Israel will probably never escape its consciously cultivated image as a social and political experiment, a semi-voluntary ant farm. This is ironic, as the country was ostensibly established to provide a persecuted people with normality. It was to be a country among countries – a first among equals, some optimists even dared to claim. Along with a parliament, streetlights, businessmen, vanquished oil dreams and a dubious alliance with a superpower, Israel also acquired less enviable characteristics of a “normal” state: a hushed-up ethnic cleansing, a secret police with torture chambers, an alternatively circumspect and gang-ho press. Last week my country’s normality went up a notch, when the police uncovered the very first gang of Israeli Neo-Nazis.
A number of days ago, just as the country was getting ready for the autumn holidays season, the police announced it had arrested a gang of youths from the town of Petah Tiqwa (an urban hellhole so boring and obscure that there are a hit song and a T-shirt doubting its existence). Those young people, immigrants from the former Soviet Union all, have occupied their plentiful spare time by attacking homeless people, drug addicts, and religious Jews; there had been videos circulated of them assailing defenseless individuals in a horrible, jackal-like manner, kicking them down to the ground, stamping, spitting. What attracted the attention of the media and outraged the country was the fact that they saw themselves as nothing less than Nazis. They all read, or tried to read, “Mein Kampf”; their ringleader, a nineteen-year-old nicknamed “Nazi Elijah”, urged them for ideas to celebrate the Fuehrer’s birthday, filmed them giving the Nazi salute, and stated that until he kills off “everyone” he won’t “calm down”.
The Israeli media went into hysterics. Video clips of the beatings were scrolled repetitively, as if it was a first report from a terror blast rather than confiscated footage of something that happened weeks ago. Studios equipped themselves with generals, policeman, politicians, Holocaust survivors, school friends, neighbors; in the middle of it all, the Chief Inspector of the Israeli police came on screen to inform us that there were “lots” of neo-Nazis still on the lose in Israeli cities. The journalists concentrated on the historical allusions of the bullies; no one bothered, for instance, to check the crime rate among young people in Israel in general (and alienated young immigrants in particular), or even inquire after the health of the victims. Characteristically, the response of the establishment to this manifestly anti-democratic cluster was even more anti-democratic: the Minister of Interior, a veteran Likkud populist, announced that he will “look into withdrawing the teenage Nazis’ citizenship”.
So what is the reason for this mysterious anomaly? To begin with, it is no anomaly at all; on the one hand, urban violence in Israel is nothing out of the ordinary, just like in any post-industrial society. On the other hand, Israeli public sphere, ethos, hopes and fears are all heavily saturated with negative and positive racism: towards old-timers (prudish), towards immigrants (Moroccans are loud, Yemenites are cheap, Russians are drunk, Ethiopians are primitive, and so on), towards Europeans (anti-semites), towards migrant workers (lazy Gentiles), and, of course, towards Palestinians and Arabs.
As for the story of this particular group, it is yet another story of immigrant alienation with a uniquely Israeli twist. The Israeli nationality, a concrete and distinct reality though it may be today, is an amalgamation of immigrant groups; furthermore, it is a society that sustains itself not on birth rate, but on constant influxes of immigration. The first and foremost impetus for this policy is cheating in the demographic game: the official Israel is obsessed with the possibility that one day the Arab population of Israel proper would outnumber the Jewish one, and then outvote it / overtake it / butcher it and throw all Jews into the sea. Since immigrants are brought in primarily to serve the country’s abstract needs, as demographic cannon fodder, very little attention is paid to any notion of cultural tolerance or respectful integration. The reality for most young people who came to Israel at an early age, especially those from the former Soviet union, is that of alienation: alienation from a society that wouldn’t let them belong, yet expects them to kill and be killed for it, in the army; a longing for a Europeanized culture that ejected them; a contempt for the Levantine “loudness”, “dirtiness”, “ignorance” of Mediterranean Israel. Many overcome this division, integrate, marry in, take hebrew names, teach their children only the local language; many others don’t, and they are left out to rot in derelict apartment blocks that resemble the British ones in hopelessness and ugliness, but lack the supportive community networks council estates sometimes construct. The Petach Tiqwa group comes from that second category. To all the usual signals of alienated, unemployed young people in an urban environment – alas, signals as brutal as anywhere in London, Bangkok, Berlin, Moscow or New York – they felt the need to inject a ramshackle ideology which is the perfect antonym and most importantly, perfect insult, to the society they came to hate. They are probably not alone, but they hardly constitute any kind of a real threat to Israeli establishment or society.
However, this story also poignantly brings up the centrality of the Holocaust to Israeli public consciousness. Israel never hesitated to use, and some would even say abuse, the memory of the Holocaust for its political aims – be it externally (everyone who criticizes Israel is an anti-Semite), or internally (whatever we did and are doing to the Palestinians pales in comparison to what was done to us). The Jewish year of 5677, which ended on Wednesday, had seen the shadow of the Holocaust creep up on the Israeli public in several unpleasant, unmonitored, and hitherto unexpected ways. First, it was the scandal with the pitiful condition in which the remaining refugees of that horrific era live in Israel; alone, penniless, forsaken by state and society. Then came the still ongoing scandal of the Darfur refugees: built on the premise of harboring a persecuted people, with a population raised on textbook stories about rejected Jewish refugees, Israel is now deporting the few Darfurians that make it to its borders back onto their deaths. And now urban alienation and terrible mishandling of immigration presented Israel, state of the Jews, with a group of teenage Nazis, all of whom had been considered Jewish enough to settle here.
On one level, it is a tragic and outrageous story of a group of young people, brought and brought up here for no reason they could see or care for; alienated, unemployed, petty criminals who stuck to whatever gave them pride, and whatever would insult the society the despise the most. On another level, it is another symptom of how quickly the foundation myths, notions and taboos of the Israeli society are disintegrating.