the Black Panthers, but more refined
They are the
Russian Panthers - Be'er Sheva high school students fighting racism
against immigrants from the former Soviet Union. They are fed up with
hearing ever-present phrases like 'stinking Russian' or 'Russian whore.'
With the apparent suicide of a 13-year-old immigrant last week,
authorities are starting to listen
fact that the circumstances of the girl's death are still being
investigated, and that it may not have been a result of suicide, has not
lessened the anger or the pain of her contemporaries. Even if the girl
did not kill herself, but died of cancer, with which she had been ill in
the past, the truth remains that she had attempted suicide one month
ago. The girl came to Israel just six months ago with her mother, and
since then her life had been difficult. Other students at school had
ganged up on her, and one boy even wrapped a tape from an audio cassette
around her neck and tried to strangle her. She was so afraid that she
would not sign up for the school's dance club, even though she had been
a gifted dancer in Russia. The school sent her to see a social worker,
but the social worker didn't speak Russian.
relates that the girl and her mother came to Israel at the girl's
initiation. "I am Jewish," she would tell her mother over and
over. "I need to be in Israel."
"She was a real Zionist," says Frolov. "Look what they
did to her in this country, where she wanted to be so much. And her poor
mother. She had only one daughter, and now she is an older woman all
alone. She won't be able to have any more children."
met with the Russian Panthers in Be'er Sheva the day before the death of
the immigrant girl. The central core of the organization consists of 11
teenagers, who are joined by some 70 others for activities. The meeting
was attended by Frolov, who came to Israel from the Ural Mountains three
and a half years ago; Anton Weintraub, 14, who came here from Uzbekistan
nine years ago; and Anna Bronovsky, 15, also from Uzbekistan, who has
been here for six years. They were accompanied by the group's mentor,
Michael Dorfman, a journalist who founded the first local
Russian-language paper, and who also works in public relations.
in the appearance of these young people hints at the difficulties
through which they are suffering. They are alert and pleasant, and all
are equipped with cellular phones, which they chatter into all the time.
In their case, however, the cell phones also serve as communicators in
the battle they are waging. About six months ago they officially
organized themselves into a nonprofit association and named it The
Rising Panthers (in Hebrew, the word for rising also means to immigrate
to Israel), though they have been nicknamed the Russian Panthers. They
based their name on the original Black Panthers of the 1970s, a
left-wing Sephardic group who took their name from the U.S. Black
one can accuse Israeli society of being static and unchanging: The Black
Panthers of the 1970s rose in protest against the wave of immigration
from the Soviet Union and the benefits awarded to the immigrants at the
expense of veteran Israelis from Middle Eastern countries. One of the
main slogans of their struggle was "Villa-Volvo," referring to
the fact that the new immigrants all seemed to be able to afford a new
house and a new car, and the Black Panthers' efforts did bring about a
real change in Israeli society. Thirty years later, a group of young
immigrants from the former Soviet Union has organized to protest the
racism against them.
wanted a strong name," explain the teenagers. "We looked for
something that would arouse fear. The Black Panthers caused a revolution
in Israeli society, and in their time they were treated just as we are
being treated now. We are also fighting racism, and we are planning to
start a cultural revolution, but without the violence that characterized
Meir said that the Black Panthers "were not nice boys." In the
spirit of the new political correctness, the establishment today cannot
say that the Russian youngsters are not nice, but it can still ignore
their complaints. At practically the same time that the young girl's
body was found in Be'er Sheva, Yakov Turner was appearing on local
television to claim that there wasn't a real problem, that Dorfman was
trying to manipulate public opinion for his own purposes.
told Ha'aretz that Dorfman, who had worked with the immigrant population
in his capacity as a member of Turner's election campaign staff, was
"a frustrated man who is attempting to make an issue where there
really isn't one, a politician who is trying to accrue political wealth
for a purpose that no one understands. He blows things way out of
proportion. I asked him to bring me proof of his claims of racism and
violence against immigrant youth, and he was evasive."
"not nice boy" is also part of the story of the Russian
Panthers, even though it is the enormity of the problem that has made
him what he is. The Panthers of the 1970s had gimmicks whose main
purpose was to attract media attention. The Russian Panthers already
have an Internet site, through which they appeal to Russian-speaking
communities the world over, and have received support and advice such
as, "Fight back. Set up martial-arts clubs and learn how to
the same time, this bigotry has also found its way into the virtual
world of the computer. Anton Weintraub, a computer buff, recently
participated in an interesting chat meeting. His chat partner asked,
"Where are you from?" Weintraub did not understand that the
other boy only wanted to know where he lived, and answered, "I'm
from Russia." The other boy typed back, "I have to go
now," and cut off the conversation.
things do not happen only in the online world of the Internet. During
the meeting in Be'er Sheva, each one of the three teenagers related
dozens of racist incidents that had happened to them personally. These
incidents ranged from unpleasant practical jokes on the buses to insults
and curses and attempts to steal their cell phones or break the phones'
antennas. Many elderly immigrant women have been mugged on the streets
or have had their purses snatched.
Russian" has become a byword, almost as much as "whore"
has become linked with "Russian" in reference to any immigrant
teenage girl. "I have been in Israel for [almost] four years, and
every boy thinks that every Russian girl is a whore," says Frolov.
"After four months in this country, I joined an Israeli class in
school. During recess I joined the other kids, and suddenly they started
to insult me: 'Stinking Russian, go back to Russia.' There is not one of
us who has not suffered these taunts, which have become routine."
Russian teenagers say that such insults are hurled at them even when
their teachers are nearby, and the teachers say nothing. Once, after one
of the teachers forbade some immigrant children to speak Russian among
themselves, they scrawled graffiti on the school wall: "We survived
Auschwitz, we'll survive the school." After that incident, Dorfman
assembled a group of immigrant students and, after a short discussion on
the definition of racism, sent a few of them out to collect and document
instances of racism. The results: In one year the students uncovered 192
racially motivated incidents in the southern region, 146 of them in
Be'er Sheva. Sixty-eight of the incidents were accompanied by physical
mentioned that once it was possible to wander around one of Be'er
Sheva's most troubled neighborhoods alone. Today, people only venture
out in groups. "As soon as they [Russian immigrants] see an
Israeli, they know that there are going to be problems," says
Weintraub, who is still "Russian" even though he grew up in
Israel. The nonviolent incidents are no less difficult for the teens. It
is hard for them to accept that they are not allowed into the only
discotheque in Be'er Sheva. Native Israelis can go in, but we can't,
guard at the entrance told me straight out: 'You're not going in there.
You're Russian.'" says Frolov. "There are no places for
Russians here. If I were Moroccan, I would say something and go right
in. We don't say anything and we just walk away."
overtones are also evident in the immigrants' conversations. Their talk
is filled not only with their own deep feelings of suffering, but also
with a measure of arrogance, that they are above the very society into
which they so yearn to be accepted. When they talk of the cultural
revolution they want to start here, and asked what they want to
contribute to the society, they say, "Manners, respect, an interest
in books and learning in general that is missing among Israelis, who
don't even know what a globe looks like."
is also how they speak when discussing the Black Panthers. They use them
as a role model, but only up to a certain point. "We are more
cultured," says Anna. "Can you imagine us hijacking a truck
full of candy and distributing it among the poor immigrants?"
Everyone laughs at such a crazy idea, which is a parody on the Black
Panthers' hijacking of a milk truck during the 1970s.
if most of the violence and scheming is done by the Israelis against the
immigrants, the negative stigmas are not the lot of one side alone. The
meeting in Be'er Sheva was also attended by Netta Shabi, a biochemistry
student at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be'er Sheva who has
been paired up with Frolov in a program in which university students
help troubled youths with their homework and other problems. Netta, who
was born here, said that she was shocked by the racism in Israeli
society, which she discovered only through the Russian immigrant
teenagers. "I didn't know it existed," she said.
immigrant students are greatly distressed, not only by their
difficulties in coping with their own problems, but also by the distress
of their parents, who are unable to help. When Frolov would be beaten up
at school, her mother would come, but was unable to speak the language.
One of the complaints voiced by the students is the exclusion of the
Russian immigrant parents from the parents' committee.
problematic reality sometimes creates surprising situations. Weintraub
relates that a Russian drug addict once threatened him in the street. He
was sure that his father would berate the addict. Instead, he heard his
father saying, "We immigrants must stick together, and not attack
one another." The feelings of being threatened and rejected by
Israeli society unite the ranks in a distorted way.
don't want a ghetto," the teens say. "We want to
is a structural phenomenon in society, not a sectarian one," says
Dorfman. In the meantime, the association has won great exposure from
the Russian-language media during its first few months of operation and
has attracted the interest of a number of academics, but the
establishment continues to ignore it. Only after the death of the
immigrant girl last week did the mayor of Be'er Sheva suddenly summon
the immigrants' representatives on the City Council. Now Turner says
that he just recently learned that there are no Russian-speaking social
workers, and has asked someone to do something about it. Three of Be'er
Sheva's deputy mayors have now been put in charge of handling a problem
that officially didn't exist until last week