two months in connection with at least 15 attacks against religious Jews, foreign workers from Asia, drug addicts, the homeless and gays. A ninth member has fled the country, he said.
A court decided Sunday to keep the suspects in custody on assault and vandalism charges.
All eight had loose connections to Jewish heritage. They did not identify themselves as Jews and their families had come to Israel to escape hardships in the former Soviet Union, police said.
Under the Israeli “law of return,” a person can claim automatic citizenship if a parent or grandparent has Jewish roots. Authorities say that formula allowed many Soviets with questionable ties to Judaism to immigrate here after the Soviet Union disintegrated.
About 1 million Soviets have moved here since the early 1990s, making up a significant part of Israel’s 7 million citizens.
Olmert warned that the acts of the few should not tarnish the great achievements of the Russian immigrants, who include doctors, professors, scientists and Cabinet ministers. “I stress that we should not implicate an entire community and engage in generalizations,” he said.
Cabinet Minister Eli Yishai of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party said he would propose taking away the suspects’ citizenship. Several others suggested amending the law of return.
Ironically, Israel doesn’t specifically have a hate crimes law, and the case has also drawn calls for new legislation.
The arrests drew condemnations from the Anti-Defamation League, a U.S.-based group that fights anti-Semitism, and Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.
“The tragic irony in this is that they would have been chosen for annihilation by the Nazis they strive to emulate,” the ADL said.
“While this is a marginal and extreme case, it is nevertheless intolerable,” said Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev.
The young men covered their faces with their shirts during the court hearing Sunday, revealing Nazi-themed tattoos on their arms. Some of the men had tattoos of the number “88,” code for “Heil Hitler” because “H” is the eighth letter of the alphabet. Others wore tattoos of Celtic crosses – a symbol adopted by white supremacists – and barbed wire fences.
The gang documented its activities in detail on film and in photographs. Israeli TV stations showed grainy footage of the gang attacking victims with their fists, feet, buckets and bottles, leaving blood-splattered floors in their wake. The youths, whose faces were blurred or covered with Nazi insignia, also posed with German flags and giving the Nazi salute.
Authorities also found knives, spiked balls, explosives and other weapons in their possession, Rosenfeld said.
Police discovered the ring after investigating the desecration of two synagogues that had been sprayed with swastikas in the central Israeli city of Petah Tikva more than a year ago, Rosenfeld said. Police computer experts determined the group maintained contacts with neo-Nazi groups abroad, and materials seized include a German-language video about neo-Nazis in the U.S.
The group leader was identified as Eli Boanitov, 19, of Petah Tikva – known as “Eli the Nazi,” police said. “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,” Boanitov was quoted as saying in a police statement.
Amos Herman, an official with the semiofficial Jewish Agency, which works with the government to encourage immigration to Israel, called the gang a group of frustrated, disgruntled youths trying to draw attention by striking at the nation’s most sensitive core.
“We thought that it would never happen here, but it has and we have to deal with it,” he said.