It seems that Israel’s policy of granting citizenship to anyone who can prove Jewish ancestry sometimes backfires. The BBC recently reported the arrest of a gang of Israeli Neo-Nazis who—among other violent acts of hatred—attacked homosexuals, foreigners, and religious Jews. Many of the attacks were videotaped. The investigation started a year ago after ”a synagogue in Petah Tikva, a city east of Tel Aviv, was desecrated with graffiti of Nazi swastikas and the name of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.”
The gang members—whose ages ranged from 16 to 21—are all naturalized citizens who immigrated from the former Soviet Union and now live in Petah Tikva. Although Israel’s Law of Return gives anyone with one Jewish grandparent the right to Israeli citizenship and residency, authorities are claiming that the gang members are only distantly associated with Judaism.
This case proves the flaw inherent in creating a nationality based on religion and ethnicity. In the early days—before the twisted, genocidal fantasies of Europe’s anti-Semites became a reality—Zionism’s most vocal opponents were Jews in Western Europe who argued that they were French or German first. After the Holocaust, attitudes were understandably changed. For the most part, the European survivors of the Holocaust became unified through the collective experience—direct or proximate—of Nazi atrocities. But for many Jews in Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union, Jewishness is only a peripheral part of their overall identity. Thanks to the Red Army’s destruction of the German wehrmacht, Jews within the USSR were spared the most brutal and genocidal aspects of German occupation (not that Stalin didn’t do his part to make up for this, but that’s a blog posting for another day). After Soyuz fell apart, many Russians rediscovered their Jewish heritage and used it to get out of Russia; being Jewish enabled millions of Russians to immigrate to the United States and Israel. Not a moment too soon, either, as today’s Russia boasts some of the world’s most committed and aggressive racists and anti-Semites. The downside is that, thanks to Communism’s anti-religiousity, many Russian “Jews” grew up without a real Jewish experience and thus lack a strong sense of Jewish identity. Even worse, some, like the members of the Petah Tikva gang, actually feel animosity and antipathy towards their fellows who more strongly identify as Jewish. But because politics and ideology often trump morality, this possibility wasn’t daunting enough to Zionists like Ariel Sharon—who are always on the lookout for more Jews to populate the land and “help Israel in its conflict with Arabs”—to keep from trying to persuade Russian Jews to migrate to Israel.
After decades of subjugating the indigenous Palestinian population, it seems Israel may be facing a new threat, one of its own making. As an “external” threat, Palestinian violence has generally served to unify the Jewish nation and garner support for the Israeli state. However, the influx of immigrants from Russia and elsewhere in the former USSR—who often do not strongly identify as Jewish—may pose a far graver threat to Israeli society by challenging the very concept of a Jewish nation and undermining the Jewish nature of the state.