JERUSALEM – 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.
While Israel has experienced isolated incidents of anti-Semitism, 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.
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.
Israel doesn’t specifically have a hate crimes law, and the case has drawn calls for new legislation.