A week after the desecration of the Great Synagogue in Petah Tikva, nothing remains of the horror the worshipers encountered there last Thursday when they arrived for morning prayers. The walls, which had been sprayed with swastikas and blasphemy, have been newly painted, the floor polished and the curtain covering the holy ark replaced.
However, the danger is far from over. For the past two years the ultra-Orthodox community there, which includes some 5,000 families and 300 synagogues, has been subjected to incessant attacks by street gangs from the former Soviet Union (FSU). The gangs have been beating ultra-Orthodox men, hurling curses at them and desecrating synagogues.
"These youths feel out of place in the Russian community they belong to, but they are not accepted in Israeli society either," says Bella Alexandrov, the director of the multi-disciplinary youth center in Petah Tikva. She distinguishes between two kinds of immigrants - punks and skinheads.
"The skinheads buy Russian videos about 'white power' that call for cleansing Russia of Jews. They don't get it from home. It comes from not belonging and not finding answers to their distress."
On Sukkot eve last year, a number of teens bearing knives burst into the big Lithuanian yeshiva Or Israel on Rothschild Street in the city center. They started beating pupils, and throwing prayer books and scriptures on the floor.
Yeshiva head Rabbi Yigal Rozen has no doubt that these incidents are anti-Semitic.
"There has always been violence in Israel, but never directed at synagogues. This started only in recent years. A month after the Sukkot incident, two yeshiva students were attacked and beaten up by Russian teens. The police arrested three of the attackers," he says.
Most of the victims were dressed like ultra-Orthodox Jews, Rozen says, and therefore concludes that the assailants could not be Jewish.
"It's time the police realized these are anti-Semitic attacks. These gangs are not after money. The charity boxes were not robbed, nor were the Torah books, which are worth a fortune," he says.
Skinheads in the parks
Many of the incidents occur in the parks in the city center because numerous low-income immigrant families from Russia live there, says Rahamim Arbel, Jewish cultural coordinator for Petah Tikva's community centers.
"On Friday nights Russian teens gather in parks with lots of alcohol and bongs. It's very unpleasant for the residents of the neighborhood," he says.
Arbel himself was attacked two years ago. He was with his small son and two friends, and they were returning from a lesson. On Rothschild street they were accosted by a group of drunk teenage boys and girls, aged 15 to 16.
"They started swearing at us. I whispered to the others to walk away. The girls ran after us spitting and kicking. We fled. I got over it but my son will never forget that day," he recalls.
An elderly man was attacked on Friday night a year ago but did not go to the police.
"I live in the center, near a park where the Russian gangs gather on Friday nights. Returning from a family visit I approached the park," he says. "A few boys demanded money and threatened me with a broken bottle. I told them I had no money because it was the Sabbath and went on walking. They knocked my hat off, kicked my shin and started kicking my hat. I tried to run and they followed me, cursing and throwing empty beer bottles. They were definitely harassing me because of my religious dress, because others passed by undisturbed," he says.
"My parents survived the Holocaust. I come from exile and know what persecution is; and that's what I felt. Their appearance and the chains around their necks reminded me of neo-Nazis," he says.
A security camera on the menorah
Acting Mayor Paltiel Eisental tries to be reassuring. The relations between the city's secular and religious residents are very good, he says. This is a small gang, not a widespread trend, he says.
"You must distinguish between vandalism due to theft and what happened in the Great Synagogue last week, which was brutality and hatred. I don't believe Jews could have done that. Those were acts aimed against a nation, against an idea. It's Nazism," he says.
The city council held an emergency meeting last week after the synagogue's desecration, and decided to safeguard the synagogue and find the vandals and indict them.
Eisental says the city has a vandalism patrol in problem areas, but is having trouble reinforcing it due to a personnel shortage.
"Every Hanukkah we put a nice big menorah at the yeshiva's entrance, right on the street," says Rabbi Rozen. "This year we were forced to put a security camera on it so that it wouldn't be vandalized," he adds sadly.
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