HAARETZ Features

Like the Black Panthers, but more refined

 

Merav Frolov

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.
 
 
 
 

By Lily Galili 

A small article in the newspaper last week reported the suicide in Be'er Sheva of a 13-year-old girl "who was having difficulty adjusting" to her new country. The small size of the news story conceals a much larger tragedy and the chilling fear that fills the young girl's immigrant friends with dread."The other kids at school bothered her, just like they bother me, because I am Russian," said Meirav Frolov, 17, in a strangled voice. Frolov is one of the core activists of the "Russian Panthers," a group of teenagers who are struggling against the racism directed against immigrant youths.


"It could have been me," says Frolov. "But they don't listen to us. The mayor, Yaakov Turner, said we are inventing a phenomenon that doesn't exist. Now there is a body. They have proof."

The 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.

Frolov 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."
 

Michael Dorfman

Ha'aretz 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.

Nothing 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 Panthers.

No 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.

"We 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 their activities."

Golda 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.

He's not nice

Turner 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."

This "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 fight."

At 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.

These 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.

"Stinking 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."

The 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 violence.

No ghettos, please

Weintraub 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, they say.

"The 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."

Racist 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."

This 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.

Even 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.

The 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.

This 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.
 
Anna Bronovsky. Merav Frolov, Gila Korn, Natasha Aga and Anton Waintraub after concert of Russian Panthers gathering 

"We don't want a ghetto," the teens say. "We want to integrate."

"Racism 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



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