Coincidentally, our meeting took place on the anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin (according to the Hebrew calendar ). Eskin had just come out of the Russian-language Channel 9 studio where he'd taken part in a special broadcast to mark the date. The subject was what life in Israel would be like if the prime minister had not been murdered. Eskin's answer was blunt: In the wake of the assassination, the country is a lot better off. When asked if he was sorry for the pulsa dinura ceremony (a pseudo-kabbalistic ritual in which a death spell is cast ) which he had organized earlier against Rabin, he immediately responded, "Only that I didn't do it sooner." At the end of the broadcast, viewers were asked to vote via text message as to whether they supported Eskin's view or that of his sparring partner on the program, Mark Gurin, editor of Sputnik weekly.
Eskin was confident and arrogant. "You see?" he said with enthusiasm, "85 percent voted for my position. That's a total victory. Only 7 percent were opposed, the rest were undecided."
A production staffer's comments that the vote did not truly represent the views of the entire public, and that "this broadcast slot is known for its fascist viewing audience" did not dampen Eskin's euphoria.
The name Avigdor Eskin first became known to the Israeli public in the late 1970s when he was a key activist in the Kach movement, and one of the closest supporters of its leader, Rabbi Meir Kahane. The movement's archive contains photos of the two of them and advertisements published in newspapers, in which the public was invited to come listen to their views. After a year of joint activity, disagreements arose between Eskin and Kahane, however. People who belonged to Kach then say Eskin tried to promote a more elitist line and to use the movement's racist ideology to appeal to more educated populations, whereas Kahane preferred the support of the masses. "I also disagreed with the rabbi's explanation regarding the harm done to the Mizrahi Jews [i.e., of Middle Eastern descent] after the state's founding," Eskin explains. "The rabbi spoke in terms of a 'holocaust' and 'forced conversion' and so on. I thought the reality was a lot more complex ... but those messages earned him support."
Eskin thus left the movement, but says he remained in contact with Kahane and continued to assist him. Eskin subsequently dallied with a few fleeting right-wing movements, until he retired, temporarily, from political activity in the mid-1980s. He began studying philosophy and political science at the Open University, and worked as a journalist and editor in the Russian-language press. One interview he conducted left a big impression on him: a 90-minute conversation with Yitzhak Rabin in the late 1980s.
"He struck me as a bad person," recalls Eskin. "There was one moment in the interview that made my blood freeze. I asked him about the Altalena [refering to the sinking of an Irgun underground weapons ship in 1948 by Israel's nascent government]: 'Did you regret that you killed people?'" Eskin imitates Rabin's reply in a deep bass voice: "'I never regretted it and would do it again.'
"Whenever I demonstrated against him, I had to overcome the knowledge that I was going to disparage him," he adds. "To tell myself that it was necessary, the right thing to do. But I do not rejoice at all in an enemy's death."
Subsequently, Eskin began to earn a livelihood, which he still does today, from forging business ties in Russia for Western companies. His name returned to the headlines in 1994 when he sought to disrupt a ceremony at Yad Vashem commemorating gay and lesbian Holocaust victims. A year later, he gained notoriety for his protests against the Oslo Accords, which peaked with the pulsa dinura ceremony he organized against Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, a month before the assassination - an event of which he is still proud.
Beforehand, Eskin approached Yossi Dayan, a former Kach activist who now calls himself a rabbi. Dayan, who came up with the text of the prayer and took part in the ceremony, recalls events differently. According to him, "The public ceremony that was held was not the real one." According to tradition, Dayan says, the pulsa dinura ritual cannot be performed against a "deaf person" - i.e., if the subject of the curse is not aware of it. The ceremony organized with Eskin, he says, was intended merely for public consumption, while "the real one was held a day earlier in the presence of about 20 rabbis in Safed."
Eskin claims the pulsa dinura ceremony was held with the involvement and blessing of one of the country's major rabbis, whom he refuses to name: "Without the approval of rabbis at these levels, we wouldn't have performed it. I also don't think Yigal Amir would have gone ahead with the assassination if he didn't have rabbinical backing."
Asked if he really believes in the curse, Eskin says: "Look, the fact is that it worked: We halted the Oslo process and that's what matters. It could have been a destructive process that would have brought ruin upon the Jewish people. The assassination was a one-time event in history. It mustn't be repeated. On the personal level, of course, I feel compassion for people like Dalia Rabin. When I see her on television, I identify with the pain she feels as someone who lost her father. It's a natural human emotion."
In summary, today, Eskin has one message: "We won." He is still full of praise for Yigal Amir, calling him "a lofty man" and urging his early release from prison. Eskin says that while he never met Amir before the assassination, he has subsequently become one of the people closest to him and his wife, Larisa Trimbobler, and their families. Eskin adds that the Shin Bet security service has prohibited him from speaking directly with the Amir brothers, Yigal and Hagai, for the past six years, but before that they were in almost daily contact.
Since Rabin's assassination, Eskin's name has found its way into the headlines numerous times, primarily in the wake of provocations he committed as a far-right activist. In 1999 he was convicted for his part in a conspiracy to set fire to a branch of the Dor Shalom peace movement in Jerusalem, and for planning to place a pig's head on a tombstone in a Muslim cemetery in Nesher. Eskin was sentenced to two and half years in prison, and at the recommendation of the Shin Bet, was not allowed an early release. After his release, Eskin tried to maintain a low profile.
His current activities are international in scope. By combining ideology and business interests, he is making inroads into far-right movements throughout the world. He tends to disregard the anti-Semitic background of these movements, and finds that he and they have much in common. He feels he is building up a global front against "the real threats" to humanity and civilization. And these movements, for their part, are always glad to have the support of a "nationalist" Jew like him, since legitimation is also the name of the game on that side of the political map.
Three weeks ago, Eskin returned from a 10-day trip to South Africa, to lend his support to the segregationist Afrikaner organizations calling for the establishment of a whites-only state. Eskin's visit received relatively minimal media coverage, but much interest on local and international websites associated with right-wing organizations. It's not every day that a skullcap-wearing, right-wing Israeli activist who calls himself a Zionist comes out in support of Afrikaner Boers.
On forums that reported on the visit, a wide range of opinions were expressed: Some praised Eskin and called upon Afrikaners to learn a lesson about how to treat the blacks from his activities and Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. Others insisted that "one shouldn't listen to a word that comes out of the mouth of this Antichrist." Some warned that Eskin was a former KGB or Shin Bet agent. Many credited him with the "success" of the pulsa dinura ceremony.
Eskin: "It was an important trip ... I formed my first ties with the whites in South Africa close to 30 years ago. Even then I saw in their story a precedent for what could happen in Israel. Today I can say I was right. All of the people who have come out against us in recent years are using the exact same techniques that were used during the apartheid era against South Africa."
Since the abolition of apartheid in 1990, South Africa's whites have suffered racial discrimination and persecution, and furthermore, in Eskin's view, the new regime is to blame for all the social ills that currently plague the country: a decline in the average life expectancy, mounting violent crime and an increase in the number of AIDS patients. Eskin insists that "even the blacks would now prefer the apartheid regime to the present anarchy." His support of the whites' cause is for humanitarian reasons, he claims, and stems from their longstanding sympathy for Israel: They are natural partners to the struggle of the Jewish people, he says, citing Israel's close ties with the apartheid regime in the 1970s and '80s.
Eskin toured South Africa as a guest of Dr. Dan Roodt, a writer and prominent activist in the Afrikaner struggle, and founder and leader of the Pro-Afrikaans Action Group. The two first met when Roodt visited Eskin in Israel as part of a public relations trip abroad. Eskin is slightly discomfited by the fact that Roodt met in Europe during that same trip with representatives from several far-right organizations, some clearly anti-Semitic. In Sweden, for instance, Roodt was hosted by the Swedish Resistance Movement, an organization with a strong Aryan, neo-Nazi ideology. Roodt also met in Europe with Filip Dewinter, a leader of the far-right Belgian party Vlaams Belang.
Eskin maintains that people misled Roodt, and that once he realized the true orientation of these organizations he publicly withdrew his cooperation. However, on Roodt's blog about his travels, there is no mention of this change of heart.
For his part, Eskin met in South Africa with representatives from other Boer organizations, "moderate and extreme, except for people from AWB, Eugene Terre'Blanche's group." Blanche, who was murdered a few months ago by two of his black employees - and made extensive use of neo-Nazi symbols in publications and elsewhere - was considered one of the country's most far-right leaders. Eskin says he informed the organization that he would not cooperate with it until it abandoned its neo-Nazi affiliation. Eskin says today that apartheid was the lesser evil back then, albeit certainly not the ideal form of government. His harshest criticism about that period is: "It's true that during apartheid there was separate public transportation for whites and blacks, but today there is public transportation only for the blacks. No white person would dare to get on a bus there."
Eskin insists he is not a racist and does not hate blacks, but that was not how he sounded in two videos he posted on YouTube prior to his visit to South Africa. In them he talks about the blacks as slaves, quoting from the Bible, and also implying that such is the status of U.S. President Barack Obama. In interviews with the South African media, he was much more blunt: He called Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a Nobel Prize laureate and black leader, a "fascist who paved the way for the destruction of the Afrikaner people."
Asked whether he isn't whitewashing anti-Semitic movements in his pursuit of other racist objectives, he says, "We're talking about a broad coalition of right-wing parties with common interests. Today the struggle is no longer between countries or parties, but between civilizations. I will support any movement that shares my ideas, and is opposed to the process of globalization - whether involving ideas, goods or people. Right now I have no ties with right-wing parties in Europe. Their worldview only relates to opposition to immigration and that doesn't interest me. I'd have no problem cooperating even with [French nationalist extremist Jean-Marie] Le Pen, or with Belgian nationalists, on condition that they disassociated themselves from their anti-Semitic statements. In certain situations, I definitely see them as natural partners."
Avigdor Eskin was born in Moscow in 1960. His father came from an assimilated family "that had no attachment to Judaism." His Ukrainian mother's ties were even weaker. From a young age, he says, he was frequently subjected to abuse motivated by anti-Semitic sentiments. Eskin remembers that at age 11, his Jewish consciousness was substantially strengthened after his grandmother told him about the horrors of the Holocaust.
"I was shocked and wanted to find my roots among these people. I read everything I could; I listened to hours of Israel Radio in Russian, to news from Israel, writing down everything, trying to learn about the Jews in Israel. At age 12 I decided I was going to make aliyah. When I told my parents they were stunned and nixed the idea. They had me pegged to be a great pianist and sent me to the best music schools in Moscow. I informed them that my decision was final ... Years later, my mother and sisters made aliyah after me, after my father died. To this day I think it was the best decision I ever made." Decisiveness and determination have been characteristic of Eskin at nearly every point in his life. He comes across as someone who sees things in black and white. He is articulate, intelligent, friendly and has a self-deprecating sense of humor. He has a firm - and usually complex - opinion on every subject. His comments encompass contrasting views like rational theories and mysticism, admiration for secular literature and close familiarity with the Holy Scriptures, and nationalist and racist fanaticism along with universal humanistic theories. He is well-versed in Western philosophy, history, the sciences, Judaism and, lately, kabbala, too.
And yet, any criticism or skepticism concerning his theories enrages him. "Next," he says, waving his hand dismissively. "Did you ever study the subject? What do you know about it at all?" - are his responses. He seems particularly offended if he perceives the criticism as personal, or if it is directed at Yigal Amir, whom he admires.
Eskin can also be very cautious in his remarks, especially concerning his less ideological pursuits. Recently, an organization was uncovered that was suspected of illegal wiretapping in Israel and England, in connection with businessman Mikhail Chernoy, who is wanted in Russia. Eskin is thought to have had some involvement in the affair, but Israel's state prosecutor has yet to decide whether to file an indictment against him. Eskin does not comment on this. On other topics, he also weighs each sentence carefully, skillfully employing his rhetorical talents - sometimes didactic, sometimes theatrical. The interview in Haaretz is important to him. He says he had a subscription to the paper for 25 years, until one morning during Operation Cast Lead his daughter came with the newspaper in hand and said, "Look, Daddy, these Palestinians are so unfortunate." Eskin began his political activity when he was 14, and was arrested for the first time by the Soviet police for opposing the regime and putting up posters protesting the deportation of Alexander Solzhenitsyn - "a great man and an outstanding writer. There was a time when I was a huge fan, but over the years I discovered some weak points, such as his attitude toward the Jewish subject, and his overall worldview." Eskin was released from detention because he was a minor, and was expelled from the elite school he attended. Later in life, his rivals would charge that it was during this detention that he was recruited into the ranks of the KGB.
Eskin also became very involved in Judaism, attended synagogue in Moscow and began learning Hebrew; he listened faithfully to Israel's Reshet Bet radio broadcasts, which gave him positive impressions of the state and figures like Golda Meir, Menachem Begin and - surprisingly - Shulamit Aloni, who had then founded the Movement for Civil Rights and Peace. "I was sure that if I made aliyah," he recalls, "I would vote for her for the Knesset. Her activity on behalf of human rights really captivated me."
But at around the same time, Eskin met Leo Ginblum, a member of the Jewish Defense League, which Rabbi Kahane had founded in New York. Ginblum had gone to Moscow to teach Hebrew and adopted Eskin like a son. At first, though, Eskin had misgivings about the Kahane group. "As a pianist I had a hard time with them blowing up concerts of musicians and composers whom I looked up to. But Ginblum changed my views and essentially my life. I gradually became enthralled by his love for the Jewish people."
In the wake of his relationship with Ginblum, Eskin grew more attracted to Rabbi Kahane's doctrine. He was impressed by the rabbi's energetic activity in the United States on behalf of Soviet Jewry, and decided to translate his writings into Russian. Meanwhile, Eskin became more Zionist; his proficiency in the language made him the youngest Hebrew teacher in Moscow. He also underwent a formal conversion to Judaism. After his aliyah he did so again, in case the first one wasn't strict enough. Acquaintances from that time say Eskin actually circumcised himself, but he vehemently denies this and says it was done in a hospital.
In 1979, at age 19, Eskin immigrated to Israel. Late at night, on the day he arrived, he showed up at Rabbi Kahane's house in Jerusalem. "That was one of the happiest days of my life," he says.
Within a short time, Eskin became a key Kach activist. He served as the movement's spokesman, wrote many of its documents and formed close bonds with a large number of activists. About then he met Baruch Marzel, his partner in the pulsa dinura Yossi Dayan, and also Avigdor Lieberman.
In the early 1980s, Eskin traveled to the United States to recruit support from the Jewish Defense League for the struggle on behalf of the aliyah of Soviet Jewry. He also became a lobbyist for this cause, meeting with senators and congressmen, mostly Republicans. One was Senator Jesse Helms, who in the 1960s was a prominent opponent of equal rights for blacks, women and homosexuals. He had also made anti-Semitic declarations and been harshly critical of Israel, but Eskin managed to convince the senator of the common ground they shared. Surprisingly, Helms became an avid Israel supporter.
Eskin then contacted Michael Kleiner, a young Likud MK and member of the Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs, and told him about the connection with Helms. "Eskin drove me crazy. At first I didn't really understand what he wanted from me - what good could come from Helms," Kleiner recalls, adding, "Helms was one of the biggest opponents of American policy toward Israel. He fought bitterly against the foreign aid to Israel and was known for his scathing attacks on Jewish members of Congress. It was hard to believe what Eskin was telling me."
Kleiner set out to meet with Helms and during a stopover in New York was scolded by representatives of Jewish organizations who'd heard about his planned meeting with "Helms the anti-Semite." But, says Kleiner, "we found a lot in common," during their meetings, which Eskin also attended. He quotes the headline in The New York Times: "180-degree turn in Helms' positions following meeting with young Israeli parliamentarian."
Helms was later appointed head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and in that capacity visited Israel in the summer of 1985.
Kleiner: "Most of the visit was spent in settlements in Judea and Samaria and Gaza, and afterward Helms became one of the biggest supporters of the settlement enterprise. In Israeli terms, he would have fit into the ideological hard core of the nationalist camp."
The breakthrough in relations with Helms led the Israeli and American right to become much closer. A later incarnation of this can be seen in the unqualified support from U.S. evangelical groups for the Israeli right wing and for the settlement project.
In return for Helms' support of Israel, Eskin, Kleiner and other Israeli right-wingers supported President Ronald Reagan's foreign policy. They cooperated with the Republican lobby and recruited Jewish votes in the House of Representatives to support U.S. policy in Panama, El Salvador, Chile and Granada. As a result, it was alleged that Eskin served as a go-between in the deal to send military aid to the Contras in Nicaragua in what became known as "Irangate." Eskin denies any direct involvement in the affair, but acknowledges he was "involved in more distant circles of the process, and was acquainted with some of the parties involved and with the connection among those with different interests."
Eskin says that also at this time, he first became interested in what was happening in South Africa.
Although Eskin is currently persona non grata in the United States (possibly because of his Kach background; ten years ago he was refused entry to the country) he still possesses a certain political power there. Thus he was able to help muster the support of 10 congressmen for his candidate for presidency of Ukraine: Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian candidate who won the election in February. Eskin also appended the signatures of 36 Israeli MKs to letters opposing the glorification of Ukrainian heroes, who collaborated with the Germans during the Nazi occupation.
In recent years Eskin has worked extensively in former Soviet countries. The nature and depth of these ties are not always clear, nor is the boundary between purely business-related activity and ideologically motivated political efforts. Not long ago, he was prevented from entering Georgia and described by the media there as an enemy of the state. One local television channel even claimed he was the "head of an Islamic organization." Eskin admits that he and the three other foreigners who were then denied entry are perceived by the Georgian administration as Russian nationalists who pose a threat to the state.
At present, he explains, his closest ideological partner in Russia is Alexander Dugin, head of the conservative studies center at Moscow University. Dugin is a controversial intellectual type: In the 1980s and '90s he cooperated with far-right organizations and revolutionary-type movements, but today, say scholars in Israel and elsewhere, his positions are gaining popularity in Russian political circles - among members of the Duma and the general staff, and among people close to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
At the center of Dugin's doctrine is the so-called Eurasian theory, a modern incarnation of nationalist ideas that blossomed in Russia in the 1920s. Interviewed by phone from his home in Moscow, Dugin explains that the basis of his ideology is that there is no one, right way to run a regime or social movement: "Every nation and society must choose its own path, on the basis of unique historic origins. Essentially, it's a rejection of Western universalism ... This is not anti-liberal or anti-democratic. We are defending the liberty of each nation to create its own civilization ... It's the same for Israel as for Russia. It's their uniqueness; they cannot be judged from the outside. Whatever form of government they choose has to be accepted by the other nations of the world."
Dugin's critics argue that what he preaches is nothing more than traditional nationalism in a liberal disguise. Some situate him on the far-right of the political map in Russia, near the nationalist and racist organizations, some of which support his ideas. Dugin rejects these claims and explains that the Eurasian principle is based on historical processes and not on any racial foundation.
Dugin: "In certain ways, as in our philosophy of nationalism, we could be associated with the right side of the map, but in terms of the aspiration for social justice, we are on the left side. In our opposition to globalization, for example, we are cooperating with various right-wing organizations, but also with radical left-wing organizations around the world."
Says Yaakov Kedmi, former head of Nativ (an Israeli liaison organization that encouraged Jews from the former Soviet Union to immigrate to Israel ): "These days, Dugin is just another UFO floating around Russian skies. No one pays attention to him. He has no political power. He has a following of about 20 eccentrics and perhaps another 100 who don't really care one way or the other."
Kedmi believes Eskin associates with Dugin because he "rightly noticed that there are all kinds of movements in the world that operate on some nationalist basis, and he cleverly connected with them. [Eskin] 'sells' them his dissident past and tries to make a personal profit that is translated into cash. That's how he makes a living."
Eskin's reaction to this is furious: "Kedmi's political path led him from Rabbi Kahane to Tommy Lapid. He slandered every person with whom he came in contact, from Menachem Begin to Benjamin Netanyahu, and his comments are not worthy of a response."
In Kedmi's view, the "reward" for the right-wing organizations that form ties with Eskin is that they can then say, "We are not anti-Semites." But he notes that, "Actually, this is because the Jews are not their big enemy today, but rather Muslim foreigners. [Elkin] 'rents out his services' to any movement ready to take him, preferably if it has a nationalist, white and racist character. By having ties with Eskin they are not accused as much of racism, since they are ostensibly pro-Israel and against anti-Semitism. It's this convergence of interests that pays off for everyone."
Another Dugin disciple who is thought to have good ties with Eskin is Dmitry Rogozin, Russia's NATO ambassador. The two met when Rogozin was head of the Duma's foreign affairs committee. Rogozin is also a controversial figure in Russia - an extreme nationalist, who has frequently made racist comments against immigrants and minorities and also some anti-Semitic statements.
Rogozin was behind the right-wing Rodina (Homeland ) party, which at the height of its power won 37 out of 450 seats in the Duma in the 2003 elections. In the summer of 2005, about a dozen of the party's members signed a petition calling for Russia's state prosecutor to launch an investigation into whether the Shulhan Arukh contained incitement against non-Jews. Rogozin disassociated himself from the petition and publicly denounced its anti-Semitic nature; that same year his party was disqualified from running in the local Moscow elections because of its racist campaign.
Eskin rejects accusations about Rogozin's anti-Semitism, citing his involvement in activities on behalf of Jews, and in securing the release of Laura Lichtman - a young Israeli who was abducted by a Chechen gang in 1999. "It was his involvement that led to her release so quickly. Because of him the Chechens didn't dare touch her," notes Eskin.
Kedmi, who was also involved in this incident, plays down Eskin's role. "He was not involved and didn't play any part," he claims.
Lichtman's father, Victor, disagrees: "I was a new immigrant, in Israel just three years. I didn't know whom to turn to. A friend from Jerusalem recommended I contact Eskin. He approached a number of people on my behalf and was very helpful. I only met him personally when I came to thank him, when he was in jail. I also asked Kedmi for help at the time and he, too, was very helpful, but you can't deny Avigdor's part."
The only thing that can be said for certain about Eskin is that he is controversial, and that he enjoys being that way. Indeed, he has built an entire career on this: Some of the people interviewed here showered him with praise; others heaped opprobrium upon him. No one was indifferent, regardless of their political position. Dugin says: "The Russians consider him a very interesting figure. He has good ties in the Kremlin and is considered a distinguished representative of Israeli society."
Kedmi, meanwhile, says that Eskin lacks true political power: "He makes a big splash, draws attention, and then afterward it comes to the time to pay. That's what he lives off of, that's how he works. I don't believe he is a man of principles ... Somehow he was able to emerge unscathed from most of the provocations he committed, without arousing attention."
Some of Kedmi's views on Eskin have been echoed in the past by some right-wing media figures and also by journalist Barry Chamish, a father of the conspiracy theory surrounding the Rabin assassination. Eskin sued Hamish for labeling him a "Shin Bet agent" - and won.
"I based myself on public statements by Dalia Rabin, who was the deputy defense minister, and others who claimed that Eskin was working for the Shin Bet. I got reinforcement for this from other sources," says Hamish by phone from the United States. About Eskin, he says: "He is a dangerous man. Not because of any idea or political path, but because he betrays people."
Eskin of course denies these accusations - and vehemently denounces the conspiracy theories.
"There really are a lot of problems with the documents. Some of them are false or inexact," he says. "But that derives from the faulty nature of the work of all the parties involved and from the culture of covering one's ass."
In Eskin's view, Yigal Amir is the lone assassin - and he has no intention of stealing any of the credit from him.
Maya Zinstein assisted with the research for this article.