With the Prime Minister and several other Knesset members under criminal investigation, some current legislators may one day follow in the footsteps of several previous legislators and end up behind bars. But Semion Grafman hopes to chart the opposite course: He is aiming to win a seat in the 21st Knesset having previously spent a year in a US federal prison for involvement in money laundering and insurance fraud.
Grafman heads a new party called Bitachon Hevrati, “social security,” whose platform highlights “education, social welfare, equality of the burden, infrastructure, health, streamlining law enforcement and,” however ironically, “fighting corruption.”
Grafman’s is one of about 20 new parties registered in the run-up to Israel’s April 9 parliamentary elections. Most of these have no prospect of earning enough votes to clear the 3.25% threshold to enter the Knesset.
But Grafman may stand a better chance than some of the others, in part because he is a colorful internet celebrity and headline grabber. On Wednesday, formally submitting his list to the Central Elections Committee, he requested that his party be represented on ballot slips by the Hebrew letters פק, which read phonetically as “fk.”
“It’s ‘Fuck’,” he explained to Justice Hanan Melcer, who heads the elections committee. “It sounds better in English.”
Grafman told The Times of Israel that he wants to enter the Knesset to help ordinary Israelis fight bureaucracy, which he said is what he already does on a daily basis.
“One lady came to me on the street. She said, ‘I had a stomach pain and I went to the hospital and after they examined me they told me you need to get an X-ray. She needed to get the X-ray in the morning but it took 11 hours before she actually got the X-ray. What if there had been a problem with her appendix and it had exploded? She would have died.”
Grafman requested that his party be represented on ballot slips by the Hebrew letters פק, which read phonetically as ‘fk’. ‘It’s Fuck,’ he explained to Justice Hanan Melcer, who heads the elections committee. ‘It sounds better in English’
Grafman said he helped this woman by calling the Health Fund and complaining about the way they had mistreated her. As soon as he makes a phone call on someone’s behalf, he said, the organization in question is so afraid of the bad publicity that it immediately fixes the problem. But since there are only so many people that Grafman can help on an individual basis, he hopes to be elected to the Knesset so that he can pass laws that help thousands or millions of people.
“For instance,” he said, “I will pass a law that once a patient requests a Tofes 17 (a form in which a Health Fund agrees to pay for a certain medical procedure), the health fund will have to issue it within 24 hours.”
From Israel to Russia and back
Grafman was born in the Ukraine and immigrated to Israel at the age of 15, he said. In 1998, at the age of 23 he moved to the United States. He is very open about what happened next.
“In 2009 I was prosecuted for money laundering. I spent a year in US prison,” he said.
After his release. Grafman returned to Israel, but then made a stop to visit friends in Moscow on his way to China and ended up living there for five years. He spent his time in Russia “partying and having a happy life” by night, he said, and volunteering for El Al and the Jewish community by day.
In 2015, while still living in Russia, Grafman shot to internet fame in Israel with a short video in which he told a crude parable about a small bird and a pile of excrement.
“I made the video for my friends but it went viral. Then I made another video and it also went viral.”
Soon afterwards, Grafman returned to Israel and made more videos. He soon landed a job as a regular guest and presenter on the Channel 13 comedy “HaTzinor.” At present, he makes 30-40 videos a month; his YouTube channel has over 30,000 subscribers and close to 5 million views.
A handful of the videos Grafman makes are commercials for products, which he does to earn money, but he only spends about two days a month on these, he said.
The rest of the time Grafman makes videos consisting of his reflections on life in Israel or professionally produced comedy skits in which he is accompanied by sidekicks Denis Charkov (who Grafman has placed third on his Knesset list) and Mishel Taroni. Grafman, Charkov and Taroni often play street thugs or mobsters in these skits, but use their real names, somewhat obfuscating the distinction between their characters and reality. Despite their characters’ criminal associations, the threesome come across as lovable and kind-hearted. Even the violence portrayed in the videos is slapstick or quickly defused by comic relief.
In one skit, Semion plays Denis’s father and tells him to get his school bag ready. Denis look at his belongings spread on the table: cigarettes, vodka, and various unsavory-looking knick-knacks. Semion askes Denis if he packed the most important thing and Denis, with a dopey grin on his face, pulls out a gun.
In another skit, Denis and Mishel are at the movies and the conversation revolves, bizarrely, around whether Russian President Vladimir Putin would beat Batman in a fight.
“Putin can beat everyone,” says Denis.
“You say that because you’re Russian,” replies Mishel. “Russians always side with other Russians.”
Denis and Mishel sit down to watch the movie, and Semion approaches, complaining that Mishel has taken his assigned seat even though the theater is otherwise completely empty. Mishel, a large tattooed man, stands up and beats Semion to a pulp. A moment later the scene dissolves… The violence was only in Mishel’s imagination.
In one of their most popular videos (with a million views on Facebook, where Grafman has a very large following), “It’s not Sylvester, it’s Novy God,” Semion, Denis and their fellow performers sing and dance while asserting their right to celebrate Novy God,” Russian for New Year, a holiday that borrows many of the trappings of Christmas and whose public display sometimes offend the sensibilities of traditional Jews.
“We didn’t come to mess things up,” they sing, “don’t be angry at us. It’s not a matter of religion, this is a traditional holiday of our childhood.”
Semion and Denis even made a comical promotional video for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on the same theme, which culminates with Netanyahu himself delivering the punchline: “It’s not Sylvester, it’s Novy God!”
In his more serious videos on social and political issues, Grafman complains about Israeli government offices (comparing them unfavorably with government offices in Russia, which are modern and efficient, he says), pleads with the public to help ordinary citizens crushed in various ways by an unfeeling bureaucracy, protests the high cost of living, and slams Israel’s recent anti-money laundering law meant to reduce the amount of cash in the economy.
“No one can tell me what to do with my money!” he exclaims.
Grafman has also taken active part in recent demonstrations in Ashdod against the closing of stores on the Sabbath, as well as being an outspoken advocate of the soldier Elor Azaria, who was convicted of manslaughter for shooting a Palestinian stabber in Hebron who was already immobilized on the ground, and whose prosecution by a military court gave rise to large, vociferous demonstrations on the soldier’s behalf.
‘I am Russian-Israeli’
Grafman consistently has such nice things to say about Russia and Putin that some critics have accused him of working for Moscow in a more than voluntary capacity.
In August 2017, Channel 9, Israel’s only Russian-language television channel, launched a campaign entitled “We are Russian-Israeli. Let us prove that there are many of us!”
The channel’s Facebook page called on local Russian speakers to post selfies on their social media accounts alongside the #rusisraeli hashtag. Grafman and Charkov were the public face of the campaign, performing in videos in support of Russian-Israeli identity (as opposed to a more assimilationist, purely Israeli identity) and encouraging their social media followers to spread the meme.
One video in which they performed was filmed inside a branch of the Yainot Bitan supermarket and shows Grafman, wearing a tracksuit emblazoned with the Russian double-headed eagle, strolling through the supermarket alongside Charkov, in a plain green shirt.
“I like Pelmeni [Russian ravioli]” says Grafman.
“ I like hummus,” replies Charkov.
“I speak Russian well,” says Grafman
“And I understand Russian well,” says Charkov.
Then, together, they chant, “And we are Israelis! Soon we will prove to them that there are many of us!”
Another video broadcast by Channel 9 shows several prominent members of the local Russian-speaking community, including a dancer, medical doctor, theater director and popular singer. Each says “I am Russian-Israeli,” and names the things they like about their Russian background.
One of the people who appeared in the film, independent television producer turned businessman Arkady Maiofis, later complained online that he had been filmed by Channel 9 in a totally different context and had no idea his images would be used for the “Russian-Israeli” campaign.
At the same time as these videos were launched, Channel 9 aired two talk shows hosted by its anchorman Yosef Shagal, a former Israeli ambassador to Belarus. The participants included Alexander Goldenstein, the owner of the now-defunct IzRus news site, which was associated with Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party. Grafman, Denis Charkov, journalist Shaul Reznik and an internet expert named Mike Waizman also took part.
In these shows, Goldenstein, who immigrated to Israel as a young child, called on the Russian speakers of Israel to unite. He told viewers he still feels connected to Russia (despite, ironically, having been born in Moldova) and that the Russian-speaking community of Israel should massively “expand” into all spheres of public life.
Speaking less-than-perfect Russian, Grafman also called for unity. He said that united, Russians can win some 40 seats in the Knesset.
In a 2016 interview on the Russian-language Internet channel Iland, Grafman had spoken at length about the resurgence of Russian pride among young Israelis from the former Soviet Union.
“Lately, Putin has shown Russia to be a country that is able to manage its own army and to do marvels, for example within our neighbor, Syria,” Grafman said.
“Today, Russia is being taken more seriously. When we left Russia in the 1990s we despised it and we despised Communism, everything. Now it is a different country, a rich country, with many prominent and famous people who have emerged from Russia. Our pride has been returned to us; well, actually it was never taken from us.”
Social media reaction to the 2017 campaign promoting Russian-Israeli identity was sometimes furious.
“I am not Russian. I am Jewish,” many Facebook users wrote.
“We are not Russians who by dint of fate came to Israel,” wrote blogger Laura Shavit. “We are Jews who by dint of fate speak Russian.”
Another poster, Israeli pro-Ukrainian activist Victor Vertsner, enumerated ways that Russia had been hostile to Jews over the years.
“I have not forgotten the Pale of Settlement, the Black Hundred, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Not forgotten the Red Terror, Mikhoels, Babel, Mandelstam… the Doctors’ case, the Jewish anti-fascist committee, Russian MIGs in our skies, Russian missiles shooting down our pilots, Russian support for Hezbollah and Hamas…”
He concluded, “Call me ‘Russian-speaking’ or ‘from the USSR’ but do not call me Russian!”
Many posters began spreading an “I am not Russian” hashtag.
After reportedly receiving hundreds of messages with boycott threats, the winery Yenot Bitan withdrew its sponsorship of the campaign.
Some observers of the Channel 9 shows asserted that the efforts to promote Russian identity among Russian-speaking Israelis were orchestrated by none other than the Kremlin itself.
“You are not even a fifth column,” wrote one poster to the initiators of the campaign, “but just idiots getting money from the Russian government.”
In this view, the campaign was part of a larger Kremlin strategy known as Russkiy mir or “Russian world,” which sees Russian speakers around the world as part of a larger Russian civilization on whose behalf Russia has the right to advocate and intervene. Just as Western nations seek to spread liberal democracy around the world, Russia sees itself as having a duty to spread the traditional values associated with the Russian world as a counterweight to decadent liberal values, explains Orysia Lutsevych, a research fellow and Manager of the Ukraine Forum at Chatham House in a paper on the topic entitled “Agents of Russian World.”
Anton Vasilenko, a Ukrainian-Israeli blogger and author of a history of the Jewish Brigade in Palestine, wrote in an August 2017 post on a pro-Ukrainian website that Grafman’s Iland interview echoed “the memes of [pro-Putin youth activist] Svetlana Kuritsyna.”
He described Grafman and Goldenstein’s televised remarks about Russian-speakers uniting as “Kremlin talking points that an inexperienced Israeli audience might not notice, but that a person who witnessed the beginning of the war in the Donbass [region of Ukraine] would immediately recognize.”
Victor Vertsner, one of the leaders of the backlash against the “We are Russian-Israeli” campaign, told The Times of Israel that while he has no idea if Grafman received money from the Kremlin for the campaign, Russia in general spends vast amounts of money on its compatriots abroad policy — the idea that Russian-speakers abroad are a kind of extension of Russia itself — and he believes that Grafman sympathizes with that political outlook.
“When you appear in a campaign wearing a Russian national symbol on your jacket, that’s really inappropriate. You need to decide who you are and whose side you’re on,” said Vertsner.
“I’m an officer in the Israel Defense Forces,” he went on, “and I met a young Russian-speaking combat soldier recently. I asked him, ‘tomorrow if the IDF got into a conflict with Russia whose side would you be on?’ And he said he would be on Russia’s side. The Israeli authorities don’t realize that Russia is cultivating a fifth column here.”
Vertsner is the administrator of a Facebook group called “Israel supports Ukraine” which protests Russian military action in the Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea; In response to his group, Vertsner told The Times of Israel, supporters of Russia’s policies in Ukraine created a Facebook group called “Israel supporting Russia.”
Grafman said his goal in making the ‘I am Russian-Israel’ commercial was to instill pride in Russian-speakers whom he says often suffer from prejudice on the part of native Israelis. ‘All I wanted is for people who came from 15 post-Soviet countries to unite as a people who made a big step. And I want people to know that no racism in Israel towards our people is acceptable’
“If you read the posts in that group you wouldn’t believe how anti-Semitic some of them are. There are actually anti-Semites who live in Israel.”
Grafman told The Times of Israel that Vertsner and others have misunderstood his decision to appear in the “I am Russian-Israeli” campaign.
“The campaign was a commercial like any other commercial,” Grafman said.
“Victor Vertsner is making up stuff on his Facebook page. Once I was interviewed and I mentioned that a taxi driver had told me that if Putin ruled Israel he would solve the Israeli-Arab conflict. So I said in the interview that Russian people who came to Israel now feel a bit better now that Putin is so strong and showing Russia as a strong country compared to the way it was in the 1990’s. Victor for some reason is interpreting this for his own benefit to say I am a Putin soldier or something. And I’m Ukrainian!”
Asked what his views are on Putin, Grafman replied, “I lived in Moscow for five years and I loved some things that Putin did in Russia. He returned to the Russian people self-awareness and love for their own country. But everything that Putin does beyond his borders, like what’s happening in the Ukraine and in Syria, let’s put it this way, I very much disagree with his actions.”
Grafman said that his goal in making the “I am Russian-Israel” commercial was to instill pride in Russian-speakers whom he says often suffer from prejudice on the part of native Israelis.
“All I wanted is for people who came from 15 post-Soviet countries to unite as a people who made a big step. We moved from one country to another. And I want people to know that no racism in Israel towards our people is acceptable.”
‘The story of my life — please don’t judge’
Far from hiding the darker chapters of his past, Grafman speaks of them frequently. In a short film he posted to YouTube in November 2017, entitled “The story of my life — please don’t judge,” he tells viewers: “I want to share something personal. For nine years I have had no contact with my children. In a few hours they are landing in Israel. This is the best present a person can get.”
According to the short film, Grafman was deported from the United States after his year in jail. His American wife and three children cut off contact with him. The film shows his American family visiting Israel, having a great time and even filming a skit about Rosh Hashanah.
Grafman was a participant in a massive insurance scam in New York State, most of whose perpetrators were immigrants from the former Soviet Union. The scam involved hundreds of doctors, medical equipment salespeople and fake crash victims who would stage car accidents and then file insurance claims for up to $50,000 per “victim.” Investigators who followed the money in a related case found that it ultimately ended up in Russia and that the fraud was connected to Russian organized crime.
Grafman’s role in one of the crime rings, according to US court documents, was as a wholesaler of medical equipment, which he allegedly sold to retailers at inflated prices. Those retailers then sold the equipment to “victims” who did not really need it. Donald Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen has represented doctors and “victims” involved in other related insurance fraud rings, according to reports.
“When I was young my goal was to become to be rich. I did not know better at the time and I did things that were not good. I am grateful to the US Justice Department that they stopped me before I made even bigger mistakes,” said Grafman.
The time he spent in jail, he added, was a turning point for him.
“In jail I taught other inmates mathematics. After two months suddenly a few of them approached me and said, ‘Semion, we have been in jail for 17 years and we’ve been trying to pass this GED equivalency and we couldn’t pass the exam but after two months with you we passed because you explained things to us in a way we could understand.'”
“At that moment I realized I can do things to help people and it gives me joy to see the look in their eyes.”
People acquainted with Grafman told The Times of Israel that he does indeed help a lot of people and that his desire to do so seems heartfelt.
They also said they believe he makes his living through advertising and promotions on the internet and that he sometimes works out of the offices of a company called Traffic Lords, which is involved in affiliate marketing for forex and cryptocurrency websites.
Grafman told The Times of Israel that he doesn’t work at Traffic Lords but simply made a commercial for them and subsequently became good friends with the owners.
“It’s a big company — they teach people how to benefit from internet traffic. When I need to hold a meeting I use one of their offices because we became friends.”
In a January interview with Israel Hayom, Grafman said that his criminal past could actually be an advantage in politics.
“My knowledge of money laundering and taxes allows me to discover how to stop bureaucracy and where the bureaucrats are trying to pull a fast one. I cannot be scammed by corruption because I know how it all works,” he said. “That’s why on the occasions I have visited the Knesset I immediately discerned the unbelievable things that were happening there. I will kick out all of the corrupt people at once.”